Commentary Magazine


Goldwater-The Romantic Regression

While talking to Senator Goldwater in September 1963—questioning him, arguing with him, sizing him up—I could not banish from my mind the memory of a similar encounter I had with Senator Taft in June 1952, a few weeks before the Republican Convention rejected his bid for the Presidential nomination. I was struck by the resemblance between their modes of thought—a resemblance that was made only the more striking by the obvious intellectual superiority of the late Senator from Ohio. And I remember thinking when I left Senator Taft that I had never met anyone so intelligent and responsible who was yet able to contradict himself so often within the span of a half hour without ever being aware of it. Senator Goldwater is endowed with the same ability.

We must take a stronger stand against the Soviet Union—Senator Taft told me—but we must reduce our military commitments in Europe. We must win victory over, rather than contain, Communism—Senator Goldwater told me—but we must reduce the expenditures of the federal government. Neither man could be said to be so lacking in reasoning power as not to see these and similar contradictions if pointed out to him; and Senator Goldwater admitted them readily when I did so. Why, then, is it that such an admission remains nothing more than a lucid interval in a mind for which contradictions like these are the daily bread of intellectual discourse, the conceptual schemes that reality is perceived through and is supposed to be acted upon? The answer must be sought in the romantic character of both men and, indeed, of the main body of Republican thought.

The political romantic is the obverse of the political reformer. He is, as it were, a backward-looking reformer, a “prophète du passé,” “laudator temporis acti.” The reformer endeavors to bridge the gap between reality and a moral and rational ideal not yet achieved by transforming reality in the light of that ideal. The political romantic carries within himself the picture of a glorious past, fancied or real or both, of a golden age once achieved by ancestral virtue and despoiled by contemporary vice, of a political paradise once possessed and now lost. This picture provides the romantic with the standards for political judgment, the goals for political action, the arguments and imagery of political rhetoric. The past was great and simple; the present is complexity, decline, and decadence; the future will be great and simple again by being like the past. For the political romantic the ideal does not exist, as it does for the reformer, in the rational and moral imagination, to be realized de novo by hazardous and precarious effort. Rather it exists in the historic recollection of a state once attained and that is hence attainable again with relative ease and without undue risks merely by doing what was done before. For the political romantic, then, progress is tantamount to restoration.

Political romanticism is not identical with conservatism. Romanticism is certainly a powerful disposition in American politics; so, too, is a conservatism of philosophy and method. A conservatism of purpose, however, is not. The neglect of this dual distinction between romanticism and conservatism, and between the two different kinds of conservatism, has caused considerable confusion. Thus Goldwater calls himself a conservative and is actually a romantic who has recently turned conservative only by force of circumstance and in a partial sense through having become the champion of the segregationists. The National Review calls itself a conservative journal and actually plays on the American political scene the same romantic and inconsequential role as the Action Française, the organ of the royalists, played in the French Third Republic.

A conservatism of philosophy and method is intrinsic to the American political tradition. The Federalist is its greatest literary monument, Alexander Hamilton is its greatest theoretician, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln are in different ways its greatest practitioners. This kind of conservatism holds that the imperfections of the world as seen from the rational point of view are the result of forces inherent in human nature. To improve the world, one must work with these forces, not against them. The world being by nature made up of conflicting interests, abstract principles can never be fully realized; they can at best be approximated through the ever temporary balancing of interests and the ever precarious settlement of conflicts. This kind of conservatism, then, sees in a system of checks and balances a universal principle for all pluralist societies. It appeals to historic precedent rather than abstract doctrine and aims at the realization of the lesser evil rather than of the absolute good.

The conservative view of the purposes of politics, on the other hand, endows the status quo with a special dignity and seeks to maintain and improve it. This kind of conservatism has its natural political environment in Europe; it has no place in the American tradition of politics. Europe, in contrast to America, has known classes, determined by heredity or otherwise sharply and permanently defined in composition and social status, which have had a legitimate stake in defending the status quo. But for the defense of what status quo could the American conservative have fought? The great majority of Americans—as opposed to the states of the Confederacy and other special interests, such as the contemporary concentrations of private power—have never experienced a status quo to whose preservation they could have devoted themselves. For America has been committed to a purpose in the eyes of which the status quo has always been but a steppingstone to a new achievement, a new status quo to be left behind by yet another new achievement. The very dynamics of American society are thus incompatible with a conservative position regarding the purposes of politics.

