Jeff Flake
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Reading that Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has penned a reprise, of sorts, of his predecessor Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative got me thinking about a variety of things and sent me off on a little Googling adventure. One place I landed was on an old essay on Goldwater written by Louis Menand for the New Yorker in 2001. There are several elements in this essay that have extra saliency in light of the election results of November 2016.

Technically, this article is a book review of Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, but it doesn’t in any way restrict itself to a treatment of Perlstein’s work.

This first excerpt is interesting because it shows the similarities and crucial differences between Goldwater and Trump, while also reminding us that the Washington establishment changes very little over time.

Goldwater was an enemy of the establishment. That term was coined by another eminent British journalist who covered American politics, Henry Fairlie. Fairlie first used it to refer to the network of power brokers in English life, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the editor of the T.LS. In America, it came to refer to the suits—the Washington lawyers, the New York bankers, and the university presidents, along with their academic and journalistic epigones—upon whose wisdom elected officials were accustomed to rely, and without whose approbation no public policy could be expected to succeed. The great virtue of this group from the late nineteen-forties through the early nineteen-sixties was also its prime vulnerability: it believed itself to be above partisanship and self-interest. Its watchword was “consensus,” and its instrument was the federal bureaucracy, whose vast resources it undertook to direct in a pragmatic manner conducive to the welfare of all. The establishment was liberal in the sense that it believed in the power of government to solve social problems and improve the quality of life. But it was deeply vested in the status quo as well. Its members had no inclination to question the assumptions of a social and economic dispensation of which they were the most privileged products.

Goldwater’s hatred of the establishment and its workings was, at its deepest level, not very different from the New Left’s and the counterculture’s: he believed that top-down managerial liberalism was a threat to individual autonomy, and he despised the notion that ideology didn’t matter. He would not have put it quite this way, but he was haunted by the same spectre that has haunted many other critics of the liberal welfare state: the spectre of soul death. Like Holden Caulfield, Mario Savio, Bob Dylan, Gloria Steinem, Malcolm X, Randle McMurphy, Captain America and Billy—like almost any iconic figure of the era you can name—Goldwater just didn’t like being told what to do.

It’s one of the reasons he was such a terrible candidate. The more he alienated his audiences, the more certain he became that he was on the right track. He had no great personal ambition to be President; he saw himself as the spokesman for a set of principles, and he had little interest in bending them to suit the wishes of even his admirers.

It’s an important insight that Goldwater became associated with a kind of desperate reactionary effort to preserve the status quo (a reputation earned by his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his subsequent victories in the Deep South), but was also in fact pursuing another angle on a more general anti-establishment revolt. In some sense, Goldwater pursued a Honey Badger strategy of saying whatever he wanted with little regard for the politics. It’s this habit that reminds us of Donald Trump, along with the establishment targets of his ire. The difference is that Goldwater had a deep set of principles, while President Trump does not.

And the next excerpt might help explain why Trump won and Goldwater was crushed:

Still, the tragedy of Barry Goldwater is also, in a sense, the tragedy of American conservatism, even in its moments of triumph. Goldwater’s mistake was to believe that he could run for President on a program of political abstractions. People don’t vote for abstractions. They vote their hopes and their fears, and they tend to see those in concrete terms. Twentieth-century American conservatism of the kind that Goldwater represented is the view that individuals, businesses, and local communities should have more control over their own destinies, and should not be subject to the bureaucratic dictates of a central government. As a proposition in political philosophy, there is no doubt much to be said for this view. Its appeal as a piece of campaign rhetoric obviously has everything to do with which bureaucratic dictates voters think you are talking about. What Goldwater discovered was that, in 1964, the philosophical language of conservatism was read by many voters as code for resistance to forced integration, and in the end he could not disentangle himself from an alliance that he had not desired. Many conservatives have found themselves in the same box. A political philosophy is not going to get very far without voters. As Goldwater observed, in politics you have to hunt where the ducks are. Most ducks are not interested in philosophy.

Goldwater’s comments about hunting ducks was in reference to the then-existing habit of Republicans to court the black vote, especially in the South, since the Democratic Party there was so clearly hostile to their interests. Goldwater was saying that southern whites were naturally conservative and a richer vein to tap. It was advice that Richard Nixon intuitively understood and pursued with vigor, and the success of this strategy explains pretty much everything that came after for the conservative movement, including both its successes and its failures. Goldwater wasn’t a segregationist but he did quickly find that segregationists were drawn to elements of his philosophy like no other interest group. Nixon was eager to entangle himself in the moral quagmire. Reagan brought in the post-Roe evangelical right, consolidated the Wallace Democrats and won two landslide victories.

