When the far-right Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater ran for the American presidency in 1964, he never even pretended to woo voters in the political center. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” declared Goldwater in his speech accepting the Republican Party’s nomination at its 1964 convention. “And…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
That fall, incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson crushed Goldwater in a historic landslide, carrying more than 60 percent of the vote. Goldwater won only his home state and five deep South states that had long leaned Democratic, but were struggling with the party’s actions supporting civil rights.
Goldwater was, without doubt, a divisive figure: Democratic detractors like Martin Luther King. Jr. and then-California Governor Pat Brown had compared his blunt, pull-no-punches rhetoric to Hitler. Within his own party, moderates responded with varying degrees of dismay or horror to his policies. On the eve of the 1964 GOP convention, the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, William Scranton, publicly released a letter he had written to Goldwater decrying the latter’s “crazy quilt” of “dangerous positions,” including his casual attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons.
But while his own bid for the White House flamed out, the embers of Goldwater’s political philosophy—championing small government and individual freedoms—would ignite the party's conservative wing for decades to come.
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Goldwater Offered Stark Contrast to Johnson’s Big Government Policies
Goldwater, who traded running his family’s department store for a career in politics, eventually served five terms in the Senate starting in 1952. When running for president, the rough-edged, charismatic Westerner overcame his party’s old guard by galvanizing a grassroots coalition of businesspeople, Southerners, Midwesterners and libertarians who felt sidelined by the GOP. It was their values, not those of wealthy Eastern elites, that should prevail in the Republican platform, he argued as he rallied to defeat primary rivals like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the Boston Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge. "Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea,” he famously told the press in the early 1960s. While Johnson was loudly declaring a War on Poverty, Goldwater waged war on the moderate wing of his own party.
Goldwater warned in the acceptance speech that “any who do not care for our cause” didn’t belong within the GOP ranks. Today, that “cause”—the pursuit of a balanced budget and limited government, coupled with a hardline stance on foreign policy and defense—would become central to the party’s mission. Welfare? It should be a private matter, Goldwater proclaimed. Farm subsidies needed to go. He saw the federal government as bloated and failing to offer real opportunity to Americans. During the election, he voted against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, arguing some of its provisions impinged on individual freedoms.
This don’t-tread-on-me philosophy appealed to voters who vividly recalled the battles surrounding the 1930s New Deal, and resented what they saw as their diminished control over their own lives and businesses. The government spent too much, interfered too much, and wielded too much power, they believed—and Goldwater seemed to give voice to these convictions as LBJ doubled down on the government’s role in the economy and society. “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size,” Goldwater wrote. “I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom.”
What mattered to Goldwater’s supporters as much as his policies was his candid, outspoken style. Crowds packed his rallies, greeting him as he made up to a dozen appearances daily courtesy of his Boeing 727. “Something must be done, and done immediately, to swing away from this obsessive concern for the rights of the criminal defendant” to combat crime and lawlessness and restore order, he told one audience. He pledged to “redress Constitutional interpretation in favor of the public” by appointing judges who prioritized individual rights.
His fans lapped it up, even when Goldwater’s plainspokenness sometimes went too far. One Georgia supporter offered the candidate a taste of the beverage he had concocted and was selling from the back of his truck: “Gold Water,” or “The Right Drink For the Conservative Taste.” The man of the hour was underwhelmed. “This tastes like piss,” he said, spitting it out.
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Goldwater’s Conservatism, Initially Rejected as Radical, Infused the Republican Party
Goldwater’s views–and his lasting legacy–are reflected in the slim, ghostwritten book he published in 1960, The Conscience of a Conservative. “Its publishers originally fretted over distributing an initial press run of 5,000 copies,” recalled Steven Hayward, a professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy. But as Goldwater campaigned in 1964, his followers on the GOP’s right wing snapped up copies, propelling it to The New York Times bestseller list.
The 123-page manifesto hasn’t been out of print since. It is a regular feature of college courses in politics, government and economics. The book pops up on lists of recommended reading by those on the Republican’s right wing.
Goldwater’s campaign slogan—“In your heart, you know he’s right”—may have suggested that Americans voters in 1964 weren’t willing to be as outspoken opponents of a strong federal government or supporters of the candidate’s ultra-conservative views. That would change over the decades that followed, as his ideas and supporters moved slowly but steadily to the forefront of the Republican Party. Positions that seemed far to the right in the 1960s moved gradually to the mainstream, from originalist interpretations of the constitution to limited government and a distaste for the mainstream media—which his supporters dubbed “the rat-fink Eastern press.”
Many historians trace the ascendance of far-right candidates and groups within the GOP to Goldwater’s failed, but memorable, campaign. An early example: Ronald Reagan’s barn-burning 1964 speech on national TV, supporting Goldwater’s hawkish foreign policy and his determination to shrink government. In 1964, Reagan’s political career was just gaining momentum; two decades later, he would shake up the political establishment by pursuing Goldwater-like hawkish policies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, while proclaiming that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
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By the dawn of the new century, Tea Party members drew heavily on Goldwater’s libertarian policies in shaping the GOP’s platform, disparaging not only liberal elites but any fellow Republicans who still believed in the kind of “compassionate conservatism” preached by George H.W. Bush. “The list of companies and industries that the government is crowding out and bailing out and taking over, it continues to grow,” the former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin told a 2010 gathering of Tea Party Republicans.
Historian Allan Nevins of Columbia University, a student of American politics and history and two-time Pulitzer winner for his political biographies, saw the writing on the wall: If Goldwater and his supporters stuck to their guns, “There will be in effect a new conservative party.”