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Wednesday, January 11, 2006


The Goldwater Myth
Goldwater's move away from social conservatism came only in the twilight of his Senate career--and more starkly after he had left the Senate in 1987. Throughout the 1970s, he opposed abortion on demand and taxpayer funding of abortions. (He wavered on a constitutional amendment restricting abortion.) In 1980, in the midst of his last and most difficult Senate race, he endorsed the Human Life Amendment. Only in his final term did he adopt a pro-choice position, voting in 1983 against a constitutional amendment that would have reversed Roe v. Wade and returned legislative authority over abortion to the states. In 1984, he reversed his 1964 position by voting against a constitutional amendment to restore voluntary prayer to public schools. As late as 1985 he opposed "gay rights" legislation. Only in 1993, six years after leaving the Senate, did he change his view.
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So how has the myth developed of the great gulf between "Goldwater conservatism" and Reagan's and Bush's? To begin with, several of the hot-button issues that later mobilized social conservatives en masse were nonissues in 1964, or had barely begun to stir. The '60s counterculture was inchoate, as was radical feminism. The downward spiral of social trends had just begun, as had the Left's crusade to obliterate religion from public life. Key court decisions on abortion, criminal rights and gay rights lay in the future. Consequently, a distinct mass movement of religious traditionalists--a "religious right" with tens of thousands of foot soldiers--did not exist for the Goldwater campaign to incorporate. (To be sure, an intellectual movement of social traditionalists, including Russell Kirk, existed already and backed Goldwater.)

When Goldwater underwent his transformation as the years wore on, liberals rushed to embrace him. This Goldwater became every liberal's favorite conservative--not the historic figure who had condemned moral decay, extolled the religious underpinnings of American society, championed school prayer, inveighed against big government, and helped launch the modern conservative movement. Yet it was the latter Goldwater who ran for president, who galvanized Reagan and pointed the way to a long-term Republican electoral realignment.

Conservatives today need to revive Goldwater's argument in the '60s, and Reagan's in the '80s, that liberty not only is compatible with morality, it depends on it. Limited government cannot long coexist with a collapse of moral order; and an unlimited government is usually the consequence of an amoral society. Sweden, for instance, has both one of the most hedonistic societies in Europe and one of its most smothering welfare states. When in 1964 Goldwater told the graduating class of the Pennsylvania Military College that "it is impossible to maintain freedom and order and justice without religious and moral sanctions," he at once echoed George Washington and Alexis de Tocqueville, presaged Reagan, and issued a clarion call for future generations.
The true story of Barry Goldwater and his relationship to the political movement he started.

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