Time has wrought many changes since the 1960s, of course, in politics no less than in every other area of life.
At that time, Barry Goldwater, the late Arizona senator and one-time GOP presidential candidate, was almost a messianic figure on the Right. Today his views, expressed candidly in his 1960 bestseller The Conscience of a Conservative (co-written by L. Brent Bozell Jr.), read like a relic of another era.
As Jonah Goldberg recently pointed out , Goldwater’s foreign policy views during the Cold War were even more hawkish than those of today’s so-called neocons, such as Bill Kristol and Richard Perle. What was unique about Goldwater’s philosophy, and would almost certainly place any contemporary Republican who advocated it outside the mainstream of that party, was his adamant defense of States’ Rights, even during the turmoil of the civil rights movement. Over time the conservative mainstream made its peace with the 1964 Civil Rights Act — which Goldwater voted against, on the principle that the federal government does not have the constitutional authority to mandate that the states promote racial equality.
This resulted in a profound reshaping of the debate over issues involving race: today both major American political parties wholeheartedly endorse the principle that the federal government does have the constitutional authority to mandate that the states promote racial equality. The debate now is over what the word “equality” means and to what extent the feds can push states to achieve it.
The Right argues that “equality” refers only to opportunities, not outcomes (which was exactly the position of Senator Hubert Humphrey and every other liberal Democrat in 1964).
The Left counters that the Right has not progressed far enough in its commitment to racial equality, arguing essentially that proactive steps must be taken to “create” equality. (The Right has even given ground on this question, conceding that proactive steps should be taken to make minorities aware of the opportunities available to them, and to provide resources to help them take advantage of those opportunities. President Bush refers to this as “affirmative access.”)
The mainstream Left and Right both denounce quotas. The Right’s opposition to affirmative action rests on the argument that it amounts to quotas and therefore racial discrimination. The Left argues that affirmative action promotes racial equality by undoing past wrongs, and that taking race into consideration as one factor among many does not amount to quotas or racial discrimination.
The recent debate over the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies, currently under consideration by the Supreme Court, was an example of this near unanimity of the two sides on the issue of race. Basically, they disagree over whether Michigan’s policies amount to racial discrimination, not whether that would be a proper reason for invalidating the policies. It is almost exactly the argument over affirmative action that took place within the Democratic Party starting in the late 1960s.
The Left and Right share the same interpretation of the laws under which Michigan’s policies are being challenged. The plaintiffs allege that such policies, when enforced by state institutions, violate — you guessed it — Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The other legal basis for the challenge is the argument that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment applies to the policies of public universities. That interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment has likewise been adopted by the mainstream of both parties, but it was utterly rejected by Goldwater. In The Conscience of a Conservative, he declared:
The legislative history of [the Fourteenth Amendment] makes it clear (I quote from the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which the Amendment was designed to legitimize) that people of all races shall be equally entitled “to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, to purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property.” After the passage of that Act and the Amendment, all persons, Negroes included, have a “civil” right to these protections.
It is otherwise, let us note, with education. For the federal constitution does not require the States to maintain racially mixed schools. Despite the recent holding of the Supreme Court [in Brown v. Board of Education (1954)], I am firmly convinced-not only that integrated schools are not required — but that the Constitution does not permit any interference whatsoever by the federal government in the field of education. It may be just or wise or expedient for negro children to attend the same schools as white children, but they do not have a civil right to do so which is protected by the federal constitution, or which is enforceable by the federal government. (Pages 34, 35.)
Goldwater’s position was that the Fourteenth Amendment did not guarantee black children protection against racial discrimination in public, segregated schools. Anyone who adopts that position consistently would have to conclude that the Fourteenth Amendment likewise does not protect white students against racial discrimination in public universities that maintain affirmative action policies — in other words, that the Constitution protects the right of state universities to make racially discriminatory admissions policies if they so choose.
If there is a Republican or conservative today who has publicly taken that position, he has not been very vocal. Indeed, all factions of the Right — who rarely agree on anything these days, including who deserves to be called a conservative — share the belief that state affirmative action policies are morally wrong, but none apparently question whether those policies should be struck down. Goldwater’s position, by contrast, requires one to make a distinction between what is right and what the Constitution allows:
It so happens I am in agreement with the objectives of the Supreme Court as stated in the Brown decision. I believe that it is both wise and just for negro children to attend the same schools as whites, and that to deny them this opportunity carries with it strong implications of inferiority. I am not prepared, however, to impose that judgment of mine on the people of Mississippi or South Carolina, or to tell them what methods should be adopted and what pace should be kept in striving toward that goal. That is their business, not mine. I believe that the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned. Social and cultural change, however desirable, should not be effected by the engines of national power. Let us, through persuasion and education, seek to improve institutions we deem defective. But let us, in doing so, respect the orderly process of the law. Any other course enthrones tyrants and dooms freedom. (Page 38; emphasis in original.)
Goldwater’s philosophy allows one to argue against affirmative action but defend the right of state universities to practice it. How times change: such an argument today would make Goldwater almost as controversial a figure within the conservative movement as he was to respectable liberals in his day. And that’s saying something.