Adapted from remarks delivered on October 29 at a forum at Indiana University marking the 50th anniversary of Barry Goldwater’s presidential run.
Nineteen sixty-four was billed then and for years to come as the end of that era’s sudden political monstrosity, American conservatism. For years to come we were told that conservatism died, or committed suicide, in 1964 with the nomination of Barry Goldwater. And so ended—supposedly—another anomaly from America’s one-party state, at least for those who think it is right for there to be a one-party state within a democratic system.
Actually for us—those that are historically minded—1964 was not the end but the beginning, possibly the beginning of the beginning. It was the beginning of what has been for mainstream media—and come to think of it the Academy—the longest dying political movement in American history, American conservatism. Since 1964 conservatism’s obituaries have been filed with timely regularity—and I don’t know about you but I am actually feeling pretty good.
Still conservatism is more often reported on for its fragmentation, frailties, dissension, and rigor mortis, than for its vitality. Compare conservatism with but one famous left-wing family: the Clintons. They have been taking America on a rollercoaster ride for years with their own ups and downs that somehow were never their fault. There is a cyclical pattern to the rollercoaster rides they take us on. First, the media report their enormous capacity for good with great expectation: their brilliance, their competence, their good nature. Call it charisma. Think of Bill as he was approaching the 1992 election. He was the Boy Governor abounding with promise. Then disaster: Gennifer Flowers, revelations of draft dodging, pot-smoking, anti-war protests in London—all accompanied by almost ceaseless lies that were promptly exposed every time. It seems to me any prior presidential candidate ever caught in just one of these scandals would have been forced out of the race. Yet suddenly the media were thrust into Gloom. Sudden despair. Then, of a sudden, hope sprung eternal. Bill kept plugging away. He became the Comeback Kid! In fact, I coined a term for those infected by this condition in the media. The term is the Episodic Apologists, and the Episodic Apologists have been with the Clintons for over twenty years. Always the cycle is repeated: High Hopes, Indignation tinged with Despair, then Hope Renewed!
The cycle has been repeated a dozen times. Even at the very end of Bill Clinton’s two terms in the White House it was on display. He is about to leave the White House and despite his impeachment his popularity is about as high as ever. Then the public gets word of his last-minute scandalous and corrupt pardons. Then word gets out of Mrs. Clinton’s pilfering from the White House and of her staff’s practical jokes committed against the incoming Administration. The media are again thrust down into deepest despair. There is disappointment among them. A dozen high-powered Democrats, such as Joe Biden, wash their hands of the Clintons—very publicly. The New York Times and the New York Observer call for investigations. They say the Clinton critics were right all along—I felt pretty good about that—the Observer actually called for Mrs. Clinton to resign from the Senate. Ah, but 2001 did not end without these papers and others suggesting that Mrs. Clinton would make a great presidential candidate and Bill would be a fitting United Nations secretary-general. Hope springs anew—and not for the last time.
And on it goes to the very present. Today Hillary, despite Benghazi and a stint at State that does not put one in mind of Henry Kissinger, is again touted as the “inevitable” presidential candidate.
The left—as reported on by the left—is always full of promise and achievement: bright and wondrous morns. Whereas conservatism has been at death’s door since Goldwater. After Goldwater’s demise came Richard Nixon and Watergate. Richard Nixon, though admired at least by me (where was Bill Clinton’s China démarche?), was no movement conservative. Yet when he left the White House under a cloud conservatism was reportedly again moribund. In truth, it was going strong.
Originally it was composed of three parts, traditional conservatives, libertarian conservatives, and anti-communist conservatives. In the Nixon years it gained strength with a powerful group of new recruits, those wandering liberals tired of the increasing radicalization of liberalism. They were called Neoconservatives. By the time Ronald Reagan was elected president the Neoconservatives were a powerful new force in the Republican Party, people like the Kristols, the Podhoretzes, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and with Reagan came another new contribution to conservatism, the Reagan Democrats. Not that with Reagan came the mainstream media’s recognition of conservatives’ vitality. Remember right up to Reagan’s victory in what today would be called a “wave election” the media told us his race with Jimmy Carter was “too close to call.”
By the late 1980s the religious right was a new recruit to conservatism. We were stronger than ever. Yet when Clinton came to office conservatism was again being reported on as moribund. Even with Newt Gingrich’s historic sweep of 1994, the media was reporting on conservatism’s frailty. We were supposedly susceptible to extremism, as though the post-McGovern Democrats had not suffered what was to become permanent radicalization. With the year 2000’s election of George W. Bush, the conservative movement was in place with all the aforementioned new recruits.
