Conservatives Without Conscience

There’s been an attempt on the part of old-style conservatives to resurrect the memory and recover the reputation of Senator Barry Goldwater. There was a documentary made last year with the cooperation of his family. I’ve been listening to the unabridged book on tape version of John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience. Dean roomed with Goldwater’s son in college, was friends with the Senator for decades, and initiallly expected Goldwater to co-author this book, in which Dean claims Goldwater as a model of conservatism’s better past.

I’ve been thinking along these lines myself, particularly like Dean, comparing the civil and educated discourse of a Goldwater, or even moreso, William F. Buckley, with the screaming clowns on Fox News today. Dean is actually downright funny when he writes about the cottage industry arising from fact-checking the Blond Who Must Not Be Named.

So I’m on the plane to Seattle listening and nodding to Dean’s call for a more civil and even possibly intellectually honest brand of conservatism when it is time to take off the headphones and return the seat backs and tray tables etc. So I put away John Dean and pull out this academic article on Richard Hofstadter, the historian and author of the seminal “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” (I know, I know. I’m making all you “intelligence is an aphrodisiac” boys totally hot right now. Moving on.) In the article is this little gem on Hofstadter’s opinion of Goldwater:

The Sun Belt conservatism of the 1960’s discovered in the iconic Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater a symbol of the frontier individualism it prized, a foe of the welfare state it loathed, and a hawk determined to roll back rather than contain international communism. The nature of this new conservatism seemed to Hofstadter far removed from the Republican policies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and he emphasized how litte it shared with its putative ancestor.”

John Dean rightly (no pun intended) portrays looking to the past as a better place, seeking a return to earlier values, as one of the hallmarks of conservatism. As it ever was, for many of Goldwater’s contemporaries, especially those known as “Rockefeller Republicans,” Barry Goldwater was a radical and unwelcome departure from an earlier and better politics.

As a left-wing blogger I have to praise Dean and some others for wanting conservatives to have a conscience, though I suspect even Dean would agree that it’s probably too late. Rupert Murdoch ironically has consciously destroyed the kinder gentler and indeed, pedigreed conservatism of John Dean and I would even argue Bush 41, in the name of anti-liberalism, television ratings, and a desire to appeal to the unsophisticated masses. But I also regret that in defense of his definitively conservative call for a return to a better form of politics, lionizing Barry Goldwater is the best Dean can do.

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