Monday, June 29, 2015

Matter of Conscience

The Barry Goldwater/L. Brent Bozell collaboration The Conscience of a Conservative sits with Ronald Reagan's 1964 speech nominating the Arizona senator for president as one of the twin pillars of the modern conservative movement. They gave conservative thinking an energized new direction -- in addition to talking about all of the things that conservatives didn't want changed, they began to explain why.

Goldwater's 1960 book made one of the strongest and clearest connections between conservatism as a philosophy of government and the idea of freedom -- he and others like him were conservative in their views and politics because they believed that those kinds of policies and positions were the best guarantors of freedom for the most people.

In several of the essays, Goldwater makes it clear that some of the changes proposed by the liberal folks of his day were not necessarily wrong. But the means by which they were to be achieved, on the other hand, were. Social and cultural change through the courts system or by executive fiat was wrong because the U.S. Constitution did not allow it; social and cultural change through legislation and black-letter law was right because the same document did allow it. And that point mattered because the constitutional checks on power were designed to keep citizens' freedoms from being subjected to the whims of one person or a small group of people. What judicial action gave, judicial action could take away. Segregationists who thought their cause won when Associate Justice Harlan B. Brown said it was OK in his Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 found out it could be lost in the very same way when Chief Justice Earl Warren said so in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education.

Conscience also lays out briefly why Goldwater believed that most matters like this should be settled in individual states: The Constitution says so, when it enumerates the powers of the federal government and says all other powers are reserved to the states or to the people. He held this belief not because the feds are automatically wrong and states are automatically right, but because states and people that give up to the federal government their ability to decide things for themselves don't get it back. And the person who cheers a federal regulation that runs their way may find themselves much less cheerful when a different administration changes that regulation in a way they don't like.

Goldwater only briefly touches on economic issues that are another bedrock of modern conservatism, not saying much more than the idea that taxes should rise to fund what the government wants to do ain't no way to run a railroad. His chapter on the menace posed by the Soviet Union has the unusual pairing of being dated and timely at the same time -- worldwide Communism is perhaps not the threat it was in 1960, but a newly aggressive Russia might be, and there are plenty of other ideologies just as threatening to freedom floating around people's heads today as then.

Goldwater elsewhere wrote of his skepticism about much of government at several levels, and Conscience could do with some reminders that state governments can rival Uncle Sam in dull-witted cupidity. He also could have reflected some more on how some of the goals of people who opposed him fit in well with the conservative idea of defending and advancing freedom, and so pointed out the common cause they shared.

This edition is part of the Princeton University Press's "James Madison Library in American Politics" series, and features manuscript editing by Goldwater's granddaughter CC Goldwater. It also opens with a foreword by well-known conservative columnist George F. Will that lays out some of the impact Conscience had in American conservatism in the years leading up to Reagan's 1980 election. And it inexplicably includes an afterword by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who uses Goldwater as a tool to blast modern conservatism's social dimension and references the respect Goldwater showed for his uncle, John F. Kennedy, despite their political rivalry in order to decry the lack of civility in public political discourse. This essay, published with the book in 2007, predates Kennedy's own contributions to civil discourse, such as grabbing a reporter's mike from her hand and ranting into it and calling for the arrest of people who disagree with his positions on climate change. But it's contemporary with his 2007 remarks saying oil company executives should be treated like traitors. And it features Kennedy misidentifying family therapist and radio personality James Dobson as a clergyman in order to slam the religious element of modern social conservatism. Twice.

On second thought, I take back the "inexplicably." Kennedy's essay, following Goldwater and Bozell's several short chapters, is an excellent example of the degradation of political discourse brought to us by modern political voices. But probably not in the way he would think.

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