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Goldwater’s Legacy and the Regulatory State


With all due respect, I think that Ezra Klein is misreading the arguments being made about Goldwater’s legacy. At least as I read Drum, Yglesias and DeLong, there’s no contradiction between their position and that of Klein (or Schmitt.) An earlier iteration of the Yglesias/DeLong argument might clarify matters. Last year, BMM said:

Undoubtedly, since 1964 the GOP has won (or, more recently, “won”) a lot of elections, especially presidential elections. But what has this Republican Party that allegedly “is more conservative than Mr. Goldwater could have imagined” actually achieved? Certainly, it hasn’t repealed the Civil Rights Act, which Goldwater opposed. The main policy achievement the authors point to — later in the piece — is welfare reform, a modification of progressive program that substantially didn’t exist until the second Johnson administration’s war on poverty.The largest Johnson-era anti-poverty program, Medicaid, is still with us, as is Medicare for senior citizens, which has only grown more generous (most recently, via a bill passed almost exclusively with Republican votes) since it’s creation. Social Security, the centerpiece of the New Deal welfare state, is likewise more generous than it was in 1964. The federal government plays a larger role in funding education than it did in 1964 (and, again, it’s role has gotten even larger under the Bush-DeLay regime). Abortion, illegal in 1964, is now legal, anti-sodomy laws were eliminated in the recent past, and today we have gay and lesbian couples getting married in Massachusetts, while civil unions, surely a proposal more liberal than anything Johnson dreamed of, have become the moderate plan.

Indeed, as many people have pointed out (for my money, Nick Confessore‘s year-old article is still the best on the subject) the Republican Party has essentially abandoned the small-government agenda, a small army of disgruntled conservative think tankers notwithstanding. So while the country certainly does face some serious problems, I don’t think some kind of right-wing intellectual hegemony has a great deal to do with it. Likewise, while a better-organized and better-mobilized liberalism would be welcome, the past forty years of conservatism — an impressive financial, electoral, and communications apparatus that’s utterly incapable of achieving its substantive goals no matter how many elections it wins — is a terrible model to emulate.


Nobody will deny that Goldwater’s legacy has led to enormous electoral success for conservatives. Rather, the key point is that conservatives have succeeded by abandoning most of what movement conservatives circa 1964 believed in. Goldwater was opposed to Social Security and the voted against 1964 Civil Rights Act, and as Yglesias notes there are many more examples. This doesn’t, I think, conflict with Klein’s analysis at all.

I think the Goldwater “revisionism” expressed in the above quote is substantially correct, but I want to add one caveat. Legislation in the modern regulatory state tends toward setting somewhat vague principles into law, and the discretion of the other branches has become increasingly important. A classic example would be the Clear Air Act, which gives the EPA enormous leeway in deciding how it wants to pursue the goals fixed by the legislature. There’s no chance that major environmental legislation will be repealed by Congress, but the White House shapes the direction of policy and can effectively roll back many achievements without a word of a statute being changed. Of course, the Congress that passed it was aware of that; in the context of a Democratic Congress and a Republican president, they also delegated significant oversight powers…to the courts, which of course are now also quite reactionary.

So, in other words, conservative successes shouldn’t be evaluated by looking at legislation alone (as I’m sure all involved will agree.) Conservatives are unlikely, for example, to repeal what’s left of the Wagner Act, but packing the NLRB with pro-business hacks has pretty much the same effect. They can’t repeal the Civil Rights Act, but they can devote few resources to enforcing it, and the courts can make it more difficult to win (or even bring) enforcement suits. While this is much less of a problem with programs like Social Security and Medicare, many other achievements of the FDR thorough LBJ era require vigorous executive enforcement and solicitous courts to be effective. And, of course, there are ripple effects: making it harder for labor to organize weakens a key Democratic constituency and makes major legislative change more likely. Every term that a Republican like Bush occupies the White House does significant damage to significant parts of the legacy of the New Deal/Great Society, although this does not necessarily come in the form of major legislative change.


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