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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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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Jim Barber

 

Barry Goldwater was my first political hero. The most antiauthoritarian figure in mainstream American politics, who said what he thought without giving a damn, he looked and sounded as Western as Arizona, the state he represented in the Senate. Goldwater and John Kennedy hatched plans in the White House—for what they assumed would be their upcoming presidential campaign against each other in 1964—to travel the country in the Arizonan’s small plane that he flew himself, stopping off at airports in the middle of nowhere to debate one issue or another before taking off again. This two-fisted, free-flying persona made Goldwater the kind of politician that film director Howard Hawks might have come up with; by comparison, government couldn’t help appearing soullessly oppressive. Great Society liberalism had become the norm by the mid-1960s, and this reinforced Goldwater’s iconoclasm, striking a politically attuned, insistently nonconformist teenager as utopian, in the same way that Kennedy embodied idealism for so many others of my generation.

Utopia was in the air where I grew up, though I wouldn’t have identified it as that any more than I could have told you who Howard Hawks was. L.A.’s San Fernando Valley was the no man’s land between rural and suburban, between Wild West and space-age futurism. Ranches sprawled on the other side of the biggest road that ran near my house; three miles away, in the same part of the Valley that would become the porn capital of the world a couple of decades later, were makeshift frontier towns built for Westerns by the Hollywood studios. Overhead, the purple vapor trails of rocket tests streaked the skies. Kennedy’s race to the moon built the modern Valley; every father of every kid I knew worked, as did my own dad, for the bursting aerospace industry—-Lockheed, Hughes, North American, Rockwell. The progress that cut swaths through the Valley brought a disruption matched only by earthquakes. A new freeway (which eventually would be named after President Ronald Reagan) took our house, leaving just the swimming pool that was proof of my parents’ upward mobility; the pool was given to the next-door neighbor whose house fell outside the freeway’s path. This sort of upheaval was too common to be traumatizing.

My mother loved Goldwater, too. She took me to a Goldwater rally at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and on the morning of the ’64 election, I recall her peering through my bedroom door, gently trying to prepare her sensitive teenage son for the likelihood that our man Barry probably wasn’t going to make it that day. An outspoken liberal in her youth, she was the more ideological of my parents, both of whom grew up Franklin Roosevelt Democrats. In the election of 1948, she missed being old enough to vote by 11 days; my father voted for Harry Truman. Though he remained a Democrat in name, he never voted Democratic again. In the next election, both my parents cast their ballots for the Republican nominee, Dwight Eisenhower, after which began the rightward political trajectory of so many New Deal children, which would accelerate in response to the tumult of the ’60s. In my father’s case, this evolution accompanied the economic ascension that went with swimming pools built and forsaken, while my mother shared with many Americans an alarm that Soviet communism was winning the Cold War, sabotaging democracy and free enterprise. My fascination with politics derived from an interest in the drama of American history; by the time I was 12, I was writing stories about Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Hale (an enthusiasm for patriots making the ultimate sacrifice may be discerned here). I could recite the Gettysburg Address and name all the presidents of the United States in order and the opponents they defeated. Enthralled by Thomas Jefferson’s maxim that “government is best which governs least” (lately there’s some question whether he said this), I believed that the Bill of Rights is the greatest political document ever written, and I still believe it today, even as I take greater note over the years that it was written less as an addendum to the Constitution than as a rebuttal, by the Constitution’s greatest skeptic, its so-called father, James Madison. 

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. 

Politics is always personal. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the changes I was going through, especially at the ages of 18 and 19, were entirely philosophical. Suffice it to say that when I glanced back over my shoulder at my first 17 years, I didn’t much like what I saw—someone rigid and judgmental, with politics to match. None of this examination took place inside the hermetic seal of my own thinking and feeling; a cultural explosion rocked the decade around me. The facts of the civil-rights movement became as inexorable to me as worries about democracy and totalitarianism. The national dilemma of race, and that dilemma’s resolution, became crucial to my evolving patriotism; not having had a single acquaintance before college who was African American, now I was living with African Americans in the college dormitory. Jeffersonian individualism remained my ideal, but there were more and more examples of how sometimes only the dreaded federal government had the power to protect the freedom of the individual from states and localities. Over and over, the notion that government necessarily becomes more responsive and better suited to protecting liberty the farther down the line from federalism it gets was proved irrefutably false.

