On the Right: NET and Modern Conservatism

Conservatism and the Republican Party

In 1966, NET dedicated an episode of its Regional Report to the state of the Republican Party across the nation. In 1964, the Republicans had suffered a massive defeat in the presidential election, with conservative Republican nominee Barry Goldwater losing decisively to incumbent President Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater, who had been elected senator from Arizona in 1952, was a staunch critic of the Eisenhower administration, hostile to organized labor, supportive of states’ rights, skeptical of the United Nations, and adamant that the nation’s response to the communist threat was insufficient. His candidacy signaled the party’s move to the right, while his staggering defeat raised questions over the future of the Republican Party as well as the principles that should guide it. The Regional Report episode presented a party in flux, divided by ideological commitments, regional pressures, and differing strategies to address civil rights legislation, the Great Society programs inaugurated in 1965, and the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. The role of conservatism in the GOP, at the time of the telecast, seemed uncertain.

The history of the Republican Party in the decades after World War II, much like the history of the Democratic Party, is one of conflict and factionalism. Moderate and conservative wings in the party disagreed over both strategy and policy, on how best to recapture political power and shed its minority party status and on what its response should be to the expansion of federal power inaugurated during the New Deal, the Black Freedom Struggle and its demand for full citizenship rights, and the communist threat both domestically and globally.

The Republican Party was created in 1854 in response to an impending national crisis over slavery and escalating anxieties over the increasing political power of the slaveholding class. Though members of the newly formed Republican Party were split between those who wanted to abolish slavery everywhere and those who wanted to restore the Missouri Compromise31, its members in the late 1850s and early 1860s shared a distrust in the efficacy of a political system that allowed for the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few – in this era the slaveholding class – and a belief in the power of government to promote individual economic achievement. Government, as Abraham Lincoln articulated in an 1859 speech, should do the work desired by citizens, but was too large in scale to be accomplished by individuals. The party endorsed tariffs, the federal distribution of land to promote farming, legislation to protect immigrant rights, and the construction of a transcontinental railroad. During the first half of the 1860s, as the Civil War raged, the Republican Party expanded the power of the federal government in a number of arenas, from creating a national currency and forming the Department of Agriculture to spreading knowledge about modern farming practices, supporting the development of public universities, and facilitating the development of a transcontinental railroad.32

With the exception of Grover Cleveland’s and Woodrow Wilson’s terms, the Republican Party dominated the White House from the Civil War until the Great Depression. During this period, while some party leaders like Theodore Roosevelt advocated for progressive reforms, the Republicans were by and large a party committed to individual liberty and the growth of industry and business, inclusive of support for a protective tariff to promote American economic interests. The Great Depression would transform the political fortunes of the Republican Party and lead to a political realignment that enabled the Democratic Party to dominate national politics for decades.

Republican President Herbert Hoover, an engineer by training who came to the presidency after serving as Secretary of Commerce under Calvin Coolidge, experimented with a number of responses to the economic calamity of the Depression that ultimately proved insufficient. Guided by a belief that public relief for individuals would weaken their character, and accordingly the nation on whole, Hoover directed his response to shore up the strength of business, sanctioning federal aid to corporations and banks and supporting a tariff on imported goods. Though he ultimately approved the use of federal grants to states to provide for relief for individuals and families, this action was seen as insufficient to address the scale of devastation experienced by Americans across the country.

Hoover lost the 1932 election decisively to Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised a far more robust federal response to the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal instantiated a far more interventionist federal government, one that, for example, regulated the banking industry, financed public works projects, employed people in a range of capacities, provided government relief, instituted social security and unemployment compensation, and protected the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Roosevelt’s decisive reelection victory in 1936 signaled both an affirmation of Roosevelt’s New Deal and marked an electoral realignment, when large numbers of Republican voters cast their votes for the Democrats. This New Deal coalition of the working class, urban dwellers, African Americans, Catholics, Jews, Midwestern farmers, and white southerners would allow the Democratic Party to stay in power for the next three decades.

