Barry Goldwater was never going to win the 1964 presidential election. The country was still in mourning over JFK’s murder, the economy was humming along, and Lyndon Johnson’s approval ratings were sky high.
It was exactly 49 years ago tonight–July 16, 1964, the final night of the Republican convention at the old Cow Palace in San Francisco–when Goldwater delivered the speech that would be pretty much guarantee he would lose to LBJ in a landslide. His nomination was the product of a well-organized uprising by a growing conservative movement–one that wasn’t just skeptical of government, but downright hostile to it.
There were pragmatic Republicans back then…moderate Republicans….liberal Republicans. A lot of them. They were afraid that Goldwater’s embrace of far-right ideology would scare off general election voters in droves. But with that acceptance speech…with that one line in that acceptance speech…Goldwater made it clear that he had no interest in toning down his message, no instinct to soften his edges. If his platform made voters uneasy, well, that was their problem–not his. So the result that November was hardly a surprise:
A massacre for the ages. More than 60% of the national popular vote for LBJ. 486 Electoral votes. A 44-state romp.
What no one would have guessed when that campaign ended was that a half-century later we’d end up looking back on it not as a brief and disastrous detour to the ideological edges by the Republican Party, but rather as the fundamental turning point in the party’s modern evolution. When it veered hard to the right and never looked back.
But you can draw a straight line from 1964 to today–from Goldwater and the John Birch Society to Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and the Tea Party.
It’s ideological. There ended up being a backlash against the ambitious–and expensive–additions to the social safety net that LBJ enacted in his full-term as president. 1965 saw the enactment of the Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, the Higher Education Act, and the expansion of the Food Stamp program. Then 1966 saw massive midterm election gains for the GOP–47 seats in the House, 3 in the Senate, a new governor in California named Reagan.
It’s also geographic. In the middle of the ’64 massacre, Goldwater managed to do something remarkable: he carried 5 Southern states. Since the end of Reconstruction, the South had been the most staunchly Democratic region in the country. But ’64 was a fateful year: A Democratic president pushed through the Civil Rights Act and enraged white southerners, while the Republican nominee actually joined the South’s effort to kill civil rights by filibuster. Now, 49 years later, the parties have completely switched roles. The South is now synonymous with Republican politics.
The resentment of government that Barry Goldwater channeled in 1964 continues to the animate the Republican Party. By now, though, the liberals are all gone, so are just about all of the moderates and many of the pragmatists. Forty-nine years ago tonight, the political world listened to Barry Goldwater and dismissed him as a hopeless crackpot. No one realized that he was just ahead of his time.