A Requiem for Barry Goldwater, or, What I Think About 2016

I inherited a taste for voracious reading from my parents, and that appetite reveals the mingling of their blood in me. My mother loves novels, but my father sticks to biography, history, and political commentary: I think the only two works of fiction he’s read since 2010 are Amelia and The Legend of Bagger Vance. Therefore, when I found a list a couple months ago of the greatest non-fiction books of all time, I forwarded it to him right away. “It’s good,” he wrote back, “but it’s very left-leaning. A comprehensive list should have some books that shaped the right wing. I’d have liked to seen Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative on there.”

This comment stuck with me, and in the lead-up to the first Republican presidential debate a week ago today, I read that book cover to cover. I wanted to learn more about the man who helped define right-wing politics as the first of a lineage stretching on through Nixon, Reagan, and the modern GOP. It surprised me more than I expected, and in light of these opening moves for the presidential campaign, it helped me formulate my argument for why we need to keep the Democrats in the White House in 2016, and why we should want to.

The Conscience of a Conservative is a slim book, 127 pages in the original 1960 edition, and a quarter of that is given to the final chapter, “The Soviet Menace,” which mixes some strong diplomatic ideas with REALLY STRONG diplomatic ideas that in hindsight could have gotten us all killed. (Reading this chapter puts Johnson’s “Daisy” ad into very clear perspective.) Goldwater proposes ideas I firmly disagree with, including a view toward racial issues that I couldn’t even call a policy because it was mainly laissez-faire. He uses arguments that contradict arguments he makes in earlier chapters. He’s almost maddening.

And yet, what astounded me was how there were so many ideas I agreed with. Goldwater talks a lot about his Christian faith, but there is not a hint of a proposal in The Conscience of a Conservative to weaken the separation of church and state. The topic doesn’t even come up, even though he is a huge advocate for the power of the Constitution and our power to change it if necessary. He believed that labor unions were vital to a free society, corporations should not have a place in influencing the government, education (state-funded education only, mind you, but still compare this to some attitudes today) needed to prepare people for true intellectual advancement and innovation in all fields from humanities to science, and the right to vote needed to be protected for all people or else democracy failed.

Most of all, he wrote this sentence in the first chapter that almost made me fall out of my seat on the CTA when I read it.

“The conscience of the Conservative is pricked by anyone who would debase the dignity of the individual human being.”

This is, of course, highly similar to the baptismal promise of the Episcopal Church to “respect the dignity of every human being,” one of the major influences on my social views. It is also a sentence that would make Barry Goldwater, fifty-five years later, turn over in his grave if he could see how the party he helped to redefine has gone into the business of the wholesale debasement of people’s dignity and perverted his beliefs.

The prime example for me on this score is, unsurprisingly, the Republican assault on women’s health and women’s rights.

Here’s a news flash: I don’t like abortion. NOBODY likes abortion. It is, as this brilliant article by Rebecca Traister reminds us, a messy, difficult decision physically and emotionally, and no woman needs to be reminded of its nature. But there are times abortion is necessary to ensure the quality and stability of life, or to save another life. And no one but the woman carrying the child should have the right to make this decision.

But this is where the Republican attitude towards abortion gets sticky. If you want less abortions, then the most common-sense way to prevent them is to do the work Planned Parenthood is doing in providing information, medicine, contraception, and other means to help women live a healthy, active lifestyle of their choosing.

The Republicans are not interested in these things. They have spent countless hours trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which, imperfect as it is, remains the best attempt thus far to try to give all people quality health care. They vetoed, under Nixon, a law that passed both houses of Congress that would have guaranteed child care for working women.

And the world these children are born into is one affected by inequalities of the American economy which have only expanded since Ronald Reagan, with the trusting heart and the addled lack of foresight of the more dramatic Roman emperors, instituted trickle-down economics as the policy of the day and his successors ran with it, even though the wealth produced continued to fail to spread through our country, climaxing in the 2008 crisis where corporations had to be given special treatment over individuals to prevent a meltdown.

The pro-life attitude of the Republicans, as sincere as it may be, shows little respect for the life the infant will have, and even less for the woman who will bear that infant. I believe life is sacred, but in making that statement I need to think about the living, breathing, person in front of me and the cells with the potential to become anything forming inside her TOGETHER. To ignore either one is perilous. Yet the Republican attitude favors the growing cells over the woman and disregards the world those cells will enter and the woman’s right to know all the options she has for herself.

