Goldwater’s Ghost

Today’s fun but thought-provoking read is Marc Fisher’s analysis for WaPo of the rightward drift–or perhaps “lurch” is the more accurate term, in Republican Party platforms over the last few decades.

Even though I knew a lot about the changes in the GOP during my lifetime, I was still startled by these reminders of GOP moderation–or even liberalism–in the not-so-distant past:

For decades, the party presented itself as “moderate” or even “progressive.” The 1960 platform, for example, touts “progressive Republican policies” such as “liberal pay” and urges that government “must be truly progressive as an employer….” [Also] in 1960, Republicans give “firm support” to “the union shop and other forms of union security” and say “Republican conscience and Republican policy require that the annual number of immigrants we accept be at least doubled.”

In 1972, the platform celebrates Republicans’ use of wage and price controls to curb inflation, a doubling of federal spending on manpower training and a tripling of help to minorities….

Abortion’s first appearance represents a party very much split between business-oriented moderates and religious conservatives: Abortion “is undoubtedly a moral and personal issue” on which Republicans disagree, the 1976 platform says.

Fisher cites the 1980 and 1992 platforms as representing the most dramatic shifts to the right. In the former year, the ambivalence about abortion is replaced by support for a Human Life Amendment; the ancient endorsement of an Equal Rights Amendment disappears; and the platform is loaded with references to religion. 1992 ushered in the totemic opposition to any sort of tax increase.

But what’s interesting is that the real “wave of the future” in Republican platforms was the 1964 document that was adopted by the convention that nominated Barry Goldwater:

The optimism of 1960, brimming with hope about new nations, weapons and ideas, gives way four years later to worry about “moral decline and drift” born of “indifference to national ideals rounded in devoutly held religious faith.”

Suddenly, faith is at the core of Republicanism: The 1960 platform says nothing about religion; four years later, “faith” is one of the most frequently used words, along with “heritage” and “freedom.”

In 1960, the platform calls for “vigorous support of court orders for school desegregation” and affirms the rights of civil rights protesters. The 1964 platform calls for “discouraging lawlessness and violence” and “opposing federally-sponsored ‘inverse discrimination.’”

The shift in substance comes with a notable pivot in tone. From the 1960 platform: “We have no wish to exaggerate differences between ourselves and the Democratic Party.” Four years later: “Let the Democratic Party stand accused.”

I’ve argued for a good while now that the most important precedent for today’s Republicans is not so much Reagan’s 1980 repositioning of the GOP as a straightforwardly conservative party, but Goldwater’s 1964 uprising calling for a virtual national counter-revolution against the New Deal, the Great Society, and federal civil rights legislation. In many respects, the GOP is just now getting back to Goldwater’s vision of the party as standing for rigidly fixed “constitutional” limitations on the size, shape and purpose of government, linked to an explicitly religious sense of “American exceptionalism” that proudly rejects the examples of any other nation or any other human experience, and a happy championship of absolute property rights free from regulation or redistribution. Because Goldwater lost the general election so disastrously (and also because of his vocal late-life hostility to the Christian Right), he does not receive the hagiographical treatment accorded Reagan, whose actual policies would put him into serious RINO territory if offered today. But Barry’s ghost, and the echoes of his defiant boast that “extermism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” are definitely present in Tampa.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.