Reagan, Goldwater and Rise of Conservatism

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Fifty years ago on Monday, the handsome, All-American actor Ronald Wilson Reagan jump-started his political career when his pre-recorded “A Time for Choosing” speech in support of 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater aired on television.

While never a star on the level of Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart, Reagan’s acting career, his experience as a sports announcer, and a good sense of humor made him a likeable as well as a commanding public speaker. A prolific actor before, during, and after World War II, Reagan appeared in films ranging from dramas, including Kings Row, to military training films to comedies such as Bedtime for Bonzo. He became General Electric’s spokesman and the host of General Electric Theater, GE’s popular weekly radio and TV program from the 1950s to the early 1960s.

Originally a New Deal Democrat, Reagan campaigned for several Democratic candidates, including President Harry S. Truman. He served on the board of a union, the Screen Actors Guild, and then later became its president. However, as the 1950s progressed, his views became increasingly conservative. His second wife, Nancy Davis Reagan, had grown up in a conservative household, and GE’s executives, especially Lemuel Boulware, supported conservative principles of limited government, free markets, and anti-communism. By 1962, Reagan had changed from a Cold War liberal to a Republican when he famously remarked, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”

Reagan’s philosophical journey took place at a crossroads for conservatism. While we may associate the 1950s with Dwight D. Eisenhower, fears of communism, and the nuclear family epitomized by Leave it to Beaver, the future of conservatism did not look bright during this time. Marxist-Leninism was on the march in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Conservatism was increasingly looked upon as backward and un-intellectual in academia. The Republican Party had largely cast itself as simply a watered down version of the Democratic Party, and, if you went further to the right, you might have run into the fringe John Birch Society, an organization filled with paranoia and, in many cases, anti-Semitism and other prejudices.

A conservative revival came out of this decade as William F. Buckley’s newly founded National Review became an outlet to promote conservative principles and to simultaneously reduce the influence of the extremists. Then a staunch, old-fashioned conservative from Arizona named Barry M. Goldwater began to shake the political establishment. A bespectacled, articulate figure, Goldwater was a fierce anti-communist and a critic of labor unions and the welfare state. After a long, bitter primary against the moderate New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller, Goldwater became the GOP presidential candidate against incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Reagan became Goldwater’s most consequential spokesman.

With a message that still resonates with conservatives today, Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing Speech” warned Americans of the threat centralized, expansive government posed to human freedom:

[The Founders] knew that governments don't control things. A government can't control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that; it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.

Praising Goldwater as a courageous man committed to fiscal rectitude and to peace through strength, he told viewers that the GOP candidate was a man of principle, deserving of their votes. The actor concluded by noting, “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny” (ironically, he was paraphrasing Democratic icon and fellow master communicator Franklin D. Roosevelt).

But the American people would not choose with Reagan. Portrayed as a reactionary on domestic policy and a warmonger who could bring about World War III and nuclear Armageddon in the infamous “Daisy” ad, Goldwater lost in a landslide, winning only the Deep South and Arizona. Goldwater struggled to win over voters, especially on civil rights issues (he was largely sympathetic to the civil rights movement, but he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, believing its mandates on private businesses to be unconstitutional).

Even if Goldwater could have appealed more to the political center, it was practically inconceivable that the electorate would see the presidency change hands a second time in a little over a year after the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson would go on to advance his Great Society and promote the most liberal agenda since the New Deal.

Despite Goldwater’s loss, Reagan’s charisma had electrified conservative Republicans, and he was encouraged to run for governor of California in 1966. That year, he defeated two-term governor, Edmund G. Brown, who had beaten Richard Nixon just four years earlier. Reagan won a second term as governor and the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. While Nixon won the White House in ’68 on a platform filled with conservative rhetoric, his presidency was largely a continuation of his predecessor’s on domestic issues. The progressivism of the Johnson-Nixon era followed by the malaise and foreign policy embarrassments of the Jimmy Carter years had finally moved voters to the right in a way that had not been seen since the 1920s as Reagan defeated Carter in a landslide and then Walter Mondale in an even larger landslide four years later.

The coalition that brought about the Reagan ascendancy would not be the exactly the same as the one that followed Goldwater. In the late 1970s and increasingly throughout the 1980s, the religious right’s influence grew in a way that displeased Goldwater on a number of social issues, including abortion and gay rights. Although Goldwater’s libertarianism would not completely carry over into the Reagan years, his beliefs in rugged individualism, free markets, and limited government were undeniably at the core of the Gipper’s message.

As George Will once wrote, “We… who voted for [Goldwater] in 1964 believe he won, it just took 16 years to count the votes.”

Pat Horan is a research associate at RealClearPolitics and a contributor at RealClearHistory. He is a recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross.

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