Somewhere between Barry Goldwater and Sarah Palin, conservatism changed from a philosophical anchor — what Goldwater called a “conscience” — into a pure partisanship, defined at least as much by what and who it’s against (Liberals, Democrats, Hillary, Obama) as by what it’s for. The latter now includes a list of causes (opposition to abortion and gay marriage, religiously-defined “family values”) that bear no resemblance to Goldwater’s essentially Libertarian philosophy.
I was raised by Republicans who voted enthusiastically for Goldwater (who lost resoundingly to Lyndon Johnson) in 1964. I read The Conscience of a Conservative (which was published in 1960) as a teenager and felt its influence even as I became an active opponent of the Vietnam War in college (I was in the Class of ’69) and became a hard-core Democrat through my 20s and 30s.
In the first chapter, of Conscience, Goldwater writes, “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?“
Is that what conservatism is about today? Hard to tell. It’s certainly not from what I hear and see from Rush, Fox News, Dobson, Hewitt and most of Republican broadcasting’s amen corner.
For those who care to separate the partisan wheat from the philosophical chaff, David Frum’s latest is required reading. In it he points to this Stanley Greenberg poll, which shows how isolated Republican partisanship has become, and how far it has drifted from the mainstream of the American electorate’s sensibilities — the same electorate that gave us Reagan, both Bushes and Bill Clinton (who offended the Right’s moral sensibilities even while he governed as a centrist making plenty of rightward decisions — especially in respect to social welfare and the economy).
Right after the 1994 “Republican Revolution”, I found myself at a party in San Diego, talking to Milton Friedman. This wasn’t the famous economist, but rather a former speechwriter for Gerald Ford and other notables. He told me that this revolution was doomed to fail in the long run, because it brought together two value systems — one economic and the other religious — that were in conflict.
What held them together so long was pure partisanship.
That’s coming to an end. The split has opened. Rush, Hannity and Dobson are proving to be a branch, not a trunk. The roots in Goldwater and William F. Buckley still hold, and the branch is breaking away. For more about that, read Christopher Buckley’s How Limbaugh tried (and failed) to replace my dad. Pretty much nails it.
I have no idea if I’ll ever vote for a Republican again. Haven’t for a long time. Haven’t voted for all that many Democrats, either. Many of my votes have been for None of the Above, which has often been the Libertarian. (For what it’s worth, I voted for Gore and Kerry, because I thought we needed not to elect George W. Bush. I don’t believe I voted for Clinton either time, but I don’t remember. And I’ll vote for Obama this time, not just for the candidate but to oppose McCain, and especially Palin.) But I’ll be watching to see if the Grand Old Party rediscovers its roots — in personal freedom, minimal government, responsible economic policies and other solid sensibilities.
Hope it does. After Obama gets elected, we’ll need those people to hold him in check. Not the nyah-sayers on Fox News and AM radio.