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How Barry Goldwater Brought the Far Right to Center Stage in the 1964 Presidential Race

October 20, 2020 in History

By Suzanne McGee

Despite a landslide loss, the Arizona Republican ignited his party’s ultra-conservative wing for decades to come.

When the far-right Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater ran for the American presidency in 1964, he never even pretended to woo voters in the political center. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” declared Goldwater in his speech accepting the Republican Party’s nomination at its 1964 convention. “And…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

That fall, incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson crushed Goldwater in a historic landslide, carrying more than 60 percent of the vote. Goldwater won only his home state and five deep South states that had long leaned Democratic, but were struggling with the party’s actions supporting civil rights.

Goldwater was, without doubt, a divisive figure: Democratic detractors like Martin Luther King. Jr. and then-California Governor Pat Brown had compared his blunt, pull-no-punches rhetoric to Hitler. Within his own party, moderates responded with varying degrees of dismay or horror to his policies. On the eve of the 1964 GOP convention, the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, William Scranton, publicly released a letter he had written to Goldwater decrying the latter’s “crazy quilt” of “dangerous positions,” including his casual attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons.

But while his own bid for the White House flamed out, the embers of Goldwater’s political philosophy—championing small government and individual freedoms—would ignite the party’s conservative wing for decades to come.

READ MORE: What Are Swing States and How Did They Become So Critical?

Goldwater Offered Stark Contrast to Johnson’s Big Government Policies

1964 Republican presidential candidate Senator Berry Goldwater (R) and his running mate William Miller, a New York congressman

Goldwater, who traded running his family’s department store for a career in politics, eventually served five terms in the Senate starting in 1952. When running for president, the rough-edged, charismatic Westerner overcame his party’s old guard by galvanizing a grassroots coalition of businesspeople, Southerners, Midwesterners and libertarians who felt sidelined by the GOP. It was their values, not those of wealthy Eastern elites, that should prevail in the Republican platform, he argued as he rallied to defeat primary rivals like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the Boston Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge. “Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea,” he famously told the press …read more


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