Dwight Eisenhower who, when elected president in 1952, was the first Republican elected since 1928 to the White House, embraced what he called “modern Republicanism,” a moderate approach that both respected free markets and continued New Deal social programs for vulnerable citizens. While he called for the reduction of the national debt and a balanced budget, he also believed in the mutual interests of labor and capital and sought to use the power of the federal government to promote economic growth. During his time in office, for example, he secured federal funding for schools, the construction of a national highway system, and aid to depressed industrial areas. His foreign policy hinged on what conservative Republican Ohio Senator Robert Taft disparagingly referred to as his “stomach theory” of diplomacy, the belief that humanitarian aid, rather than war, was the best assurance of world peace.33

Taft himself unsuccessfully had sought the Republican nomination for president in 1940, 1948, and 1952. One of the leading conservatives in the Republican Party at midcentury, Taft’s defeats signaled to conservatives who supported his views that they had work to do to build political power within the Republican Party. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, as Mary C. Brennan has demonstrated, conservatives built a network of publications and grassroots organizations that would provide the necessary scaffolding to push the Republican Party to the right. In the early 1960s, this effort would galvanize around Goldwater’s candidacy.34

Beginning in the late 1950s, conservatives mobilized behind Goldwater and worked to elect him as the party’s nominee in 1964. Political consultant F. Clifton White led a highly successful “Draft Goldwater” grassroots campaign to secure delegates for Goldwater’s nomination, and a range of conservative groups – from the campus-based Young Americans for Freedom to the John Birch Society – rallied behind him, though Goldwater himself was a reluctant standard-bearer.35 Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, best known for her efforts to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, published A Choice, Not An Echo, which accused “secret kingmakers” – a cabal of eastern establishment figures – of sabotaging the Republican Party and disempowering its true adherents, such as Taft and Goldwater; in this, she at once trumpeted Goldwater’s policies and suggested that the very fact that establishment Republicans disapproved of him signaled that he was the right person to lead the party. And in a national broadcast a week before the election, Ronald Reagan delivered what has become known as “the speech” (entitled “A Time for Choosing”) in which he predicted grave consequences should Goldwater lose the election.36

Yet lose Goldwater did. To a number of voters, inclusive of members of the Republican Party, Goldwater seemed an extremist. Not only did he face a popular incumbent, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, but his hard line on foreign policy – and especially his endorsement of the use of low yield nuclear weapons -- as well as his attacks on welfare, social security, and Medicare, positioned him, for many voters, as outside the pale of responsible leadership. The Johnson campaign aired a string of innovative attack ads against Goldwater that reinforced, often in a dramatic and irreverent tone, the view that a potential Goldwater presidency was an existential threat to the nation and its citizens.37 These fears were also given voice in a 1964 episode of NET’s At Issue, which presented the response of journalists and intellectuals in France, England, and Germany to Goldwater’s candidacy.

Though Goldwater’s defeat was decisive, in the words of Goldwater biographer Robert Goldberg, his campaign functioned as the “Woodstock of American Conservatism.”38 Goldwater’s candidacy allowed conservatives to present their platform to a national audience, which elicited enthusiasm from people across the country who agreed with Goldwater’s message but who previously had not identified as, or with, conservatives. The campaign built a strong network of volunteers who would continue to work to elect conservative candidates and secure conservative policy positions; it yielded a list of financial contributors who could be tapped in the future to contribute to conservative causes. Furthermore, as Donald Critchlow has argued, conservatism moved to the center of the Republican Party by 1980, its ascent indebted to an intellectual scaffolding provided by postwar intellectuals, the communicative gifts of charismatic figures like Ronald Reagan, the development of conservative think tanks and policy institutions, and an embrace of cultural liberalism in the Democratic Party on a range of identity-based issues that turned some of its voters to the GOP.39

The Regional Report episode on Republicans – along with a number of other episodes in this exhibit – provide a remarkable window into the party at this moment of flux, when supporters of Eisenhower’s “modern Republicanism” clashed with movement conservatives, and when members of the Party disagreed over how to navigate the exigent issues of the day, from racial injustice to US foreign policy. They both attest to how conservative ascent in the Republican Party was not certain and to the attending concerns of conservatives in the 1960s over whether the Party that they understood to be their political home would be welcoming to them and their approach to governance.

Sources and Suggested Reading

  • William C. Berman, America’s Right Turn: From Nixon to Clinton (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

  • Mary C. Brennan, Turning Right: The Conservative Capture of the GOP (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

  • Lewis L. Gould, The Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  • Robert Mason and Iwan Morgan, eds., Seeking a New Majority: The Republican Party and American Politics, 1960-1980 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2013).

  • Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York: Nation Books, 2009).

  • Heather Cox Richardson, To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

  • Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, ed., Barry Goldwater and the Remaking of the American Political Landscape (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013).

  • Leah Wright Rigeur, The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

Next: Conservatism and Civil Rights

Ronald Reagan discusses the future of the Republican Party in a 1966 episode of Regional Report.

Regional Report; The Republicans

George Christopher, candidate for California Governor in 1966, discusses the future of the Republican Party on Regional Report.

Regional Report; The Republicans

Congressperson Philip Crane discusses the future of the Republican Party in a 1970 episode of Conservative Viewpoint.

Conservative Viewpoint; Politics

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