I consider myself to be a Goldwater conservative, which in modern politics makes me a liberal. Some have written that Goldwater conservativism is really classical liberalism from the 19th century, and I would agree. Both are primarily focused on maximizing individual liberty. For Goldwater, big government was the enemy as every increase in the size or power of government necessarily decreased the liberty of the individual citizen. When Goldwater wrote “The Conscience of a Conservative” in 1960, he noted that:
In our day, order is pretty well taken care of. The delicate balance that ideally exists between freedom and order has long since tipped against freedom practically everywhere on earth. In some countries, freedom is altogether down and order holds absolute sway. In our country the trend is far less advanced, but it is well along and gathering momentum every day. Thus, for the American Conservative, there is no difficulty in identifying the day’s overriding political challenge: it is to preserve and extend freedom. As he surveys the various attitudes and institutions and laws that currently prevail in America, many questions will occur to him, but the Conservative’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?
Thus, Goldwater saw the essential political battle as one between freedom on the one hand and order on the other. This is not to say that other values were not also important to Goldwater. The very title of his book contains the word “Conscience,” implying a moral value system for making judgments. And the idea of justice was closely related to Goldwater’s idea of freedom as the oft-quoted lines from his 1964 acceptance speech would clearly indicate:
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!
Justice is really not the same thing as order, so the pursuit of justice can take us off into a somewhat different direction than if we were solely interested in the pursuit of order. Both order and justice make impositions upon liberty, but Goldwater would view the impositions of justice as morally necessary. In Goldwater’s mind, both should be maximized, much as implied by the final words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “with liberty and justice for all.”
The Republican Party of 2008 no longer has a home for Goldwater conservatives. The neocons have changed the focus of conservativism away from maximizing liberty and over to maximizing order. If he were still alive today, Goldwater would be appalled at this turn of events. If the neocons preach about the “right to bear arms,” it is not for the purpose of maximizing individual liberty that they do so. It is instead grounded in their desire to increase order in our society, presumably by scaring those who would violate order by imposing upon others. And the neocons are using the boogeyman of an unwinnable War on Terror to justify the imposition of the largest domestic surveillance and control system this nation has ever seen. If some faceless bureaucrat adds your name to any one of several lists kept in secret by the government, you can be denied access to air travel. Similarly, if you are unlucky enough to be added to any one of several other lists, you can be denied access to the banking system and prevented from owning or controlling any bank account or credit card. Furthermore, there is virtually no redress available for an average citizen who finds themselves on any of these lists of terror suspects. You can label this situation many ways, but “liberty and justice” aren’t among them!
I am not a fan of socialism, and I still abhor communism. If I choose to side with the Democratic Party in the current political battle, it is because I also abhor fascism, and fascism is what the Republican Party now promotes. Fascism implies the same loss of liberty to a right-wing movement that communism implies for the extreme left.
Neocons have forgotten about liberty, except when it suits their purposes for some other need, such as for guns. The ideas that abortion must be prevented and gays must be oppressed are religious obsessions that are no part of true conservative thinking. Goldwater himself was strongly pro‑choice. And as for civil rights, Goldwater was a leader in the civil rights movement from the 1940s, even though he is better known for voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on constitutional grounds. So, it should not be the least bit surprising to find that Goldwater was a gay rights activist late in his life. Unfortunately, it has come to this: the current political home for those who believe in “liberty and justice for all” is the Democratic Party. The neocon-led Republican Party has renounced the ideals of liberty and justice within their political program, even though they continue to pay them lip service.
In “The Conscience of a Conservative,” Goldwater noted that the idea of progress, as implied by the label “progressive,” is entirely compatible with true conservativism. In fact, progress can almost be taken as a given in a free society that is also committed to justice. The progressive movement of a century ago was primarily within the Republican Party and included such luminaries as President Theodore Roosevelt. So, it is not all that strange for a Goldwater conservative to find a political home with “progressives” within the Democratic Party. While the Democrats have no difficulty finding various forms of injustice to do battle with, perhaps I can find a role within the Democratic Party by continuing to ask Goldwater’s classic question: Are we maximizing freedom?
The neocon-led Republican Party ignores the quest for greater freedoms for Americans and espouses a political program which amounts to a growing police state, all grounded in the quest for greater “order.” Well, as Goldwater observed, we have quite enough (or even too much) order these days, and we need to resurrect the quest for greater freedom for our citizens.
That is what neocons ignore, and that is what causes me to side with the Democrats these days. I hope Goldwater would be proud.