The Meaning of the Goldwater Campaign

Published March 2, 2009

Goldwater and Modern Conservatism

David’s critique of Barry Goldwater’s legacy is important and powerful. It is one that all conservatives who love their movement and believe that the Republican Party is its natural home ought to read and reread in the days ahead.

It reminds us that adhering to principle without respect to current context and lasting consequences can be pleasing but destructive. It reminds us that those consequences can last well beyond the current election and survive even subsequent electoral victories by people dedicated to the reversal of those consequences. It reminds us that statesmanship is hard and the course to policy and political victory is inherently uncertain and fraught with peril.

Nevertheless, I feel it is not complete. It ignores the context in which the 1964 election was fought, and therefore understates the importance of the 1964 defeat for the 1980 victory. It is too harsh in describing Reagan’s legacy as “temporary and provisional.” Finally and most importantly, it lends itself to a misinterpretation about its potential implications for the nature and aspirations of American conservatism.

The Goldwater candidacy can only be understood in the context of the times. After 1932 the Republican Party lost five consecutive Presidential elections, one of the longest losing streaks in American political history.

It returned to Presidential power on the back of a national hero, Dwight Eisenhower, who explicitly ran as a “Modern Republican” who accepted the legitimacy and permanence of the New Deal. Eisenhower’s Modern Republicanism was an American version of the path of the British Tories, accepting both the existence and the legitimacy of the welfare state and arguing that only the wiser heads of a moderately conservative party could be trusted with its prudent administration and expansion.

Modern American conservatism was explicitly founded in opposition to this idea. Buckley, Goldwater, and their associates believed that this approach merely managed the decline of the West, that short-term electoral victory would mask long-term national and civilizational decline. Only by establishing a counter-narrative based on freedom, taking the intellectual narrative back from the left and institutionalizing this narrative in a political vehicle–the Republican Party–could America and the West be saved.

The 1964 nomination battle was a struggle over which view would prevail. Had Goldwater failed, the modern conservative movement would probably have splintered into its component parts and the American Tory wing of the party become unchallenged in its dominance. Even so, the Tory wing reasserted itself after the Goldwater defeat and regained control of the national party in the persons of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

It’s true that Carter lost the 1980 election more than Reagan won it, but it is hard to see Reagan or any freedom-focused American conservative winning but for the political cohesion obtained by the 1964 defeat. Even then, Reagan’s path to the nomination was not easy as the Modern Tory Republican establishment fought tenaciously to prevent his ascendancy. But that establishment was split among many candidates; had former President Ford run again, it is not clear than Reagan would have won the nomination.

Conservative Republicanism was much more politically successful than Modern Tory Republicanism. Between 1980 and 2008, the Republican Party never fell below 44 Senate seats; between 1958 and 1980 it never received MORE than 44 seats. Between 1980 and 2008, the GOP ran the Senate for 16 ½ years; between 1958 and 1980 it never controlled the Senate. Between 1994 and 2008, the GOP ran the House for twelve years and never fell below 200 seats. Between 1958 and 1980, Modern Tory Republicans never ran the House and never had more than 192 seats.

The 1994-2006 period was the longest time the GOP held such continued Congressional dominance and representation since between 1918 and 1932.

Nor did this period provide merely ephemeral gains. Despite the Obama victory, the Soviet Union is no more. Would a Ford- or Bush-led nation have achieved victory in the Cold War? Would they have engaged in the sustained military buildup and rhetorical confrontation that sped the Communist behemoth into the ashcan of history? Their performance in power during the mid-1970s suggests not.

Even the Obama ascendancy does not promise to unravel all of Reagan’s domestic victories. When he took power in 1981, the top marginal tax rate was 70%. Obama proposes to raise it a shade under 40%. When Reagan took power, unions represented about 20% of all American workers; today it is under 10% and even card check will not reverse that quickly.

Still, all this does not make our path forward any easier. Republican strength is low and prospects are dim. How should conservatives think about getting out of this hole?

We must start by acknowledging what history teaches. The left has held the political and intellectual initiative in the developed world for at least a century. Parties of the right have held power, but largely by taking the growth and centralization of economic power in the state off the table. They win elections on one of three grounds: nationalism, faith or fear.

Nationalist parties, like the British Tories or French conservatives, focus on empire or national pride; faith-based parties like German and Italian Christian Democrats argue that welfare statism is a Christian duty and focus instead on preserving the traditional family and community. These parties use fear of a radical left that openly attacks private property or the family to drive the center toward them.

American freedom-based conservatism is the only electorally successful effort to offer a different path. American conservatism includes elements of nationalism and faith, and certainly has benefited from fear as American liberalism became too secular and redistributionist. But it gained its power from its distinctive element, a counter-narrative based on human freedom as way to interpret events and offer policy guidance.

This counter-narrative provides a center-right party with the ability to set the terms of the domestic debate rather than simply decide how much of the center-left agenda is passed and in what forms. The prospect of the success of this narrative as recently as four years ago is what accounts for much of the left’s anger and provoked much of their recent political activity.

Freedom-based conservatism has the added advantage of being in tune with our national rhetoric. Polls show that Americans use the words “freedom” and “liberty” when asked what it means to be an American, and transformational political leaders from Jefferson through Reagan have sought to define their agenda in terms of enhancing individual freedom rather than expanding national greatness or sectarian primacy.

The questions American conservatism faces today all derive from one basic question: can a political movement and party so founded and so dedicated long endure?

This single question leads to three subsidiary ones. Is it possible to devise a freedom-based political agenda that responds to today’s challenges and context? If so, can this agenda be advanced within a party whose political base is social conservatives who, while sympathetic to freedom, can use rhetoric that calls the individual exercise of freedom into question? If such an agenda is either intellectually untenable or politically impossible, what principle–nationalism, faith, or some mixture of the two–will replace freedom as the core of American conservatism?

David’s piece implicitly raises but does not clearly answer these questions. His analysis of the 1964 defeat can give rise to the idea that American conservatism ought to be more like British or European conservatism, focused more on preventing the predations of the left than on defining the debate. Other of his writings, such as Comeback, suggests that he does believe in the possibility of a freedom-based agenda that will restore conservative dominance both intellectually and politically.

This is a distinction with a crucial difference. If conservatism must remake itself, if its Goldwaterite founding can no longer offer it guidance, then Republicans are doomed to wander in the political wilderness for at least a decade. Remaking a party takes time. It has taken the British Tories 12 years to remake themselves after their crushing 1997 defeat. The current base of the Democratic Party, socially liberal and college-educated people, started its efforts to gain control in the 1950s with their battle against unions and big-city bosses. Even now they rely on the political skills of one individual and must uneasily coexist with union advocates and moderates who remain suspicious of their agenda.

I suspect Comeback is more representative of David’s views, that he (like I) intends to reform rather than remake American conservatism. In which case, our task is more like Reagan’s, to build on what came before and adapt those principles to our current circumstances. If so, a full, complete and sympathetic understanding of 1964 is crucial to our endeavor.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today