The great issues of American politics concern not the preservation of the present, but the creation of the future. American politics does not set the past and present against the future; rather it sets one kind of future against another kind of future. While, in philosophy and method, conservatism is the most potent single influence in American politics, the purposes of our politics from the very beginning have been unique and revolutionary, not only within narrowly political terms, but also in the more general sense of being oblivious to tradition. Thus—with certain temporary exceptions—the political programs of both our major parties have favored changes in the domestic status quo; for only with such a program could they have hoped to appeal to the voters. We have had no conservative political party because the number of conservative voters has never been sufficient to support one on the national scale. We have only had conservative minorities, which have been limited to trying, through obstruction and subterfuge, to prevent change or at least to slow it up.1

This analysis enables us to assess the function that Goldwater's candidacy is performing for the Republican party and for the nation. That function grows out of three distinct factors: the continuity of the romantic disposition as the dominant mood of the Republican party from Taft to Goldwater; the novelty of a conservative position through Goldwater's identification with segregationism; and the appearance—as a result of that identification and of Goldwater's charisma—of a romantic-conservative activism.

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The liberal republican opposition to Goldwater, and the newspapers and columnists sympathizing with it, have made it appear that Goldwater has imposed an alien conservative philosophy upon an unwilling Republican party which he has been able to dominate. This is a myth. Goldwater's Congressional voting record shows conclusively the harmony between his positions and those of the Republican members of Congress. And, indeed, his political philosophy-individualism, free enterprise, states' rights, a weak federal government, a balanced budget, reduced taxes, victory over Communism, American omnipotence abroad either through isolation or domination—moves in the mainstream of Republican thought. Even if Dewey and Nixon did not share this (or any other) philosophy, they used it; as cold-blooded operators they could pay lip-service to any philosophy. However, Taft and Eisenhower certainly shared it. The contest between Eisenhower and Taft in 1952 was not a contest between two rival philosophies, but between two individuals; and the Republican Convention did not choose Eisenhower over Taft because it preferred his political philosophy, but because it preferred the certainty of victory. On the other hand, the contest between Scranton and Goldwater was bound to be a contest between philosophies; for while Scranton argued that Goldwater could not win, he had no arguments to show that he himself could. Unable to promise the Republicans victory, he could offer them only a philosophy—and it was one they did not want. Reduced to being the champion of liberal Republicanism against Goldwater's romanticism, he was doomed from the outset.

The continuity between Eisenhower and Goldwater is striking both on the philosophic and personal levels. To be sure, Eisenhower's romanticism—the simple virtues of the small town, free enterprise, reduction of federal power, a balanced budget, a moralistic conception of foreign policy—was mitigated by vagueness and rendered relatively innocuous by indolence and by a desire for domestic and international peace. Yet Eisenhower's understanding of reality, and his vision of the world to be created by political action—or the lack of it—are essentially those of Goldwater.

For example, Goldwater advocates an aggressive foreign policy which will keep our allies in line and ultimately lead to victory over Communism, and he has at least played with the idea of using atomic weapons in Vietnam. But who was it in the 50's who advocated brinksmanship, massive retaliation, the liberation of Eastern Europe, the unleashing of Chiang Kai-shek, an agonizing reappraisal of our relations with Europe, the “new look,” and intervention in Indochina with atomic weapons? John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's Secretary of State. Or again; no man could have been more fervently dedicated to balancing the budget and curtailing the activities of the federal government than George Humphrey, who was Eisenhower's Secretary of the Treasury from 1953-7. And Humphrey is now one of Goldwater's most influential supporters.

