In The Center Cannot Hold, Laura Jane Gifford enters the scholarly debate over when the Republican turn to the right actually began. Gifford presents a convincing argument for the presidential election of 1960 as a significant moment of conservative realignment within the national party. That year, she observes, provided a hinge between a focus on anticommunist foreign policy and a shift in voter concern to more domestic policies of "civil rights, social disorder, the war in Vietnam, and the first falterings of the post World War II economy" (p.18).
Recovering from its own shellacking in the 1958 midterm elections, the national GOP began to reassess its more centrist positions. Two of the rare Republican winners in 1958 were conservative senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona and moderate governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. Gifford analyzes the rise of these two stars alongside Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960 primary. Gifford organizes the book according to interest group. The first two chapters analyze what would become the past of the party—Republican liberals and African Americans. The next three examine the future of the party in conservative intelligentsia, youth, and Southerners. The final chapter focuses on what Gifford sees as the lost opportunity for moderates to define anticommunism in a way to keep ethnic groups under the party umbrella. [End Page 270]
Chapter two is the strongest chapter with its examination of African Americans trying to maintain a place in the party and a voice in the direction of the Republicans' civil rights platforms. Gifford pulls from diverse sources to tell a national story of this election as a missed opportunity for Rockefeller and liberal Republicans both to secure the African American vote and to keep a liberal voice in the party.
While each chapter contains new information and convincing arguments for its respective interest group, Gifford does not connect the chapters. Chapter two on African Americans and chapter five focusing on the Republicans of South Carolina would each benefit from more overlap. The story of African Americans leaving the party and white Southerners coming to the party should be in conversation. The focus of chapter five on South Carolina exclusively also prevents any discussion of conservative Democrat, Virginia governor Harry Byrd who, in 1960, pulled electoral votes from realigning Deep South states of Mississippi and Alabama. Likewise, chapter three on the intellectual movement and chapter four on the youth movement do not relate to one another even on the common ground of Young Americans for Freedom. The independent nature of the chapters is positive for those seeking to assign shorter readings, but overall it represents a missed opportunity to tell a complete and unified story. Laura Jane Gifford's book will be of interest to those engaged in the debate for the origins of the conservative turn of the national GOP. Her strong conclusion fills in the next two decades to show how Goldwater won the nomination in 1964 followed by the ways in which both 1960 and 1964 set up the Republican triumphs of 1968 and 1980. While 1960 seemed full of lost opportunities for liberal Republicans, Gifford also points toward the groups that became the heart of Goldwater's 1964 campaign and Reagan's 1980 victory. [End Page 271]
Robin Morris is a PhD candidate in history at Yale University and Kirk Visiting Instructor of History at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Georgia.