The Conservative 1960s

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

Poor campaign management, Goldwater's image, and the lack of unity in the Republican Party contributed to the Democratic landslide in November of 1964. But whereas liberals saw the election results as the final repudiation of the American right, conservatives took solace in Goldwater's 27 million votes and vowed not to repeat their mistakes. What appeared to be a defeat for conservatives was actually a dramatic success: Goldwater had paved the way for a generation of Republicans by appealing to the "forgotten" and "silent" Americans "who quietly go about the business of paying and praying, working and saving." He had also raised new social and moral issues that would prove vital to future conservative successes. As early as 1962 he lamented the moral crisis afflicting America, the "meaningless violence and meaningless sex" on TV, and the barbaric quality of modern art. As Robert Alan Goldberg astutely puts it in his biography, "It was only a beginning, but Goldwater had begun to validate the concerns of social conservatives, and in time they would grow bolder in shaping the movement's agenda." Cliff White, meanwhile, had taught conservatives the value of grassroots organization and had given thousands of people their first taste of political action. Out of the ruins of the 1964 campaign emerged a well-organized, experienced movement that was more determined than ever to win political power. In the mid-1960s movement activists severed almost all ties to more-radical groups, organized a tremendous direct-mail fundraising drive, and created a more positive platform that emphasized the benefits of local power. And, as Brennan argues, conservatives put themselves in a position to take advantage of the growing disillusionment over civil rights, student protests, and Vietnam.

By 1968 conservatives dominated the Republican Party. In 1960 Nixon had wooed those on his left; eight years later he employed the conservative speechwriter Pat Buchanan, chose the fiery Spiro Agnew as his running mate, and trumpeted his anti-Communist credentials and his opposition to busing to win southern delegates. Nixon was not an ideological conservative, but to gain the nomination he had to appeal to the party's new conservative majority.


WITH so much attention currently being focused on the Contract With America, the Republican presidential nomination, and right-wing militias, Turning Right in the Sixties will appeal to anyone interested in a thoughtful, serious discussion of the origins of modern American conservatism.

Brennan is less successful in her treatment of the larger events of the decade. Her writing is often dry, and one finds missing much of the drama of the sixties. Brennan also fails to explain why so many middle- and lower-middle-class Americans were drawn to conservative causes in the 1960s. Grassroots activism, she makes clear, was instrumental in the rise of the right. But what motivated so many people to contribute money and volunteer time to the conservative movement?

Many observers have cited a white backlash to civil rights. Surely this played an important role, but conservatism seemed to benefit from a complex convergence of forces, only some of which had to do with race. Unprecedented prosperity, for example, gave rise to a new middle class that was hostile to high taxes and to many of the social programs they financed. Social unrest--most notably urban riots, violent crime, and student protests--also pushed many Americans toward conservative candidates who promised to restore law and order. But perhaps most important was a growing disillusionment with the federal government. Vietnam, deteriorating conditions in the cities, and forced busing affected the lives of working- and middle-class Americans in profound and often unsettling ways, and led them to believe that government no longer served their interests.

Although Brennan's book does not sufficiently address these issues, it is valuable, shedding much-needed light on a key aspect of the conservative revival and giving us a deeper understanding of why conservatism continues to be the most powerful political force in American life.

Illustration by Lisa Adams

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1995; The Conservative 1960s; Volume 276, No. 6; page 130-135.

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