By the end of the ’60s, it was clear that the conservatism I so ardently adopted was wrong about the two great issues of the day, civil rights being the first. The other was a war in Southeast Asia that no military or political figure was capable of explaining, a war for which every guy I knew was fodder. One night in 1969, three weeks before Christmas, a great raffle was held in Washington, D.C., in which my fate was drawn from a glass jar. All men of draft age received a number that would determine how soon, if ever, they would be called up for service and combat. Mine was 345, a very good number as numbers went in a situation that nonetheless underscored the absurdity of the lottery and the war itself. The proposition of bolstering an inept and crooked Indochinese country for the sake of American national security was one that few in the country accepted any longer, and when four students were murdered by the National Guard on a campus in Ohio the following spring during a demonstration against the war, what died as well was the last semblance of support for the war and an ideology that justified it. To a Jeffersonian, the brandishing of state power in order to conscript people to fight in a faithless conflagration and then to oppress the right of assembly stipulated by the First Amendment was repellent. 

The 1960s were a Rorschach decade. No interpretation of the era’s inkblot is altogether wrong. Conservatism and liberalism were realigned in the process, creeds reassessed; liberal Democrats first escalated the Vietnam War, while some conservatives suggested that if this was an endeavor we couldn’t win, we should withdraw. But while the likes of Goldwater raised ever more blunt questions about the war and the draft, the vast majority of self-identified conservatives supported the state. Up to a point, this was an understandable response to what many ordinary Americans perceived as growing turmoil; faced with chaos, people like my parents had different ideas than I of what was to be conserved. None of this, however, changed the fact that in its deceit about the war’s unfolding and what was and wasn’t at stake, the state itself bore accountability for much of this chaos, and in the conflict between freedom and order, while the Jeffersonian conservatism that I signed up for gave the benefit of the doubt to freedom, a new conservatism now chose order. This state-imposed order was manifested by duplicity in the form of government misinformation and intimidation and surveillance, as well as by an implicit lack of faith in America itself—in an American’s right to know, in the American fabric’s ability to weather such fraying of and even rips in the national life. “If it takes a bloodbath,” Reagan said upon quelling a demonstration at the University of California, Berkeley, during his first term as California’s governor, “let’s get it over with,” a battle cry that not long before would have confirmed everything about the state that conservatives feared.

Ronald Reagan was the conservative Jesus for whom Goldwater proved to be only John the Baptist. Reagan came to the attention of conservatives when he made a speech for Goldwater a week before the ’64 election, advancing the case for Goldwater’s candidacy more powerfully than Goldwater had. Over the next 16 years, Reagan became the personification of a hybrid conservatism forged by times that tested everything. This fusion crossed an eloquence on behalf of liberty with a new trust in the power of the state; deserting the ideal of individual freedom, now conservatives automatically registered protest against the war and on behalf of civil rights as leftist insurrection. While Reagan’s election as president in 1980 appeared to be the apotheosis of what Goldwater started, in fact conservatism and the new president each were remaking themselves in the image of the other. Under Reagan the national debt and size of the federal government exploded; the Justice Department paid a purposely ominous attention to what adults read and watched; the war on drugs grew more ruthless; cynicism about science, particularly as it had to do with the environment, grew more pronounced; antagonism to the freedom of women to make choices about their bodies grew more vehement. 

