Lessons from Goldwater for Today’s GOP on Gay Marriage



In June 1964, Senator and Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater cast his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in a move that was partly based on principled constitutional conviction and partly on a failed political calculus. Far from a racist, Goldwater had encountered discrimination due to his Jewish heritage and had supported all previous federal civil rights legislation. However, he held that Titles II and VII in the new Civil Rights Act undermined both the constitutional principles of states’ rights to legislate on race and the rights of private persons to associate with whomever they please. He feared the prospect of an oppressive federal government ordering states around on private matters. As written in his defining work “The Conscience of a Conservative,” Goldwater believed “that the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned … [and] change should not be effected by the engines of national power” despite his personal views for racial equality.

Goldwater placed a greater priority on states’ rights and freedom of association than racial equality, and as a result, suffered a landslide defeat in the 1964 presidential election. In his political calculus, Goldwater thought his views on civil rights would win over the South, upon which his presidential aspirations rested. His prediction turned out correct, but he underestimated the externalities of his view on civil rights – namely alienating and losing every state outside the South except his home state of Arizona.

This happened because Goldwater’s political views were not only against the side of civil rights, but against statistics as well. In a 1963 National Opinion Research Center poll, 79% of white Americans stated they were for transportation integration, 73% were for integration in public places, and 65% were for school integration. These were all huge upticks on the same poll as done in 1942, where only 45% of white Americans were for transportation integration and only 32% were for school integration.

Just as public opinion on racial integration steadily progressed between 1942 and 1963, so too has public opinion on gay marriage over the past 10 years, a trend that is bound to continue. In the past ten years, according to a yearly Gallup poll, the number of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage with equal rights has steadily increased from 42% to 54%. It doesn’t take a psychic to see that support for same-sex marriage is only going to increase.

These statistics get right to the thesis of this essay: For civil rights issues, it is better for party platforms and candidates to err on the side of equality than states’ rights, especially in the long run, as statistics show that public opinion on these issues only moves toward equality. Moreover, just as Goldwater’s stance on civil rights was against equality and against statistics, disadvantaging him in the 1964 election, the current GOP’s stance on gay marriage is against both as well, and will prevent its future success in elections.

While most potential 2016 Republican candidates are not homophobic, just as Goldwater wasn’t racist, and most generally espouse federalist principles for same-sex marriage, just as Goldwater did, it is bad policy for them to prioritize states’ rights over nation-wide equality in the long run. Reeling from two consecutive losses in the presidential election, the GOP cannot afford to alienate the now-majority of the population on the issue of gay marriage. Although a policy in favor of same-sex marriage would harbor much resentment among its constituency now, it is a better long-term move than pandering to less progressive states as public opinion slowly escapes from its grasp.

Goldwater learned this the hard way. The GOP should not squander the value of his failure as a learning experience.

[Image Credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7a/Barry_Goldwater_photo1962.jpg]