Conservative Socialism: On Goldwater’s Green Conservatism

In today’s America, the idea of Conservatism and Environmentalism being incompatible with each other is a misconception. What most Americans do not know (or perhaps not remember too well) is that there was once a time when it was tenable to apply Environmentalism with Conservative principles, a “Green Conservatism” to be more precise. The Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater had developed a noteworthy stance toward the environment that deserves to be considered as part of the Federalist political tradition. This was reported in an Arizona Central article, entitled, “Why Barry Goldwater’s granddaughter wants to share his photography with the world.” Included in that article are a number of photographs that Goldwater had taken during his life, all of which document the landscape of Arizona and its community. The photos therein describe what has to be the central theme uniting Goldwater’s Green Conservatism, community.  

This Green Conservatism stemmed from Goldwater’s camping experiences with his family during childhood, where his mother taught key values of self-reliance and reverence of nature’s beauty and bounty. It was through his camping experiences that, during his adolescence, he became a photographer, capturing picturesque photos of Arizona’s terrain and people for the family album. His professional interest in photography would later mature after his wife, Peggy, who gifted him with a camera during their first Christmas. And as the article itself maintained:

“By the time he died in 1998 at the age of 89, Barry Goldwater would leave an archive of more than 15,000 images, a handful of cover photos in one of the world’s premier photo magazines and several coffee-table books. His visual legacy also includes a feature film documenting a historic trip down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1940, a time when only 73 others had successfully repeated the journey first undertaken by John Wesley Powell in 1869. Goldwater screened the film dozens of times across the state, which, he would later say, helped build the name recognition he would need to launch a political career.”

The theme of community, the article continued, is made most apparent in Goldwater’s “‘empathetic’” photographs of the Native Americans who also call Arizona their homeland. One key set of photos included the ancestral traditions of the Navajo which have, sadly, died out, their legacy given a chance to live on, albeit in the digital realm. Goldwater found himself as a “‘kindred spirit’” of theirs, and he was on record in 1966 stating that “some Native American languages had no word for pollution.” The sense of community upheld by Native American tribes denotes a reflection of their attachment to a sense of homeland, a homeland whose cherishing is expressed through care and concern for its environmental well-being. But at the same time, Goldwater also recognized a problem that Environmentalism in general continues to contend with: how does any nation balance the needs of its Totality and those of nature itself?  

The article cited the Glen Canyon Dam, whose construction Goldwater supported, as a key example of that particular dilemma within Environmentalism:

“Goldwater also voted in favor of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, which was widely opposed by conservationists.

The dam inundated one of the world’s most majestic geological features along with hundreds of prehistoric Native American sites and effectively made it impossible for anyone to experience a trip like his 1940 journey down the Colorado.

Alison Goldwater said her grandfather regretted that vote more than any other in his 30-year Senate career.

Yet Goldwater was very much an environmentalist. He supported federal efforts to crack down on polluters, and he devoted half a chapter of his 1970 book, Conscience of a Majority, to the environment. He also helped lead the effort to limit building on Camelback Mountain.

But nowhere was his love for nature’s beauty more evident than in his photography.”

The key to understanding Goldwater’s Green Conservatism is to appreciate the diversity of different people’s communities who define the Totality of this Union. Every people’s community has its own ancestral, cultural, traditional, and historical legacies passed down from one generation to another. And while the Federal government is supposed to have a Constitutional Intent to promote American culture, it also has a Constitutional Obligation to preserve the ancestral legacies of all American people’s communities, ensuring that they will be passed on to the next generation. The Jeffersonians, beginning with Andrew Jackson, never understood that lesson as the Union expanded beyond the Mississippi River. The unspeakable eradication of entire Native American tribes, including their cultures and traditions, in the 19th century did not Americanize them; it only alienated them from their past and divorced them from the future.

It is precisely because of that historical precedent that the Goldwater’s Green Conservatism was inclined toward minimizing the role of the Federal government within the everyday lives of the American people’s communities. A people’s community, like a Native American tribe, exists as part of the Totality vis-à-vis the Federal government, but their higher sense of Authentic Dasein is meant to be defined by that same people’s community.