Most striking, three impulses distinguished the new right. The first was how the right’s enmity toward centralized state power was matched by an adoration of centralized corporate power. This constituted an abandonment of the principle of a truly free marketplace—with entrepreneurship and the flourishing of small business becoming more constrained and difficult—-
and the overarching principle of decentralization. The second impulse was the displacement of liberty as conservatism’s core priority by a new priority, “values,” by which the right invariably meant sexual behavior, predominantly the sexual behavior of women and homosexuals. The third new impulse was most profound. This was a reconceptualization of the republic as one in which citizens are bound not by a Constitution in which God isn’t once mentioned, euphemized, or alluded to but by an unwritten Christian covenant that implicitly subjects free will to an organizing ethos that’s unmistakably theocratic. What was a freedom movement became an authority/wealth/religious movement. The new conservatism now spoke of the Bill of Rights with thinly veiled contempt. Conservatism continued to pay lip service to freedom in the abstract even as the only freedoms in the specific that it defended with urgency were the right to make a profit and to own a gun. If the language of conservatism, as given voice by President Reagan, hadn’t changed, its very essence had transformed, within two decades of Goldwater’s defeated run for the presidency.

 

In college I had doubts about everything, and then doubts about the doubts. I didn’t become a leftist: I wouldn’t have contemplated for two seconds putting a poster of Mao on my wall any more than I would have put up one of Hitler, and I found a lot of the revolutionary sentiments in pop music that I otherwise loved simplistic or silly. Calling the United States “fascist” was outrageous and reckless, a neutering of the word’s power by its careless use. I believed the testimony of history was that a managed capitalism made more people free and happy than did communism. 

Some of the left-wing ideologues I knew reminded me of the right-wing ideologues I knew, including the one I had known best: me. The extent to which ideology hijacks independent thought, refracting an issue through the lens of an already-settled bias, was all the more disturbing for how long it took me to see it. Ideology is pathological: It provides a psychological structure posing as a theoretical one. This is why fervent communist intellectuals of the 1930s could become fervent anti-communist intellectuals of the 1950s—they didn’t change at all. They became anti-communist communists. In our own day, Keith Olbermann is a left-wing version of Glenn Beck and vice versa; you can switch their soundtracks and notice no difference in body nuance or facial expression or voice inflection, because the inner emotional wiring is the same. The harder a line that ideology hews, the more that right and left have in common, sharing a penchant for rewriting the past to vindicate whatever version of the present each prefers to trust. Stalinists flatly deny that the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 ever happened, in the same way that leaders of the contemporary right recast American history in terms of a mind-set that regards information as an elite conspiracy, science as a plot against God, and the earth as a subversive entity. 

Where this story leaves me at the end isn’t really important, but since it began as my story, I should finish it. I’m keenly aware that my present identity as a political nomad may be no less about my ego than knee-jerk obstinacy was in my adolescence, that perhaps I repeat the pattern of my youth in reflexively staking out the vantage point of a contrarian. My politics were right when the country was left, and then moved left as the country moved right. The most flattering conclusion is that my previous life as a teenage right-winger inoculates me to ideology altogether. Consistency isn’t always the hobgoblin of a small mind: Every amendment in the Bill of Rights can’t be interpreted so broadly as to extrapolate from the fourth not simply a right to privacy but to an abortion, while at the same time the Second Amendment is strictly construed as being about a militia rather than the larger freedom of the citizenry not to be disarmed by the state. In turn, the Second Amendment can’t be interpreted broadly, ignoring the actual language, while the other nine are interpreted narrowly. At a social gathering following 9/11, I was dismayed that friends to the left of me condemned what I considered George W. Bush’s legitimate military action in Afghanistan, given the complicity of the Taliban in its alliance with al-Qaeda; the war against Iraq, on the other hand (having nothing to do with al-Qaeda or 9/11 or phantom weapons), made me angrier than anything that any American government has done. 

