Book Review- Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

I read the first of the three Rick Perlstein books back in 2014. In this election cycle featuring the rise of Trumpism, and the seeming disintegration of the national GOP it might be time to take another look at this outstanding work. I left the below review over at Goodreads.

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American ConsensusBefore the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A pretty fine book. I am not sure that folks that are not enamored of politics would be of the same view, as it adds a level of detail that might not be for everyone. The book shows us the roots of the modern American conservative movement, which grew out of the ashes of the Barry Goldwater campaign for President in 1964. This is not a campaign book on 1964, but rather a look at how conservatives managed to begin to assume control of the GOP Party apparatus after the Nixon defeat in 1960. This is where the book shines, showing us the real split in the GOP between the “moderates” led by Nelson Rockefeller, and the hard conservative right, which produced Goldwater. That split reverberates today in so many different ways:
Helping to move both Parties in a more ideological direction, starting the geographic movement of the formerly Democratic South to the Republican Party as the Conservative movement rejected federal Civil Rights legislation, starting the great alienation of African-American voters from the Republican Party based on the conservative rejection of civil rights and not so secret alignment with the forces of racism that had prior resided in the Democratic Party.

Todays fight between the Tea Party and Republican “regulars” looks very similar to the fight between the young conservative movement (with prominent participation by the John Birch Society) and the Rockefeller/Scranton wing of the GOP back then. I read another review of the book that highlighted what I consider to be a major turning point in American politics that occurred here, to wit that the “other side” (Democrats) were looking to “destroy America” and that they were not just political adversaries but enemies to be demonized as communists, communist sympathizers, heathens looking to extinguish religion from American life, etc…..

Perlstein manages to get the point across that the LBJ landslide of 1964 managed to mask the strength that the conservative movement was accumulating, with some measure of that strength based on the changes happening in the country in the area of race, and “white backlash” to “change”. (Boston’s Louise Day Hicks is mentioned several times as evidence of that backlash extending to northern voters.) Why the electoral slaughter then? Perlstein correctly indicts the Goldwater campaign team for their ineptitude, borne out of both incompetence and a desire for ideological purity. The candidate is not spared in that area either. LBJ is shown to be a political pro who is more than willing to exploit the missteps of the Goldwater campaign, doing so ruthlessly while the Goldwater campaign misses the opportunities left to them by the few mistakes made by the Johnson team.

Of course there are some important historical figures dealt with in this book. Goldwater’s campaign produced some real national attention for a rising conservative star, who by all accounts out-performed the candidate on the stump, by the name of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s success on the stump would eventually produce the roadmap for a conservative victory. Richard Nixon is a not so major figure in the book but an important one nonetheless. He is shown somewhat clumsily probing for support in the run-up to 1964, and after the Goldwater nomination being written off by both factions of the GOP. But Nixon was far shrewder than his enemies in the GOP, working tirelessly for GOP candidates throughout the country, including Goldwater, while others held their noses and stayed away. Nixon was collecting chits for 1968, and he was willing to do the groundwork that others disdained. A good entrée into Perlstein’s next book in this trilogy, “Nixonland”. Phyllis Schafly, William Buckley Jr., the John Birch Society, Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton, Henry Cabot Lodge and many others you may recognize play prominent roles in this book.

We can see the outlines of the two modern Parties taking shape from this process, with much of the current rhetoric from the right not changing substantially in tone from what the Goldwater acolytes were producing. Richard Nixon is credited with creating the “southern strategy” that produced Republican victories in 1968 and 1972, but the groundwork for that strategy was laid by the decisions and choices made by Barry Goldwater and his campaign in 1964. The modern political era started here. This book gives a detailed accounting of how we started down the road we remain on today.

View all my reviews

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