Barry Goldwater and the Rise of the Radicals
The year was 1964, and Democrats had just won their 7th of 9 Presidential elections since 1932. The year was a significant one for the broader conservative movement. After 12 years of organizing at the Presidential level, Conservatives had finally taken over the Republican Party, and to most prognosticators the conservative cause was over as soon as it began. Republicans nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater, the conservative ideologue who was adored by movement conservatives. 1964 was a historically bad year for Republicans. President Lyndon Johnson amassed a 23 point victory, winning 44 states. The blowout was so massive that Republicans held only 32 seats in the Senate and 140 in the House. After finally running their candidate, conservatives had lost in a landslide. In reality, it was the beginning of a radical, and radically successful movement.
Since 1932, liberals had run the government. FDR and Truman alone had won 5 consecutive terms. FDR’s New Deal Programs had been accepted and even expanded on by both parties. The sole Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t an ideological conservative. He was commonly referred to as a moderate at the time, but would be considered liberal in many ways today. Both Chambers of Congress were held by Democrats for 29 of the last 33 years.
This total liberal dominance of national politics was provoking a backlash. It started with the publication of the Conservative manifesto in 1937. Southern Democrats and Republicans of the US Senate wrote out a declaration of principles meant to counteract the dominant governing philosophy that was advocated by FDR. FDR’s vision became the basis for the modern Social Democratic left wing theory. The manifesto still essentially holds true in describing what the US conservative believes in.
Starting in the 1950’s, the right wing ideologues got organized. In 1952, there was conservative backlash to Eisenhower’s nomination. The right wing had fallen in line behind the candidacy of Sen. Robert Taft, who had become the standard bearer for the party’s conservatives. This nomination was seen as a betrayal by the party activists, and the influence of the party elite in this election was the basis of the book “A Choice, Not an Echo” by Phylis Shlafly in 1964.
Activists like Schlafly organized conservative die-hards under an umbrella of issues that most energized them-issues that supporters viewed as existential struggles for their way of life-namely Communism and civil rights. In fighting against the former, many of the most prominent activists took inspiration from their sworn enemies. They began studying Leninists and other Soviet revolutionaries and implementing their guerilla organizing techniques, slowly but surely taking over state and local Republican parties. Think tanks were founded to draft policies that could be implemented by Conservatives while in office. An entire industry of conservative media began to take shape and conservative literature was distributed for free to massive mailing lists. Organizations were founded to measure how conservative members o Congress were. Soon, primaries were being launched against Republicans who were deemed “too liberal” by right wing groups like the John Birch Society. Soon thereafter, conservative activists were deeming what judges were broadly acceptable to the movement. While all this was happening, conservatives were having tremendous success in converting Democratic southerners to the conservative cause-and the Republican Party. Republicans at large slowly began to adopt a new shift toward their political enemies. By the 1980’s, Republicans in Congress began a shift in strategy to treat the media and Democratic Party like an enemy not to be negotiated with, but actively destroyed.
Nearly all of these tactics were made easier by having the backing of major titans of industry with nearly limitless bank accounts, and a parade of Supreme Court cases that loosened controls over money in politics made that task even easier over time.
The movement that started out as a fringe slowly but surely took over the Republican Party. In 1964, they finally nominated their ideal Presidential Candidate. In the 1970’s, their economic ideas reached mainstream status, even gaining traction with a new generation of “Atari Democrats”. In 1980, they finally elected a President. In 1994, their tactics won Republicans the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. The conservatives ultimately got their wish, and took over the Republican Party, and American politics was changed forever.