The Conservative 1960s

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

Goldwater also united disparate conservative factions by focusing their attention on the dangers of Soviet communism. He wrote,

And still the awful truth remains: We can establish the domestic conditions for maximizing freedom, along the lines I have indicated, and yet become slaves. We can do this by losing the Cold War to the Soviet Union.

Goldwater rejected the containment strategies that had guided U.S. foreign policy since the late 1940s, and called for an aggressive strategy of liberation. Conservatives might disagree about the proper role of government in American life, but surely they could unite to defeat the "Soviet menace."

Goldwater also dispelled the notion that conservatives were a privileged elite out to promote its own economic interests. "Conservatism," he wrote, "is not an economic theory." Rather, it "puts material things in their proper place" and sees man as "a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires." According to one right-wing magazine, Goldwater gave conservatives humanitarian reasons for supporting policies usually "associated with a mere lust for gain."

But perhaps the greatest achievement of Goldwater's book--and the reason for its startling success with the right--was that it gave conservatives, for the first time, a blueprint for translating their ideas into political action. In his introduction Goldwater rejected the idea that conservatism was "out of date."

The charge is preposterous and we ought boldly to say so. The laws of God, and of nature, have no dateline. The principles on which the Conservative political position is based ... are derived from the nature of man, and from the truths that God has revealed about His creation. Circumstances do change. So do the problems that are shaped by circumstances. But the principles that govern the solution of the problems do not. To suggest that the Conservative philosophy is out of date is akin to saying that the Golden Rule, or the Ten Commandments or Aristotle's Politics are out of date.

Supporting states' rights, lower taxes, voluntary Social Security, and a strengthened military, Goldwater emphasized the positive in his philosophy and demonstrated "the practical relevance of Conservative principles to the needs of the day."

altered the American political landscape, galvanizing the right and turning Goldwater into the most popular conservative in the country. By 1964, just four years after its release, the book had gone through more than twenty printings, and it eventually sold 3.5 million copies. "Was there ever such a politician as this?" one Republican asked in disbelief. The Conscience of a Conservative "was our new testament," Pat Buchanan has said. "It contained the core beliefs of our political faith, it told us why we had failed, what we must do. We read it, memorized it, quoted it.... For those of us wandering in the arid desert of Eisenhower Republicanism, it hit like a rifle shot." The book was especially popular on college campuses. In the early sixties one could find Goldwater badges and clubs at universities across the country. Expressing the sense of rebellion that Goldwater's book helped inspire, one student conservative explained the phenomenon: "You walk around with your Goldwater button, and you feel that thrill of treason."

 

REPUBLICAN Party leaders, however, ignored the "Goldwater boomlet." Vice President Richard Nixon, the front-runner for the 1960 Republican nomination, believed that the greatest threat to the party came not from the right but from the left. In July, Nixon met with Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, and agreed to change the party platform to win moderate-Republican support. Conservatives were outraged, referring to the pact, in Goldwater's words, as the "Munich of the Republican Party."

A few days later, at the Republican National Convention, an angry Goldwater called on conservatives to "grow up" and take control of the party. And that, according to Brennan, is exactly what they set out to do. At a time when "liberal and moderate Republicans, like the rest of the country at that time and like historians ever since, continued to view conservatives in a one-dimensional mode," conservatives believed that Goldwater's popularity, the rise of a conservative press, and the growing strength of conservative youth groups boded well for the future.

Increasingly disillusioned with Republican moderates and with the whole tenor of American political debate, the right began to see organization as the key to political power. In the midst of the 1960 presidential campaign, for example, William Buckley, the conservative fundraiser Marvin Liebman, and almost a hundred student activists met at Buckley's estate in Sharon, Connecticut, and formed Young Americans for Freedom. Within six months the organization could claim more than a hundred campus and precinct-level political-action groups and at least 21,000 dues-paying members. Using newsletters, radio broadcasts, and frequent rallies, YAF had almost overnight become a powerful nationwide movement.

Had Young Americans for Freedom and other grassroots organizations remained isolated from one another, their impact would have been weak. But in 1961 the political activist F. Clifton White organized a movement to nominate a conservative for President. Traveling around the country, White exhorted conservatives to seize control of their local party organizations and elect conservative delegates to the national convention. The movement orchestrated by White gave conservatives control over the Republican Party and helped to persuade Goldwater to run for President.

Capturing the presidential nomination was one thing; winning the presidency proved much more difficult. In the early 1960s conservatives tried to distance themselves from the radical right. No group troubled conservatives more than the John Birch Society. With organizations in all fifty states, thousands of members (who, according to Brennan, were "zealous letter writers, demonstrators, and voters"), and a full-time staff, the society wielded significant influence. But Birchers, many of whom believed that Dwight Eisenhower and other government officials were Communist agents, tarnished the reputations of more-rational conservatives. Buckley understood the problem: conservatism, he explained, had to bring "into our ranks those people who are, at the moment, on our immediate left--the moderate, wishy-washy conservatives. ... I am talking ... about 20 to 30 million people.... If they are being asked to join a movement whose leadership believes the drivel of Robert Welch [the founder of the John Birch Society], they will pass by crackpot alley, and will not pause until they feel the warm embrace of those way over on the other side, the Liberals."

But in 1964 Goldwater could not escape the taint of extremism. Brennan points out that despite their sporadic attacks on the radical right, conservatives were still political neophytes. Goldwater and his supporters believed that all they had to do was expose Americans to conservative ideas. But Goldwater had no positive program, and spent much of the campaign railing against Social Security and threatening to roll back the Communist tide. Moderate Republicans labeled him a racist and a warmonger, and Goldwater seemed to confirm such charges when he threatened to "lob" missiles "into the men's room at the Kremlin." Perhaps most damaging, the media condemned him as a kook who sounded more like Adolf Hitler than like a Republican presidential candidate. Norman Mailer, writing in Esquire, compared the Republican National Convention to a Nazi rally. The columnist Drew Pearson described the "smell of fascism" in the air. Roy Wilkins, of the NAACP, told readers of The New York Times that "a man came out of the beer halls of Munich, and rallied the forces of Rightism in Germany" and that "all the same elements are there in San Francisco now." When Democrats mocked Goldwater's campaign slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right," by adding, "Yes, extreme Right," Goldwater's candidacy was doomed.

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