Alas by the year 2008 conservatism was again near death’s door, according to the experts. Its adepts were too white, too male, too old, and too extreme. No one in the mainstream media took note of the historic fact that in 2008 America had a chance to elect its first Black President. Frankly, even I was fetched by Barack Obama’s candidacy.
It took only two years for Obama’s extremist politics, inspired by the left-wing drift of the Democratic Party, to ensure another wave election. By then conservatism had received added vigor from that amorphous group, the Tea Partiers. Twenty-ten was another Wave Election for conservatism in the House of Representatives and many of the state governments. That election should have told us a lot more than the 2012 election told the mainstream media. Twenty-twelve was a repeat of the historic election of 2008. Twenty-ten was a precursor to 2014, and I dare say to 2016. In 2010 conservatives amounted to something like 40% to 44% of the population, a proportion that has been stable for years. The liberal component of the population in 2010 was what it has been for roughly 30 years, 18% to 22%. In 2010 the Independent portion of the population was roughly 35% as it has been for years. The majority of that vote went to the Republicans pushed by the country’s sick economy and wildly imbalanced budgets. In 2014 the Independents will vote Republican again, pushed by economics and sudden fears about international terrorism and Ebola. The election will be another wave election. Moreover, given the extremism of the left in the Democratic Party, I see this alliance of the conservatives and Independents lasting for years to come.
When conservatives will again be reported as reposing at death’s door I cannot say, but I did write a book a couple of years ago titled The Death of Liberalism. In the 2014 election next week you will see why I wrote it.
Goldwater conservatism, born in 1964, has steadily grown. It was not a fluke. It has elected powerful political figures and implemented an enormous number of policies, some that were resonant in 1964; some that were unimaginable then. It has contributed to the election of five presidents and, with Ronald Reagan, one of the two great presidents of the 20th century. For those of you who think I never have a nice word for liberalism, let me assure you the other great president of the 20th century was FDR.
And let me conclude by looking back to the 1960s and Bloomington, Indiana. You have all heard that the dominant voices of the 1960s were the voices of left-wing youth. Actually, as Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg have chronicled, the youth vote went Republican even in 1972. As for Indiana University, if you have any interest in the 1960s you have all heard of the great demonstrations and library burnings. Presumable you are familiar with the homegrown Che Guevaras, many of whom did, in fact, stay pretty close to home all these years. But let me mention some of my friends who left Bloomington to make a mark in Washington and the world. Then tell me who became more influential: the Bloomington left or the Bloomington right.
To begin with there is Tom Charles Huston, who headed the largest student organization in the country while he was here, the Young Americans for Freedom. Its equivalent on the left was the Students for a Democratic Society headed by Tom Hayden. I saw a picture of Tom Hayden in the Times the other day. If marrying Jane Fonda leaves you looking as ravaged as he looks, I would prefer Huston’s wife. Tom went on to work in the White House under Richard Nixon and you might recall the famous Huston Plan.
With me in the 1960s was Robert Turner, head of the Victory in Vietnam organization. He has for forty years been an advocate of strong foreign policy and other good causes, most recently from the University of Virginia Law School.
Then there was another undergrad here at Bloomington in the late 1960s, Jim Bopp. He has been an influential voice in the pro-life movement not only statewide but nationally as counsel to the National Right to Life organization and a figure in various national conservative endeavors.
The legendary Baron Von Kannon worked with me to start the magazine here and left for the Heritage Foundation, of which you might have heard. He is a vice president there and for decades has been a leading force in conservative thought and politics.
Steve Davis left Bloomington in the late 1960s having founded our magazine with me, to become an aide to Congressman Phil Crane, himself an IU alum. Steve has contributed to politics up to this very moment.
Lou Ann Sabatier served with me on the magazine here in Bloomington and left with me for Washington where she now serves as Chief Executive Officer for the company that owns the Washington Examiner and the Weekly Standard.
Then there is me, for forty-seven years the editor-in-chief of The American Spectator. Frankly, I have no complaints about taking a dead end job. It allowed me to write a dozen books, even a New York Times best seller. It allowed me to play a seminal role in the impeachment of my friend Bill—if that is the word for it—and expose a lot of low deeds in high places. I have been allowed an amusing life and I have had the last laugh.