A Political History Lesson: Goldwater On The Power Of The Big Tent

I try to focus on the Second Amendment here at Bearing Arms, but sometimes the broader political/cultural war has implications for 2A activists that can’t be ignored. The ongoing civil war on the Right is one of those issues, given that political support for the Second Amendment is found almost exclusively among Republican officeholders. The intraparty fight may have settled into an uneasy truce, at least momentarily, with Rep. Liz Cheney and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene both receiving the support (however reluctant) of a majority of the Republicans in the House this week. Cheney is still part of Republican leadership and only a handful of GOP House members voted along with Democrats to strip Taylor Greene of her committee assignments.

The deep distrust and animosity between the MAGA and “establishment” wings of the party aren’t going to disappear, however, and one of the big questions at the moment is whether the party can continue as one entity with such stark divides among its members. Will a MAGA Party take shape, will an anti-Trump rump wing of the GOP leave to start their own third party, or will the two wings continue to brawl for power under the same banner of the Republican Party?

I ran across a surprisingly relevant commentary on the divisions within the Republican Party when I was going down a YouTube rabbit hole the other night; a 1966 Firing Line interview between William F. Buckley and Sen. Barry Goldwater on the future of conservatism.

Goldwater, the 1964 Republican president candidate, is widely regarded as the political godfather of modern conservatism, so I wasn’t expecting his response when Buckley asked him what his response would be if Republicans picked a more middle-of-the-road candidate as their standard-bearer in 1968.

“I remember the days of the Eisenhower/Taft fight,” Goldwater replied. “General Eisenhower was a political unknown as to his philosophy. Taft was ‘Mr. Conservative.’ The party took very happily to Gen. Eisenhower, and Senator Taft continued to serve his country as a great conservative and Republican.” 

“I’m not doctrinaire about this thing,” the Arizona senator continued.

“This is one of the troubles that the liberals get into. They become so doctrinaire, so conformist, that if you don’t fit their little mold right down to their pinkies you’re no liberal.”

“I don’t want to see the conservatives get to that point. We’ve had that trouble with the Birch Society. They say, ‘You either believe in Bob Welch [Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society] or by God you’re not a Republican.’ Well, I couldn’t agree less.”

Support (or even allegiance) to Donald Trump is a far more common litmus test for being a Republican than obedience to the dictates of Robert Welch ever was, which gives even more weight to Goldwater’s position on the need for a party that doesn’t demand its members march in lockstep with behind one leader or faction within.

Again, this isn’t some squish talking about the need for a big tent. Goldwater is conservatism’s Moses to Ronald Reagan’s Joshua; the man who brought the commandments of conservatism to the people, though not the man who would lead the tribe to the Promised Land of the White House. Goldwater was literally the “conscience of a conservative“, as well as the first Republican candidate to be labeled by the media as an “extremist,” starting a tradition that has continued ever since. 

Goldwater wasn’t constantly attacking less doctrinaire conservative members of the GOP as sellouts, socialists, and Democrats in disguise. He wasn’t spending at least as much time attacking his fellow Republicans as he did the Democrats in control of Congress and the White House; which was the case in 1966 just as it is today. Goldwater recognized the need for a party that did demand conformity of thought, though that meant there would be Republicans that were far less conservative than his own position. Actually, those Republicans were needed in order to grow the party, which in turn would increase the influence of its larger, more conservative wing.

One of the reasons why Goldwater was so opposed to allowing the differences between the wings of the party to drive an irreconcilable edge between them is because that’s what happened to him in 1964. The liberal wing of the GOP abandoned him, in some cases out of principle but in many cases out of political expediency, and Goldwater told Buckley he believed it cost him between 6-8 million votes. 

Goldwater was a good GOP party man, and even though he had every reason to despise the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party, he still wanted them in the tent. He knew that his own political position and the ability to influence legislation was enhanced by them being in office. A Republican like Jacob Javitz of New York, who may have voted with the Arizona conservative only 60-percent of the time was still better than a liberal Democrat who’d only vote alongside Goldwater on the most minor of issues. 

One of the chief founders of the modern conservative political movement saw the strategic need for a big tent, but it’s a lesson that I worry is increasingly lost on many on the Right today, who seem determined to make fealty to Donald Trump the new litmus test of true conservatism. Even in the Second Amendment movement there are some who believe that there’s no room for activists that don’t pass some sort of ideological or political purity test. In politics, however, requiring allies to agree with you 100% of the time just hinders your effectiveness. Sometimes you may have to go it alone, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the best strategy.

I think it’s helpful, for instance, that the ACLU is opposed to the “No Fly, No Buy” gun control bill, even if it’s not on Second Amendment grounds, or when the ACLU and the Texas State Rifle Association teamed up to address police and prosecutors ignoring a Texas law regarding “traveling” with firearms in a vehicle. The ACLU certainly isn’t a reliable ally in defense of the Second Amendment, but when our interests align I don’t begrudge their efforts. 

I believe that the current administration is going to pursue the anti-gun agenda that Biden himself promised as a candidate; sweeping gun bans, compensated confiscations, subjective gun licensing laws, increased taxes on the exercise of a constitutionally protected right, and more. Those of us who consider ourselves Second Amendment activists need to be not only inclusive and evangelical in our outreach to gun owners who aren’t yet truly engaged in the political fights, but be willing to work with even unconventional allies at times to maintain and strengthen our right to keep and bear arms.

I believe we also need to be willing to work with those outside of our own political tribe because the Second Amendment and the right it protects is bigger than just one party or even one ideology. MAGA, Establishment Republican, Always Trump, Never Trump, Liberal, Libertarian, Moderate, Progressive, even Socialist; there are gun owners and Second Amendment supporters to be found in every one of those camps. It won’t be easy in today’s toxic political environment, but the more ways we can find for more of us to work together to advance our common interests (even while going our own way on a whole host of other issues), the better off our movement and the right of the People to keep and bear arms will be.