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Barry Goldwater's 1964 'extremism' speech still defines conservatism 50 years on

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Fifty years ago this week, Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican party's nomination for president at the GOP convention in San Francisco. Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign is almost universally credited with launching both the modern conservative and the modern libertarian movements.

In an acceptance speech most famous for its much misunderstood but biggest applause line – “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” – Goldwater laid out a definition for political conservatism without once using the word “conservative.”

Something of a précis of his 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater's convention speech endeavored to explain conservatism – or what he called “Republicanism” on that occasion – to listeners who had not yet learned much about it.

In the same speech, Goldwater displayed a certain amount of prescience regarding the course of human history and offered advice to his fellow Republicans who, then as now, often found themselves among bickering factions.

In one, brief paragraph, the Arizona Senator summarized the conservative view of individual liberty and the proper role of government.

Private property and diversity

Conservatives, he said, “see, in private property and in economy based upon and fostering private property, the one way to make government a durable ally of the whole man, rather than his determined enemy. We see in the sanctity of private property the only durable foundation for constitutional government in a free society. And beyond that, we see, in cherished diversity of ways, diversity of thoughts, of motives and accomplishments. We do not seek to lead anyone's life for him - we seek only to secure his rights and to guarantee him opportunity to strive, with government performing only those needed and constitutionally sanctioned tasks which cannot otherwise be performed.”

Goldwater also drew a contrast explicitly to the communist, totalitarian vision and, implicitly, to big-government liberalism then in vogue.

“Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good,” Goldwater asserted, “are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions of equality, ladies and gentlemen. Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.”

In a line that would be welcomed equally by the Tea Party and by the Occupy movement, Goldwater said that conservatives must “resist concentrations of power, private or public, which enforce such conformity and inflict such despotism. It is the cause of Republicanism to ensure that power remains in the hands of the people.”

A vision of the future

And as if envisioning the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Empire a quarter-century later, Goldwater made remarkably accurate predictions in this paragraph:

“I believe that we must look beyond the defense of freedom today to its extension tomorrow. I believe that the communism which boasts it will bury us will, instead, give way to the forces of freedom. And I can see in the distant and yet recognizable future the outlines of a world worthy our dedication, our every risk, our every effort, our every sacrifice along the way. Yes, a world that will redeem the suffering of those who will be liberated from tyranny. I can see and I suggest that all thoughtful men must contemplate the flowering of an Atlantic civilization, the whole world of Europe unified and free, trading openly across its borders, communicating openly across the world.”

Toward the end of his speech, just before the famous line about “extremism,” Goldwater pointed out the factionalism in the Republican party was not new, but also was not necessarily bad.

Discord and hostility

The GOP, he said, is “a Party for free men, not for blind followers, and not for conformists.”

Then he quoted Abraham Lincoln in 1858 “because he probably could have said it during the last week or so: "[The Republican Party] was composed of strained, discordant, and even hostile elements.'”

As if he were anticipating the divide between the Tea Party and “establishment” branches of the conservative movement in the 21st century, Goldwater then admonished: “Let our Republicanism, so focused and so dedicated, not be made fuzzy and futile by unthinking and stupid labels.”

He explained that “the beauty of this Federal system of ours is in its reconciliation of diversity with unity. We must not see malice in honest differences of opinion, and no matter how great, so long as they are not inconsistent with the pledges we have given to each other in and through our Constitution. Our Republican cause is not to level out the world or make its people conform in computer regimented sameness. Our Republican cause is to free our people and light the way for liberty throughout the world.”

It was in that context – between “stupid labels” and the beauty of the American system – that Goldwater added:

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

He concluded with the modest thought that conservatives have “a very human cause for very humane goals.”

Barry Goldwater's nomination acceptance speech of July 16, 1964, can be viewed in its entirety on the C-SPAN web site.

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