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July 15, 2013 12:23 PM More Prophecy Than Precursor

By Ed Kilgore

Being a little preoccupied with the Zimmerman verdict, I didn’t post a Daylight Video today commemorating something that happened on this day in history. But there are a couple of anniversaries worth mentioning.

49 years ago today, the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater as its presidential candidate, setting up a massive landslide for Lyndon Johnson. It’s very interesting to note how memories of the Goldwater candidacy—especially among conservatives—have changed over the years. For some time it was a cautionary tale of what happens to a major political party when it goes on an ideological bender—much like the 1972 McGovern campaign is remembered in certain circles. By 1976 and 1980, with Ronald Reagan’s near-miss and then successful presidential campaigns, Barry’s crusade was retrospectively was viewed on the Right as ahead of its time. It was no accident that the call-and-response Viva! Ole!” cheer of the Goldwater campaign (utilized precisely as the “Fired Up! Ready to Go!” chant was by the 2008 Obama campaign) was adopted by the Reaganauts, many of whom became politically active in 1964. And eventually, as the rise of the conservative movement became recognized as one of the most important U.S. political phenomena of the second half of the twentieth century, the Goldwater campaign, despite its ostensible futility, was widely hailed as one of the three or four most important landmarks (cf., the great popularity among readers from across the political spectrum of Rick Perlstein’s fine 2001 book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus).

But now after the recent radicalization of both the conservative movement and the GOP, the Goldwater effort is becoming more prophecy than precursor to many on the Right. For all the talk of Ronald Reagan as the perennial beau ideal of American conservatism, today’s “constitutional conservativism” is significantly more reminiscent of the Goldwater Uprising than of the Reagan Revolution, though obviously they had a lot in common. Like Goldwater himself, “constitutional conservatives” think far less of offering reforms of the Welfare State than of uprooting it entirely and returning the Republic to a lost and in some respects imaginary pre-New-Deal Golden Age in which the federal government was strictly limited to powers explicitly enumerated in the Constitution, with the states and the individual sharing (sometimes uneasily) sovereignty forever and ever.

So if you want to understand today’s conservatives, you’d be well advised to understand the Goldwater campaign and its fixed and politically incautious agenda for the country. Later perceptions of Ol’ Barry as an opponent of the Christian Right’s influence on the GOP miss the point that his original supporters and their ideological heirs view the Republican Party as never being sufficiently conservative, and 1964 as the campaign that’s never really ended.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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