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The Father of Conservativism: Barry Goldwater

The Father of Conservativism: Barry Goldwater

One of the most influential conservative politicians in the history of the United States was Barry Goldwater. Here's more on him...
Historyplex Staff
In the 1950s, there were many political issues being bandied about across the country, and Barry Morris Goldwater jumped to the forefront of many of those debates. Goldwater, who was a city councilman in Phoenix before becoming an Arizona senator in 1952, was a staunch conservative from the moment he entered the political arena. For almost a decade after his election to the Senate, Goldwater worked to redefine the mission of the Republican Party, eventually fashioning it into the conservative party it is today. The group of 'Goldwater Conservatives' launched in the 1950s brought to the forefront of public debate the issues of small government, a strong national defense, and free enterprise―the original foundations of the conservative movement.
Goldwater aligned himself closely with the anti-Communist movement, spearheaded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Throughout the heated years of McCarthyism, Goldwater remained passionate about supporting his colleague, and was eventually one of just 22 members of Congress who voted not to censure McCarthy. Although Goldwater did support desegregation and civil rights movement in many ways, he opposed legislation that eventually became the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He had supported the NAACP as well as previous attempts at legislating civil rights, but he disagreed with the bill in 1964, saying that states should have the right to govern themselves. By opposing the bill, he earned support from many conservative Democrats in the South, but many blacks and other minority groups decried him as being a racist.
Because of his growing popularity in the South, Goldwater was able to win the Republican presidential nomination bid in 1964. He geared up to run a powerful issue-oriented presidential campaign against incumbent President John F. Kennedy, his friend and rival in the political arena. An accomplished pilot, he planned to fly around the United States with Kennedy to hold debates similar to the 'whistle-stop' debates used in campaigns decades earlier. However, those plans were dashed abruptly when Kennedy was assassinated in 1964. Goldwater profoundly mourned Kennedy's death, but he still was nominated by the Republican party for the upcoming election, where he would be pitted against Lyndon B. Johnson.
Goldwater found himself unprepared for the hardline tactics used by Johnson, whom he accused of using every dirty trick available to win. Johnson's strategy was to carry on his campaign as though he was perpetually behind Goldwater, and he lambasted the Arizona Senator through an entire series of sharply critical ads on television. Goldwater's comments from previous years were taken out of context to be used against him. One of the most offensive ads showed a little girl counting the petals on a flower as an announcer counts down from ten to one. At the end of the countdown, the girl's face freezes as images of a nuclear war are shown behind her, and a voice implied that Goldwater would launch a nuclear attack if he was elected. These ads were the beginnings of the negative approach to political campaigning, that still persists today. Goldwater lost the election, and many Republicans also lost seats in Congress, thereby setting back the conservative movement dramatically.
Despite his crushing defeat, he persisted in his conservative mission and continued to earn respect from his peers in politics. In 1973, he was significantly involved in the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. The day before Nixon's resignation, Goldwater told him that if he did not resign, he would vote in favor of impeachment. This conversation was the root of the term 'Goldwater movement', a term that is still in use when describing the moment that one or more of the president's party members choose to vote against him or take a publicly opposite position against him.
The 1980 election, where Ronald Reagan soundly defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter, led newspaper editorialist George Will to call the election a victory for conservatives, adding that Goldwater had in fact won the election back in 1964―"it just took 16 years to count the votes." After this, as social conservatives and the quickly growing Religious Right took over the conservative movement, Goldwater's influence began to wane. He strongly opposed the two main issues of the new conservative movement―abortion and gay rights―and his views began to be considered more Libertarian than Conservative. Later, he himself even commented that he and his peers had become Republican liberals. Barry Goldwater died in 1998, at the ripe old age of 89, leaving behind him a legacy of championing conservative causes.