The Birth of Modern Conservatism

Fifty years ago, the battle between leftism and conservatism changed forever.  Until 1964, conservatism had been one long apology to the American people.  The utopian ideals of the left, which had hypnotized voters since Theodore Roosevelt sixty years earlier, were finally and forcefully rejected by ordinary Republicans, who defied establishment governors like Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton, and George Romney.

These Republican leaders had largely won going into the 1964 presidential campaign.  It is a stunning bit of history to recall that five of the  seven Republican conventions before Goldwater – Hoover in 1928 and 1932, Wilkie in 1940, and Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 – nominated candidates who had never really belonged to the Republican Party and were, at best, simply “non-Democrats.” 

Goldwater, aided by an army of millions of supporters, defied this establishment and won the Republican nomination at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.  He would be the only avowed conservative to carry the Republican banner in the forty-eight years from Herbert Hoover’s first campaign in 1928 to Gerald Ford’s last campaign in 1976. 

When, finally, a conservative nominee had the chance to tell the Republican Convention, the Republican establishment, and the American people what he stood for, Goldwater in one brief passage squarely denied all the lies and myths that had been percolating for decades about conservatives.  On July 18, 1964, he proclaimed that “[e]xtremism in the defense of liberty was no vice.”  The vile smear, too often sappily accepted today, that moving too far in the direction of an imaginary “far right” would lead to Nazism was directly challenged by Goldwater, the only major party presidential nominee of Jewish descent. 

Almost every issue which conservatives care about today – high taxes, federal spending, budgetary deficits and the national debt, hyper-regulation, imperial federalism, socialized medicine, unsustainable entitlements – was boldly challenged by Goldwater fifty years ago.   Goldwater did more to fight for conservative principles in Congress.  He was the very first Republican politician to denounce those Republicans we have come to call RINOs.  

In early April 1957, President Eisenhower’s staff had invited Senator Goldwater to lunch at the White House, saying that “[t]he President wants to discuss ways he can help you in your upcoming campaign for re-election.”  The Republican establishment hoped that for the sake of the party (and to help his own political future be secure), Senator Goldwater would meekly accept President Eisenhower’s budget proposal.  It didn’t work. 

 On April 8, 1957, Goldwater took the floor of the Senate and attacked that budget proposal with uncompromising vigor.  And he did more that that.  Goldwater condemned those who described themselves as “modern Republicans” – Republicans who wanted every American to be “federally born, federally housed, federally clothed, federally supported in their occupations, and to be buried in a federal box in a federal cemetery.” 

In this same speech Goldwater noted that when he ran for the Senate, “I campaigned against waste, extravagance, high taxes, unbalanced budgets and deficit spending in the recent Democratic administration, so shall I also, if necessary, wage a battle against the same element of fiscal irresponsibility in this Republican administration.”  Senator Goldwater also told the Senate (and America) that “[i]t is disillusioning to see the Republican Party plunge headlong into the same dismal state experienced by the traditional Democratic principles[.]” 

His 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, laid out in clear language why conservatism is not only smart, but virtuous.  Until then, most Republican politicians avoided the very word “conservative” as some sort of curse.  This permeated most of all the functionaries and nabobs of the Republican Party nationally.  The Conscience of a Conservative may sound like a tame book title to us today, but it was utterly revolutionary when published more than fifty years ago. 

Barry Goldwater continued to attack Republican Party bosses who did not represent the conservative values of ordinary Republicans.  Soon after Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election, on January 11, 1961, Goldwater bemoaned “the inability of the conservative element of the [Republican] party … by far the majority of the [1960] Republican Convention, to convince to a sufficient degree the policy-making level of the party that the party should be conservative in nature in its positions[.]”

The war within the Republican Party for conservative values has surely not been won, but it is proper and wise to recall that fifty years ago this month, the first successful campaign to make the Republican Party a true party in opposition to the leftist establishment was won.

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