The Republican party dominated by Goldwater has refused to condemn the John Birch Society, whose president once identified Eisenhower with the Communist conspiracy. But who in October 1952 eliminated from a speech a laudatory reference to General George Marshall, the very incarnation of the American virtues, in order to please Joseph McCarthy, who had denounced Marshall as a traitor? General Eisenhower, who was, to boot, General Marshall's protégé. Eisenhower's silence was but the most eloquent manifestation of the sway which McCarthyism, a kind of primitive and unorganized Birchism, held over the Republican party—and, alas, not only over it. Ezra Taft Benson, Secretary of Agriculture during the two Eisenhower administrations, has denied being a member of the Birch Society but shares its philosophy. Edward A. McCabe, who was associate counsel and administrative assistant to President Eisenhower, was Gold-water's research director during the primary campaign and is one of his closest advisers. William E. Miller who, according to the New York Times, is “in complete consonance with Senator Goldwater,” provides the personal link between the Eisenhower and Goldwater eras; having been the chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1961-64, he has now been chosen by Goldwater as his running-mate.

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While the widely held opinion of a rift between Goldwater's philosophy and the traditional philosophy of the Republican party is thus a legend, there does in fact exist a cleavage between Goldwater and the Republican tradition that is pregnant with drastic consequences for the country should he be elected. What separates Goldwater from the Republican statesmen of the recent past is not his philosophy, but the positive relationship he appears to be willing to establish between that philosophy and political action. His immediate predecessors as leaders of the Republican party, romantic though they might have been, were no fools. When their romantic philosophy came up against the hard facts of political life, it was the facts that won out. Dulles might orate about allowing Chiang Kai-shek to invade the mainland, or about liberating Eastern Europe, or about hitting the Soviet Union with atomic weapons on the occasions and at the places of our choosing. But when opportunity beckoned, as on the occasion of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, his passivity was total, and when the chips were down, even with the brink nowhere in sight, as at Suez in the same year, he forced our allies to retreat. Similarly, Humphrey reduced expenditures for economic and social purposes to a minimum, thus causing recessions, but he did not balance the budget. Such contrasts between programmatic pronouncements and actual policies receded from public view in the haze of Eisenhower's amorphous benevolence.

Goldwater is of a different breed. He is an honest man, and he gives at least the impression of being a determined man. Not only does he firmly believe in what he says, but he also appears to have the resolve to put into practice what he believes, come hell or high water. He believes in the political potency of strong action inspired by good intentions. His predecessors failed because they did not believe firmly enough and did not try hard enough. If stubborn facts seem to stand in the way of successful action, too bad for the facts. Don Quixote has mounted Rosinante and is at last ready to give battle.

Here is the source both of the enthusiasm Goldwater evokes in his followers, and of the dismay with which his Republican opponents regard him. His followers are unsophisticated enough to think that the modern world has come upon us at best through the deficiencies of a succession of misguided governments, and at worst through their conspiratorial connivance with the forces of evil. What is needed to set things right is a good and determined man, and Goldwater—whose charisma communicates itself to the individual visitor no less than to the crowds—seems to be such a man. This charismatic quality sets Goldwater apart from his predecessors. Eisenhower's charisma was not primarily a quality of his person but a function of the memory of his historic role, real or fancied. And whatever assets Dewey and Nixon may vaunt, charisma is certainly not one of them.

The very same apparent determination to narrow the gap between a romantic philosophy and an obstreperous reality that elates Goldwater's followers is also what frightens his pragmatic Republican opponents. These pragmatic Republicans may bow to Goldwater's verbal picture of the lost paradise to be restored, but in practical terms they are perfectly content with the status quo. (Indeed, it is exactly this contentment with things as they are which affords them the luxury to indulge in ideological daydreams about things as they have been and ought to be.) A corporate executive may inveigh against government interference, but he does so in the knowledge that his company spends more federal funds annually than, say, the U.S. Department of Labor; if anything, he wants to get the federal government more, not less, deeply involved in the private sector. He is certainly afraid of Communism and wants it defeated, but not at the risk of blowing himself up. For him, Goldwater's philosophy is like the Golden Rule, to be applauded on Sunday and to be quoted during the week on appropriate occasions; but let no man think that it has a place in the office on Monday morning. He takes politicians who promise heaven on earth in his stride; but he is too practical to have any use for a politician who threatens to upset the applecart by making good on his promises. Both Goldwater's Republican opponents and his adherents listen to his voice as to the prophet's, promising salvation. The opponents can applaud the prophet while dismissing his message, but the adherents expect the prophet to transform reality in the image of his message and look upon themselves as so many apostles of salvation.

