Backstory 1

It All Began With Senator Barry Goldwater. A look at Sen. Goldwater's defining of conservatism and the fallout of his defeat.

Quick Summary:

  • Traditional view of conservatism
  • Goldwater defines American conservatism
  • Wealthy begin to pour money into building conservative infrastructure
  • Conservative think tanks, radio stations, newspapers proliferate
  • Conservative infrastructure continues to be influential today

In order to understand the political crossroads where we are now standing, we need to look backward to nearly forty years ago. Our political backstory begins with how Senator Barry Goldwater helped define American conservatism. This is coupled with the fallout of his defeat for the presidency in 1964. By looking at these events, we can begin to better understand our current political landscape.

Authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their book, The Right Nation, Conservative Power In America, point out that some fifty years ago, " America lacked a real conservative ideology let alone a cohesive Right Nation."(1) The classical tenets of conservatism were stated by Englishman Edmund Burke (1729-97), "and can be crudely reduced to six principles:

  • a deep suspicion of the power of the state;
  • a preference for liberty over equality;
  • patriotism;
  • a belief in established institutions and hierarchies;
  • skepticism about the idea of progress;
  • and elitism."(2)

Micklethwait and Wooldridge further state "to simplify a little, the exceptionalism of modern American conservatism lies in its exaggeration of the first three of Burke's principles and contradiction of the last three."(3) The authors note that compared to other modern conservative parties, America 's own brand of conservatism expresses deep hostility toward the government. You do not find this in European countries. Micklethwait and Wooldridge believe most of us do not know how extraordinary the American brand of conservatism is.

A pivotal event for American conservatism was the defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Even though he lost, he was successful in:

  • moving the balance of power from the east coast to the west
  • redefining Republicans as anti-government
  • giving impetus to five wealthy families to fund conservative activities and think tanks.

All three successes stated above are very much reflected in today's politics and have had a profound effect on our current political landscape. Today, we can hear references to the "elites" of the East. It is the supposed rugged individualism of the West that is honored by conservatives. Elites of the East conjure up the image of the Ivy League-educated. This disdain for the elites, and by implication the Ivy League-educated, has helped fuel the anti-education theme of the conservatives. It has been expressed in the recent McCain campaign. Barack Obama, of humble means, is framed as "elitist" because of his Ivy League education. By extension, this is a subtle way of undermining all those who are highly educated, by simply branding them as elite.

Republican anti-government sentiment was very evident in the 2008 campaign. However, their two themes of deregulation and no taxes have come under more scrutiny recently, because we are in the midst of an economic crisis. President Reagan re-enforced the anti-government message when he said the "nine most dangerous words in the English language were, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." Or better yet, perhaps, is his antigovernment comment, "government is itself not the solution, it is the problem." The irony we have seen is that when it is Wall Street in trouble, they turn to the government for help.

After Goldwater's defeat, these five families--Joseph Coors, the Richard Mellon Scaife families, Lynde and Harry Bradley, John M. Olin Foundation, and David Koch-- were determined to counter balance the country's move to the left. They accomplished this by developing think tanks, which have a long reach into our daily lives today.

You may recognize the names of some of the earliest think tanks even if unaware of their purpose.

  • American Enterprise Institute 1970
  • Heritage Foundation 1973
  • Cato Institute (libertarian) 1977

The number of think tanks has been increased by thousands more. Think tank staff are frequent guests on various TV programs. When you listen to them, you might find it helpful to have a scorecard listing their name and the name of the think tank they represent. (We are working on this). You can then weigh their statements against their agenda. These are not neutral spokespersons. However, the scope and depth of their work is such that they are often called upon to testify on issues before Congress where they wield much power and influence.

Another key to building the conservative infrastructure is getting the message out. The conservatives have become masters at this. They developed political talk radio. This was helped along by the removal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, by President Reagan. The Fairness Doctrine had regulated fair time for differing viewpoints. Since its removal, there are thousands of radio stations broadcasting the conservative view. Conservatives have added Fox TV News to the mix as well.

Rupert Murdoch owns Fox News along with 35 TV stations, numerous magazines and newspapers, and control of satellites. All of these serve his conservative agenda and he sometimes directly dictates to any of his resources exactly how they are going to report the news. The concentration of holdings by a small number of owners across all forms of media represents its own dangers. We will address this issue in the future.

Progressives have come late to this think tank, talk radio, media party. There are now a small number of progressive radio networks and progressive think tanks. However, they are getting recognition for the progress they are making in getting the progressive message out.

A short tour of our-- American-- form of conservatism shows us the movement is based on the beliefs of western individualism, as opposed to eastern elitism, and is antigovernment. Antigovernment, that is, until the conservatives need to be bailed out financially. Our tour also shows that part of the fallout of the Goldwater defeat was to activate a handful of wealthy families. Their activism created the powerful conservative think tanks. Finally, with the removal of the Fairness Act, conservatives created talk radio as the means to assure they get their message out. There is much more that happens as a result of the development of America 's own brand of conservatism, but so far we have just looked at the tip of the iceberg.

Source: John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America , ( New York : The Penguin Press, 2004) 8.

(1) John Micklethwait, Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation, Conservative Power in America (New York: Penguin Group, 2004)

(2) Ibid., p. 13
(3) Ibid., p. 13