When Conservative Was an Epithet

Thirty years ago and more, the word conservative was as maligned as the word liberal is today. I’m nostalgic for those days when rightists were demeaned as reactionary and leftists believed in something.

Those who disparage liberalism and the movements of the 1960s era generally avoid speaking of liberalism’s victories: the end of separate facilities for blacks in the South, voting rights unhindered by poll taxes and “citizenship tests” and, gosh, the end of girdles on secretaries who were expected to take dictation in the boss’s lap.

Conservatism got a bad name in those days because it dug its heels into expensive parquet floors and left nasty skid marks for the help to clean up as it resisted the democratization of our supposed democracy. The end of subservient wives and docile “Negroes” was rebuked by the conservatives of those years as caving to Communism and its stated agenda of empowering working people, which made conservatives’ venality obvious.

Barry Goldwater’s running for president in 1964 as a self-avowed extremist vowing “to bomb Hanoi back to the Stone Age” didn’t help either.

Liberals, on the other hand, were in favor of not only civil rights for blacks and women but also for refraining from wars of aggression, ending abject poverty, promoting health care choices (including abortion, while over a thousand American women died in back alleys), fully funding public education from preschool through college, conferring legal rights on the millions of “illegal” immigrants who make our economy possible, and insuring safe conditions in transportation, schools and the workplace. And those are just the first few examples that come to mind.

Conservatives, on the other hand, favored wars of aggression anywhere they could make a profit but claim to be opposing Communism, opposed such outrages as seatbelts and padded dashboards as assaults on personal liberty (and their pocketbooks), and proudly defended so-called white rights against encroachments from so-called minorities (while the defenders of these rights were themselves a minority, considering how women were disenfranchised).

In that era of conservative defensiveness and liberal triumph, the right-wing blacklists were ended, a ridiculous 15-year war was finally closed down by popular demand, blacks got the vote they’d been promised a century earlier, women were permitted into restaurants in pants suits or alone into bars, divorces were no longer routinely denied to battered women, abortions were removed from the back alleys, cars were made safer and cleaner running, workplace protections were strengthened, unions were respected as the balance of power to capital, and the popular culture started portraying Americans more as they were and less as powerful interests wished them to be represented.

Today, as vital governmental protections are opposed by the very people they protect, as part of a “get gummint off my back” philosophy, I miss liberalism.

Why has it failed to thrive? Why has “conservatism,” which is still right-wing extremism if no longer popularly identified that way, cheerfully chugged along?

Right-wing extremism is a coherent, radical philosophy these days, aimed at ensuring that businesses have unfettered means of concentrating wealth and power. High and regressive taxes keep the non-rich working harder than they want to and resentful of their government, instead of aiming their resentments on those who actually exploit them. Businesses have custom-tailored government to suit their needs, creating a ruling class that maintains its privileges in perpetuity.

Now here’s where the 1960s’ perspective gets into ironic territory: The term that stuck to so-called conservatives in that era was “reactionary,” meaning that they were against any threat to the status quo, slapping back at whatever proactive, progress-minded people wanted. But today, liberalism has become the philosophy that is merely reactive, staying just to the left of whatever the status quo happens to be. When Ronald Reagan moved the nation’s political center far to the right, liberals’ typical little jump to the left plopped them still within their supposed opponents’ territory.

Any philosophy defined by what it opposes is bogus and eventually doomed. Any philosophy willing to emulate what it opposes in order to ingratiate itself to a perceived majority is knocking on death’s door.

All of which is why I long for a time warp that returns us to the days when the liberals had a program and rightists were the reactionaries.

The internal contradictions within each philosophy remain our nation’s great problems: For the right, letting rich people all gorge at the trough simultaneously means that no one is looking out for the long-term health of the country or economy, which is why Republican eras always end in depressions or deep recessions. For the left, the expanded opportunities they advocate snowball to a sense of entitlement for everyone, which is why liberal eras foment social unrest.

But that’s a subject for another week. For this week’s Unfairly Forgotten festival, I reiterate: I miss an era not so long gone but all but forgotten (or caricatured into a time of sex and chaos), when the general culture embraced expanded opportunities, fairness, peace, and distrust of the radical right wing.


