“Conscience of a Conservative” – Goldwater’s Trumps Flake’s

Over Memorial Day weekend 2018, I treated myself for the first time to Barry Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative” (COAC) from 1960. It was so invigorating, I felt a bit like a lost hiker celebrating the discovery of a working water fountain in the middle of the desert: SOMEBODY PUT THIS HERE?! THIS IS AMAZING! Then, for good measure, I decided to read Senator Jeff Flake’s 2017 book of the same title. I had remembered attending a GOP picnic in the early 2000s and seeing then-Congressman Flake hoisting one of his cute kids high overhead as a gracious substitute for a long political speech at the end of an afternoon full of them. He seemed a lot fresher and lot less cynical back then. But if 2017 Jeff Flake is, as he claims, the current wearer of the Goldwater mantle, the legacy of “Mr. Conservative” has not aged well in the past 57 years.

Goldwater’s COAC is a power-packed 84 pages ($0.55 on Amazon Kindle) of the “why” behind conservative politics. In ten short topical chapters, he outlines the blueprint that helped make conservatives politically relevant on a national scale, and also allowed conservatives to link their politics with those of the framers of our nation. Goldwater begins his book with the eponymous chapter “The Conscience of a Conservative” and quickly establishes conservatism’s bona fides as a holistic approach to politics:

Conservatism is not an economic theory, though it has economic implications….It is Conservatism that puts material things in their proper place—that has a structured view of the human being and of human society, in which economics plays only a subsidiary role…. The Conservative believes that man is, in part, an economic, an animal creature; but that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. What is more, these needs and desires reflect the superior side of man’s nature, and thus take precedence over his economic wants. 

(pp.5-6) (emphasis in original). Goldwater goes on to summarize the whole approach of conservatism to the nature of man itself in three beautiful points: 1. That each man is unique and that “to regard man as part of an undifferentiated mass is to consign him to ultimate slavery.” (p.6); 2. That “the economic and spiritual aspects of man’s nature are inextricably intertwined. He cannot be economically free, or even economically efficient, if he is enslaved politically; conversely, man’s political freedom is illusory if he is dependent for his economic needs on the State.” (pp.6-7); and 3. That “man’s development, in both its spiritual and material aspects, is not something that can be directed by outside forces. Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make: they cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings.” (p.7) What a clear regard for both human dignity and individuality! Our society is crying out right now for this very form of personal individuation. Instead, our overactive federal government is churning out one-size-fits-all, we-know-what’s-best, “bipartisan” solutions for faceless masses. What an opportunity for conservatives – one that is presently being squandered.

Goldwater finishes his first chapter by summarizing the entirety of politics from a conservative perspective: we should look upon politics “as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order.” (p.7) He writes: “Thus, for the American Conservative, there is no difficulty in identifying the day’s overriding political challenge: it is to preserve and extend freedom. As he surveys the various attitudes and institutions and laws that currently prevail in America, many questions will occur to him, but the Conservative’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?” (p.8) Freedom and limited government are the foundational elements of Goldwater’s approach to politics.

In stark contrast to Goldwater’s clarion call to conservatives everywhere, Flake’s version of COAC is deeply personal and unique to himself. It is at times biographical, at times apologetic, and at times angry, both with himself and with others (chiefly the President). In short, it is impossible to read it and get excited about either the future of our country or the Republican Party. One would think that a past director of the Goldwater Institute would have hoisted the standard of Goldwater’s own disciplined conservative thought or passion for freedom with more pride and aplomb. The sections of Flake’s book that do stand out, do so for all the wrong reasons.

Early in the book, Flake recounts his family history in Snowflake, Arizona and the strong combined influence of his western and Mormon upbringing. He then casually mentions that his family’s ward selected who in the town would be Republicans and who would be Democrats based solely upon which side of Main Street they lived or which side of the congregational aisle they sat. While the Mormon church’s early distrust of politics was understandable in light of their persecution (Flake shares some of those stories too), it was still an odd story to relate in a book meant to be about “conscience.” If someone else is allowed to determine how you vote or who you support, can you really claim to be acting on conscience? I am mindful of the past election cycle, where the dominant cry was “if you call yourself a ______[Christian, Republican, Democrat, Progressive, Feminist, etc.], you can’t possibly vote for _________ [insert candidate name].” This type of vote-shaming is symptomatic of a larger concern: it suggests that we have reduced ourselves to a politics of labels rather than of principles.

