Monday, March 08, 2004

In Your Guts You Know They're Nuts
I am reading a book called The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964 by journalist Jon Margolis. One of the early themes of the book is how from the New Deal through the New Frontier, leaders of both political parties tended to agree on the general shape and function of the federal government, even as they disagreed over the precise way to operate the levers of government. As we know, and as Margolis effectively narrates, that bipartisan consensus would begin to unravel in 1964, as the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party began its rise. These Republicans argued for a dramatic dismantling of the New Deal at home and a more aggressive foreign policy abroad--defeating communism instead of just containing it. While they were opposed to government regulation, they were happy to benefit from government largesse, especially from utility projects in the west. Many of them were also opposed to the civil rights movement, which was gaining significant steam in 1964. Goldwater tended to oppose civil rights legislation on states' rights grounds--he saw the government as having no role in telling individuals who they had to associate with. He was not an overt racist--although some of his supporters were. Once George Wallace's brief campaign for the Democratic nomination came to an end, many of his supporters migrated to Goldwater. In fact, the officially elected Mississippi delegation to the Democratic convention was on record endorsing Goldwater for president rather than LBJ, and the Wallace people made overtures to Goldwater about picking the Alabama governor as his running mate. (Extra credit if you know who Goldwater eventually picked.)

But Margolis notes that for all of their ideological differences from the mainstream consensus, something else distinguished the conservatives of 1964 from any Republicans that had ever come before. Narrating the delegates' response to a speech by Goldwater's arch-rival for the nomination, the liberal Nelson Rockefeller, Margolis describes the booing Rockefeller got as "animal, an outpouring of frustration and resentment by people whose politics were driven by resentment." The delegates' responses to speeches by Dwight Eisenhower and Goldwater himself did as much to contribute to the party's defeat as anything Goldwater (or LBJ) did. In contrast to Goldwater's famous slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right," millions of Americans thought the Goldwaterites were nuts.

Elsewhere in the book, Margolis quotes Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, who misquoted the French author Victor Hugo in announcing he would vote to end the record-setting filibuster Southern senators were holding against the Civil Rights Act. "No army is stronger than an idea whose time has come," said Dirksen. (Hugo actually said, "No stand can be made against invasion by an idea.") The same quote can be applied to conservatism of the Goldwater variety. Its time would come, but not in 1964. And it occurs to me that the standard narrative of conservative history may be up for revision depending upon the outcome of the 2004 election. The conventional wisdom has the Goldwater wing triumphant in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, although if Bush is reelected, it is likely to be him and not Reagan who is seen as the culmination of the Goldwater movement--the ultimate victory of the politics of resentment.

If ever there was something that should have been strangled in its cradle, that was it. In our defense, we thought we did. That we didn't might be the greatest misfortune of that last innocent year.

Note to all: I usually work at home, but I'm traveling quite a bit these days, so posts are liable to be somewhat infrequent here until next Monday, just as they've been since last Friday. To get your fix of worthwhile stuff in my absence, click any entry under "Good Blogs" on the right side of this page.

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