Where the contradiction lies in Goldwater’s Green Conservatism is whether the environment’s well-being will be looked after best by the Planned/Command Economy or the Market/Mixed Economy. Given the broader context of the Cold War, it should not be surprising to know that Goldwater chose the Market/Mixed Economy, albeit hesitantly as a means to an end. Such behavior was the topic of interest in a research paper about the Arizona Senator called “The Skeptical Environmentalist.” The paper maintains that even though Goldwater had certain Liberal Capitalist views, the Senator’s Environmentalist stances pose a fundamental contradiction, a deliberate deviation from that ideology. And that is precisely why this Author in particular is willing to argue that, in a different light, the Arizona Senator could be viewed as being more Federalist than Democratic-Republican.

Goldwater remained ‘Mr. Conservative,’ but as the sixties went on he showed signs of a rising willingness to invoke state power in the name of protecting nature. After his loss to Johnson in 1964, Goldwater would spend much of his free time raising money and lobbying for the preservation of Phoenix’s Camelback Mountain from the city’s relentless suburban sprawl (a story ably covered by historian Peter Iverson), a task which eventually required an infusion of federal money. It was a bellwether of things to come.”

The analogy that frequently comes to mind regarding Goldwater’s Green Conservatism is that of a Faustian pact with Liberal Capitalism. When one compromises with Liberal Capitalism, one does not lose more than just the ability to value Arbeit more than Kapital. One also loses their soul amid the very same Modernity that Liberal Capitalism made possible.  

“Flying into Luke Air Force Base in late 1969, not quite a year after returning to the Senate, Goldwater found himself in the disconcerting position of losing visibility as he attempted to land. The culprit was smoke from nearby Phoenix mixed with desert dust, and the episode clearly hit a nerve, and not just because of the potential for a crash. ‘You won’t believe this,’ he wrote his friend Charles Orme afterward, ‘but [even] at forty thousand feet I could see the white smoke coming out of the smelter in town and then I could see every smelter north plus the one in Mexico.’ Such a vivid encounter with the environmental costs of Arizona’s rapid growth-growth which he championed-filled him with unease. ‘I could go on and on about this, Charlie, as you can well imagine,’ he told Orme. ‘The destruction of our clean air has me really concerned.

If postwar American environmentalism was a product of the era’s middle class affluence, as Samuel Hays argues, Adam Rome has suggested that it was also a product of middle-class personal experience. He argues that the loss of green space, erosion, and contaminated air and water that accompanied the postwar explosion of suburbia-malodorous foam in the tap water, septic tank backups in the bathrooms, and bulldozed woodlots in the backyard-accentuated the middle-class desire for environmental amenities and were key inspirations for the grassroots environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. There was a parallel to be found in Goldwater’s descent into the smoggy sprawl of postwar Arizona; that experience and his anxious account of it suggest that Goldwater was coming more and more to fit the profile of a postwar middle-class environmentalist. Despite his conservatism and his previous opposition to wilderness preservation, as a middle-class American who appreciated the sundry amenities of the middle-class lifestyle, he was a prime candidate for the era’s increasing interest in protecting nature, particularly the nature of his personal experience. As if to reinforce his airborne encounter with smog, he confessed to Orme in 1971 that, along with air pollution, he was ‘terribly worried about our State. … because as I fly around it and over it after prolonged absences, I see more and more gouging and cutting” from Phoenix’s inexorable suburban spread. Progress had now become a problem, and “there should be some way to control it.’

How? Like many Americans, Goldwater was coming to believe that controlling sprawl and other environmental threats might require a bracing shot of federal intervention. His return to the Senate coincided with what was the high-water mark for the postwar environmental management state, as the years between 1969 and 1973 saw the passage of some of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in the nation’s history. Environmentally concerned Americans demanded, and received, government help in their quest for beauty, health, and permanence, and Goldwater was now joining them, albeit reluctantly. His remarks in Conscience of a Majority were certainly revealing, but his newfound grudging acceptance of environmental regulation could also be seen in his other activities as well, particularly his political ones.”

Even though it would seem in the 1970s that Goldwater’s Environmentalist tendencies would go on to define his Conservatism, he later retreated from it towards the end of the decade. This came as a consequence of the then-emerging Reagan Revolution, and all the values which it upheld. However, there were still opportunities during the 1980s and towards the end of his life in the 1990s that he continued to demonstrate support for Environmentalism.