A far more troubling passage to me as a conservative was Flake’s identification of the vote in the Senate that, in hindsight, he says regrets the most. A vote where he voted “no,” but now says he should have voted “yes” alongside Senator McCain and others. I’ll spare you the guess: it was TARP – the Troubled Asset Relief Program – the federal government’s allocation of up to $700 billion dollars to purchase “toxic assets” from failing financial institutions. He says he now regrets voting “no” because such a vote did not represent the “spirit of compromise” that makes the Senate “work.” His colleagues who voted “yes” were (according to Flake) “helping the country” and his “no” vote was, in his mind, his abdication of the duty to “help the country.” Not one mention of the constitutional limitations on the federal government. After reading Goldwater’s book, I can imagine Barry thundering, “No true conservative could vote for such an unconstitutional bill!” In true and dedicated form, Goldwater recounts his most proud vote as one where he was the ONLY “no” vote in 1959 against the Kennedy-Ervin “Labor Reform” bill - legislation spurred by “popular demand” but woefully ineffective on its face. Strategically, he recognized that such a quick-fix solution would “preclude the possibility of meaningful legislation for some time to come.” (p.29) A proud Arizonan, Goldwater would have likely lamented the state of our economy in the late 2000s, but he would have quickly recognized that the federal government is not the source of the fix. And he would have vehemently despised a “we have to pass it to find out what it says” method of legislating. Goldwater would have celebrated a vote against TARP because he recognized that, without the Constitution as a guidepost, we are marching towards the “first principle of totalitarianism: that the State is competent to do all things and is limited in what it actually does only by the will of those who control the State.” (p.9)

Another disturbing section in Flake’s COAC was his proud embrace of the title “globalist.” He laments America’s current position on the world stage – which he largely attributes to Trump’s election. He praises efforts (including his own) to patch up international relations, as if America being a friendly, well-liked, benevolent, no-strings-attached neighbor is the supreme goal of our diplomacy. Goldwater again was remarkably prescient in 1960: “The American government does not have the right, much less the obligation, to try to promote the economic and social welfare of foreign peoples. Of course, all of us are interested in combating poverty and disease wherever it exists. But the Constitution does not empower our government to undertake that job in foreign countries, no matter how worthwhile it might be.”
(p. 64) (emphasis in original). Again, the question is one of principle. Goldwater was no isolationist – he wrote regarding the need for strategic alliances during that era of Soviet/communistic threats and the specter of another world war. But Goldwater was certainly no “globalist” either. Of America’s place on the world stage, he wrote: “In all of our dealings with foreign nations, we must behave like a great power. Our national posture must reflect strength and confidence and purpose, as well as good will. We need not be bellicose, but neither should we encourage others to believe that American rights can be violated with impunity. We must protect American nationals and American property and American honor—everywhere. We may not make foreign peoples love us—no nation has ever succeeded in that—but we can make them respect us. And respect is the stuff of which enduring friendships and firm alliances are made.” (p. 81). Of foreign aid, Goldwater decries government aid sent to “neutral” countries that are committed to socialist systems. He says that, in the majority of cases, such aid has “made America weaker; and it has created in minds the world over an image of a nation that puts prime reliance, not on spiritual and human values, but on the material things that are the stock-in-trade of Communist propaganda. To this extent we have adopted Communist doctrine.” (p.67). Every dollar we spend trying to “buy peace” from nations who do not reflect our values is a dollar Goldwater bluntly labeled “waste.”

