Fifty years ago today, one of the least successful candidates ever to seek the presidency, Sen. Barry Goldwater, gave his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. The speech was roundly denounced by the political class as an appeal to extremism. Yet that speech marked the beginning of a new era in American politics that no one at the time could see, and over the years many of Goldwater’s “extreme” ideas came into the mainstream.
In 1964, Goldwater’s candidacy challenged the comfortable assumptions of American politics that had been embedded in the political culture since the New Deal. Since the 1940s, American policy had accepted the division of the world into the free and Communist halves; Goldwater challenged that, for which he was branded a frightening warmonger. Even in the Eisenhower years, Republicans had not tried to reverse the New Deal, now Goldwater said they should do just that.
But the early 1960s marked the end of a long consensus in American politics. Until then, people had believed government was a good thing, more than 80 percent of Americans agreed with what the government told them.
And they had accepted a government that quietly ran their lives. Americans bought products made by American companies with union labor regulated by a strict labor and corporate structure built up in the New Deal. They communicated over a regulated telephone system; they got their news from three national networks licensed by the federal government. Even their newspapers, while not government regulated, were owned by a handful of wealthy families. There were no multinational corporations, no cable networks, no internet, no social media, almost nothing in your life that was not guided by a benign if sometimes ineffective national government.
But by 1964, there was unhappiness about a government some people saw as not so benign, especially in the American west. Theodore H. White, in his monumental studies of the presidential elections of that era, quotes one Luke Williams of Spokane, Washington. “Williams’ philosophy is that of an honest man who has made it one his own, by wit, ingenuity and hard work, and the government that hampers him as his efforts flourish seems a hostile one.” Williams was looking around for someone who would challenge the consensus. And Goldwater was his man.
So when Goldwater mounted the podium to give his acceptance speech 50 summers ago he was ready to challenge the dogmas of the political consensus, not as Theodore White put it, “with newer ideas, (but) with the older dogmas of the Old Frontier…. a crusader’s world unexpressed in American politics for generations.”
“Freedom” said Goldwater, should be the Republican Party’s “single resolve – freedom under a government limited by the laws of nature and nature’s God; freedom, balanced so that order, lacking liberty, will not become the license of the mob and of the jungle.” Not the sort of thing you normally hear in acceptance speeches. But Goldwater was assaulting the long held consensus on the role of government: “Rather than useful jobs, people have been offered bureaucratic make-work, rather than moral leadership they have been given bread and circuses.”
“Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions of equality. Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.”
I was a Young Republican field man, sitting in the balcony of the Cow Palace watching this speech and watching the audience. They were not impressed. They wanted red meat, and Goldwater was giving a very philosophical speech, although his words traced to a rugged individualism not seen in America since the days of Herbert Hoover.
But in just two years time, first in the California’s governor’s race in 1966, and then 16 years later in the 1980 Presidential contest, Goldwater idea’s would be far more artfully expressed by another person in the audience that night, a former actor named Ronald Reagan. But 1964 was the first expression of what later became a central Reagan theme, government was part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Goldwater also lashed out at the consensus of how to prevent nuclear war with the Soviet Union. “The Republican cause demands that we brand Communism as a principal disturber of peace in the world today. Indeed, we should brand it as the only significant disturber of the peace, and we must make clear that until its goals of conquest are absolutely renounced and its rejections with all nations tempered, Communism and the governments it now controls are enemies of every man on earth who is or wants to be free.”
This rhetoric all but called for rolling back the Iron Curtain, in direct contradiction of the bi-partisan consensus that American foreign policy was to contain Communism not push it back. But Goldwater did not stop there. “I believe that we must look beyond the defense of freedom today to its extension tomorrow. I believe that the Communism which boasts it will bury us will, instead, give way to the forces of freedom. I can see and I suggest that all thoughtful men must contemplate the flowering of an Atlantic civilization, the whole world of Europe unified and free, trading openly across its borders, communicating openly across the world.”
Goldwater even went so far as to include Latin America and the emerging nations of Asia in his new “Atlantic civilization.” While the establishment intelligencia scoffed at such simplistic talk, this is exactly what did happen a quarter century later with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emancipation of its colonial empire.
To this point, the audience had been largely bored. Delegates were older than today as most were long time party activists. Some chomped on their cigars (smoking was of course permitted, even on the convention floor) but then Goldwater gave them all the red meat they had been waiting for; and the lines that largely crushed his candidacy.
The speech was crafted by a conservative intellectual, Karl Hess, but a Claremont Graduate University professor named Harry Jaffa had suggested two lines to Goldwater and he liked them: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Aha, there’s the proof, the man is a mad extremist who’ll get us into a war with the Russians. Reporters thought he had blown his brains out, as one of them expressed to Theodore White: “My God, he’s going to run as Barry Goldwater!” That fall Goldwater’s effort to roll back the New Deal was repudiated by the largest margin since, well, the New Deal itself.
But four years later, Richard Nixon did reclaim the White House for the Republicans, ushering in 24 years of GOP presidents broken only by the one term of Jimmy Carter. And far more than anyone would have thought, many of Goldwater’s prophecies expressed that fateful night of July 16, 1964, did actually come to pass.