The Conservative 1960s

From the perspective of the 1990s, it's the big political story of the era


The Conservative
Capture of the GOP

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ON July 16, 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater, of Arizona, approached the podium at the San Francisco Cow Palace to accept the Republican presidential nomination. Many moderates in the audience expected a conciliatory speech pledging party unity. But Goldwater gave them something very different. "I would remind you," he thundered, "that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And ... moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Liberal Republicans were shocked. The party they had controlled for so long had fallen into the hands of extremists. Political commentators were equally taken aback. After hearing the speech, one reporter expressed their dismay: "My God, he's going to run as Barry Goldwater."

barry picture In the late 1950s and early 1960s conservatives were widely dismissed as "kooks" and "crackpots" with no hope of winning political power. In 1950 the literary critic Lionel Trilling spoke for a generation of scholars and journalists when he wrote that "in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.... It is the plain fact [that] there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation" but only "irritable mental gestures which seem to resemble ideas." The historian Richard Hofstadter echoed Trilling's assessment, arguing that the right was not a serious, long-term political movement but rather a transitory phenomenon led by irrational, paranoid people who were angry at the changes taking place in America.

Journalists were equally contemptuous. In 1962 a writer in the The Nation suggested that conservatives were more interested in thinking up "frivolous and simple-minded" slogans than in developing intelligent proposals to meet the complexities of post-Second World War America. The Washington Post described members of one conservative group as people who liked to "complain about the twentieth century." And even a sympathetic commentator in Commonweal wondered whether a right-wing student group was a new political voice or "merely a new political organization out to repeal the twentieth century?"

More than three decades later Americans are still struggling to understand the rise of modern American conservatism. Much of this is the fault of scholars and journalists. Very little has been written about the rise of the right in the 1960s. From today's vantage point, this is arguably the most significant development of that decade, yet scholars and journalists have focused almost exclusively on the new left, civil rights, and the decline of American liberalism.

Allen Matusow's The Unraveling of America (1984) is a case in point. The author explains that the book is "a history of domestic liberalism in the 1960s," telling "the story of how liberals attained political power and attempted to use it for extending the blessings of American life to excluded citizens." He also examines the "great uprising against liberalism in the decade's waning years by hippies, new leftists, black nationalists, and the antiwar movement--an uprising that convulsed the nation and assured the repudiation of the Democrats in the 1968 election." Matusow writes, "Thus, in a few short years, optimism vanished, fundamental differences in values emerged to divide the country, social cohesion rapidly declined, and the unraveling of America began." John Morton Blum's book on the 1960s, Years of Discord, is dedicated to the "liberal spirit" and is essentially "a reexamination of American liberalism." And The Sixties (1987), by the sociologist Todd Gitlin (note the definitive title), focuses on the hopes, dreams, and disappointments of the new left and the counterculture. "What," Gitlin asks, "did 'the Sixties'--the movement, the spirit--accomplish?"

These studies have greatly enriched our understanding of America after the Second World War. But by neglecting the rise of the right they have left us with an incomplete and one-sided view of the 1960s.

That view is about to change. Mary Brennan's Turning Right in the Sixties is the first on what will most likely be a lengthening and important list of detailed studies of the rise of American conservatism. (In recent years a handful of books have been written about the right, but these have tended to be sweeping accounts offering few insights into the nuts and bolts of the conservative movement.) Brennan, an assistant professor of history at Southwest Texas State University, chronicles the conservative capture of the Republican Party from 1960 to 1968. In doing so, she not only advances our understanding of the rise of the right; she also offers a more balanced and, ultimately, more accurate view than we have had before of the most tumultuous decade of the century.


BRENNAN effectively addresses one of the central questions in modern American politics: how conservatism transformed itself from an obscure fringe movement into one of the most powerful political forces in the country. She argues that the Trilling-Hofstadter analysis of the right was deeply flawed. By the late 1950s conservatives had established a strong base of support in the growing Southwest. For much of the century wealthy easterners had controlled the Republican Party, but in the postwar years a growing number of businessmen and political leaders from the Sunbelt, many of whom had prospered in the postwar industrial boom, began playing a greater role in national politics. Stressing individual initiative, free enterprise, and a militant anti-communism, conservatives formed a variety of single-interest groups to challenge the ideas and programs of the liberal eastern establishment.

In the early 1960s conservatives continued to benefit from large-scale social and demographic changes. In the South the growth of the civil-rights movement, industrial expansion, and the rise of an urban middle class revitalized the Republican party. The policies of the Kennedy Administration also helped the conservative cause. As President, Kennedy courted many eastern business leaders, drawing their support away from liberal Republicans. He also undercut much of the appeal of moderate Republicans: his position on civil rights, for example, was virtually indistinguishable from theirs. As conservatives began to develop positions on key issues which increasingly appealed to voters, liberal Republicans had trouble distinguishing themselves from Kennedy-style liberals.

Much of this is well known, and Brennan recounts it cogently. What she adds to our understanding is how conservatives transformed themselves into successful political organizers.

AT the beginning of the 1960s conservatives were in a better position than at any time since the 1930s to challenge moderate Republicans for control of the party. But large obstacles remained. Not only were conservatives widely viewed as wild-eyed fanatics but they squabbled among themselves, had trouble articulating a positive program of reform, had few grassroots organizations, and lacked the funding to make the movement a serious political force.

The year 1960, though, brought a turning point for the conservative movement. That year Barry Goldwater published The Conscience of a Conservative. Generally dismissed in the national media, the book stands today as one of the most important political tracts in modern American history.

As the historian Robert Alan Goldberg demonstrates in Barry Goldwater, his fine new biography, The Conscience of a Conservative advanced the conservative cause in several ways. Building on William F. Buckley's pathbreaking work at National Review, Goldwater adeptly reconciled the differences between traditionalists and libertarians. The expansion of the welfare state, he wrote, was an unfortunate and dangerous development that undermined individual freedom. Suggesting that New Deal liberalism marked the first step on the road to totalitarianism, Goldwater argued that government should be removed from most areas of American life. Yet he was no strict libertarian. Appealing to those on the right who longed to recapture lost certitudes, he argued that the state had a duty to maintain order and promote virtue. "Politics," Goldwater wrote, is "the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order."

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