At its 1964 convention in San Francisco, the Republican Party emerged from a corrosive faction fight between its left and right wings to do something that was supposed to be impossible: It nominated a conservative. Barry Goldwater earned that nomination by the efforts of a stealthy organizing juggernaut against the party’s moderate and liberal establishment unlike any seen before in the annals of American politics. Then he went down to devastating defeat in November at the hands of Lyndon Johnson. And there, for most observers, the matter stood: The American right had been rendered a political footnote–probably for good.
The wise men weighed in. Richard Rovere of The New Yorker: “The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction.” 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.” James MacGregor Burns: “By every test we have…this is as surely a liberal epoch as the late 19th Century was a conservative one.” For, as The Atlantic Monthly insisted, government’s active obligation to provide “a solution of the manifold problems of modern urban life–housing, education, welfare, mass transportation, health, and civil rights,” was simply not a matter of ideological dispute; it was reality. And one did not argue with those who denied reality. As Stewart Alsop said, 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.” (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.”) Wide-ranging ideological disputes on first principles were a thing of the past. America was a nation of consensus–right down to its soul.
It was one of the most dramatic failures of discernment in the history of American letters. Few noticed that in the same election in which Goldwater lost California by more than a million votes, a proposition to strike the state’s fair housing law from the books won by almost a million and a half. After off-year elections a mere two years later, there were so many conservatives in Congress that Lyndon Johnson couldn’t even win a budget appropriation for rodent control in the slums. Ten new conservative Republican governors were installed; one of them was Ronald Reagan. And even as conservatives invaded Congress and George Wallace began plotting a startlingly successful 1968 presidential run, left-wing students took to the streets, receiving reports from establishment mandarins concerning their mental health much the same as that delivered to right-wingers by Hofstadter.
The illusion of an American consensus was in tatters, in about the amount of time it takes a mediocre sitcom to vanish from the air.
It happened at a time much like the present. The nation was affluent and confident, besotted with tech-driven theories promising that every economic limit could be transcended. It was an end-of-history moment in American culture; not the first, and not the last. There were portents of danger and risk around the edges of that Kennedyesque vision, to be sure: all those outliers who voted for Goldwater; and the wet blankets, loudmouths, crackpots and pinks; and the young–but they were just folks for pundits to mock and abuse as irrational or worse when they weren’t to be ignored altogether.