Cultural Crossroads: Goldwater’s Ghost

Computers in the electoral process started in 1964, the year Goldwater opposed Johnson for the presidency. Back then, though, when states bought computers to read punch-card votes, the states owned and operated the computers, and the electorate could thus examine their processes and results. Even Barry Goldwater, ever suspicious of the creeping power of government, approved: the process was relatively transparent.

But in the past two years, things have radically changed. True conservatives (as opposed to the corporate shills found today in both parties and the media) are as horrified by today’s situation as are progressives.

It turns out that the computer-controlled, modem-connected voting machines hastily rushed into many states in the wake of 2000, are the property of, and operated by, private corporations. And some of those corporations have apparently told “We, The People” that we have no right to inspect their machines’ innards, no freedom to audit their processes, and no ability to determine why their results are so dramatically at variance with our exit polls that in 2002 our polling companies had to sit down, shut up, and scratch their heads in bewilderment.

As Bev Harris of and Steven Hertzberg of have documented, this private, corporate takeover of the voting process at the very core of democracy raises disturbing issues about who controls the fate and future of our nation.

Barry Goldwater summarized the context of this issue well.

“In the beginning we were thirteen colonies perched precariously along the Atlantic seaboard,” he wrote in his 1979 autobiography, With No Apologies. “We had no army. We had no navy. We had no manufacturing capacity. We had no wealth. What we did have was the belief that God intended men to be free, and on the strength of that belief we challenged the greatest commercial and military power in the world. In times of tribulation we have found among the people, leaders — uncommon men whose understanding, whose courage, whose devotion to the Republic lifted us up to meet the challenge. They promised us nothing more than a chance to retain our freedom, to preserve the Republic, to continue this most noble experiment.”

We may still have a chance to continue America’s noble experiment, but only if we understand its history and change course quickly.

When humans moved from living tribally to living in “civilization,” where populations grew beyond the point where everybody knew everybody else and decision-making could be done by consensus, we arrived at a turning point. We needed leaders, people who would devote their lives to serving the public interest, while setting aside self-interest and personal ambition. It was a dicey proposition, grounded in tribal values but applicable to modern city/states. And it took a long time to emerge.

In the 6000-year history of civilization, three earlier types of leaders had emerged before democracy arrived on the scene.

The first were warlords like Gilgamesh, who ruled by their willingness to use terror and violence. We find the remnants of their rule in the dungeons of British castles and the palaces of Middle Eastern kingdoms.

The second were theocrats who claimed their god or gods had given them the right to rule. We hear the remnants of their rule echoing in Osama’s still-fresh anger over the Crusades, and a right-wing Christian leader’s claim that 9-11 was his god’s way of punishing America for not listening to him and his.

The third were aristocrats and plutocrats who ruled by the Calvinist and neo-Darwinist claim that great wealth was a sign from gods or nature of a moral worthiness and destiny to rule. We find the remnants of their rule in the now-empty desk that Ken Lay had in the White House, and the history of feudalism in Europe and Japan.

But, as Goldwater notes, although “Freedom is a fragile thing,” it’s also true that, “Nowhere is it written that freedom must succumb to slavery.”

Thus came the Athenian Greeks, with their 200+ year experiment in democracy, and then, two millennia later, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and the other Founders with the idea of trying it again. It was the noble experiment of creating a government whose leaders drew their power, their legitimacy, and their authority solely from the consent of the governed. Rule by “We, the People.” Tested by other nations, by civil war, and by economic disasters, it seemed at once fragile and powerful. It was an experiment that, while young and unproven on the grand stage of civilization, just might succeed in outlasting its Greek progenitors. The basis of its strength was the consent of the people and its worthy leaders.

“We have arrived at our present position of peril in the world and at home because our leaders have refused to tell us the truth,” Goldwater said in his memoirs. He added, “If the Republic is to survive, we must find and follow new leaders.”

Another conservative Arizona Senator, John McCain, echoed those sentiments in a July 11, 2002 speech. “Threats to our greatness come not just from foreign enemies and alien ideologies that hold our ideals in contempt,” he told the National Press Club. “They also come from those few among us who perceive their self-interest as separate from the interests of our society, who in their selfish pursuits abjure the values of honesty, fairness and patriotism, and threaten to damage the very trust that makes freedom work.”

It’s time for America to return to the core value that is embraced by true patriots of every political stripe: that our republic of individual citizens must retain the rights and liberties granted by our Constitution for its people, and that all other human-created institutions — such as corporations — shall have privileges which are granted and are revocable by individual human voters. It’s time for us to restore constitutional democracy to our republic, and restore the power of governance to We, The People, not just corporate interests. It will set the stage to return to us our electoral process and the public auditing of voting machines. And it may put Goldwater’s ghost back to rest.

Thom Hartmann is the author of Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights, and The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. Visit for more information. This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but permission is granted for reprint in print or web media so long as this credit is attached. This article originally appeared on