Progressives for Goldwater?


I'd meant to say something about last week's debate at Campus Progress over Barry Goldwater, with my friend Dana Goldstein defending her soft spot for the late Arizona senator and Brown student Justin Elliott ridiculing the idea that Goldwater's legacy contains anything for progressives to admire.

I tend to think they both rather miss the mark. Dana, who wants to celebrate Goldwater's secular vision of politics and support for reproductive rights, manages to brush off both his hawkishness and his strident support of limited government in a two-sentence "to be sure" in which she concedes "there's no excuse at all for his reactionary stance on civil rights, or his opposition to New Deal programs such as Social Security and welfare." As a purely stylistic matter, there's something a bit galling about seeing a coherent, principled theory of the proper role of the state, whether one agrees with it or not, dismissed in the kind of language one might use to chastise a toddler for finger-painting on the wall. More to the point, it skews what was central to Goldwater's politics and legacy, both in terms of his influence and how he himself probably would've conceived it. If Hitler had been a tireless crusader for animal welfare who happened to hold some appalling anti-Semitic views, you might reasonably be willing to consider him an OK fellow on net anyway; given the actual history, I'm not sure how much credit he ought to get for being a vegetarian who loved dogs on top of the whole Holocaust thing.

But Justin Elliott gets it at least as backward. First, he seems to think that the retrospective evaluations of a variety of folk from across the political spectrum are only apt to confuse things. Instead, he chooses to cut and paste huge chunks of a hit piece on Goldwater written by socialist journalist I.F. Stone in the heat of the '64 presidential campaign. One of these shows up in Elliott's multi-paragraph denunciation of Goldwater's cowboyish sartorial style, which I suppose he can be forgiven for dwelling on, if only because it's one of the few ways his claim that modern Republicans are "very much the heirs of Goldwater" pans out at all. Actually, as Ezra Klein notes, progressives less focused on cultural issues (where's Thomas Frank when you need him?) might notice that contemporary big-government conservativism (the source of so much dissatisfaction among the actual intellectual heirs of Goldwater) is much closer to their own view on the fundamentals than the Goldwater strain: The fierceness of the tactical dispute over the best methods by which an activist federal government should solve all social ills may, more than anything else, reflect the narcissism of small differences. [x-posted @ NftL]