Birth of the Right
The 1964 Goldwater campaign and its consequences
Apr 16, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 30 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
Why is it that young writers of the left seem to find the rise of modern conservatism so interesting these days? Nostalgia for the triumphal liberalism they have never experienced, but have absorbed from "mainstream" histories and older siblings? A desire to show up previous writers and documentary makers who attribute its demise to the rise of the "counterculture" in the 1960s? The unraveling of what pundits once proclaimed the permanent liberal consensus? A hope that by studying how the right advanced from the margins of American politics progressives can learn to do likewise?
Whatever the reason, we're in the middle of a deluge of leftist books about the right. The latest volume is Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. Perlstein, who has written for the New York Observer and the Nation, sees in Barry Goldwater's failed 1964 presidential campaign the roots of what later took hold.
He is hardly the first to do so. James L. Sundquist, in Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States (1973), and Kevin Phillips, in The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), neither of whom Perlstein cites, declared that 1964 marked a significant "realigning" -- an election in which a party gains support among groups of voters who traditionally have backed its opposition while losing its long-time supporters.
Goldwater did manage to carry his native Arizona. But otherwise, he lost every state in the Union -- except for five southern states that had voted Democratic in almost every election since Reconstruction. And, save for a defection or two for the sectional sons Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, these states have stayed as solidly Republican -- at both the state and national level -- as they once were Democratic.
Goldwater also signaled the permanent shift of African-American voters from the Republicans to what was once the party of Bull Connor and George Wallace. Nixon had 32 percent of the African-American vote in 1960. Goldwater had 6 percent in 1964. And the pattern has remained the same ever since: Thirty-six years later, George W. Bush received 8 percent. These massive defections resulted from Goldwater's vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, upon advice from future jurists William Rehnquist and Robert Bork that provisions regulating private establishments were unconstitutional. Democrats have been making hay out of that ever since.
In Before the Storm, Perlstein provides a colorful account of the issues and personalities that made Goldwater's campaign so memorable and the enthusiasm of his supporters so intense. Though he lost to Lyndon Johnson by 61 percent to 39 percent, Goldwater bumper stickers in evidence outnumbered those of his opponent by a factor of ten. Whereas Johnson's liberal base later deserted him, Goldwater stayed a hero to most of his. (Those offended by his later support for gays serving openly in the military and "choice" on abortion, allowed for his "errant ways.") Within hours of his defeat by the widest margin in history to that point, his legions took up the cry "Twenty-seven million Americans can't be wrong."
Over the next sixteen years, more and more Americans who had backed Johnson began working against the party he led. Why and how is a story Perlstein does not tell. Nor does he consider how Nixon built future victories out of Goldwater's defeat or how Reagan forged an effective governing coalition. Such undertakings, beyond the scope of this study, would undermine Perlstein's thesis that Goldwater's campaign presaged Reagan's presidency in both form and substance.
But one thing Perlstein does do -- with the benefit of recently released materials, especially tapes of Johnson's conversations -- is cast new light on what Goldwater was up against. His book is a refreshing antidote to Theodore H. White's famous contemporary account, The Making of the President, 1964.