The 50-Year March

I’m glad there’s a renewed interest in reassessing the Iraq War thanks to this week’s Tenth Anniversary of its formal initiation. But there’s another anniversary this year that bears recognition and discussion: the 50th anniversary of the public launching of the Draft Goldwater effort of 1963.

You can read Rick Perlstein’s fine 2001 book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, for the background and details. But its basic theme is that the Goldwater campaign unleashed cultural furies and empowered within the Republican Party previously marginal ideological points of view that together would haunt conservative and national politics for a long, long time. How long? It’s not at all over, despite repeated burials.

This matters right now not just for an accurate understanding of American history, but because the connection between the first attempted conquest of the GOP by the conservative movement Goldwater led and its all-but-consummated triumph much more recently is so often missed. Here’s the lede from a new “Behind the Curtain” column by those avatars of the snail’s-eye view of politics, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, heralding the rise of the “Rubio and Rand Party:”

Forget John Boehner. Ignore Karl Rove. The real action in the GOP is coming from the newest wing of the party, the one born in the spring of 2009 — the offspring of tea party activists who almost single-handedly propelled Republicans to control of the House.

If there’s a better example of reaching the right short-term conclusion without understanding the long-term reasons for it, I’ve never seen it. Put aside the highly debatable hypothesis that the “tea party activists” made the GOP takeover of the House possible (more accurately, the “tea party activists” took charge of the GOP and then inherited power when Republicans won a big victory for reasons that had little or nothing to do with Tea Folk ideology or activism). The idea that this movement was “born” in 2009 is laughable when you consider the vast overlap of its tenets and its composition with the militants who spearheaded Goldwater’s campaign and then uneasily co-existed with other Republicans until a shrinking party and a radicalized electoral base broke through in the runup to 2010.

Is there any element of the Tea Ideology that wasn’t present within the Goldwater movement, often not in embryo but in full? There was the frank rejection of the New Deal legacy that “establishment” Republicans had long accepted (supplemented by the Tea Folk by rejection of the Great Society legacy Goldwater’s calamitous defeat help usher in). There was the hatred of “bicoastal elites,” expressed often via conspiracy theories. There was the packaging of reactionary cultural and economic impulses in constitutional originalism and state’s rights theories. And of course, the Goldwater Movement spearheaded the regional realignment that eventually made the South the preeminent Republican base region and the GOP the “White Man’s Party.” Moreover, Barry’s activists were characterized by a tight fusion of libertarian, social-traditionalist and anti-communist ideologies in the conservative movement that viewed the “three legs of the stool” not as a transfactional coalition but as a new creed in which all these old points of view became mutually reinforcing.

It’s fashionable to think of Rand Paul and his supporters as representing an abandonment of one “leg” of the conservative movement “stool” because of their non-interventionist posture on foreign policy. They are young, hip libertarians free of the old-school hyper-nationalism of the Cold War Right. But seen from another perspective, Randpaulism really represents a throwback to the pre-Cold War conservative commitment to truculent unilateralism. It’s been all but forgotten given later conservative support for the Vietnam War, but Goldwater and his campaign frequently attacked LBJ for waging a “no-win war” in southeast Asia that should be ended immediately:

In a very real sense, the forces that dominate the conservative movement and the GOP today are the same as those that created and sustained the Goldwater campaign and then engaged in a 50-year “long march” that finally reached the borders of the Promised Land and then, in the best paleo-conservative tradition, donned revolutionary war garb and prepared for the final battle against the twentieth century. So it’s not a fad; not a temporary product of the Obama presidency; and it’s not going away any time soon.

UPDATE: The aforementioned Rick Perlstein discussed the connections between the Goldwater Movement and the Tea Party Movement–and the “historical myopia” that made the latter seem “new”–in a New York Times column back in 2010.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.