“Yet Green Goldwater wasn’t entirely dead; there were a few signs of renewed life in the 1980s and 1990s, two of them in particular. One was Goldwater’s Arizona wilderness proposals. In 1982 Goldwater introduced legislation designating Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon as a federal wilderness, waxing eloquently on the Senate floor about its ‘beautiful multicolored cliffs [that] rise as high as 1,000 feet,’ its lush vegetation, wildlife populations, and recreational opportunities. It had been a long time since he had spoken so enthusiastically about federal wilderness, but the Aravaipa bill was small potatoes compared to the Arizona National Forest Wilderness Act of 1984, which proposed wilderness designation for nearly thirty parcels of Arizona public lands. As he had with his Grand Canyon expansion plan, Goldwater teamed up with Morris Udall to introduce the bill into Congress, and he was particularly proud of the bill’s bipartisan backing (which included Morris Udall’s brother, the former Kennedy/Johnson administration Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, who praised Goldwater in a letter for preserving the ‘wild glory of Arizona’s out of doors … for all time’). The bill became law on August 28, 1984, and its significance becomes more apparent in historical context. Here was Goldwater in 1984, with the ashes of the Sagebrush Rebellion still smoking, ‘locking up’ thousands of acres of Arizona wilderness under the authority of the very Wilderness Act that he had voted against two decades earlier. No other event so neatly summed up his continuing ambivalence about federal environmentalism.

Later, near the end of his life, Goldwater accepted an honorary membership in the group Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP). As the name implied, REP was (and is) an organization of Republicans that took pride in the GOP’s legacy of federal environmental protection and was not at all comfortable with the anti-environmentalism that dominated the party in the wake of the Reagan years. It is certainly possible to read too much into Goldwater’s acceptance, but given the widening distance between the GOP and its ideological godfather in the 1990s over issues like gays in the military, abortion, and the influence of the religious Right, Goldwater’s relationship with REP suggested that, as with these other issues, he no longer felt that the Republicans’ environmental views matched his own. On green issues as on others, Goldwater now seemed to be leaning distinctly to the liberal wing of his party, an environmental maverick repudiating part of the very political legacy he had helped to create.”

True to the theme of this Blog, the idea of being neither Left nor Right nor Center, there is another interesting passage in the research paper that is worthy of mention here:

“In March 1971 Goldwater received a letter from a young constituent, a Prescott College sophomore named Maggie McQuaid. McQuaid wrote to praise the senator for his recent Grand Canyon park-expansion plan; having hiked in many of the areas included in his proposal, she now put pen to paper to encourage him to keep up the good work (‘Your proposals are good ones, Senator Goldwater, keep trying to get them through!’). At the end of the letter, McQuaid hinted that she was not a conservative and was far more likely to be at home with the New Left than Young Americans for Freedom-‘I consider myself pretty radical,’ she wrote, ‘and have disagreed with you before’-but when it came to things like the Grand Canyon, she considered Goldwater a fellow traveler. ‘I am supporting you now,’ she told him, and ‘to you,’ she concluded with a very sixties flourish, ‘I say: RIGHT ON!!’

It is an old political truism that Right and Left, at the fringes, begin to resemble one another, and this was certainly the case for the ‘movement’ sixties. In her 1999 study A Generation Divided, sociologist Rebecca Klatch compared the backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences of former activists in the liberal-Left Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and its conservative counterpart, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), and found that they shared a similar anxiety about the increasingly suburbanized, consumerist, white-collared, power-elite-dominated America of the postwar years. Few would ever accuse Goldwater of being a liberal (biographer Robert Goldberg has warned modern liberals that their recent warming to him comes at the price of ‘ignoring the Arizonan’s enduring conservatism’), and at any rate he was at least a generation too old for either SDS or YAF. But, as we have seen, his environmental sentiments and his ambivalent embrace of federal environmental regulation cut across typical American postwar ideological boundaries much like those of Klatch’s younger activists.

They also remind us that the senator from Arizona was much more than simply ‘Mr. Conservative.’ Goldwater often appears as a cardboard-cutout icon for postwar American conservatism’s farther reaches, the embodiment of the various fringe elements of the Right that would coalesce into the Reagan Revolution of the eighties and not much more than that. But–at the risk of more truisms–human beings are complicated, and Goldwater was not merely an ideology connected to a warm body. He was also a photographer, hiker, camper, boater, wilderness lover, and a middle-class suburban consumer, with all the anxieties, hopes, and desires those roles entailed. Given that diversity, then, the idea that this staunch conservative should also flirt with a state-friendly environmental movement seemingly so antithetical to his ideology is, upon reflection, not a big surprise. Goldwater was always more complicated, more nuanced in his thinking, than his critics and perhaps even he himself believed.”

Categories: Philosophy, Politics

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1 reply


  1. “Monthly Fragebogen: The Rathenau Murder” – The Fourth Estate

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