Politics and People of Conscience

by Bob Schwartz

Conscience of Conservative

There’s talk of Barry Goldwater in the context of the current election cycle. I’ve written about him before—as it turns out, a few times, here, here, and here. It’s not that I’m a fan of conservative politics; it’s that I’m a fan of conscience.

Goldwater’s unlikely and iconoclastic nomination for President at the Republican National Convention in 1964 was predicted to be a disaster. It was, as he was crushed by Lyndon Johnson in the election. On the other hand, his political philosophy lived on in the party—coming into full flower with Ronald Reagan and, more than fifty years later, is still the touchstone of conservative Republican politics.

Goldwater’s famous book was a manifesto called The Conscience of a Conservative. Focus on that word “conscience.” It means principles that are grounded in the deepest part of your beliefs, principles that are often difficult to stand by. On one side is the temptation of expedience. On the other is being criticized for standing in the way and being outcast. Or in Goldwater’s case, for leading the party into a (temporary) black hole.

In both parties right now, conscience is being tested.

Paul Ryan and others are speaking their mind about Donald Trump, even in the face of calls for unity over conscience, for party above principle. Other Republicans, seeing the same candidate, admit he is flawed in ways they have trouble abiding, but a unified party has a shot a victory, while a splintered one has none.

Among Democrats, even some Hillary Clinton supporters, in candid moments, admit that they have deep reservations about her on fundamental grounds of honesty, integrity, and transparency, but say that winning is everything, and that she is the path to victory—whatever her shortcomings.

We shouldn’t indict those who compromise their conscience, in politics or elsewhere. Each of us does it or has done it, and we live with it. Maybe sleeplessly sometimes, but we live with it. What we should do is praise those who manage to know their conscience and follow it, often at a price. This is what we try to teach our children. This is what we should suggest to our politicians.

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