The Myth of Barry Goldwater

Barry Goldwater

by Robert Alan Goldberg
Yale University Press, 463 pp., $29.95

Goldwater: The Man Who Made A Revolution

by Lee Edwards
Regnery, 572 pp., $29.95

Barry Goldwater
Barry Goldwater; drawing by David Levine

The Republicans’ capture of the House and Senate in November 1994, and the possibility of a lasting realignment in their favor as the new majority party, have made an accurate understanding of the evolution of the GOP indispensable to an understanding of modern American politics. The Republican right, savoring its victory, has its own triumphalist version of history. According to the prevailing view among such conservatives as Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, the long march toward the Republican revolution of November 1994 began in 1955, when William F. Buckley, Jr., founded National Review as the vehicle for conservatives who were at odds with the then-dominant liberal orthodoxy.

Crystallizing around National Review and organizations like Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the conservative movement soon mustered enough strength within the Republican Party to nominate Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Though Goldwater was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in a landslide, the conservatives strengthened their position within the GOP and found a new standard-bearer in Ronald Reagan, whose speech at the 1964 convention—“The Speech”—galvanized partisans of the right. Denied the nomination by the moderates who supported Gerald Ford in 1976, he came to power in 1980. The Reagan Revolution was completed in November 1994 by the Gingrich Revolution. In retrospect, Goldwater’s defeat marked the beginning of the realignment of the American political order from liberal Democratic orthodoxy to conservative Republican hegemony.

The right’s triumphalist version of recent political history, though it is plausible in some ways, leaves out far too much to be convincing. For one thing, it ignores the fact that, even before the founding of National Review in 1955, some of the intellectuals associated with it had been associated with Senator Joe McCarthy, whom Goldwater himself strongly supported. (Buckley and his brother-in-law Brent Bozell published McCarthy and His Enemies, a defense of McCarthy against his critics, in 1954.)

Even more important is the triumphalist theory’s neglect of regionalism in US politics. Today’s victorious conservatives seldom acknowledge what Kevin Phillips and other political analysts have been pointing out for years—that the chief factor in Republican presidential and congressional victories has been the conversion of the white South to the GOP, both in the voting for President, beginning with Eisenhower in 1952, and in the Republican conquest of both houses of Congress in 1994.

A more accurate account of the rise of the Republican Party must in my view take in a longer perspective, concentrating on the period between 1938 and 1994. FDR’s failed attempt to purge the Democratic Party of Southern conservatives in the 1938 midterm elections began the era of the “conservative coalition” of Republicans and Southern Democrats that dominated Congress between 1939 and 1958. It also inaugurated a half century in which more and more Southerners defected from the Democratic coalition in presidential elections. They voted not only for Republicans but for independent candidates like the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond in 1948…

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