This tendency toward activism, which is fostered by Goldwater's personality, has also been powerfully reinforced by the objective conditions' under which he is competing for the Presidency of the United States. For a genuine conservative position of the kind that is exceptional in American history has now crystallized—the position of the segregationists, North and South. Here is indeed a group that has a stake in the status quo, that has a political, social, and economic position to defend against change and is resolved to defend it. Goldwater has become the champion of that group. The traditional romanticism of the Republican party is now being fused with the conservatism—old in the South, new in the North—of the segregationists. A romantic tenet, such as states' rights, which in the past was nothing more than a specious incantation, has now taken on concrete political significance in that it provides both Governor Wallace and Goldwater with a weapon for the protection of the segregationist position. For the first time, the romanticism of the Republican party has a concrete political cause for which it can fight, not merely from the rostrums, but from the barricades and from the White House. This is the novelty of our situation. Goldwater's political romanticism tending toward action has converged with a conservatism requiring action. And that is what makes his candidacy so portentous and ominous an event in the history of our country.

Romanticism has been the curse of the Republican party since 1932—Eisenhower's victories were but accidents without consequence in the history of the Republican party—and activist romanticism is bound to be a greater curse still. If Goldwater were nothing but an activist romantic, he would be bound to go down to resounding defeat in November; for there are not enough voters who will risk acting their romantic daydreams out. But Goldwater is also the champion of segregationist conservatism, and here one must distinguish between the old conservatism of the South and the new one of the North. Even if one were to add the old conservatives of the South to the traditional romantics of the Republican party and deduct the pragmatic Republicans deterred by Goldwater's activism, Goldwater could not win. The great unknown in the equation, however, are the new conservatives of the North. To them Goldwater offers himself as the savior of America from social change. His chances in November will hang upon the number of Northern Democrats and habitual non-voters who feel the need to be saved strongly enough, and believe strongly enough he is the man to save them, to vote for him. How large is that group? It is certainly larger than the number of Republicans who will be deterred by Goldwater's activism. But how large is it likely to be in terms of electoral votes? Nobody knows. More particularly, the pollsters do not know, for they cannot identify the number of habitual non-voters who might be sufficiently aroused this time to vote for Goldwater; nor can they isolate the prospective conservatives of the North from the rest of the voting population. It is upon the answer to this question of the size of the new Northern conservative vote that the future of Goldwater, of the Republican party, and of the nation, depends.

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If Goldwater should win, the stubbornness of the facts is bound to restrain his romantic activism, and so will his innate democratic decency. Yet it is exactly this unwitting decency which makes him the natural prey of people less decent than himself. There looms, then, the specter of a victorious Republican party taken over by romantic and conservative activists, and pulled by its own dynamics toward a fascist position. For neither romantic restoration nor conservative preservation is attainable within the limits of the democratic consensus. If they are to be attained, they must be attained by violence.

If Goldwater should lose, the Republican party he will leave behind will no longer be a viable alternative to the party in power. As dominated by the activists, it would stand outside the democratic consensus, a threat to the democratic order but not to the party in power. If the romantic pragmatists were to recover control, it would have no other claim to power but to assert that what the party in power was doing it could do better. In either case, we would find ourselves in a condition similar to that which prevails in Germany, France, and the Scandinavian countries: we would have a two-party system in which one party governs in virtual perpetuity, short of crises or scandals of extraordinary proportions. Thus whatever happens, this promises to be an election memorable in the annals of the nation.


Footnotes

1 For a fuller discussion, see my book, The Purpose of American Politics (Knopf, 1960; Vintage, 1964).

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