Looking at what Sen. Jeff Flake says went wrong with the conservative movement is instructive here.

This is a long time in coming. I got here in Washington in 2001. … And we got [President George W. Bush’s education overhaul law] No Child Left Behind, which was, I thought, big federal overreach into local education policy. And then we got the prescription drug benefit, which added about $7 trillion in unfunded liabilities. I didn’t think that was a very conservative thing to do.

When we couldn’t argue that we were the party of limited government anymore, then that forced us into issues like flag burning or trying to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, things that we wouldn’t have done otherwise if we would have been arguing about true principles of limited government or spending.

George W. Bush understood that Goldwater conservatism was too abstract and lifeless and frankly cold-hearted, which is why he and Karl Rove pitched a new “compassionate” conservatism. Part of that compassion was an actual commitment (however misguided in their implementation) to public education and a desire to make sure that seniors have access to life-saving and life-extending prescription drugs. For Sen. Flake, these were deviations from conservative principles. Once abandoned, the party was left to appeal to the religious right, jingoism, and (although unstated) white racial resentment.

But this is a bad misreading of history. These disparate elements of modern conservatism confounded Goldwater from the beginning. They were woven together by Nixon and expanded by Reagan. And even as George W. Bush abandoned some of the more libertarian elements (both domestically and in foreign affairs), he also considered his father’s electoral defeat largely in terms of his failure to sufficiently bind the racists and the religious right to his bosom. Poppy Bush had broken his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes, but he had also invited a Buchananite cultural values revolt. Dubya sought to head both threats off at the pass by making tax cuts his first priority and insisting that Jesus Christ was his favorite political philosopher. The Terri Schiavo case should also be considered in this context, along with his creation of an Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

This wasn’t a deviation from principle on Bush’s part. It was a carefully considered exercise in coalition building. Bush didn’t actually win the election in 2000, but he came close enough. And he could not have come so close without his pandering to the religious right or his tax-cutting promises or his efforts to soften the hard edges of Gingrich’s brand of conservatism.

What Trump did differently was dial down the pretense of compassion and dial up the racial resentment and religious insecurity. It turned out that that these things could be adjusted and still even out in the end. But what really worked for Trump was his full-throated attack on the establishment. The more he insulted the Republican leaders and the media and the elite’s cultural expectations of decency, the better he performed in the primaries. And it worked just well enough in the general election to win in the areas he needed to win.

What I’d say to Sen. Flake is that it’s true that Trump is an abomination but the solution to Trump is not going to be found by tinkering with the dials so that there is less boorishness and anti-intellectualism and more attacks on the federal bureaucracy. Trump is extreme and in many ways unrepresentative of the conservatism that has come down to us from Goldwater, but the sin of modern conservatism was there from its inception. It was there with Goldwater’s biggest backer, William F. Buckley, making excuses from Jim Crow based on white supremacy in the pages of the National Review. It was there when Robert Bork and William Rehnquist convinced Goldwater that he had to oppose the Civil Rights Act on constitutional grounds despite his instinctual distaste for racial politics.

Sen. Flake wants to know how things got so bad for the Republican Party, but they’ve been bad. At the root of this is the problem Goldwater faced at the outset, which is that his limited government ideology had limited appeal as a bloodless political philosophy and could only gain power by being wedded to a politics of grievance and resentment.

Mississippi was about as Democratic a state as you could find when Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act. In November 1964, Mississippi gave the Republican Goldwater eighty-seven percent of their votes. That’s where the entangling began, and everything since then for the conservative movement has just been a postscript.

It’s true, as Louis Menand wrote in 2001, that the idea that “local communities should have more control over their own destinies” has a lot of merit. What it doesn’t have and has never had is enough intrinsic appeal to overcome politically the people’s desire for a robust federal government without making common cause with racists and religious fundamentalists.

Flake is right to bemoan this situation but incorrect to think that Trump represents a true break or that the elements that make up the conservative coalition can ever prevail without each other. What Trump does signal, though, is that as the Republicans continue to lose greater and greater percentages of the non-white vote, the only solution for them is to gain more of the white vote. And Trump showed how to accomplish this, to his everlasting shame.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at