As he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, Sen. Barry Goldwater famously declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
A few weeks later, Americans watched a TV commercial in which a little girl counted aloud while plucking petals from a daisy. Her count faded away, replaced by the countdown to a nuclear test, which was followed by a mushroom cloud that filled the screen.
“These are the stakes,” the voice of Goldwater’s opponent, President Lyndon B. Johnson, said in a voice-over. “To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” An announcer then intoned, “Vote for President Johnson on November third. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
Johnson won in a landslide. Goldwater carried only his home of Arizona and a tier of Deep South states, from Louisiana to South Carolina, which rejected Johnson for his support of the Civil Rights Act.
America’s political system, consisting of two dominant parties and three co-equal branches of government, has pushed our politics toward the political center since the aftermath of the Civil War. This tends to get problems solved, or at least addressed, in a reasonable length of time. The civil rights movement provides one example; the Vietnam War is another.
To illustrate a contrasting approach, Israel’s system of government produces the opposite result. An Israeli prime minister must command a majority in the Knesset, or parliament. But Israel’s election rules entitle the country’s many small parties to a share of seats in the Knesset if they can draw at least 5 percent of the vote. For decades, Israel’s major parties have been forced into coalitions in which the more extreme parties - often religiously based - have outsized influence. Though Israel is hardly responsible by itself for the failure to achieve peace with Palestinians and surrounding states, Israeli politics have made a final resolution much more difficult, in part because coalition members ardently defend settlements in occupied territory that the rest of the world considers illegal.
In the United States, Republicans learned a lot from Goldwater’s misfire. Richard M. Nixon, who had been defeated in 1960, won the White House in 1968 by claiming to speak for a “silent majority” of Americans who did not like what was happening in the streets and in the halls of power. Voters who considered themselves part of this alleged majority could project whatever they wished onto Nixon’s words. If you opposed a rapid pullout from Vietnam, you saw yourself in his majority. If you disliked hippies and drugs and the sexual revolution and the entrance of women into male-dominated professions and trades, you saw yourself in his majority. If you were white and Southern and resented the civil rights movement, you saw yourself in Nixon’s majority when he promised to appoint “strict constructionists” to the federal courts.
We look back on Ronald Reagan as the archetype of today’s conservative Republican. But Reagan was a former Democrat, a former union president, and a former governor of California, a state whose brand of Republicanism was moderate and pro-business. Moreover, Reagan - who later became a staunchly anti-abortion president - signed a California law legalizing “therapeutic abortion” in 1967, six years before the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. From fewer than 600 recorded abortions in 1967, the number of abortions in the state climbed within a few years to more than 100,000 annually.
If Mitt Romney is this year’s “Massachusetts moderate” Republican presidential candidate, as his opponents Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have both accusingly claimed, how would they have described Reagan if he were running this year? I can almost hear Santorum channeling Goldwater into a new campaign slogan: extremism in the defense of chastity is no vice.
Our system of government has not changed. It still drives political action toward the center, when action happens at all. This is why President Obama had to accept lower tax rates on high-income earners when the Bush-era tax legislation was extended for two years at the end of 2010. This is also why House Republicans, including deficit hardliners aligned with the Tea Party movement, had to accept the continued reduction this year of Social Security taxes for wage earners without offsetting spending reductions.
But our system of getting politicians into the government has changed. Party primaries have been around for a long time, but more candidates these days have both the wherewithal to get themselves into the process and the funding to stay there. This has reduced the influence of party leaders, who are mostly interested in winning elections, and enhanced the influence of the most committed party members, who are more inclined to be focused on single issues, ranging from abortion to the environment.
President Obama does not face a primary challenge this year. He thus avoids the pressure from his party’s base to publicly advocate its most extreme positions. Meanwhile, the drawn-out primary schedule on the Republican side is doing just what it was designed to do: It is pushing all the serious candidates toward the positions favored by the most committed party members, which is the relatively small number of socially conservative and evangelical Republicans. There are not nearly enough of those people to carry swing states in a general election, but there are enough to sustain, at least for awhile, the candidacy of Santorum, who they see as one of their own even though his policy positions are not very different from Romney’s.
Democrats have done a better job than Republicans of constructing a “big tent” party. You can be anti-abortion and a Democrat and still have a chance of getting elected in many parts of the country. If you are pro-choice and Republican, your chances are almost nil, even in places where the electorate is relatively liberal.
Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine was one of the Republicans who entered politics when the memory of Goldwater’s debacle was still fresh. Socially moderate to liberal Republicans were fairly common back then, especially in the Northeast. Now, estranged from her own party and also from the increasingly partisan Senate Democrats, she has announced plans to retire rather than seek re-election. Her departure could cost Republicans a chance to regain majority control in the Senate.
That’s bad for Republicans and bad for the country, but it is what extremism will get you.
Goldwater also said in 1964, “And let me also remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” I admire the sentiment. Justice, however, is often subjective. The Occupy movement would argue that it seeks justice. So would either side in the abortion debate. If we lose our ability to find common ground, we forfeit the opportunity to obtain justice for anyone.