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The Conscience of a Conservative ()

Orrin's All-Time Top Ten List - Non-Fiction / Conservative Thought

    I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also
    that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
        -Barry Goldwater (1964 Republican Convention Acceptance Speech)

If, as Oscar Wilde opined, homosexuality is "the love that dare not speak its name," then we might say that Conservatism is "the political philosophy that dare not speak the truth."  Liberals are wont to bathe the masses in comforting but demonstrably false platitudes, because at the root of their political philosophy they maintain a series of fictions, like:  (1) we're all essentially equal--all differences in intelligence, ability, etc. are a function of external factors and these external factors can be corrected by government; or, (2) all problems, both international and domestic, are soluble by government action because basically we all really have each others best interests at heart, we just sometimes need a push from Big Brother to realize it; and so on.  Conservatism meanwhile is based on a set of somewhat ugly truths, derived from hard experience:  (1) the natural state of man, like that of other animals, is one of competition, not cooperation; (2) it is because this competition was so brutal, often fatal, that men reluctantly gave up some measure of freedom, in order to establish a government to protect them from one another; (3) government, foreign and domestic, is now the greatest threat to man, because those governments will seek ever increasing levels of control over human behavior; and so on.  Obviously, conservatives are left with a harder sell here.

Therefore, while conservative academics express themselves openly, you very seldom hear conservative politicians present their ideas in simple unvarnished fashion; for the most part it gets dressed up in warm fuzzy language.  Every once in a while though, especially in times of great crisis, someone will step forward and actually enunciated conservative values in blunt terms--modern instances include: Herbert Hoover in his post presidency phase; Charles Lindbergh and the America First movement; George S. Patton during WWII; Robert Taft after the War; Barry Goldwater in the early '60s; Ronald Reagan from 1962 to 1988; and Alan Keyes today.   Significantly, most of these men were either destroyed personally or were denied the opportunity to exercise real power, either by voters or by party power brokers.  For all the noble cant about how voters wish that politicians were more truthful, their actions at the voting booth tend to indicate the opposite.  They would much rather be comforted than confronted.

It is against this backdrop that we must consider Barry Goldwater's seminal treatise The Conscience of a Conservative.  And it is only once we understand these circumstances that we can appreciate how significant a book it was; in fact, it may be the single most important written work of ideology ever produced by a practicing American politician of any real stature.  Considered first merely in terms of the audience it reached, only Tom Paine's pamphlets can be said to provide it any competition for popularity.  Adjusted for population size, it is probably true that Paine's Common Sense is the best selling political treatise in the nation's history, but it is also true that Paine, though obviously political, was not truly a politician, at least not an office seeker.  It is also the case that Presidents and presidential contenders have written bestselling books dealing with politics, but they tend not to be ideological.  Instead they are wifty things like JFK's ghost written bit of self serving puffery, Profiles in Courage, or Nixon's eminently forgettable, Six Crises.  Of course, ex-President Ulysses S. Grant wrote one of the great memoirs of all time, but he did not even deal with his presidency therein.  The GOP did issue its Contract with America prior to the 1994 Congressional elections (a document which borrowed from Goldwater's book and philosophy), but there was no single national candidate behind that text (and its elements had been tested in opinion polls prior to inclusion in the final draft).  No, there has really only been one great political treatise promulgated by a single man and then used as a campaign platform.  For that reason alone, you would think this book would still be in print and be a subject of academic study.

Even more remarkable is the fact that almost all of the book is still topical today.  On the very first page, Goldwater talks about his annoyance at Republican leaders who feel compelled to call themselves "progressive Conservatives" or, as he quotes then Vice President Nixon: "Republican candidates should be economic conservatives, but conservatives with a heart."  This discussion so closely parallels current Conservative angst over George W. Bush's use of the term "compassionate Conservative" that it's almost spooky.  In his discussion of taxes, he comes out in favor of a flat tax in terms that presage Steve Forbes:

    I believe that the requirements of justice here are perfectly clear: government has a right to claim an
    equal percentage of each man's wealth, and no more.

(Bear in mind that he was saying this at a time when top tax rates went as high as 90%.)  He goes on to discuss the education crisis--that's right, the crisis in our schools is entering at least its sixth decade (I assume we would carbon date it around the time of the Sputnik launch).  In the section on the Welfare State, he correctly forecasts that the dependency of the poor on government largesse would ultimately degrade them and turn them into virtual wards of the state.  In assessing the now defunct Communist threat he wisely foresaw that disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union would be a dead end for the West and that the only way out of the Cold War was to confront the Russians and win it.  And while the USSR is obviously gone, in a section that could be reissued today by Pat Buchanan, he concludes by questioning the value of the United Nations, entangling alliances and foreign aid and demands that we adopt one standard in the area of Foreign Policy:  is the action helpful to the United States?

Pessimism is a sort of occupational hazard for conservatives.  There's a tendency to say that things are always in decline from an imagined ideal point in the past.  But men like Goldwater and Reagan recast conservatism in a much more forward looking mold and made it a philosophy of human progress and their vision has largely prevailed.  We won the Cold War, cut and flattened taxes, reformed Welfare, started returning power to the states, etc., etc., etc...  But as you read this book and realize that we're still fighting all of the same fights, you realize how little has actually been accomplished.  I still believe that Goldwater is largely right--the future of America will be basically fiscally conservative and socially libertarian--but it will always be a struggle, one we're often losing.  This slender impassioned polemic remains an important statement of the principles which should guide our public policy and its very immediacy and relevance amply demonstrate Goldwater's continuing political significance.  He is without a doubt the most influential losing candidate in the history of presidential politics, one of the seminal figures in American political thought in the second half of the 20th Century, and his influence may well extend far into the 21st Century.


