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The Goldwater Anomaly

Tags U.S. HistoryWar and Foreign PolicyInterventionismPolitical Theory

12/04/2009Jeff Riggenbach

[This article is excerpted from chapter five of Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism.]


The coming of the New Deal ended a long era in American political history — an era that had endured for more than a hundred years, an era in which every national election was a contest between a liberal party and a conservative party, both substantial in size and influence. After the coming of the New Deal, both major parties were conservative parties. For the New Deal variety of "liberalism" was not liberalism at all, but conservatism. As Karl Hess explains it, the modern

liberal position has come to be known as a left-wing position. Actually, it lies right alongside the conservative tradition, down toward the middle of the line, but decidedly, I think, to the right of its center. Liberals believe in concentrated power — in the hands of liberals, the supposedly educated and genteel elite. They believe in concentrating that power as heavily and effectively as possible. They believe in great size of enterprise, whether corporate or political, and have a great and profound disdain for the homely and the local. They think nationally but they also think globally and now even intergalactically. Actually, because they believe in far more authoritarian rule than a lot of conservatives, it probably would be best to say that [modern] liberals lie next to but actually to the right of many conservatives."1

The GOP had always been a conservative party, of course. The traditionally liberal Democratic party was now controlled by conservatives who falsely called themselves "liberals." True liberals could find no proper home in either of these parties. They could either support minor parties or stay home from the polls altogether.

Not surprisingly, a number of liberals chose what appeared to be a promising third alternative — working for liberal goals and ideals within one or the other of the two big conservative parties. But their efforts were doomed to failure. As George Wallace famously observed in 1968, there isn't "a dime's worth of difference" between the two parties.2 Neither of them is genuinely open to liberal ideas. But at least the liberals who chose to stick with the Democratic party could point out in defense of their choice that their party did have a long history of advancing liberal goals and ideals. The liberals who chose to stick with the GOP could offer no such defense, for the Republican party had never stood for anything but illiberal goals and ideals — big government and special favors for big business.

The Republican who "robbed" Robert Taft in 1952 and held the White House for the next eight years was, of course, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a politically undefeatable war hero and a thoroughly traditional Republican without a liberal bone in his body. As president, he smilingly accepted the New Deal and cheerfully added to it, increasing federal spending by 30 percent (though the nation was at peace); creating the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; expanding the Social Security system to include an additional 10 million recipients; and meddling relentlessly in other nations' affairs. Eisenhower helped install Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah in Iran and sent the first American troops to a previously obscure corner of Southeast Asia known as Vietnam.3

When Eisenhower's vice president, a conservative lawyer from Southern California named Richard Milhous Nixon, lost the White House back to the Democrats in 1960, the political strategists within the Republican party began casting about for a more attractive candidate for 1964. The man they ultimately settled on, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, persuaded a great many people during 1963 and 1964 that the disaffected liberals (who had left the Democratic party in 1932 in protest against the policies of FDR and then stuck with the GOP over the next quarter-century) had been right all along.

For here, at last, was a Republican presidential candidate who preached small government and free trade, a Republican who was eerily reminiscent of Grover Cleveland, a Republican who was eloquent in his espousal of old-time liberal goals and ideals.

The eloquence was chiefly the doing of Goldwater's speechwriter and principal adviser during the 1964 campaign, the journalist and political ghostwriter Karl Hess. As Hess tells it, Senator Goldwater really was what he seemed to so many — a genuine modern incarnation of the classical liberal spirit. There was the problem of the war in Vietnam, of course, but setting that aside for the moment, wasn't it abundantly clear that Goldwater was a true individualist and more a man of the Left than of the Right?

"Goldwater," Hess recalled in his autobiography, written thirty years after the Arizona senator's tragic presidential campaign, "had very little support from big business." The problem was that Goldwater's

insistence on competition as indispensable to a free market had scared the huge corporations. These giants of free enterprise had become addicted over the years to collusion with the government and to the sheltering protection of government regulations which hampered market entry and produced excessive restrictions against innovative products. Too many of them were used to government's helping hand in what amounted to welfare programs disguised as redundant and unquestioned defense appropriations. Goldwater was suspicious of all that. He did not feel that a corporation should be subsidized with funds coerced from working people — any more than he believed that an artist or a scholar or a farmer should be. The support of big business flowed naturally to Lyndon Johnson, who knew how to wheel and deal with corporations that felt they had the right to be treated as virtually a fourth branch of government.

Goldwater, according to Hess, was a sincere opponent of big government. "It now is difficult to imagine a president of the United States actually turning back federal power," Hess wrote in the early 1990s.

Goldwater, if elected, would have tried. He wrote to me some years back that "I am more of a Jeffersonian than a Republican or anything else." In fact, I think he was one of the greatest men who lived in America. If we could pay more attention to his preachments and his philosophy, I think the country would be a lot better off.4

Hess reports that Goldwater "never could understand the antimarijuana law since cowboys in Arizona, before the Harrison Narcotics Act, smoked it regularly and were never more peaceable than when they were doing it."5 Nor was marijuana the only issue on which the Arizona senator took the same position as the New Left activists who were making so much noise on college campuses around the country. In 1968, running to regain his old seat in the Senate, Goldwater began a speech at Arizona State University in Tempe by saying, "I have much in common with the anarchist wing of Students for a Democratic Society [SDS]."6

By this time, though he still worked part time for Goldwater — writing a book about the presidential campaign, writing a nationally syndicated newspaper column that appeared under Goldwater's name, and writing speeches for Goldwater's 1968 Senate campaign — Hess was having more and more direct contact with SDS himself. Very shortly he would abandon the Republican party altogether and begin publicly identifying with the New Left.

