by Lance Thompson
The recent election left the Republicans out in the cold. Some have recommended that the GOP chase the Democrats and their votes leftward across the political spectrum. Others believe we should return to the core principles of conservatism, and stand up for the issues which once defined us.
But what are those principles? Where is the source? Is there an ancient conservative manifesto buried deep under some Revolutionary War monument, awaiting discovery by intrepid archaeologists?
There may be, but we don’t need an archaeologist to unearth the founding principles of conservatism. They are clearly, concisely, and powerfully presented in Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative. It’s a quick read, well-organized, and crystal clear. In this it differs from the avalanche of candidate biographies and philosophies that are spewed out during presidential campaigns. The Conscience of a Conservative is all Goldwater–no co-writers or ghost writers intrude. These ideas may not have originated with him, but he manages to communicate them effectively and forcefully.
Displaying the prognosticative talents of a Nostradamus, Goldwater correctly predicts the leftward tilt of the media (back when there were only three networks and everybody read newspapers), the usurpation of workers’ rights by unions (the Workers Free Choice Act, which takes away an individual’s right to vote for or against union participation by secret ballot is a major initiative by Democrats in the coming year), the abrogation of individual rights by the federal government (long before homeowners were forced to give up their properties for the benefit of private developers), the anti-Americanism of the United Nations, the folly of farm subsidies, the increasing encroachment of the Supreme Court into the responsibilities of the executive and legislative branches, the debilitating cancer of the welfare state, the necessity of standing up to and opposing the Soviet Union (a nation currently rearming and challenging us around the globe), the failure of public education, and the self-deluding folly of foreign aid to unfriendly nations. Goldwater couldn’t have been more prescient if he’d predicted the 2008 winners of the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the Kentucky Derby.
The Conscience of a Conservative strongly defends the rights of the individual as guaranteed in the Constitution. Goldwater believes the wisdom in our founding documents is profound and far-sighted, with no need to be reinterpreted according to current fashion. He believes welfare, if extended indefinitely, weakens the recipient as well as the provider. He believes higher taxes are crippling to economic strength and lower taxes a key ingredient to a healthy economy. He believes an individual should not only be able to choose whether or not he wants to join a union, but also whether or not his union dues should be used to support a candidate not of his choosing. Finally, Goldwater believes that our nation’s enemies should not be tolerated, negotiated with, or accommodated. Rather, they should be confronted, opposed and defeated.
Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for president in 1964. He was defeated by Lyndon Johnson, who had already started his vast expansion of the welfare state under the Great Society program and had committed the United States to war in Vietnam. Yet Goldwater was painted as the irresponsible, belligerent candidate, while Johnson was depicted as the moderate. Johnson won in a landslide, and his first and only full term as president was marked by controversy, violence and upheaval at home and abroad.
After his spectacular presidential defeat, Goldwater was re-elected to the Senate in 1968, and served several more terms, during which his conservative principles found more favor in the GOP. In fact, one positive outcome of Goldwater’s campaign was a televised speech on the principles of conservatism that was broadcast on NBC a week before the election. The speech was not delivered by Goldwater, but by a retired actor whose movie career seemed to be fading, and the broadcast was almost canceled by some members of Goldwater’s campaign. But the actor’s friends and supporters, who had paid for the broadcast time, insisted that the speech go ahead as planned. So on October 27th, for the first time before a national audience, Ronald Reagan espoused the conservative philosophy that would take him to the White House sixteen years later.
Reagan’s conservatism was more optimistic and inclusive than Goldwater’s. But both men shared unshakeable conviction in conservative principles of individual freedom, limited government, lower taxes, and strong national defense. If you’re looking for the roots of that conviction, Goldwater’s book is a good place to start.