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Before the Storm

How the Media Missed the Tectonic Shift in the Sixties

By Rick Perlstein | HUMANITIES, January/February 2001 | Volume 22, Number 1

When Barry Goldwater went down to devastating defeat in the 1964 election at the hands of Lyndon Johnson, there, for most observers, the matter stood: the American Right had been rendered a political footnote--perhaps for good.

The wise men weighed in. James Reston of the New York Times: "He has wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage." Richard Rovere of the New Yorker: "The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction."

"By every test we have," declared James MacGregor Burns, one of the nation's most esteemed scholars of the presidency, "this is surely a liberal epoch as the late nineteenth century was a conservative one."

It was one of the most dramatic failures of collective discernment in the history of American journalism. After the off-year elections a mere two years later, conservatives so dominated Congress that Lyndon Johnson couldn't even get up a majority to appropriate money for rodent control in the slums. The House Republican Caucus elected as chair of the Policy Committee one of Barry Goldwater's Arizona proteges. In 1964 there were sixteen Republican governors, all but two of them moderates; in 1966 ten new conservative Republican governors were voted in. In 1980 Americans elected one of them, Ronald Reagan, as their President. And in 1995 Bill Clinton paid Reagan tribute by adopting many of his political positions--which had also been Barry Goldwater's positions. Here is one time, at least, in which history was written by the losers.

It is hard, now, to grasp just how profoundly the tectonic plates of American politics have shifted between 1964 and today. Go back to 1952. When the first Republican president in twenty years was elected, liberals feared Dwight D. Eisenhower would try to roll back the Democratic achievements of the past twenty years: minimum wage and agricultural price supports; the Tennessee Valley Authority, that massive complex of government-built dams that brought electricity to entire swatches of the Southeast which had never seen it before; Social Security and public works projects; and many, many more. Instead, the Republican president institutionalized and expanded such programs. He created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, championed low-income housing, chartered the federal interstate system, proclaimed Social Security as much an American institution as the free enterprise system and extended its reach more than Roosevelt or Truman ever had.

Once the world was slow, rural, simple; now it was fast-changing, urban, interdependent. This was not ideology. This was reality. One did not argue with people who denied reality. Stewart Alsop wrote that conservatism was "not really a coherent, rational alternative at all--it is hardly more than an angry cry of protest against things as they are"; Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter joked that he welcomed the Goldwater-for-President movement when it sprang up because it was providing conservatives "a kind of vocational therapy, without which they might have to be committed."

Men like this did not detect the ground shifting beneath their feet. They didn't notice that year by year, crisis by crisis, America was slowly becoming more divided than it was united.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy scaled back an exile invasion of Cuba to overthrow Fidel Castro. Castro stood his ground. The next year the Soviets tried to make Cuba a base for nuclear missiles trained on North America. Millions of Americans were converted to the doctrine that weakness in the face of the Soviets was an accommodation with evil, bringing the Communists one step closer to their goal of world domination.

Blacks staged sit-ins at Southern lunch counters, rode through Dixie on buses alongside whites in defiance of local laws and in accordance with the rulings of the United States Supreme Court, marched through the streets of Southern cities in ever-escalating confrontation with the customs and codes of segregation. Millions more decided that rabble-rousers--perhaps Communist dupes--were spitting on law and order, overturning settled ways of life with reckless abandon, and might not stop until they had forced their way into their own northern white neighborhoods.

Experts stepped forward to manage and coordinate people's problems; and more and more people decided they wanted to be left alone. Union power was turning a proletariat into a middle class--and union members began wondering how much of their dues went to subsidize civil rights groups that were eager to break up their neighborhood school districts.

Scratch a conservative today, and the story comes out--how it all began for them in the Goldwater campaign.

It was something more than just finding ideological soul mates. It was learning how to act: how letters got written, how doors got knocked on, how co-workers could be won over on the coffee break. It was a cause. They lost in 1964. But something remained after 1964: a movement. An army. An army that could lose a battle, suck it up, regroup, then live to fight a thousand battles more. Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?--that was how William F. Buckley titled an anthology of conservative writings in 1970. Two years later, his brother won a Senate seat from New York with the backing of the state's Conservative Party. The dream was walking. Maybe it wasn't even an army. Maybe it was a moral majority. America would remember the sixties as a decade of the left. It must be remembered instead as a decade when the polarization began. "We must assume that the conservative revival is the youth movement of the sixties," Murray Kempton wrote in 1961, in words that would sound laughable five years later. Forty years later, these are words that are, at the very least, arguable.

About the Author

This article is adapted from Before the Storm: the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein. To be published by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. © 2001 by Rick Perlstein. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Perlstein writes for Lingua Franca, Slate, and The Nation, and received an NEH fellowship for research for this book.