HBO began running a documentary this week on Barry Goldwater, dubbed “Mr. Conservative” and often credited with launching the modern conservative movement in the course of his unsuccessful 1964 bid for the presidency. The documentary, spearheaded by his granddaughter, portrays Goldwater as an “old school” conservative more in line with William F. Buckley or Andrew Sullivan than what passes for “conservatism” today. Goldwater might more accurately be called a libertarian, because his fundamental premise was that less government involvement (read, interference) in the national life should be the goal of politicians. In this, he appears to have maintained a consistency rarely seen today, applying his philosophy to both economic and social issues, such as abortion (he didn’t believe the government had any right to tell women what to do with their bodies). Later in life, he even came to renounce his previous resistance to gays in the military, concluding that there was no sound policy reason to exclude people because of their sexual orientation, which he considered none of the government’s business.
The documentary was interesting not only as a profile of a figure I must admit to knowing little about, but also as a timeline of the evolution of the conservative movement from its libertarian roots to its current Christianist paternalism. Goldwater himself had little use for the “social conservatives” whose inclusion in the GOP led to its electoral success, frequently clashing with Jerry Falwell and other fundamentalists.
I’ve often thought that the primordial conservative movement, prior to its co-option by radial reactionaries, offered some potentially valuable ideas to public debate. It is interesting that more and more “old school” conservatives are now rebelling against the current state of the movement, which has betrayed the values that Goldwater and others sought to promote. I plan to follow with some regularity the evolution of this debate within the movement, and am looking forward to reading Sullivan’s forthcoming book on “The Conservative Soul.” Goldwater, and conservatism past and present, certainly contain faults and follies, but in a time when reason is being pushed further and further from the public square, they just might be symbols worth resurrecting.