Newsweek’s Jon Meacham makes the link between Goldwater in 1964 and Sarah Palin today. This is a huge insult to Goldwater – his appeal was to ideas, however wrong-headed or unpopular they were, as opposed to winking to mouth-breathing morons. Despite that, he reasons that both Goldwater and Palin appeal to the extremist base.
I don’t think it’s entirely correct. Goldwater was the embodiment of a certain economic fundamentalism, but he was hardly the champion of the xenophobic Birchers and the religious fanatics. He was an extremist in defense of “liberty” as he defined it, and had little patience with the knuckle-dragging wing of the party. On the other hand, Palin’s entire sphere of support is with the people who are convinced that intelligence has no place in politics. Being knowledgeable is actually a bad thing to these people. They like Sarah because she’s “genuine”, and they like her even more with every evidence that she’s a blithering idiot. Being ignorant isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
So Meacham thinks that the Republicans are heading for Goldwater-like electoral failure because they seek to distill their support to the True Believers instead of building a Big Tent. He may be right. Where he’s wrong is to compare this phenomenon with the Democrat’s time in the wilderness.
We have been to this movie before, when the unreconstructed liberals of the fading New Deal–Great Society coalition obstinately refused to acknowledge the reality that America is a center-right nation, and that Democrats who wish to win national elections cannot run on the left.
The “reality” that America is a center-right nation is the Goebbelsian notion that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. I find it shameful that Americans let pundits and politicians repeat this slander without calling them on it. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, while being moderate centrist Democrats, certainly ran to the left of their opposition. The left-liberal Democrats were and are the soul and conscience of the party, but never did they hold the reigns of power since FDR. Even then, Roosevelt challenged the left wing to make him institute the changes that they wanted.
Yes, the New Deal and the Great Society were golden ages for liberal Democrats; but that’s because these eras resonated with the true progressive nature of Americans. It’s not some aberration to be ashamed of, but rather to be celebrated as eras of progressive change when Americans were building a more perfect union. I think that another such era, Barack Obama’s New Foundation, began on January 21, 2009. An era of (yes) hope and change when the United States solved some of the economic problems rooted in a soulless free-market fundamentalism, and when a new purpose revitalized America’s leadership in the world. You’ll be reading about it in the history books, but you read it here first.