By Susan Grigsby /Daily Kos
Thom Hartmann wrote that Bernie Sanders should not be compared to George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee who was buried by Nixon’s CREEP in a landslide. I happen to agree—and while our reasons may differ, our conclusions are the same.
Instead of harkening back to McGovern, Sanders’ candidacy more closely resembles that of Barry Goldwater. Granted, their political views are worlds apart, but they both are movement candidates. Radical revolutionaries.
Barry Goldwater was a man of integrity, and no matter how much you may despise his principles, he never betrayed them. His book, The Conscience of a Conservative, inspired young people across the nation and its impact is still being felt today.
The Republican Party of the 1950s and ‘60s looked much more like the Democratic Party of 2000, made up of mostly moderates, with both liberal and conservative wings (we’ve grown more liberal since. Yay us!). In 1960 the GOP was ruled by the liberal east coast establishment, as represented by Nelson Rockefeller. Weird, huh? You can still hear echoes of Goldwater’s disdain for the elite east coast liberals in the conservative media. The difference of course is that today, the radio talking heads use the label to denigrate Democrats.
Conservatives were considered a fringe group during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, often identified with the John Birch Society, virulent anti-Communists, and conspiracy theorists. Within the Republican Party they were most often ignored, not unlike liberals of today within the Democratic Party.
Yes, Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson. But frankly, it’s doubtful that anyone could have beaten Johnson, who was running on the memory of an assassinated President Kennedy. But in running, Goldwater inspired a number of people who continue to influence our elections today. Fred Koch, father of Charles and David, was a supporter, as was Richard Mellon Scaife. They and others of the same generation and level of wealth started putting money into think tanks and foundations, according to Jane Mayer’s Dark Money.
Frustrated by the electoral process, Scaife, like Charles and David Koch, sought to finance political victory through more indirect means. Though he continued to donate money to political campaigns and action committees, he began to invest far more in conservative institutions and ideas. His private foundations emerged as a leading source of funds for political and policy entrepreneurship. Think tanks, in particular, became what Piereson called “the artillery” in the conservative movement’s war of ideas. In his memoir, Scaife estimates that he helped bankroll at least 133 of the conservative movement’s 300 most important institutions.
The money that poured into think tanks produced a wave of conservative thought that eventually became part of the American mainstream, pushing aside the more optimistic, liberal philosophy of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
The success of Goldwater’s candidacy (in spite of his loss at the polls) was evident when Richard Nixon, who was not an ideological conservative, had to hire future culture warrior Pat Buchanan as his speech writer in order to win the presidency in 1968. Buchanan, referring to Conscience of a Conservative, believed that it:
“was our new testament,” Pat Buchanan has said. “It contained the core beliefs of our political faith, it told us why we had failed, what we must do. We read it, memorized it, quoted it…. For those of us wandering in the arid desert of Eisenhower Republicanism, it hit like a rifle shot.”
It could be argued that if not for Goldwater, Rockefeller might have been elected in Nixon’s place in 1968 and the world would be a better place as a result. Goldwater’s ill-fated run prepared the way for Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. Reagan’s first national exposure in a presidential race came in the form of a 30-minute commercial that he made for Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. He used it as a springboard and won the California governor’s race two years later.
Every Republican president since the Goldwater candidacy has become more conservative, though not necessarily in a manner that Goldwater would have approved of. But that’s the thing about revolutions: You can’t always control their direction. Goldwater hated the intrusion of religion into politics. Eventually, he became a libertarian who believed in a woman’s right to choose and full equality for members of the LGBT community.
He would surely be stunned to see his Republican heir leading the primary race today. And yet, Donald Trump is the logical, final product of The Conscience of a Conservative.
So, how does that make Bernie Sanders like Barry Goldwater? There’s the obvious: They both broke with the establishment political points of view and proposed radical policies. Goldwater’s were extremely conservative, and Sanders’ are extremely liberal.
They both inspire a similar dedication from their followers. According to Richard Hofstadter, writing about Goldwater in the Atlantic in October 1964:
He won his nomination not by demonstrating his popularity with the rank and file of its voters or by negotiating with its other leaders but by drawing around him a disciplined personal following, linked to him by strong idealogical ties and a messianic faith.
It must be admitted that there is a certain “messianic faith” among many of Sanders’ most vocal supporters and all of his supporters are linked by “strong ideological ties.”
