“Barry Goldwater Turned Liberal”: How Much Truth is There?

Barry Goldwater — The Most Consequential Loser Of The 20th Century | The  Heritage Foundation

There are a few reasons a liberal might like Goldwater. First, he butted heads at times with figures of the “religious right”. In 1981, for instance, he said in response to Jerry Falwell’s statement that all Christians should be concerned about the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court that “Every good Christian should kick Jerry Falwell in the ass” (Allen). As I wrote in my last post, liking Jerry Falwell isn’t a prerequisite to conservatism. For this post, I’m going to look at Goldwater’s voting record after 1980 as well as his public statements and actions after office and provide accurate context for them. This is the period in which Goldwater was said to have gone “liberal”.

Goldwater’s Final Term

By 1980 a lot of new residents had moved into Arizona, and many were not familiar with Goldwater and vice versa, leaving the door open for a strong challenge. While he had won reelection by about 17 points in 1974, he won reelection in a much stronger year for Republicans by only about a point. Goldwater thus opted not to run again, and his final term reflected a bit more independence from the conservative line than in previous terms. First, Goldwater’s liberalism must be viewed exclusively in a social context. He remained a conservative on economic issues and foreign policy.

There were a few issues he changed a bit on though, such as school prayer and abortion, but even those are not so dramatic when looked at in the proper context. The times in which Goldwater seemed to vote for socially liberal positions regarded Congress telling the courts what to do and Congress telling Washington D.C. what to do. Thus, his votes against prohibiting D.C. from funding abortions and votes against ordering courts not to order busing and prohibit school prayer. He also voted against the Hatch-Eagleton Amendment in 1983 which would have permitted states to ban abortion and against a school prayer amendment in 1984. The origin of Goldwater’s newfound seeming social liberalism came from his intense dislike of some emerging religious figures in the conservative movement like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. He said about such people, “I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C’ and ‘D’. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?” (Allen)

Goldwater was not averse to amending the constitution in other ways throughout his career: he had voted for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1953, the 24th Amendment ending the poll tax, the 26th Amendment giving 18-year olds the vote, and for a balanced budget. He had also in all other instances voted against busing and repeatedly voted in support of the Hyde Amendment, which is consistent with a libertarian perspective as it prohibits Medicaid funding of abortions. Funny enough, Goldwater had also endorsed a Right to Life Amendment, which would have granted fetuses constitutional rights. There were other ways in which he was still a hardliner. For instance, he was a leading voice against popular South Africa sanctions as the nation was a Cold War ally, stating after an overwhelming 1985 vote to sanction the nation, “It is a blight on the United States for us to take this action against a friend that has been an ally in every war” (Omang). Goldwater also backed the death penalty and limiting defendant rights. Final term? Not by much. How about after his Senate career?

Post-Senate Goldwater

Goldwater did and said several things after his retirement that made some Republicans unhappy. First, he spoke early and often for gay rights, especially in the military. Second, he endorsed Democrat Karan English for a Congressional seat in 1992 as he strongly disliked evangelical Republican Doug Wead, thinking him out of touch with Arizona issues. English won a single term before being swept away in the 1994 midterms. This one caused some Republicans to push for effectively excommunicating him. Third, Goldwater backed abortion rights (albeit not unlimited). And fourth, he spoke out in favor of a ban on semiautomatic rifles. It also didn’t help that Goldwater urged Republicans hammering Clinton on Whitewater to “get off his back and let him be president” (Grove). Some attributed his shifts to his second wife, younger and more liberal than him. However, it is possible that some issues arose that were just not there when he was in the Senate. Semiautomatic weapons, for instance, were not a significant issue until the 1990s. Conservatives were not trying an approach to block courts from ruling on certain key social issues until the 1980s, and gay rights had not been a significant political question for most of his Senate career.

Goldwater also had some opinions negative on Clinton as well, including that on foreign policy he “doesn’t know a goddamned thing about it” and was opposed to his healthcare plan (Grove). I honestly think he in his old age liked being a bit contrary and just saying what he wanted to. I’m not sure what that would have translated to if Goldwater was still in the Senate, but another term would have been probably a bit rockier than his last. So, you could say there’s some truth to it, but there was quite a bit of nuance and even seeming contradiction as well, especially on the abortion issue.


Allen, I.R. (1981, September 15). Conservative patriarch Barry Goldwater declared war Tuesday on ‘political preachers’. UPI archives.

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Busch, A.E. (2005). The Goldwater Myth. Claremont Review of Books 6(1).

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GOP patriarch Goldwater backs Democrat. UPI archives.

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Grove, L. (1994, July 28). Barry Goldwater’s Left Turn. The Washington Post.

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Nunez-Eddy, C. (2016, October 28). Barry Morris Goldwater (1909-1998). The Embryo Project Encyclopedia.

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Omang, J. (1985, July 12). Senate Approves S. Africa Sanctions. The Washington Post.

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