Goldwater Redux

GOLDWATER REDUX….Rick Perlstein emails some thoughts about Barry Goldwater, the birth of modern conservatism, and the transformation of modern liberalism ? all inspired by the blog discussion that’s been going on over the past week about his book Before the Storm.

Previous discussion from DeLong, Drum, Yglesias, Waldman, Yglesias again, Schmitt, and Kilgore. Here is Rick’s email:


I’ve finally figured out a way to elegantly get at what is missing from the discussion of my Goldwater book, speaking now as a historian ? without getting bogged down in the complexities of the story I’ll be telling in the sequel, which I hope to finish this fall, for publication in 2006.

It comes down to this: In the period I was writing about, “liberalism” was synonymous with the expansion of liberalism’s vision and influence, the creation of new programs that no one had even thought of yet. The word had nothing much to do with “preserving” New Deal programs, or even improving and/or strengthening them. If it wasn’t about expanding its frontiers to new social realms, it wasn’t called “liberalism.” And if you weren’t into expanding the New Deal’s domain, you weren’t called a “liberal.” Expansion was central to the concept.

Now, right here and now, you may or may not yourself believe that the kind of things the New Deal did should be expanded to new frontiers. But the crucial point to grasp ? the historical shift ? is that if you don’t believe that the New Deal project should be expanded, you aren’t a “liberal” in the sense the word meant before the forces Goldwater represented began flexing their muscles in the mid 1960s. Though you may still call yourself a liberal. Which may mean that the word itself, “liberal,” has changed meaning, and the thing it refers to is not as far to the left as the thing it used to refer to.

This is a bedrock shift in the geological narrative I’m laying out, slowly, slowly ? but this point is one of its foundations, and one’s understanding of this point (if not one’s opinion about the lessons for Democrats today, which the book leaves intentionally vague) should definitely come out in the text.

?Rick Perlstein