To Goldwater’s discredit, however, he didn’t confront the contradictions among his followers. As left-wing biographer Rick Perlstein grants, Goldwater was a man of color-blind temperament, conviction, and personal action. His family integrated its department store long before it was common, and he founded the Arizona Air National Guard “as an integrated unit.”) But it’s equally clear that “Mr. Conservative”’s statement of principles wasn’t fully up to addressing the challenges of a still-segregated America: “Our aim, as I understand it, is neither to establish a segregated society nor to establish an integrated society,” Goldwater said. “It is to preserve a free society.” Had Goldwater followed that sort of statement with full-throated invocations of a truly inclusive America, he might have garnered even fewer votes than he managed against LBJ. But he also would have helped to keep calls for a smaller federal government from being seen as a backdoor attempt at Jim Crow.
But contra William Faulkner, there are signs that the past is finally becoming past. Certainly there’s no credible way to mistake the contemporary libertarian agenda for the second coming of Thurmond. That’s true even after the 2008 revelation by James Kirchick of newsletters published under Ron Paul’s name in the 1980s and ’90s that were filled with racist and homophobic material. Paul, who served decades in Congress as a libertarian-leaning Republican and ran for president in 1988 on the Libertarian Party ticket, is without question the politician most responsible for the boom in limited-government and libertarian rhetoric. There is no defending the risible publications (whose authors Paul has refused to identify), which claimed, among other things, that Martin Luther King Jr. “seduced underage girls and boys” and that AIDS sufferers “enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick.”