- The GOP Moves Right
When Daniel Bell wrote in 1960 that “Ideology, which once was a road to action, had come to a dead end,” it seemed appropriate (quoted in Brennan, p. 20). The Eisenhower era, after all, marked the golden age of American capitalism, since most of the problems associated with the Great Depression had disappeared as a result of the sustained postwar boom. Surprisingly, a variety of social and political movements on the left and right soon arose to challenge the prevailing liberal consensus regarding the role of government and the distribution of power and wealth in America. Most historians writing about those developments associated with the sixties have largely focused on the antiwar or civil rights movements, while ignoring another extremely important aspect of that tumultuous decade—the emergence and ultimate triumph of a conservative movement inside the GOP.
Historian Mary Brennan, in Turning Right In the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP, seeks to correct this oversight by tracing the political origins and development of that movement. Although her monograph is modest in length, it is a well researched contribution that provides the reader with a sound overview of the growing conservative groundswell in the ranks of the GOP before and after the 1960 election. Her explanation as to why many Republicans in the Sun Belt and elsewhere willingly joined Barry Goldwater’s conservative crusade is generally persuasive, based on an analysis of economic, cultural, and racial factors, though she should have underscored the importance of race in enlarging the Republican base in the South after 1960.
For many conservatives, including Goldwater, ideology was everything. Determined to settle for nothing less than victory over communism, they were disillusioned with Dwight Eisenhower’s unwillingness or inability to [End Page 327] roll back Soviet power. They also believed that because the Eisenhower administration tolerated big deficits and embraced the welfare state, it had been infected, in the words of Herbert Hoover, with “the Karl Marx virus” (p. 24). Such is the irony of history that the first Republican administration since Hoover’s inspired a renewed conservative attack on liberalism culminating in Goldwater’s nomination at the Republican convention in 1964.
Brennan emphasizes that conservatives in the late fifties and early sixties had many internal problems to overcome before they could mount an effective challenge to the hegemony of the hated Eastern Establishment. Their movement gained momentum once they had established a unity out of diverse elements on the Right with a common commitment to a militant anticommunism, and once they had succeeded in mobilizing a grassroots base inside a number of state and local organizations in the Sun Belt on behalf of a draft Goldwater campaign in 1960.
Richard Nixon’s defeat in 1960 also helped to promote the conservative cause, giving further ammunition to those who wanted a choice, not an echo. Important, too, is Brennan’s observation that after 1960 liberals and moderates in the Republican party failed to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge they faced on the grass-roots level. Much to their future detriment, they equated their conservative opponents in the party with the “lunatic fringe” (p. 59) and did not take them seriously at first. But Brennan overlooks the point that the Goldwater Right and that “lunatic fringe” happened to share a world view far more in common with the witchhunting politics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the policy of rollback advocated by General Douglas MacArthur than with Dwight Eisenhower’s modern Republicanism.
Goldwater’s success in winning the Republican nomination in 1964 gave him a unique platform for advancing causes dearest to the Right, including the removal of Fidel Castro, the further militarization of American policy in Vietnam, and a substantial reduction in the size and scope of the federal government. Although Goldwater’s agenda was repudiated by the American people in 1964, conservatives could...