Opportunistically, most of Flake’s bitterness is reserved for the current occupant of the White House – the frustration he personally feels at the “reckless” behavior of President Trump, and the “divisive” rhetoric in our country, on Twitter, in the press, in politics, etc. He mentions his “one man mission” to Mexico in his own attempt to assuage the Mexican government’s “fears” after Trump’s election. After several pages of Flake alternately flagellating himself and the President, I wanted to grab his lapels and remind him, YOU WERE A SENATOR! You were part of the “entire legislative power” of the United States described in Article I! You had the ability to serve as a check and a balance on the executive and judicial branches of government. You could have made a difference! YOU SURRENDERED RATHER THAN STAND AND FIGHT!

Would Goldwater have quit the way Flake has? I cannot imagine Mr. Conservatism abdicating his elected duty, even in the face of a trying re-election campaign. Would he have advocated for rudeness and bellicosity? Of course not. He wrote: “The conscience of the Conservative is pricked by anyone who would debase the dignity of the individual human being. Today, therefore, he is at odds with dictators who rule by terror, and equally with those gentler collectivists who ask our permission to play God with the human race.” (p.7). But not all rhetoric is wrong simply because it causes division. If we oppose unconstitutional actions by our government, we will create and retain many opponents. We cannot please everyone politically or personally. So if we are to remain Conservatives, we must stand firm on principles of freedom even if means opposing popular but unconstitutional legislation, or popular but unconstitutional executive or judicial activity – or federal overreach into areas constitutionally reserved to the “states” and the “people.” After all, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments are not in the Bill of Rights just to make it a round number. The very act of standing on Conservative principles will inherently “divide” us from those who disagree with us politically. We will get labeled by the press and ridiculed on social media. At the same time, we can and must continue to patiently articulate these positions without debasing individual dignity, else we risk losing valuable relationships among those who may someday grow to recognize that government is not the cure-all for every problem.

There is a progressive counter-vision to Goldwater’s – one that is a far cry from America’s roots in republicanism and restraint. It seduced Jeff Flake the same way it has deceived so many sent to Washington D.C. It has ensnared many of our friends and neighbors with words like “compassion” and “assistance” as code for forced wealth redistribution, more regulation, more taxes, and more government programs – with the government always taking its cut off the top. This counter-vision whispers that more and more federal intervention is needed; that only elected (or appointed) elites in Washington can “fix” what’s wrong with humanity. Fully realized, this counter-vision represents the inevitable federal enslavement of the American people and the irrelevance of the states themselves. Goldwater saw it clearly way back in 1960, when he warned against further diminishment of our republican – and constitutionally limited – form of government. As we enter another election season, I can think of no better rallying cry for the modern conservative than the final words of Goldwater’s Chapter Two: the Perils of Power:

Our tendency to concentrate power in the hands of a few men deeply concerns me. We can be conquered by bombs or by subversion; but we can also be conquered by neglect — by ignoring the Constitution and disregarding the principles of limited government. Our defenses against the accumulation of unlimited power in Washington are in poorer shape, I fear, than our defenses against the aggressive designs of Moscow.….

I am convinced that most Americans now want to reverse the trend. I think that concern for our vanishing freedoms is genuine. I think that the people’s uneasiness in the stifling omnipresence of government has turned into something approaching alarm. But bemoaning the evil will not drive it back, and accusing fingers will not shrink government. 

The turn will come when we entrust the conduct of our affairs to men who understand that their first duty as public officials is to divest themselves of the power they have been given. It will come when Americans, in hundreds of communities throughout the nation, decide to put the man in office who is pledged to enforce the Constitution and restore the Republic. Who will proclaim in a campaign speech: “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.” 

(p. 14) (emphasis in original). Senator Flake failed to uphold Goldwater’s legacy. We must demand more from our federal representatives – a full adherence to conservative principles of freedom and limited government – and we must replace them if they refuse to give it. We cannot grow weary with our time, our money, and our votes. Without our actions, the principles of our conservative consciences remain seeds unsown; and the end result will be economic and political famine, rather than a harvest of freedom.

 ---Joshua W. Carden

Joshua W. Carden is a constitutional attorney by training. He is currently in private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona.


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