Fifty years ago, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) made a historic run for president. He didn’t win, but his campaign launched the modern conservative movement. And in this era of bailouts, government snooping on your e-mail, and a president asserting the authority to kill anyone in the world with a drone strike, it’s time to take a look at some of what Goldwater had to say.
Goldwater, a WWII veteran, was a straight-shooter with feet planted firmly in conservative and libertarian traditions. He had little patience for big-government liberalism. And he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He described the Supreme Court as “jackassian.” A favorite response to an idea that earned his disdain was: “Hell, no.” While he was a rock-ribbed Republican to the core, he took orders from no one, and once told a reporter, “I don’t give a damn what the Republican Party says.”
In 1960, Goldwater electrified the conservative movement with his best-selling book, “The Conscience of a Conservative.” When he began floating his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president in 1963, he faced severe opposition from moderate and liberal Republicans, like New York’s wealthy Governor Nelson Rockefeller. But Goldwater had little patience for what today would be called RINOs. In words that would inspire the Tea Party today, Goldwater vowed to his aides, “First let's take over the party. Then we'll go from there.”
And did he. When Rockefeller accused him of extremism, Goldwater proudly declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” His 1964 presidential race galvanized the conservative movement; indeed, he has been described as its founder. Many later conservative heroes wet their feet in Goldwater’s race—including a movie actor who was thinking of getting involved in politics by the name of Ronald Reagan. Goldwater lost that race to Lyndon Johnson, but his daring presidential campaign, and continued Senate career through the 1980s, testify to his fiery legacy.
That experience also taught him about the dangerous influence of money in politics. As he explained, “the role of money is way out of line. It's strangling us. The influence of money distorts everything. Government of and by the people, for example, is waning.” He advocated for limits on overall spending in election campaigns—both by the candidates themselves and by “independent” spenders.
Goldwater also understood the particular dangers of corporate political money. In “The Conscience of a Conservative,” he warned of excessive corporate and union influence, and said that political fundraising should come from “individuals and individuals alone.” As he explained, “I see no reason for labor unions—or corporations—to participate in politics.”
We can guess how he would have reacted to the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision, which held that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money in federal elections.
As Goldwater prophesied, “our nation is facing a crisis of liberty if we do not control campaign expenditures. Unlimited campaign spending eats at the heart of the democratic process.” Both major parties have now become dependent on “an incredibly small number of incredibly rich donors.” This is exactly the danger that Goldwater warned of when he said that “representative government assumes that elections will be controlled by the citizenry at large, not by an elitist group of big givers.”
The senator from Arizona would have been steamed to watch Wall Street financiers treat politics like a buffet at their suburban country clubs, scooping up endless bailouts and special tax breaks for bankers while average Americans suffer. But he would reserve even greater scorn for politicians, like former Virginia Representative Eric Cantor, who seem to treat their public service as merely a prelude to a far more lucrative career as influencers and lobbyists. Fifty years ago, in words that ring just as true today, Goldwater said that “[s]mall men, seeking great wealth or power, have too often and too long turned even the highest levels of public service into mere personal opportunity.”
What Goldwater would not have done is give up. He was, he said, “well aware” of the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision holding that the public cannot put sensible limits on the amount of money that flows into elections. But a man as tenacious—and, it could be said, stubborn—as Barry Goldwater would not take that as the final word. Instead, he told the Senate, “My answer is that we should try again.”
We lost this American icon sixteen years ago. Since his passing, the stench of money in politics has only gotten worse -- with Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s 2014 McCutcheon decision (which blew away any limits on how much ultra-rich donors can give directly to candidates), and the rise (and soon, dominance) of dark money groups.
This fall, the Senate considered a proposed constitutional amendment bill that would allow the public to “set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.” The amendment affirms our right to free speech by making sure that the voices of everyday Americans can be heard over the roar of massive special interest political spending. A vast majority of Americans of both parties agree. Over 100 Republican elected officials are on record in support of an amendment.
The amendment didn’t pass, but it will be back as Americans continue to push back against the takeover of our democracy by elite funders. Goldwater never gave up, and neither can we.
Ron Fein is the Legal Director of Free Speech For People.
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