Fast forward 8 years and the group of right-wing ideologues and reactionaries who assembled in The Cow Palace would be instantly recognizable to any of us as the forefathers of the contemporary Republican Party. If there is a year zero for the vast conservative regression that has consumed the GOP and rendered null and void anything approaching bipartisan compromise in Washington, it would be 1964. It was in this year that the Republican Party nominated Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona as their candidate for President, opening up a Pandora’s box of zealotry and unreason that not even Mr. Conservative himself would be able to stop in the years to come. At the time, Goldwater and his rabid following full of John Birchers and budding Reaganites were seen by the national press and much of the political world as a dangerous aberration—an accident of electoral politics that was doomed to failure and repudiation by an American public that would never endorse such brazenly bigoted and anti-labor views.

Up until the Republican National Convention in 1964, many political observers and members of the media thought that Goldwater would soften around the edges and begin gravitating closer to the center. Aside from his narrow victory in California over New York Governor and progressive Republican leader Nelson Rockefeller, the primary season had been a disaster for Goldwater, as he came across to many as a trigger-happy extremist who was categorically unfit for the Presidency of the United States. During the campaign’s opening salvo in New Hampshire, Goldwater’s foot took up permanent residency in his mouth, advocating that Social Security be made voluntary and speaking openly of how it would have been propitious for America to have dropped low-yield atomic weapons over North Vietnam 10 years earlier to defoliate the trees. When a student asked him if he believed government should care for the poor, Goldwater responded by asking if the student knew of anyone who was in need, but not receiving help. The student told Goldwater that yes, he did, and the Arizona Senator shot back at him, “Then why don’t you try to help him out, why don’t you do what you’re supposed to do?”(1)


Candidate Goldwater speaking in front of some clearly enthused Goldwater Girls at a campaign stop in Illinois (Photo courtesy of Ken Steinhoff)

However, when Goldwater took the stage to accept his party’s nomination for President, there was no conciliation in his voice. No appeals were made to the vast middle that compromised most of the American body politic—no olive branches offered to the Rockefellers and William Scranton’s of the world. In his speech he made it abundantly clear that the center would come to him and his followers, not the other way around. “Anyone who joins us in all sincerity we welcome.” Goldwater told the predominantly conservative crowd before him, before continuing. “Those who do not care for our cause, we don’t expect to enter our ranks in any case.” And, if anyone assembled in The Cow Palace or watching at home still had any doubts as to the tone and tenor of his campaign after hearing that, Goldwater erased them with a statement that would come to define a half century of conservative politics: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” Goldwater said. “And let me remind you, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

That speech, to steal a line from Winston Churchill, was the end of modern conservatism’s beginning. However, at the time, common wisdom had it that the Goldwater campaign was more akin to the beginning of the end for the nascent conservative movement that took hold of the Republican Party in 1964. Goldwater was throttled by LBJ in the general election, only picking up 52 electoral votes and earning the ignominious distinction of being 1 of only 2 mainstream presidential candidates in the post-WWII era to lose the popular vote by a margin of more than 20 percentage points. Down the ticket the results weren’t much better, with the GOP losing 2 seats in the Senate and 36 seats in the House to give a the Democrats an overwhelming supermajority in Congress. The people had spoken and they had flatly rejected Goldwater’s conservative extremism. And yet, 50 years later, Goldwater’s radically reactionary views are now the accepted gospel of the GOP and most of the liberal reforms of The Great Society and the Civil Rights Movement are under attack by conservative judges and legislatures at both the Federal and state levels that are overflowing with right-wing zealots aching to prove their ideological purity. How could this have happened?

Well, to answer that question we need to take our attention away from the 44 states that Goldwater lost, and concentrate on the 6 that he won. We need to examine the origins of the strategy he stumbled into and how it flipped the political world upside down. We need to go down South.


* Next week, I will post an a follow-up article to this one, focusing on the genesis, ideological underpinnings and lasting effects of the “Southern Strategy” that Goldwater ushered in as the bedrock of the GOP ‘s electoral agenda over the last half century.


(1) Many of the anecdotes from the Goldwater campaign included in this article come from Theodore H. White’s book, The Making of The President—1964, which isn’t available for free viewing online. If you want to read more about the ’64 campaign, you’d be hard pressed to find a more well-written, albeit hardly bias-free, account of the election.