Magazine article Humanities

Before the Storm: How the Media Missed the Tectonic Shift in the Sixties

Magazine article Humanities

Before the Storm: How the Media Missed the Tectonic Shift in the Sixties

Article excerpt

When Barry Goldwater went down to devastating defeat in the 1964 election at the hands of Lyndon Johnson, there, for most observers, the matter stood: the American Right had been rendered a political footnote-perhaps for good.

The wise men weighed in. James Reston of the New York Times: "He has wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage." Richard Rovere of the New Yorker: "The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction."

"By every test we have," declared James MacGregor Burns, one of the nation's most esteemed scholars of the presidency, "this is surely a liberal epoch as the late nineteenth century was a conservative one."

It was one of the most dramatic failures of collective discernment in the history of American journalism. After the off-year elections a mere two years later, conservatives so dominated Congress that Lyndon Johnson couldn't even get up a majority to appropriate money for rodent control in the slums. The House Republican Caucus elected as chair of the Policy Committee one of Barry Goldwater's Arizona proteges. In 1964 there were sixteen Republican governors, all but two of them moderates; in 1966 ten new conservative Republican governors were voted in. In 1980 Americans elected one of them, Ronald Reagan, as their President. And in 1995 Bill Clinton paid Reagan tribute by adopting many of his political positions-which had also been Barry Goldwater's positions. Here is one time, at least, in which history was written by the losers.

It is hard, now, to grasp just how profoundly the tectonic plates of American politics have shifted between 1964 and today. Go back to 1952. When the first Republican president in twenty years was elected, liberals feared Dwight D. Eisenhower would try to roll back the Democratic achievements of the past twenty years: minimum wage and agricultural price supports; the Tennessee Valley Authority, that massive complex of government-built dams that brought electricity to entire swatches of the Southeast which had never seen it before; Social Security and public works projects; and many, many more. Instead, the Republican president institutionalized and expanded such programs. He created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, championed low-income housing, chartered the federal interstate system, proclaimed Social Security as much an American institution as the free enterprise system- and extended its reach more than Roosevelt or Truman ever had.

Once the world was slow, rural, simple; now it was fast-changing, urban, interdependent. This was not ideology. This was reality. One did not argue with people who denied reality. Stewart Alsop wrote that conservatism was "not really a coherent, rational alternative at all-it is hardly more than an angry cry of protest against things as they are"; Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter joked that he welcomed the Goldwater-for-President movement when it sprang up because it was providing conservatives "a kind of vocational therapy, without which they might have to be committed."

Men like this did not detect the ground shifting beneath their feet. …

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