While I think Mr. Steinhart is an excellent and erudite author (Memories of an Honest Politician was one of my absolute favorite articles to appear here) I must disagree with his characterization of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater is a fascinating and complex character who supported civil rights and gays in the military. He was also quite an honorable politician.
I do think that those who call themselves conservatives today are just corporate-socialism-for-the-rich thugs and I do agree with the overall perspective of Mr. Steinhart's otherwise fine article. I just feel that his statement on Mr. Goldwater is a bit unjust.
09.23.2004 | J.E. D'Ulisse
Thank you very much for the compliment and comment, Mr. D'Ulisse. The Tony Olivieri piece is from a book I'm working on, a memoir in the form of stories about others.

As for Sen. Goldwater, I ended up quite fond of him myself, especially as he mellowed in his old age, but remember that I'm referring to 1964: "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice" (his campaign slogan) was little comfort to a nation that feared a Goldwater presidency would result in nuclear war in Viet Nam (as we still spelled it then).

His followers certainly adored him and became the heart of the right-wing movement that exploded into the Reagan presidency and beyond.

And speaking of fearing nuclear war, that topic has been strangely absent from the current presidential campaign, especially as President Bush has repeatedly signaled his intent to use smaller nuclear bombs as tactical weapons. Can we doubt that he'd use them in a second term?
09.23.2004 | David L Steinhardt
Did the RNC write this article? If the Democrats ever go back to 1960's liberalism, the Republicans would be the happiest ones around.

I also dislike this article for its dishonesty. For one thing, Mr. Steinhardt effectively demonizes conservatives, blaming them for the civil rights problems in America. If you are going to blame conservatives for segregation (which you should), then you must be specific, and say "Southern conservatives." As it stands now, this article is very deceptive. The Republican Party is obviously the party associated with conservatism, and thus is implicated as holding back the flow of civil rights. In fact, it was the Republican Party that opened the civil rights floodgates. Of course, you will claim realignment since then, and it is true, the old Southern conservative Democrats are now largely Southern conservative Republicans. But then make this clear in the article, and don't commit this sort of backhanded slander of the Republican Party.

Also, for all this talk of a 1960's liberal revolution, what good came out of it? Has abject poverty been ended? Has the healthcare problem been solved? Are illegal immigrants any better off now? The answers are all no.

I think this in large part why the Democrats and the liberals in general have not stuck to the hardcore 1960's liberalism. Sure, it might sound nice--but it doesn't win votes. Look at McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis--all badly defeated. That sort of liberalism is out of touch with America because in large part it just doesn't work.

Sure, blame Republican presidencies for depressions and recessions, while at the same time not mentioning that it was Johnsonian big government solutions that lead to the stagflation crisis. You cannot honestly claim you forgot to mention that.

1960's liberalism failed. It did make some tangible gains, and for those we should be glad. But it is now recognized for the radical, extremist platform that it was, and that is why it has been discarded. America doesn't want a return to the lunacy of the SDS, Black Panthers, or any of the other 1960's radicals like them. God bless America!
09.23.2004 | Matt Luby
I don't know how one can claim the Republican Party "opened the civil rights floodgates." Sure, Chief Justice Earl Warren was a Republican, but his party was furious at him for his liberal tilt once he hit the bench ("Worst mistake I ever made," said Eisenhower about appointing him). And the rest of the Court was largely FDR appointees.

What good came of 1960s liberalism? I repeat: civil rights for anyone but white males! That's not failure; that's cultural reinvention that was way overdue. Perhaps Mr. Luby has not noticed that lychings of black men have decreased significantly since the days of my own youth (I was born in 1960). And other examples cited in the article.

Feminist gains were just as substantial. As alluded to in the pull quote on the Main Page, I once heard Betty Friedan say in a speech, "When women tell me they're not feminists, I ask them, 'Have you ever worn a girdle?'"

As for Mr. Luby's other criticisms, I've noticed that first he rewrites my article, then argues with his own version. Doesn't have anything to do with the actual column above. Black Panthers & SDS liberal? What a silly thing to say! I might as well define the GOP as having the KKK's agenda.

And...slandering the Republican Party? (Excuse me while I giggle.) That's really funny. If an organization could be libeled (slander is spoken speech), I can't imagine one I'd rather commit that tort against than the GOP! The trial would be one of the highlights of my life. Please, someone, change the law so that I can be sued by the GOP for libel. I can't wait.

As for what I "must" say, may I respectfully suggest to Mr. Luby that he edit his own journal if he wishes to communicate to journalists in the imperative.

09.23.2004 | David L Steinhardt

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