The Norman Thomas v Barry Goldwater Debate

This debate between Norman Thomas and Barry Goldwater took place on a college campus in Tucson, Arizona in November of 1961. The event is mentioned in W.A. Swanberg’s biography of Norman Thomas, Norman Thomas: the Last Idealist, on page 436. There’s no indication in the notes whether Swanberg had listened to a recording of the debate or if he had cribbed from a written account of the event. The December 8, 1961 (Volume 2, Number 3) issue of the Socialist Party’s newspaper, New America, had this account:

Norman Thomas addressed a series of successful meetings in Arizona in late November. In Phoenix he spoke at the Phoenix Public Library on Conservatism and the Anti-Communist Craze. The sponsor of the meeting was the New America Forum. In Tucson, he debated Senator Barry Goldwater, and spoke at a dinner of the Tucson local of the SP-SDF. A drive to organize SP-SDF locals and YPSL chapters at Phoenix and Tempe is now taking place. New America readers in those areas are invited to participate. Contact George Papeun, 1628 N. Tyndall, Tucson, Arizona.

The opening statements and rebuttals were followed by a question and answer session. The question and answer session was not included in the copy that I digitized, unfortunately. Norman Thomas speaks first, then Senator Goldwater.

Length — 1:03:25

While this is one of the recordings I had posted on the Chicago DSA web site back when I was its web master, it is not one of the recordings from Carl Shier’s basement. Sometime in the early 21st Century, Frank Llewellyn, then DSA’s National Director, sent me a pile of cassette tapes that had been stashed in the DSA National Office. He asked that I let him know if there were any of interest. There were, and this was one of them.

(I still have the tapes, incidentally.)

The tape itself is of interest. In 1961, this program would not have been recorded on a cassette tape, not even an 8-track; the tape itself is a copy. A return address was taped to the cassette shell: Ben G. Levy of Houston, Texas. I do believe this is the late Ben Levy who made his name as a civil liberties / civil rights lawyer, including in his list of accomplishments being a co-founder of the Houston, Texas, chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union… in 1957.

Around the turn of the century, the ACLU honored Levy for his work, and Allan Turner in the Houston Chronicle began his story of the award with drama:

“The bullets always were fired at night, but the threats, curses and social snubs came at any hour of the day. Houston’s early American Civil Liberties Union members often found themselves in conflict with groups willing to use unsavory means to maintain the status quo.”

Given the state of the nation in 2020, it’s worth remembering how frequent political violence has been in our nation’s history. It’s hard to figure just what one is to do with that observation, but it does need to be part of the mix in judging our current mess, including the acknowledgement that, over time, violence has come from all parts of the political spectrum.

When I listened to this program again before reposting it on Yip Abides, I was generally disappointed. On the face of it, the idea of a Thomas – Goldwater debate is very cool, and it’s understandable why both Thomas and Goldwater took the opportunity to do it. How this program came to be has to be an interesting story, but I don’t count on ever hearing it. Yet there were three serious difficulties that seem to have escaped the event planners.

First, while both Thomas and Goldwater were iconic public representatives for their ideologies in the U.S., both of them were intellectual welterweights, more political than ideological. It’s interesting that in the debate Thomas aims at the politics and Goldwater at the ideology. While that still leaves the possibility for plenty of fireworks, it was never going to be the clash of ideological titans.

Second, both Thomas and Goldwater were representing severely damaged political movements. That may seem obvious enough with Thomas, what with the Socialist Party reduced to a ghost of its former self, and socialism, in any case, no more than just barely qualifying as a U.S. “mass movement” at the best of times. This is apparent in the way Thomas preferred the political over the ideological and the way Thomas had by that time bought into some aspects of Cold War liberalism. Goldwater, on the other hand, was a Senator. The power imbalance is stark. But even as late as the early 1960s, Republican conservatism was still suffering the aftereffects from becoming highly unpopular during Great Depression. And if McCarthyism in the early 1950s did all manner of useful damage to conservatism’s opponents, McCarthy (and by association, conservatism) was ultimately discredited and defeated. Consequently, Goldwater’s advocacy of libertarian conservatism comes across as oddly tentative if not downright milquetoast: We won’t change much; we’ll just nibble around the edges.

Third, Thomas was a very old man. I’m an old guy too. Maybe that made Thomas’ obvious difficulty in articulating his thoughts quickly or his difficulty in pivoting to a new rhetorical opportunity without stumbling so much more painful to listen to. This was not a new public speaking problem for Thomas as a senior, but he could cope well enough when he simply remembered to slow down.

So who won the debate without the question and answer session? I’d like to declare a tie, but I have to give the debate to Goldwater on points, mostly accrued during Goldwater’s final rebuttal. It’s not a victory that would change any minds, but I could see it motivating some already-believers to action.

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