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Then-presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater speaks at a campaign rally in New York City's Madison Square Garden in October 1964. (AFP/Getty Images)

How Do You Like It Now, Republicans?

Rush Limbaugh’s depravity is the endpoint of conservatism’s long journey into the heart of darkness.

BY Theo Anderson

For half a century now, conservatism's simplistic notion of freedom has led the movement--along with Republican politicians--into one moral blind alley after another.

Echoes from the early 1960s grow louder every day in this election cycle.

Half a century ago, three men who largely defined the modern conservative movement–William Buckley, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan–were approaching their prime. Goldwater would win the GOP nomination in 1964 and lose the general election badly, but his campaign laid the groundwork for Reagan’s win in 1980. As the editor of the National Review, Buckley provided the intellectual heft that helped legitimize both politicians.

In the crucible of the early 1960s, Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan faced a profound moral test. They failed it, spectacularly, and their failure has had lasting consequences. While the conservatism those men fashioned went on to dominate the GOP, the movement has never really found its moral bearings. And much of the dysfunction and weirdness now evident in the GOP primary, and within conservatism generally, can be traced to the original sin that corrupted postwar conservatism at its birth. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s depravity–newly on display last week when he called a woman who dared to testify in Congress in support of contraception coverage a “slut”–is in fact the destination toward which the movement has been heading all along.

John F. Kennedy loomed large in conservatives’ consciousness, naturally, but it was two Republicans–Nelson Rockefeller and Dwight Eisenhower–who really focused their minds. They expected Democrats to pursue the New Deal model of wealth redistribution, but it was maddening to see a Republican passively accept an activist role for government, as Eisenhower did during his two terms.

So a mounting sense of anger fueled conservatives’ quarrel with the GOP in the early 1960s, and they drew their line in the sand at Nelson Rockefeller’s bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 1964. Rockefeller’s political philosophy was light on ideology and heavy on pragmatism. The governor of New York shared the business community’s resistance to high taxes and excessive regulation, but he also believed in using the power of government to promote the common good. His budgets invested heavily in New York’s system of higher education and in a range of programs that promoted the arts, protected the environment, built the state’s infrastructure and offered medical and housing assistance to the poor.

Rockefeller’s central faith was that spending on public works could achieve modest social progress. He didn’t make grand claims about the nature of things, or portray society as starkly divided between the forces of good and evil. His most important deviation from this faith–the draconian “war on drugs” that he helped initiate in New York in the 1970s–turned out to be his most enduring and tragic legacy.

But the drug war was still a decade away in the early 1960s, and Rockefeller was busy campaigning to win the GOP primary contest based on his resume of moderation and competent governance. An ally of both the business community and governmental institutions, his strength as a candidate was his ability to build bridges.

After enduring Eisenhower for eight years, conservatives demanded an entirely different creature. They wanted a man who was prepared to say that the whole premise of the New Deal was wrong–and not just wrong, but evil, because it gave the federal government the power and the chains with which to bind the American people.

That was Goldwater’s appeal to conservatives: his urgent warning that protecting freedom against the assaults of big government must be the movement’s highest priority. “[F]or the American Conservative,” as Goldwater wrote in his famous manifesto, The Conscience of a 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 … the Conservative’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?”

As it happened, the election season provided Goldwater with a perfect opportunity to pursue his grand freedom agenda, because the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was being debated in Congress. The Act outlawed race-based segregation and racial and gender discrimination across all realms of American society, and it prohibited the use of unequally applied voter-registration requirements, which was a strategy used in the South to prevent African Americans from voting.

The landmark legislation became law in the summer of 1964, with no help from conservatives. Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan claimed that their opposition had nothing to do with racism, and that it was purely a matter of freedom: the federal government had no business telling the states how to conduct their affairs.

As Republicans often point out, the Act passed only because it had bipartisan support, since many Democrats opposed the legislation. But those Democrats who opposed it were Southern conservatives, and many of them soon switched parties. Within a generation of the legislation’s passage, the “Solid South” was the GOP’s most reliable constituency.

The tragedy of conservatism in all of this was the movement’s refusal to learn anything from the ordeal. To their credit, Buckley and Goldwater later regretted opposing the most critical piece of civil-rights legislation in the nation’s 20th-century history. But they failed to absorb the premise of the legislation, which was that “freedom” has multiple dimensions and meanings. Defining freedom solely as the absence of overweening government, they couldn’t see that racism, discrimination and poverty are very real tyrannies in their own way, or that Martin Luther King’s dream of a day when African Americans would be “free at last” had nothing to do with freedom from the tentacles of big government.

Armed with their simple-minded notion of freedom, conservatives imagined themselves as the nation’s only hope. Their struggle pitted the forces of good (small-government conservatives) against the forces of evil (the federal government). With the stakes so high, there was no room for moderation and no place for Rockefeller and his ilk. “[E]xtremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” as Goldwater said in his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention. “And … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

For all the changes in American politics over the past half century, conservatives have maintained an awe-inspiring devotion to Goldwater’s definition of freedom and to their self-righteous sense of mission. These qualities have served the GOP brilliantly in some ways, infusing it with a level of energy and an element of organizing savvy that the Republican Party of Nelson Rockefeller never could have mustered.

But last week, when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut for testifying before Congress that contraception is an important element of healthcare insurance–and then suggested that she should make a sex video for the public’s pleasure–the costs of the GOP’s transformation came into sharp focus.

For half a century now, conservatism’s simplistic notion of freedom has led the movement–along with Republican politicians–into one moral blind alley after another. Defending freedom was the basis for Reagan’s opposition to Medicare in the 1960s, and for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in the 2000s. It’s the rationale for conservatives’ ongoing opposition to laws that protect the environment. It was the basis for the under-regulation that led to the financial collapse in 2008. And the insults that Limbaugh aimed at Fluke were part of his war against healthcare reform–a war in which, he claims, America’s fundamental freedoms are at stake.

Does anyone believe–does even Limbaugh believe?–that this argument is any less ludicrous than the arguments against the Civil Rights Act? Or that the conservative case against climate change will endure the test of time? In 2062, how will conservatives explain that, 50 years ago, their obsession with freedom didn’t extend to the realm of gay rights?

Limbaugh often cites Reagan and Buckley as his ideological mentors. It’s hard to imagine those men, or Goldwater, descending to the depths of Limbaugh’s awfulness. But Limbaugh is dead right about the origins of the freedom flag that he waves so furiously. It was fashioned in the early 1960s by his heroes, men with sadly stunted moral imaginations. Since then it has been stained, time and again, by moral cowardice.

Conservatives surely know this sorry tale, yet they never learn from it. Which is why they always end up on the wrong side of history. To do the same thing over and over and expect different results–isn’t there a word for that?

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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