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Listening to the wrong Goldwater
The seeds of today's dysfunctional Republican approach to governing were planted a half-century ago.
The Barry Goldwater Memorial in Paradise Valley, Ariz. We might wish for his brand of conservatism today. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)
It’s a mark of how ugly American conservatism has become that people with a sense of history are nostalgic for Barry Goldwater. You know, the guy who was such a right-wing extremist for his time that he led the Republican party to an historic loss as its 1964 presidential nominee, declaring, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”1
Yet in losing, Goldwater planted a virus that all but killed the moderate wing of the Republican party, and which even now holds Congress in a fever’s grip. Goldwater introduced Ronald Reagan to a national political audience, and just two years later, Goldwater’s more genial disciple was elected governor of California, setting the stage for his eventual ascension to the presidency. The so-called Reagan Revolution, ideologically descendent from Goldwater’s platform, aimed to turn back the clock to a pre-New Deal laissez-faire government. Over the past four decades, it has morphed from policy into dogma, so that a broad and bitter anti-government sensibility is now the defining issue that unifies the entire Republican party.
And look at what the anti-government extremism of Goldwater’s political heirs have brought us now: a paralyzed Congress, and a nation disgusted with its government. It is the inevitable handiwork of demagogues of the hard right, egged on by Donald Trump, the most radical president in American history, and empowered by a generation of feckless Republican leaders. They’re practically aching to shut down the government rather than give up an inch of their extreme agenda; never mind the pain and chaos it will cause.
Don’t feel sorry for the deposed Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, and don’t think for a moment that Democrats should have bailed him out when the radicals he serviced turned on him after he reluctantly and briefly fulfilled his responsibility to govern. After all, you can’t wave around a gun and not imagine that somebody might shoot you. McCarthy embraced and empowered the terrorists who predictably wound up as his political assassins. The harsh conservatism of today’s Republican party — the enshrinement of MAGA-heads into every layer of its establishment — lay the groundwork for the intra-party warfare that has stalled any action on Capitol Hill on what should be the nation’s agenda.
It’s a situation that has left the viability of American democracy itself in question, a win for such anti-American actors as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. It has put at risk the economic stability of the world and the survival of Ukraine as an independent nation. And it clarifies that Barry Goldwater was wrong: Extremism, whatever its ostensible aim, is unjustifiable in a pluralistic society.
Aristotle put forward the notion that virtue is found at the mean point between excess and deficiency — that is, neither too much nor too little of anything.2 Since democracy is a virtuous system, based on the principle that people ought to be able to decide for themselves what their government should do, it’s no wonder that democratic governments tend to be moderate. We won’t all agree all the time, so we elect people to lead us with the assumption that they’ll find a rough midpoint that’s as close as we can come at any moment to satisfying most of us, and caring as best we can for all of us.
Extremists, however, don’t buy that idea. They can’t find it in themselves to tolerate goals other than their own, which suggests that extremism is something of a personality disorder. The great Irish writer William Butler Yeats — who knew politics well, and was a senator of the Irish Free State in the 1920s — asserted, “All empty souls tend toward extreme opinions.”3
Indeed, psychologists tell us that extremism is often rooted in a lack of empathy, which is a fundamental trait that humans need if they hope to share space peacefully with one another.4 A lack of empathy is a characteristic of people with borderline personality disorder or narcissism, the latter being the mental illness many experts believe Trump displays. While America over time has been rocked by both liberal and conservative extremism, it’s mainly a problem these days on the right.
It wasn’t always that way. In the 1970s, the Weather Underground emerged from movements opposing the Vietnam war and racial injustice, and carried out a bombing campaign that targeted government buildings and banks, until its leaders chose a less damaging tack. During the 1990s, the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front were targeted by the FBI as dangerous extremist groups, though their reach was always limited. Greenpeace, the Netherlands-based environmental group, has often used tactics widely viewed as extreme.5
But these days in America, even the fiercest advocates of liberal causes — a list that is led by human rights, economic justice and environmental protection — tend not to employ the practices of extremism. The closest the left came to extreme politics in this century arose three years ago, when some on the left embraced the slogan “defund the police” after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. In fact, the idea of turning some police functions over to other professionals — social workers and emergency services workers, for example — is reform, not radicalism. Most liberal politicians differentiated between the two, and squelched the idea of “defunding” police while continuing to call for more law enforcement accountability.
That is, the liberal establishment took the energy of a social cause and turned an emergent extremism into responsible governing. That’s not what has been happening on the right: Extremism has become the default position of even the top of the Republican establishment, and it now permeates the party’s campaigns and, often, its approach to the work of government.
It is extremism that pulls books from classroom library shelves, that forbids mentioning homosexuality in schools and that targets women who want to control whether or not they will be pregnant. Extremists want to hold back the truthful telling of American history, since that might create uncomfortable political realities today; extremists believe any action to limit access to firearms is a threat to our constitutional freedom. Extremists would shut down government rather than accept deviation from their own point of view in the government’s actions — no matter the will of the majority.
Political extremism’s great danger, though, isn’t just in its capacity to hobble government, but more in what it might provoke outside official channels — namely, violence.6 The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in 2021 and the violent 2017 march of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., are tragically memorable, but they’re not isolated examples. Nor are the tactics of extremism the same across the ideological spectrum. In 2020, the Center for Strategic and International Studies looked into almost 900 politically motivated attacks in the prior quarter century. It found that far-left attacks had led to one fatality, compared to 329 deaths arising from attacks by the far right.