I have my own kids now. Despite gratifying evidence that my 15-year-old son knows who the Koch brothers are, the allure of memorizing all the presidents in order escapes him. My seven-year-old, on the other hand, was reported by neighbors to be heard railing at her playmates, “And don’t even get me started on Paul Ryan!” I honestly believe my children are best served by a free politics that needs two wings to stay airborne and a push-me/pull-you tension between what is a right and what is a privilege, what is entitled and what is not, what reasonably progresses and what responsibly conserves. As recently as five years ago, I voted for a Republican for statewide office, and 12 years ago in the California primary, I voted for a Republican for president. I’m sorry to say that I don’t foresee doing it again. While the man in the middle clings to the vanity of fair-mindedness, contending that both sides are equally right and wrong, perfectly balanced by perspectives that are equally valid and flawed, conservatism has too irrevocably exhausted not just its philosophical credibility but any moral mandate. Run amok, the authoritarian, corporate, and theocratic impulses that were troubling a quarter-century ago have become appalling and indisputable.

Caught between know-nothingism and a faux populism that disguises a predisposition to favor the financially powerful against the disenfranchised, the new right is born of that awful howl that rose from the convention floor in San Francisco and so startled me. This is the ferocity that animates the right’s most prominent spokesmen in politics and electronic discourse. Some will argue it’s gratuitous to characterize a movement in terms of its gratuitousness—debate audiences cheering executions and booing gay soldiers in Iraq. I don’t think so anymore. At its most unforgiving, the incontrovertible id of today’s conservatism insists that an American president is not really an American and not really the president and tries to reject not solely his ideas but also the very fact of him. Over the past four years, the right, exuding bad faith at best and collective psychosis at worst, has intended not merely to end a presidency but to discredit its existence. Even before conservatism betrayed itself so conspicuously I’m not sure my right-wing teenage self thought conservatism was about shipping 12 million Latinos out of the country or supposing that people stupid enough to get sick when they can’t afford it should die. Pressed on the point, I should like to think that I would have allowed that being a country involves the sustenance of a social contract and the recognition that we’re more than 300 million free agents who happen to be roaming the same piece of real estate. 

As for Barry Goldwater, before his death he became an exile from the movement that once was his. Following his presidential run, he continued to strike positions in accordance with a Jeffersonian big-individual/-small-government code. He called for an end to the draft. He became an ardent environmentalist. He supported the Voting Rights Act. He promoted legalization of marijuana. He championed gay rights. He espoused abortion rights. He engineered President Richard Nixon’s resignation for having used the levers of power to harass innocent Americans. He advocated (well, mused openly about, as was his wont) the nomination of black Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Jordan for vice president in 1976. He lobbied for the Supreme Court’s first female justice. He blasted Reagan for the 1987 Iran-Contra scandal (“the goddamned stupidest foreign-policy blunder this country’s ever made”). He admonished George H.W. Bush for running a shallow campaign against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988. He endorsed Democratic congressional candidates in the early ’90s. He defended President Bill Clinton from trumped-up Republican charges of corruption. His denunciations of the religious right grew more bitter (“Do not associate my name with anything you do—you’re extremists, and you’ve hurt the Republican Party much more than the Democrats have”), and his consternation grew at how the rest of the party became caught in the undertow: “A lot of so-called conservatives today don’t know what the word means,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1994. When Republican nominee Robert Dole went to get Goldwater’s benediction during the 1996 campaign, hoping to shore up his conservative credentials while the news cameras rolled, Goldwater could be seen and heard by millions telling Dole, somewhat wryly, “We’re the new liberals of the party. Can you imagine that?”—not what Dole had in mind. By the time he died in 1998, Republicans had begun a whispering campaign that Goldwater suffered from dementia. Speaking for the Arizona delegation at the Democratic Convention this past summer, Goldwater’s granddaughter cast her state’s votes for Barack Obama.

 

Steve Erickson has contributed to The New York Times, Esquire, Rolling Stone and Los Angeles. He teaches at CalArts, and his new novel is These Dreams of You (Europa Editions).