Looking back on that period a few years later, in 1975, Hess noted that "very many of the young people I have known on the left got there, as I did, from the Goldwater campaign of 1964." Writing nearly a quarter-century before Goldwater's death in 1998 (he himself died in 1994), Hess opined that "Goldwater … knows that, historically, he is not right. He is a man, deep down, of at least a leaning toward the humanist left."7

Nor is Hess the only observer to see Goldwater as a liberal, a man of the Left, incongruously attached to a political party with which, ideologically, he had nothing in common. In 2004, six years after Goldwater's death at 89, journalist Sidney Blumenthal reflected on the famous Arizonan's legacy in a piece for the online magazine Salon. "In his plainspoken manner," Blumenthal wrote, "indifferent to what anyone else thought, he railed against the right's intolerance, sanctimony and bullying. Mr. Conservative, author of its early seminal manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, took to calling himself in public a 'liberal.' He spared no words in denouncing the right as the enemy of liberty."

Blumenthal found that the people who had been closest to the senator in life were the most likely to agree with his assessment of Goldwater as a man of the Left.

"Barry was always a social liberal," Susan Goldwater Levine, his widow, keeper of the flame, told me at her home, high in the hills above Phoenix, watching a pastel sunset, in 70 degree winter weather. "Barry believed that people should be allowed to do whatever they wanted in their own homes." When Goldwater observed the right trying to use government to enforce private morality, he spoke up for women's right to abortion and for gay rights. His wife insisted that his convictions had remained unaltered, but that the movement for which he was the avatar had become warped. "He hated it that the right-wing zealots took over the party," she said. "Barry hated the right wing."8

In fact, from the very beginning of his national political career in the early 1960s, Goldwater enjoyed a certain popularity among elements within the Democratic party and also among disgruntled Democrats no longer affiliated with the party. Clyde Wilson believes that so unlikely a candidate as Goldwater was able to win the GOP nomination in the first place "mainly because of the influx of expelled Democrats," and he points out that "the only states he [Goldwater] carried [in the '64 election] were traditionally Democratic ones."9

There can be no question that Goldwater's own party, the GOP, abandoned his candidacy. Republicans stayed home from the polls or defected in droves to support the Johnson campaign. Why would they support a man like Goldwater? As Republicans, they could hardly be expected to show much enthusiasm for what was, essentially, a liberal program. Johnson was much more up their alley, with his long history as a New Deal "liberal," i.e., a partisan of the mercantilist, protofascist, corporate State.

On the other hand, there was another way of looking at Barry Goldwater. And Murray Rothbard was far and away the most articulate champion of this alternative point of view. "Goldwater," he wrote in 1980, "was — and is — an all-out interventionist in foreign affairs; it is both symbolic and significant that Goldwater was an Eisenhower, not a Taft delegate to the 1952 Republican convention."

A mere eight years later, by the time of "the 1960 GOP convention, Barry Goldwater had become the political leader of the transformed New Right." This "New Right," Rothbard explains, was the brand of conservatism for which William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review provided the intellectual leadership, a brand of conservatism that "combined a traditionalist and theocratic approach to 'moral values,' occasional lip service to free-market economics, and an imperialist and global interventionist foreign policy dedicated to the glorification of the American state and the extirpation of world Communism. Classical liberalism remained only as rhetoric, useful in attracting business support."10

And even Hess acknowledges, albeit grudgingly, the truth of one part of Rothbard's complaint against Goldwater — the contention that the Arizona senator was "an all-out interventionist in foreign affairs." In 1975 Hess wrote that

to advocate a strong national-security state, as Goldwater always did, while at the same time facing the fact that one of its consequences — increased federal power — would accomplish in the long run just what an enemy invasion would, is to engage in a great contradiction. I certainly didn't see it at the time. Goldwater didn't seem to see it. It was never discussed. But it was the sort of contradiction which can haunt you for a long time. It did me — a long time later.

Meanwhile, the weight of this contradiction was making itself felt more and more with each passing day, because of its relevance to one of the dominant issues of the day,

the Indo-Chinese war. As it grew and as his support for it grew, it contrasted sharply with, for instance, his very first 1964 campaign pledge to repeal and end the draft. He said very often that if there was a war that people didn't want to fight, you probably shouldn't fight it at all. The Indo-Chinese war, begun as an executive action, expanded as an executive action, was fought with draftees. It was not a war that people even knew existed until too late. It was a war that contradicted every basic principle I had thought Senator Goldwater stood for.11

  • 1. Barry GoldwaterBarry GoldwaterKarl Hess, Dear America (New York: William Morrow, 1975), p. 13.
  • 2. See Richard Pearson, "Former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace Dies." Washington Post, September 14, 1998.
  • 3. See James Ostrowski, "Republicans and Big Government." Mises.org, February 19, 2002.
  • 4. Karl Hess, Mostly on the Edge: An Autobiography. Ed. Karl Hess Jr. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1999), pp. 183–184, 181.
  • 5. There is some historical confusion in this passage, though whether the confusion was Goldwater's or Hess's is hard to say. Marijuana was not forbidden by the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. It was not forbidden or even regulated under federal law (though it was in certain states and municipalities) until nearly 25 years later, with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937.
  • 6. Hess, Mostly on the Edge, p. 179.
  • 7. Hess, Dear America, pp. 108, 105.
  • 8. Sidney Blumenthal, "Revolt of the Goldwater Conservatives." Salon, February 26, 2004.
  • 9. Wilson, "Save America! Vote Republican!"
  • 10. Murray N. Rothbard, "Requiem for the Old Right." Inquiry October 27, 1980: 24–27.
  • 11. Hess, Dear America, pp. 68–69.

Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.

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