The Legacies of Goldwater and McGovern

George McGovern died recently. Coincidentally, I just reread Barry Goldwater’s 1960 classic, The Conscience of a Conservative. These men are linked by the identical fate that they suffered in their sole presidential run (in 1972 and 1964, respectively). Namely, both were thoroughly demolished by an incumbent president. Each was viewed as emanating from the extreme wing of his party – Goldwater on the far right of the Republican Party and McGovern from the ultra left side of the Democratic Party. Their crushing defeats were interpreted as rejections by the voters of the extreme politics that they supposedly represented. However, that is where the similarity ends; for their legacies on their parties and on the American drama has been totally dissimilar.

Prior to McGovern, the Democratic Party embraced a spectrum of points of view that could legitimately be characterized as from far left (Henry Wallace, JW Fulbright) to centrist (John Kennedy, Edmund Muskie) to even mildly conservative (Scoop Jackson) – especially in matters of foreign policy. But beginning with the 1968 Democratic convention and culminating in McGovern’s nomination, the center of gravity of the Democratic Party shifted sharply to the left. It has remained so, in fact so much so that today what are really far left leaders – at least as left as those cited above – like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi are viewed as mainstream Democrats. The Party has plenty of room for loony leftists even further to the left than those just cited – e.g., Maxine Waters, but there is virtually no substantial person of any stature in the Democratic Party who could be considered centrist, much less right of center. The sole exception, Joe Lieberman (like Scoop Jackson, largely in foreign affairs), was driven out of the Party. The extremism that McGovern represented is absolutely mainstream today in the Democratic Party.

Goldwater’s lasting influence on the Republican Party has been far less dramatic. It is true that the Party has experienced conservative surges in 1980 (Reagan), in 1994 (Gingrich) and in 2010 (via the TEA Party). But the center of gravity of the Republican Party has moved to the right nowhere near as extensively as that of the Democratic Party has moved to the left. This is manifested in three ways. First, the roster of the most prominent leaders of the Party still includes substantial numbers of centrists or moderates. Examples include both Bushes, John McCain, Jon Huntsman and, arguably, the current GOP presidential nominee. Whereas every Democratic nominee for president since McGovern has been a hard-core liberal – and in a few instances (e.g., the current president), a doctrinaire leftist; with the exception of Reagan, no Republican presidential nominee since Goldwater comes even close to resembling a hard-core conservative or committed rightist.

Second, the Party apparatus – at both the federal and (most) State(s) levels – has remained to a large extent ‘country club’ Republican. By that is meant those who qualify as ‘big government’ Republicans – people who endorse the huge role that government plays in the lives of the American people, believing that Republicans can discharge the attendant responsibilities more effectively and more economically.

The third manifestation is more subtle. Polls repeatedly show that twice as many Americans identify themselves as conservative than those who identify themselves as liberal. Yet, the numbers who self-identify as Democrat is at least as large as those who self-identify as Republican. The inescapable conclusion is that there are a huge number of Republicans who are not really conservative.

Thus Goldwater’s lasting effect on the Republican Party does not match McGovern’s long-term influence on the Democratic Party.

Concerning their affect on the American people, the legacies are more nuanced and difficult to characterize precisely. The substantial shift to the left of the Democratic Party both reflects and influences a corresponding shift in the electorate. Positions and phenomena that, prior to McGovern, would have been considered extreme by the American people are viewed as mainstream today. Same sex marriage, blatant and wanton promiscuity in the entertainment media, abortion on demand, banishment of religion from the public square, a government takeover of the auto industry, massive federal deficits and debt, and a popular president who denigrates US history, abrogates America’s founding principles and apologizes for American behavior are but some examples. What is unclear is what percentage of the American people is politically and philosophically in support of these radical developments and what percentage just acquiesces in them, either because those folks are not really paying attention or because – while perhaps philosophically opposed – they see some good consequences for themselves.

At the same time, a substantial minority of Americans, appalled at the severe leftward drift of the country, has begun to organize a counterattack. These would be the TEA Party contingent. Such people subscribe to the ideas expressed in Goldwater’s book, believe that America has been betrayed by those who have led the country down the McGovernite path and are determined to restore America to what they see as its classical moorings. But if they are to match the success enjoyed by the McGovernites the last four decades – indeed, by the progressive movement over the last century, they must do two things:

  1. Take control of the Republican Party exactly as the McGovernites took (and retained) control of the Democratic Party.
  2. Build numerous, robust conservative social entities (e.g., media outlets, educational institutions and foundations) in order to have the same lasting influence on the public as the uncontested leftist analogs have had.

As an inspiration to do so, let me close with a relevant quote from Goldwater’s book:

Though conservatives are deeply persuaded that our society is ailing, and know that Conservatism holds the key to national salvation – and feel sure the country agrees with us – we seem unable to demonstrate the practical relevance of Conservative principles to the needs of the day. We sit by impotently while Congress seeks to improvise solutions to problems that are not real problems facing the country, while the government attempts to assuage imagined concerns and ignores the real concerns and real needs of the people.

Perhaps we suffer from an over-sensitivity to the judgments of those who rule the mass communications media. We are daily consigned by ‘enlightened’ commentators to political oblivion: Conservatism, we are told, is out–of-date. The charge is preposterous and we ought boldly to say so. The laws of God, and of nature, have no dateline. The principles on which the conservative political position is based have been established by a process that has nothing to do with the social, economic and political landscape that changes from decade to decade and from century to century. These principles are derived from the nature of man, and from the truths that God has revealed about His creation. Circumstances do change. So do the problems that are shaped by the circumstances. But the principles that govern the solution of the problems do not. To suggest that the Conservative philosophy is out of date is akin to saying that the Golden Rule, or the Ten Commandments or Aristotle’s Politics are out of date. The Conservative approach is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom and experience and the revealed truths of the past to the problems of today. The challenge is not to find new or different truths, but to learn how to apply established truths to the problems of the contemporary world.
This article also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at
and in The Land of the Free at