It wasn’t liberals who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, of course, and it isn’t the left that is promoting even still the anti-democratic lie — which every federal politician knows is a lie, whatever else they may say — that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. On the campaign stump this year, Trump is already asserting that Democrats “are going to be trying” to steal the election — so that if he is the Republican nominee and loses, he will likely again encourage his supporters to disbelieve the results, with potentially catastrophic results.
And his legions of deluded fans are taking Trump seriously. This week, one of the extremist pro-Trump hosts on Fox News, Greg Gutfield, flatly called for civil war. Comparing a Democratic prosecutor in Pennsylvania to the evil of slavery in the 19th century South, Gutfield said that “elections don’t work,” so “you have to force them to surrender.” 7
No doubt this gets the blood rising among voters on the right. But it’s dangerous. If conservative politicians hadn’t long ago sacrificed their integrity to ambition, they would be denouncing that sort of rhetoric as a threat to American stability. Anyway, there’s no time to try to rein in their enablers and sycophants at Fox News; Republicans are too busy trying to figure out how they can install someone sufficiently radical as House Speaker to win Trump’s approval and appease the MAGA-crazed wing of the party.
This is why we might we pine for a Barry Goldwater today. Extreme as he was for his time, Goldwater believed in democracy, and kept working at it for three more Senate terms after his landslide loss — sometimes in the minority, sometimes with Republicans leading the Senate. He was a principled conservative rather than a radical rhetorician. And he wasn’t afraid to cross typical partisan divides: Goldwater supported abortion rights, was a lifetime member of the NAACP, and was blunt about his contempt for the right-wing push to ban gays from military service: “You don’t need to be straight to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight,” he said.
A few years before his death in 1998, Goldwater told the Republican leadership that he no longer wanted his name associated with what they were doing. “You are extremists, and you’ve hurt the Republican party much more than the Democrats have,“ he said.
Sadly, the wrong lessons of Barry Goldwater are those that survived him. The vice of today’s conservatives is extremism, and in that, there is no virtue.
Passages about Goldwater in this column are largely derived from Goldwater (Doubleday, 1988), the autobiography he wrote with Jack Casserly, and from With No Apologies: The Personal and Political Memoirs of United States Senator Barry M. Goldwater. Berkley Books (1980). ISBN 978-0425046630
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Columbus, Ohio (Columbus Dispatch, dispatch.com)
Norwich, Conn. (The Bulletin, norwichbulletin.com)
El Paso, Tex. (El Paso Times, elpasotimes.com)
Lansing, Mich. (Lansing State Journal, lansingstatejournal.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Kim Kardashian, advocate for the wrongly imprisoned
There’s a lot you could say about Kim Kardashian, who is a social media influencer, a TV star, a model, a celebrity because of — um, well (just why does anybody pay attention to Kim Kardashian, actually?). But as Cole Behrens reports in the Columbus Dispatch, Kardashian came to Ohio to argue the case for a new trial for a convicted murderer — not the typical role for someone with her resume. Kardashian is also an advocate for criminal justice reform and for the wrongfully convicted, and she is interested in the case of Kevin Keith, who was convicted of a triple slaying in Bucyrus in 1994. His efforts to win freedom have been rebuffed many times, but Kardashian is trying to renew interest in the case.
Statistics reveal breadth of families’ financial challenges
A new study, reports Keith M. Phaneuf of the nonprofit newsroom CT Mirror, underscores the gap between the financial needs of Connecticut families and the level of income they might expect. While the Federal Poverty Level in Connecticut is about $30,000 — that’s the figure federal aid is based upon, assuming it’s what a family of four would need to avoid poverty — analysis by the United Way of Connecticut suggests the basic survival budget for that family would really be about $126,000. That four-fold gap isn’t all: The state recently raised the minimum wage to $15.69 per hour, but the study pegged the actual need to support that family at $31.50 per hour for each of two adults. “The lay person, I don’t think, understands how severe the situation for so many working people has become,” the United Way president said. One more statistic reveals how the wealth gap is growing: In Fairfield County over the past 40 years, the median household income in the six wealthiest towns grew by 81 percent; in Bridgeport, the state’s largest and poorest city, it grew by 7 percent.
Prison time for defrauding migrants
An El Paso woman is facing more than seven years in prison for defrauding migrants, in some cases drawing thousands of dollars from impoverished and confused families, according to reporting by Aaron Martinez in the El Paso Times. Ana Maria Hernandez, 53, would convince victims that she was a federal agent who could help them obtain citizenship; after getting their identification forms and documents, along with a substantial amount of cash — in at least one case, $8,000 from an individual — she kept the money and did nothing. In addition to her prison stint, Hernandez was ordered to pay restitution of $123,000 to her known victims.
Gun rights activists rally at state capitol
In 2020, Michigan was the site of perhaps the boldest anti-government plot of recent years: a plan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The plot was uncovered shortly after demonstrators bearing heavy firearms showed up at the state capitol — an intimidating presence that Michigan gun laws allowed. Eventually, the perpetrators were arrested, and they are serving lengthy prison terms. But gun-rights activists haven’t given up their anti-government campaign in Michigan. Matthew Dae Smith reports in the Lansing State Journal that more than 100 people — most armed with long rifles or holstered sidearms — demonstrated outside the state capitol in the rain this week for 2nd Amendment rights. "What this says about us is that we are not going away,” one of the organizers said.
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