As for the opponents of the two candidates, compare this, from earlier this month by Matt Karp of The Jacobin …
In the past month, the elite liberal counter-attack on Sanders has spread beyond the Democratic Party itself. From Logan Circle to Columbus Circle, at custom standing desks and inside Acela quiet cars, a cavalcade of liberal media heavyweights has assailed Sanders for his political innocence, his quixotic theory of progress, and his delusional support for obviously unworkable programs like single-payer health care. For good measure, it has frequently (if baselessly) asserted that Sanders supporters are sexist abusers, too.
Certainly we might have expected conservative Democrats like Claire McCaskill to start talking about the Sanders campaign in terms of hammers and sickles. And it is not very shocking to see liberal bastions of the economic status quo, like Barney Frank or Howard Dean, come out as staunch opponents to Sanders’s outsider campaign.
… to this report from the Washington Post’s obituary of Barry Goldwater:
Neither man felt a pressing need to hold back when members of his own party disappointed him. The Washington Post included in Goldwater’s obituary the fact that:
When members of his own party advocated policies that he considered too much like those of the Democrats, he ridiculed them for “me-tooism.” Once he called the Eisenhower administration “a dime store New Deal,” and the former president never fully forgave him.
Of course, Bernie Sanders is unlikely to accuse a sitting president of being too much like FDR. However, he did suggest that an incumbent Democratic president be primaried, and reportedly considered doing it himself. His attacks on the Democratic Party are neither new, nor secret.
“The main difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in this city,” he said in an interview in Burlington in July [of 1986] with a Cornell student writing a master’s thesis, “is that the Democrats are in insurance and the Republicans are in banking.”
In that summer’s issue of Vermont Affairs magazine, he called the Democratic Party “ideologically bankrupt,” then added: “They have no ideology. Their ideology is opportunism.”
Both men presented a challenge to the status quo and to the establishment wings of their own parties. Well, Goldwater presented a challenge to the leaders of his own party, while Sanders is presenting a challenge to the leaders of his party of convenience.
And they both had an ideology that they had developed and remained true to for all of their adult lives. Barry Goldwater was a man of integrity, as is Bernie Sanders, apparently.
Does that mean that if Bernie Sanders, were the Democratic nominee, he would lose in a November landslide? No. As a matter of fact, if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, we could finally see a race that presented the voting public with two very different ideologies. President Obama was correct when he stated that the American people have too much sense to allow Donald Trump anywhere near the Oval Office. It would be exciting to see the contrasting ideals debated publicly: Hate versus universal health care.
However, if the Republican nominee were a John Kasich or a Marco Rubio, Sanders wouldn’t do as well. It wouldn’t be a landslide, but people do tend to vote their fears and it would not be hard for the Republicans to paint Sanders as a wild-eyed radical who would lead the nation down the slippery slope of socialism to the ultimate totalitarian destination. (These are Republicans, after all.) That argument would not be persuasive if Sanders was facing Trump, but it could hurt him badly if the Republicans nominate a candidate who appears more mainstream.
Bernie Sanders could change the direction of the Democratic Party as much as Goldwater changed the GOP’s five decades ago. His run, win or lose, could change the makeup of the party, and could result in decades of progressively more liberal Democratic presidents.
But at what price? As Antonin Scalia’s death has highlighted, the Supreme Court’s makeup for generations to come will be decided by the next president. And while we have heard it every four years, this election may very well be the most important of our lifetime.
On a personal note, I am still on the fence, still changing my mind at least twice a day, but I have moved from undecided, leaning Clinton, to undecided. Mostly, I just want us to win in November and I had an encounter last week that moved me firmly into the undecided column.
On Wednesday as I was leaving the local beauty shop, I overheard another client, a white male in his late 50s or early 60s who was having his hair cut, tell his stylist that this year he was going to cast his first ever votein a primary election. He had only voted in general elections before, “but this guy, name of Sanders, makes a lot of sense to me.” Why is that remarkable? Because I live in a small town in one of the deepest red districts of California.
The fact that Sen. Sanders is getting his message out to Americans who are either apolitical or conservative Republicans is quite an accomplishment. It shows the allure of his message and his ability to motivate non-voters—and not just millennials. That is not to be taken lightly.