This is an attitude which seems to value women more as breeders than as individuals.

I wish I could stop there. But the nature of the Republican figureheads — for I want to draw a sharp line between the people who emerge on our television screens every day and the party rank and file — is more troublesome with every bit of investigation. At the GOP debate, less than one minute was spent talking about one of the most shameful revelations of the decade: our national awareness of the death of individuals at the hands of police who never face serious consequences or even questions concerning their conduct. Also not considered a problem? Mass public shootings, which should have sparked an instant effort to rethink the nation’s gun laws after Newtown, but did not due to a commitment to a Second Amendment that, like the Book of Leviticus, was written for a time and place that no longer bears upon our lives now and could stand re-evaluation.

Speaking of the Book of Leviticus, the most repugnant moment of the GOP debate, alongside Donald Trump’s callousness towards Megyn Kelly, was in my opinion the question about what God would say to the candidates. Right-wing politics and Christianity have long been intertwined, but in the past years, with the increasing drive to teach Creationism and the passing of “religious freedom” laws to protect people who are not being persecuted, there is a weakening of the separation between church and state. As a Christian whose faith is paramount in his life, this weakening is an insult and should be an insult to anyone. Faith or the lack thereof is only meaningful when a person arrives at it in their own heart and mind. Faith forced upon you by an apparatus that is the work of mere mortals is not the same, as our Deist and skeptical Founding Fathers knew too well.

Having spouted this litany against the Republicans, I feel compelled to say that I am not a Democrat. Over the past eight years, I have felt my share of disappointment and “what the hell” with Barack Obama, from his tepidness after Ferguson to the head-scratching  Nobel Peace Prize to the failure to close Guantanamo to, worst of all, the perpetuation of covert intelligence and warfare practices that led the eminent Tom Junod and Charles Pierce to dub his reign “the lethal presidency.” But I also know that Obama fought back from vast odds and against the most stonewalling opposition imaginable to pass the ACA, reignite the economy, and decrease unemployment, while practicing a diplomacy that, if  not Nobel-worthy, was conscientious and understanding…so much so that John Boehner led other Republicans to commit what one could call an act of treason during the Iran deal which, agree or disagree with its parameters, was an all too telling sign of disrespect.  And Obama’s precedents could be expanded on under the leadership of either his formidable former Secretary of State or the Senator from Vermont who is enrapturing crowds across the country…and at the very least will, thanks to his power, have his concerns made part of the Democratic platform.

And that issue, voting, leads me to the last part of this story, and for me the crucial reason why 2016 matters so much. Whoever is elected next will in all likelihood be appointing justices to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is important.

Under the leadership of that inscrutable youngish justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United and stripped the Voting Rights Act of its power at a time when discrimination is all the clearer among us. This goes beyond partisanship and shatters the freedoms and rights of every American of every race and class by allowing impediments to voting and giving the rich far, far more power and say in selecting candidates. This strikes against the most basic tenets of the Constitution and its amendments and hurts us at the most basic ideological level. These decisions need to be reconsidered for the good of us all.

And when I add up all of the above, I cannot see the Republican Party making these changes. Right now, Donald Trump is acting like a cartoonish figure. Even the National Review has nothing good to say about him. But he is leading the polls and is under no pressure to tone himself down because people are responding to him like an id, and the attraction is deep enough for him to keep running wild and even get Fox News to promise they will be fairer to him in the future. This is not the act of a responsible party ready for intellectual debate and compromise, even if they believe he will not get the

Ultimately, I think back again to Barry Goldwater, whose beloved Constitution and the rights it guarantees could be stripped and severed, whose party tacitly supports oppression, and whose country now fights the wars he imagined but abandons the brave volunteer army that actually marches into combat when the fighting ceases. Goldwater’s conservatism is not for me, but it is so much better than the reactionary stance for an exceptional America that never really existed.

My friend Andrea told me in a moment of post-debate despair that volunteering and campaigning are some of the best things we can do, so I have made that a minor goal for the rest of the year as I put my life in order and a major goal for 2016. I urge anyone who reads, whatever your political views, to do the same.

And in the meantime, I’ll be cozying up with my comics books and my history volumes alike, for both fictions and non-fictions have taught me what I believe and value.

(Maybe if we all read more novels the world would be a different place. Just saying.)

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