A Lost Conservatism: America's Future


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I regret having to write this article. So here I go...

Just a few miles south of San Francisco delegates and patriotic Americans on one July night were assembling fifty-four years ago to nominate their candidate for President that year. The man they would nominate never stood a chance at becoming President. The man they would nominate had been labeled outrageous and who would even start WWIII through means of nuclear weapons. But little did the delegates in that hall know was that their candidate would father the American conservative movement forever and fascinate a generation of American conservatives. It would be the junior Senator from Arizona - Barry Goldwater. He offered a choice to those Americans rather than an echo that year in 1964. The other men running for President were moderate Republican Governors George Romney of Michigan and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Goldwater knew he was going to lose and that the country wouldn’t be able to handle three Presidents in three years in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The man Goldwater wanted to run against in ’64 of whom he deeply respected and admired.

As it became surreal that Goldwater would lead the party into the general election many delegates stormed out of the convention horrified. A reporter even threw himself back in his seat while watching Goldwater accept the nomination of his party and exclaim “My god! He’s going to run as Goldwater!” after Goldwater said the most famous line of his speech, “May I remind you extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”.

However, Goldwater was crushed losing forty-four states in the election, but a movement began in that very moment. A moment when the Republican Party felt shattered, splintered, and defeated. Many said conservatism was officially dead as a result of the election. But instead a new generation of conservatives was born. Goldwater was an outspoken critic of communism, a critic of the New Deal, of Vietnam, and the corruption of Washington. He voted against censuring Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (even though he had supported every other civil rights legislation before that) due to two provisions he deemed unconstitutional. Goldwater was a principled conservative second and an American first. He knew who he was.

Notice what I just said - Goldwater was a "principled conservative". So that begs the question what then is a "principled conservative"?. Goldwater firmly believed in limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, less taxes, and a strong national defense. In order to understand what this means we need to understand each principle. First, Goldwater believed in what the founders believed in. It was that the government has limitations and that the government does not grant you rights. It serves to protect your rights from the government. And that individual liberty is afforded to every individual. That’s what made America different from the rest of the world. It was that no ruler or monarch granted you your rights or your liberty. You are born with natural inalienable rights. These rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That once the government abridges these rights all freedom is jeopardized. Second, Goldwater believed in the power of the free enterprise system. He understood that the government shouldn't serve to allocate resources and unwisely spend your money based on what they believe it should be spent on. Government serves to create an environment that can allow the private sector made up of private individuals to make their own decisions, raise wages, and hire workers. Third, Goldwater believed in a strong national defense not because he wanted war, but because he wanted peace. He believed in "peace through strength". Sound familiar? He believed a strong national defense was necessary in the face of a chaotic and predictable Soviet Union. The Soviet Union's goal wasn't merely to spread communism. It was world domination. The fight between freedom and Communism would live on for forty years from the ashes of WWII to the collapse of the Berlin wall. Conservatives in general believe in the individual. They see the best in people to achieve their own dreams and potential. They believe the social structure is critical in understanding the functions of government and having an orderly society.

But today fifty-four years after Goldwater gave his acceptance speech to a divided Republican Party the party is now led by someone who isn't conservative at all. Donald Trump is the product of vitriol, hyperpartisanship, and the anger and resentment of our politics. Not a cause to it. We now live in an era of fake news, alternative realities, and a White House reminiscently run by the editors and writers of Enquirer magazine. The 2016 presidential election was a testament to the timeless principles of conservatism. Our founders believed a tyrannical President was possible. But they never anticipated that congress would ever be complicit in a President’s abuse of power of which they are constitutionally obligated to check and balance. Complicity is dangerous. Complicity in the absence of principle is neither good nor conservative. We have a President today who undermines our intelligence agencies, slams his opponents viciously, threatened to jail his opponents, attacks the free press on a frequent basis, and has an appetite for damaging democratic norms to achieve his own political goals. These are ideas conservatives for generations have worked against and even made careers out of. But the silent deafening by those who call themselves conservatives from within the GOP today and in congress are not only bystanders to the problem. They are fueling the destruction of democratic norms by normalizing what is abnormal. This is wrong and has to stop. We conservatives cannot allow this to continue nor should we normalize it. If we do then we are the problem. To abandon our principles for the temporary moment by caving into an emotional populism to solve complicated problems with simple solutions is not only not conservative, it is un-American.

When a young female Senator from Maine Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican stood up against Joseph McCarthy in her "Declaration of Conscience" speech in 1950 she knew doing so as the first woman elected to both houses of Congress in a legislative body full of men would possibly risk her her career and damage her reputation in the Senate. But she knew what was at stake. But she did it anyway and Senator McCarthy as a result kicked her off the permanent subcommittee on Investigations. Smith risked her career in speaking out against fake evidence. Would Smith have a place in today's Republican Party? Probably not. But she knew what she was doing was right. She believed in America and that complicity by members of her own party in the face of McCarthyism was wrong.

As conservatives we cannot simply run on ideas of hatred, anger, resentment, lies, and propaganda just because it fuels the base of just the smallest minority that gets us over the finish line in a primary or who occupies the White House. We must be able to oppose liberals with our own ideas. We must not hate liberals. Goldwater thought Kennedy’s ideas were bad ideas, but he never personally attacked Kennedy's character. The death of Kennedy shattered not only America’s heart, but Senator Goldwater’s as well. Kennedy was his friend. It was a friendship that went beyond politics. This is what conservatism and American values are supposed to be. Not the trash we dwell in today promoted by both sides to get the base riled up. If we conservatives think lying to get votes works and refuse to tackle the tough issues then we deserve to lose. If that means we conservatives need to lose elections in order to find our purpose and heart then that's what needs to be done.

American is at a crossroads in the twenty-first century. We face a "time for choosing" as Ronald Reagan put it in 1964. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787 a woman approached Benjamin Franklin and asked, “Well doctor what have we got?”, for which Franklin replied, “A republic if you can keep it.” Those words ring true today and it’s up to us conservatives to decide whether or not we’re going to be complicit in the face of a temporary right wing populism and innate nationalism or stand up and fight back against it. This is about the survival of the republic. It’s about the preservation of our democratic institutions. If we fail at all of these we will become just another country on the map. In 1964, a junior Senator from Arizona by the name of Barry Goldwater offered America a choice, not an echo. In 2018, America faces a choice again. History will record what we do here and the importance of this moment long after we’re gone. They’ll say if we kept the republic or if we stood idly by and did nothing.

“I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.”

-President Ronald Reagan, 1989 Farewell Address

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Patrick Murray