The Tea Party: Goldwater 2.0

April 24th, 2010



This piece was originally published in National Journal.

If you are of a certain age, the “tea party” movement may evoke a distant memory, the takeover of the Republican Party by Barry Goldwater’s supporters in 1964. The two political movements share the same driving force — not personal discontent, but ideological outrage.

Like today’s tea party protests, the Goldwater phenomenon seemed to come out of nowhere. The 1960s were a decade of prosperity. John F. Kennedy was a very popular president. He had delivered a major tax cut. He went eyeball-to-eyeball with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis and forced the Communists to blink. His assassination produced an outpouring of grief and support for Democrats to carry on his legacy.

Suddenly, Goldwater and the New Right emerged to challenge the bipartisan postwar consensus that had dominated American politics for nearly 20 years. The John Birch Society on the radical fringe of the Right caught public attention. The issue of extremism took center stage in the 1964 presidential campaign after Goldwater declared at the Republican National Convention, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

What were the Goldwater people so angry about? Same thing as today’s tea party supporters: Big Government. In 1967, James Q. Wilson, who grew up in “Reagan country,” tried to explain the phenomenon to Eastern intellectuals. The Goldwater and Reagan movements were indeed protest movements, Wilson said, but they were not expressions of personal unhappiness, frustration, or despair. Just the opposite. In describing Goldwater and Reagan supporters, Wilson pointed out, “It is not with their lot that they are discontented; it is with the lot of the nation. The very virtues they have and practice are, in their eyes, conspicuously absent from society as a whole.”

The tea party movement sprang up in the first weeks of Barack Obama’s administration, after the popular new president proposed a huge expansion of federal government spending and power. This month, The New York Times and CBS News polled tea party supporters and found little evidence of economic desperation. They are better educated and have higher incomes than the average American. Only 20 percent describe their financial situation as bad. Only 14 percent say that the recession has caused them personal hardship.

But they are true believers. Nearly three-quarters of tea party supporters are conservatives. Forty-three percent have been active in political campaigns. They are nearly unanimous in their opposition to Big Government; 92 percent want smaller government with fewer services. The same number believe that President Obama’s policies are moving the country toward socialism.

Like the Goldwaterites nearly a half-century ago, the tea party supporters erupt in outrage when the threat of Big Government appears imminent, as it does now.

In 1964, the agenda was different. Congress had just passed a civil-rights bill that many conservatives, including Goldwater, opposed as an unwarranted expansion of government power. They objected to the foreign policy of containment that both Republicans and Democrats had embraced. Conservatives didn’t want to contain communism; they wanted to roll it back.

Goldwater conservatives posed a challenge to the Republican as well as the Democratic establishment. In their view, Eisenhower Republicans had sold out conservative values and maybe the country, too. Today, some two-thirds of tea party supporters say they usually vote Republican, but they are openly critical of the GOP. Forty-three percent have an unfavorable opinion of the party.

“The tea party is doing what the Republican Party should be doing,” one supporter told The Times. “But the people at the leadership level of the Republican Party are liberal. They are not true conservatives.” Another said, “Every single administration increased the size of government, even the Republican administrations…. When [George W.] Bush took over, it was a gradual thing. That kind of slow death over a period of time, people sort of ignore.”

In the short term, the Goldwater movement was a spectacular failure. The 1964 election was a catastrophe for Republicans. But the Goldwater forces succeeded in converting the Republican Party to a new, more vigorous conservatism. And that is what triumphed 16 years later with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Like the Goldwater movement, the tea parties are a reformation movement, aimed at rooting out conservative heresies. Reformations take time.