For a number of reasons -- the economy and the polarized nature of politics today chief among them -- a 1964-style blowout in 2012 is unlikely. But even if jobs were plentiful and bipartisan comity permeated the halls of Congress, President Obama would still struggle to rack up numbers anywhere near Lyndon Johnson's 61 percent. Democrats today face a lower ceiling of support than did LBJ. President Clinton, who ran for reelection during a strong, peacetime economy, was unable to crack 50 percent. In 2008, the stars aligned for the Democrats to a degree not seen since 1932, and even then Obama only managed to capture 53 percent of the popular vote.
Crucially, a nation once split almost equally between self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives has been transformed: righties today outnumber lefties nearly two-to-one. Forty-eight years ago, Goldwater's views on economics, foreign policy, and the welfare state were all seen as occupying the rightmost extreme of mainstream American politics -- just a shade removed from the John Birch Society. Nowadays, Goldwater's fondness for economists like Milton Friedman, generals like Curtis LeMay, and presidents like Calvin Coolidge would place him well within the Republican mainstream. (On drugs, gays, and God, however, Goldwater's influence is considerably less felt.)
It's no coincidence. As Perlstein explains, the grassroots campaign to nominate Barry Goldwater connected dozens of conservative activists to one another and helped lead to the establishment of today's "vast right-wing conspiracy." The interlocking network of nonprofits, think tanks, newspapers, magazines, and book clubs is a direct byproduct of the Goldwater moment.
Today, this counter-establishment is the feeder system that nurtures and grooms up-and-coming conservatives from around the country; it provides them with the connections they'll need to navigate the choppy waters of backroom politics and the national Republican Party; and it's the archipelago of internships, fellowships, research positions, and staffer jobs that allows a young conservative idealist to climb her way from being just another nobody milling about D.C.'s bottom to conservatism's highest peaks. This establishment's list of alumni who once did, or still do, hold authority within the GOP is too long to recite, but sitting atop it is none other than former think tanker and Hill staffer Paul Ryan.
Ryan, whose influence on the Republican Party today has been compared to that of Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan, has spent his entire career within the right-wing infrastructure that rose from the ashes of 1964. Stylistically, Goldwater and Ryan could hardly be more different. Goldwater was severe, humorless, unbending. Like the Soviets he so feared and despised, his countenance was forever grim, as if his mission on Earth was far too serious to allow even a glimmer of frivolity or cheer to sneak through. Ryan, on the other hand, is deservedly celebrated for his unpretentious, approachable, and optimistic demeanor. He is the type to insist on buying a campaign journalist a hot dog on the trail; Goldwater seemed like a man who would consider hunger a sign of weakness.