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I Was a Teen Conservative: How I Learned That Life Is Too Complex for Right-Wing Ideology

In the early ’60s, the right's emphasis on individual freedom was enormously appealing. What better way to rebel against liberal smugness?

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Since the liberalism of the time was as smug as the conservatism of the future would be sanctimonious, I was secretly pleased when a history teacher in high school called my opinions “dangerous.” What teenager doesn’t want to be dangerous, especially when he’s so undangerous in so many other ways? The conservatism I embraced was a whole greater than the sum of the parts, the emphasis on individual freedom trumping stuff that I considered to be fine print. While I never liked the sound of a welfare state, I was enough of a softy to have balked at denying help to people who needed it; to the extent that I understood it, the idea that arose from the Great Crash of 1929—that there should be a division between commercial banks and investment banks, without which the great crash of 2008 later became possible—sounded perfectly sensible and, if anything, like a conservative idea. I didn’t really know what the Tennessee Valley Authority was or what it meant that Goldwater mused openly about selling it off. Goldwater mused openly about a lot of things that I took with a nuclear silo worth of salt. When he made jokes about lobbing missiles into the men’s room in the Kremlin, I thought it was funny, something that now mortifies me; I was too immature to understand that a presidential campaign might be better off with a little less humor out of Dr. Strangelove, that election year’s most talked-about film. I never believed that Goldwater was going to start a war, as suggested by an infamous Democratic television ad of a small girl plucking a daisy while counting down to Armageddon, because I didn’t think he was crazy. I had more faith in his prudence than he gave anyone reason to have.

 

While my hero worship remained unabated, I was troubled that summer of ’64. Liberals recoiled when Goldwater declared at the Republican Convention in San Francisco that “extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice,” but I understood the statement on its face; Tom Paine and Patrick Henry, not to mention Jefferson, said the same thing, more or less. If I was barely savvy enough, however, to comprehend Goldwater’s provocation, the mob fury that gripped the convention was harder to ignore. Rendered in images all the more unseemly by the crude black and white of television, the delegates cascaded verbal abuse at Goldwater’s defeated rival for the nomination, New York’s moderate governor, Nelson Rockefeller. More instinctually than I could articulate, I had the feeling maybe these were people I wouldn’t want to be in the same room with. No ideology holds the patent on rage, and in the years to come, scenes as ugly were played out by the political left. But though I was still too young to fathom what was meant by the better angels of our nature, I did experience my first sense of political alienation, and it was from those who I thought were on my side. 

Meanwhile, a month before the convention, on the momentum of Kennedy’s martyrdom, the Senate passed the Civil Rights Act. This was the single most momentous piece of legislation since the same institution approved the 13th Amendment ending slavery a century before. Twenty-nine senators voted against the law; Goldwater was one of them. Following World War II, Goldwater had desegregated the Arizona National Guard that he founded and was a forceful proponent for integrating the nation’s military forces as well. In the Senate he had supported every previous civil-rights bill, including the ’64 bill in an earlier, less expansive form. I understood the constitutional rationale behind Goldwater’s vote, which was that the government shouldn’t have the power to dictate the conduct of a private business. Even at the age of 14, however, I had the unambiguous impression of some bigger picture being missed. While I didn’t question Goldwater’s motives, the motives on the convention floor that summer were transparent: There was little doubt that much of Goldwater’s support was racist and that much of what was being expressed on the floor was white wrath. I’m keenly cognizant of how self-serving it is to overstate this now. I was a naïve white kid with half a century between then and this article to cover my tracks. So let’s say that the rightness of the cause of racial justice was too manifest, too bright a line for one not to finally choose a side. In contrast with black people being hosed down on TV and beset by vicious dogs and vicious sticks swung by vicious cops, rhetoric about states’ rights sounded hollow.