Over at The Washington Post, Dave Weigel wades into a disagreement between Matthew Yglesias and I. I’ll briefly recap that exchange before replying — if you’re up to speed on this conversation you can jump down to the sentence I’ve put in bold below.
Matt Yglesias began by pointing out that conservative icon Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
Obviously liberals have been wrong about things in the past as well, but according to conservatives this was a foundational moment in their movement! Whenever I bring this up, people quickly rush to assure me that Goldwater didn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important political issue of his time out of racism, instead at the decisive moment in his career he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists out of principled constitutional reasoning that made it impossible for him to do otherwise. But this is actually more damning. You could imagine the founder of a movement being afflicted by an unfortunate character flaw that his followers lack. But the argument is that Goldwater didn’t suffer from a character flaw. Instead, having acquired a major party presidential nomination he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important issue of the day because his sincere political ideology led to horribly wrongheaded conclusions.
In reply, I wrote that conservatives aren’t alone in making icons out of leaders who were on the wrong side of racial issues, mentioning the Founders, and focusing on FDR’s anti-Japanese racism/internment policy, Robert F. Kennedy’s racism against blacks/tapping of Martin Luther King Jr.’s phone, and President Lyndon Johnson’s racism.
My point here isn’t that progressives are wrong to see FDR, President Johnson, and RFK as icons in their ideological movement — it’s that America was an egregiously racist country for a very long time, it’s become radically less racist just in the last several decades, and it’s basically unavoidable to have very racist people as icons of your ideological movement if it began at a time when the vast majority of the country’s leaders were unapologetic racists. Though I rue the fact that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, and would’ve voted against him solely because he was wrong on Civil Rights, the fact that he didn’t suffer from the character flaw of racism seems to me a mark in his favor.
Mr. Weigel finds this unpersuasive.
I’ll address his critique in pieces.
Even if Goldwater lacked “the character flaw of racism,” he stood with racists to oppose Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act, arguing that a defense of de jure discrimination was necessary if such discrimination was constitutional. By lionizing him and crediting him with the creation of the modern, activist-driven Republican Party, conservatives imply that a “strict constructionist” defense of institutional racism is an important part of their history.
Agreed that Mr. Goldwater “stood with racists,” although that alone isn’t devastating — when the ACLU “stands with racists” in the name of protecting the 1st Amendment, for example, it doesn’t prevent us from seeing that organization as an icon of civil libertarians. Motivations matter. Of course, Mr. Weigel and I agree that Mr. Goldwater was wrong to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But I strongly contest the assertion that by lionizing Mr. Goldwater, conservatives are automatically implying that a strict constructionist defense of institutional racism, or opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, is a celebratory moment in their history.
I’ve known a lot of people who see Barry Goldwater as an icon, and all of them disagree with his position on race circa 1964 — indeed, they are uniformly glad that Goldwater himself eventually repudiated that position. I grew up around Republicans in Orange County, California. It is therefore likely that my impression of what conservatives think about Barry Goldwater differs starkly from someone who grew up in The South. Still, the folks at The Corner all seem to repudiate opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and lionize Barry Goldwater, as does the blogospheric right generally, so while I am sure there are conservatives out there who take the contrary position, it is both possible and widely practiced to think of Barry Goldwater as an icon even while explicitly repudiating his stance on race.
Were Mr. Goldwater lionized as a politician, I’d object — it would be incoherent to say, on one hand, that he was absolutely wrong to participate in a political coalition based largely on opposing the Civil Rights Act, and on the other hand, that he is what conservative politicians should be like today. To use another example, I’d join Mr. Weigel in criticizing conservatives if they lionized Richard Nixon as a political model, citing his Southern Strategy.
But Mr. Goldwater was a failure as a politician, as a builder of coalitions, and as a translator of principle into policy. The right lionizes Ronald Reagan for those things, whereas the enlightened way to lionize Barry Goldwater is as a man of principle who practiced his main virtue to a fault. To borrow a line from Ross Douthat, today’s Goldwater apologists should say, “no ideology survives the collision with real-world politics perfectly intact. General principles have to bend to accommodate the complexities of history, and justice is sometimes better served by compromise than by zealous intellectual consistency” — so while I admire Barry Goldwater for articulating and sticking to first principles, which were generally correct, I also wish like hell he would’ve abandoned zealous consistency in the singular instance of Civil Rights.
Mr. Weigel writes:
There is really no comparison between the stances Goldwater took and the statements from Democrats that Friedersdorf rounds up. Why? Because even if they harbored racist sentiments, these Democrats acted to break down de jure racial discrimination.
This actually isn’t true when it comes to FDR and Japanese Americans — he acted to ratchet up discrimination against them. More generally, it isn’t just that the left looks to FDR as a political hero who cast votes on the right side of history in some instances. They look to him as much for the ideological principles he stood for and articulated, not just in domestic policy, but in foreign policy too. Surely a liberal can make a “fighting faith” sort of argument that invokes FDR as an icon of “tough on national security and fighting totalitarians” liberal principles without implicitly saying that internment is core to that belief system.
Later in his post, Mr. Weigel writes:
Goldwater’s votes were essential components of his 1964 presidential campaign, not something you can say about the decisions and subsequent campaigns from FDR and RFK. And there is no debate among liberals about whether FDR and RFK were wrong — liberals agree that they were. Conservatives and libertarians, however, still debate whether Goldwater was really wrong to oppose the Civil Rights Act, all things considered. Hence, Rand Paul.
That’s a fair point — in my initial post, I wrote that despite being a fan of Mr. Goldwater, I would’ve voted against him, due to his position on Civil Rights. Insofar as conservatives lionize him as a politician, or think that he was correct to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they ought to stop doing so. Again, though, I don’t think it is inherently problematic to see him as one icon of an ideological movement, even if he is an icon whose flaws are evident.
In the remainder of his post, Mr. Weigel writes at length about how Civil Rights era gains weren’t inevitable, they took political courage to pass, and the left suffered politically for championing them. This is obviously right, I agree wholeheartedly, and I don’t think those points are at odds with any argument that I’ve made.
Mr. Weigel, Mr. Yglesias and I all agree that Civil Rights were the most important domestic issue in the 1964 presidential election. That many conservatives don’t agree doesn’t reflect particularly well on the right, but it’s true. And that, I think, is the stronger ground for criticism here.
Joan Didion wrote in the Foreward to Political Fictions, her acclaimed 2001 essay collection:
I was asked with somewhat puzzling frequency about my own politics, what they “were,” or “where they came from,” as if they were eccentric, opaque, somehow unreadable. They are not. They are the logical product of a childhood largely spent among conservative California Republicans (this was before the meaning of “conservative” changed) in a post-war boom economy. the people with whom I grew up were interested in low taxes, a balanced budget, and a limited government. They believed above all that a limited government had no business tinkering with the private or cultural life of its citizens. In 1964, in accord with these interests and beliefs, I voted, ardently, for Barry Goldwater. Had Goldwater remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election thereafter.
In my experience, folks who make an informed decision to cite Barry Goldwater as an icon in the history of their ideological movement are doing so for these reasons, and are no more opposed to the Civil Rights Act or the advances of those years than was Joan Didion, who grew up a westerner as naive about the historical context of race in America as so many of us did. [On second thought, “naive” is the wrong word, or at least incomplete. What I want to say is that many Westerners are “insufficiently connected to the issue of race and its complexity.”]