Grade: (A+)


Barry Goldwater Links:
-ESSAY: The Goldwater Myth: He didn't become a libertarian until his twilight years (ANDREW E. BUSCH, January 11, 2006, Opinion Journal)

Book-related and General Links:
    -SPEECH: Goldwater's 1964 Acceptance Speech
    -AUDIO: of same speech (History Channel)
    -Presidential Election of 1964
    -SPEECH: by RONALD REAGAN:  A TIME FOR CHOOSING (October 27, 1964)
    -ESSAY: Barry Goldwater & Russell Kirk, Sixty Years Later (Bradley J. Birzer, June 16th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)
-REVIEW: I.F. Stone: The Knack, NY Review of Books
        The Making of the President:1964 by Theodore H. White
    -Goldwater Institute
    -RECIPE: Sen. Barry Goldwater's Expert Chili
    -ARCHIVE: AZ Central
    -DISCUSSION: Goldwater's Legacy with Mark Shields, Paul Gigot, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, and Haynes Johnson (The Newshour, PBS)
    -Background Report (The Newshour, PBS)
    -Photomosaic Tribute to Barry Goldwater (U of AZ)
    -The Arizona Historical Foundation (cofounded by BMG)
    -CHAT: The Barry Goldwater LighthouseTM (devoted to all topics related to Barry Goldwater & Conscience of a Conservative)
    -OBIT: Goldwater did conservatives more harm than good ( Don Feder)
    -OBIT: Bury the "Extremism" Smear at Barry Goldwater's Funeral (Glenn Woiceshyn, Capitalism Magazine)
    -OBIT: Mr. Right: Barry Goldwater created, yet stood apart from, modern conservatism (MICHAEL J. GERSON, US News & World)
    -OBIT: REMEMBERING BARRY GOLDWATER (Howard Gleckman, Business Week)
    -TRIBUTE: Goldwater Remembered (Washington Post)
    -ARCHIVE: BARRY MORRIS GOLDWATER (National Aviation Hall of Fame)
    -ESSAY : PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES: Barry Goldwater and  John Kennedy The Debates that Never Were ... But Might Have Changed History (Marty Jezer, Tom Paine)
    -REVIEW: I.F. Stone: The Collected Works of Barry Goldwater, NY Review of Books
        The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry M. Goldwater
        Why Not Victory? by Barry M. Goldwater
        Blue Cross and Private Health Insurance Coverage of Older Americans [Medicare] A Report by
        the Subcommittee on Health of the Elderly to the Special Committee on Aging, U.S. Senate,
        Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the War on Poverty Bill Report from the Senate Committee
        on Labor and Public Welfare
    -REVIEW: of GOLDWATER By Barry M. Goldwater With Jack Casserly WITH THE BARK OFF (Helen Thomas, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Michael Lind: The Myth of Barry Goldwater, NY Review of Books
        Barry Goldwater by Robert Alan Goldberg
        Goldwater: The Man Who Made A Revolution by Lee Edwards
        Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP by Mary C. Brennan
    -REVIEW: of TURNING RIGHT IN THE SIXTIES: The Conservative Capture of the GOP by Mary C. Brennan The Conservative 1960s:  From the perspective of the 1990s, it's the big political story of the era (Matthew Dallek, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Lee Edwards, Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution  ...and the Goldwater Revolution (Brian Janiskee, On Principle)
    -REVIEW: of GOLDWATER: The Man Who Made a Revolution  By Lee Edwards & BARRY GOLDWATER  By Robert Alan Goldberg The Man Who Knew Too Little (John B. Judis, Washington Post)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of GOLDWATER: The Man Who Made a Revolution  By Lee Edwards
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One: Legacy BARRY GOLDWATER  By Robert Alan Goldberg
    -LETTER: Richard Hofstadter: A Long View: Goldwater in History
    -ESSAY : Pundits Who Predict the Future Are Always Wrong : A glance back to 1964 shows that predictions are always wrong and always political--and that the left's possibilities may be greater than
 they seem. (Rick Perlstein, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, by Rick Perlstein : Goldwater the Refusenik: A Different Kind of Republican (Christopher Caldwell, NY Observer)
   -REVIEW : of  BEFORE THE STORM : Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking Of the American Consensus By Rick Perlstein (Stanley I. Kutler, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Before the Storm : Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus By Rick Perlstein (Steve Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW : Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein (Alvin S. Felzenberg, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of BEFORE THE STORM: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus By Rick Perlstein ( Richard S. Dunham, Business Week)
    -REVIEW : of  BEFORE THE STORM Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus; By Rick Perlstein (BILL BOYARSKY, LA Times)

    -ESSAY : Conspiracies: Imagined and Real (Thomas S. Garlinghouse,
    -REVIEW:  I.F. Stone: Party of the Rich and Well-Born, NY Review of Books
        Fall from Grace: The Republican Party and the Puritan Ethic by Milton Viorst
        The Republican Party 1854-1966 by George H. Mayer
    -ESSAYS: Right in the 60's (The American Enterprise)
    -DISCUSSION: PARTY GAMES (MARCH 14, 1996, The Newshour, PBS)
    -ESSAY: The Other Vietnam Generation (Douglas Brinkley, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah  A CHARGE TO KEEP; By George W. Bush and Karen Hughes (ZACHARY KARABELL, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern Conservatism By Jonathan Schoenwald (Franklin Foer, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism by Jonathan M. Schoenwald  (Brian Doherty, Washington Post)