Towards a Liberal Goldwater Moment

Matt's efforts to reality-check the "Goldwater moment" are really worth reading and you should, uh, read them. But it's worth noting that conservatives don't really view Goldwater as this seminal, epochal moment, but rather as part of a larger history that encompasses Goldwater, Reagan, and Bush. This triumph of the true believers narrative, wherein conservatives clung to their ideals through the loss of Goldwater, were redeemed by Reagan, and proven victorious by Bush 43, allows the right to paint itself as a movement secure and unflinching in their beliefs. It creates a meta-narrative or -- dare I say it? -- a heuristic for Republicans as courageous, tough, committed, reliable, grounded, trustworthy, etc. They had their time in the wilderness and ended it through sheer dedication to conservative principles. It's not just an American story, it's a Christian one.

That's why the work Matt's doing is important, but also why it's unlikely to have an effect. Revising history is a very tough thing to do, particularly when the event in question isn't up for public scrutiny. Indeed, it'd be more useful to analyze the disconnect between Goldwater and the modern Republican party in order to understand how they appropriated their history to fit their future, rather than how their history created their future. Liberals, beyond simply building institutions, need to undergo a similar project. We need to pick a "phoenix moment" that can serve as the public rebirth of liberalism. Whether that's the Dean campaign, the Gore campaign, or a loss yet to come, in order to revive the progressive project, we're going to have to create a resurrection storyline. Republicans did it with Goldwater, but were savvy enough to ditch the portions of "Goldwaterism" that didn't work. We've got to show a similar combination of political pragmatism and marketing acumen if our much-expected resurgence is to come true. That, by the way, should be what we mean when we speak of our "Goldwater moment". Not just strengthening ACT and electing party chairmen, but preparing the public for a return to Democratic ideals.