Out of the Wilderness

Radical candidates. “Crazy” platforms. Shocking upsets. The history of US conservatism holds lessons for the Left about how the impossible can become the inevitable.

Ronald Reagan speaking on behalf of Barry Goldwater at a campaign event in 1964. Wikimedia Commons

It’s a trying time for radicals. Dismissed, disrespected, and largely shut out of power and mainstream intellectual organs, their ability to influence change and shift the national conversation is limited. The opposition, after decades of political dominance, appears to still reign supreme. Meanwhile, the party nominally meant to be their standard bearer has abandoned its traditional principles for the sake of electability.

This could describe the Left circa 2015. But it could also just as well describe the Right anywhere in the three decades before around 1960.

The resurgence of the radical Left in recent years has occasioned a head-on collision between left-wing activists and what’s come to be derisively known as the “Democratic establishment,” particularly since Bernie Sanders’s presidential run. From the 2016 primary to today, the party leadership and its activist base have been engaged in what at times seems like non-stop, open warfare. And while it might be too soon to say the Left is winning the battle, cases like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent thumping of Democratic speaker-in-waiting Joe Crowley and Ben Jealous’s victory in the Maryland Democratic primary show that it’s got momentum.

Not everyone is happy about this development. Ben Ritz of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Center for Funding America’s Future, for instance, lamented Crowley’s loss as part of the Democrats’ GOP-like “devolution” and that it would make it harder to convince the Right to join a Democratic “big-tent coalition.” Time magazine warned that it wouldn’t “help the Midwestern Democrats’ efforts to pick off the twenty-three seats the party needs to capture the majority this fall.” Others called the wins “self-defeating” and argued it heralded “the continuing Europeanization of American politics: Socialists vs Nationalists.”

But if anyone doubts the potential effectiveness of the strategy left-wing activists have been following lately — challenging establishment Democrats directly through primaries, and aggressively taking the party establishment to task over its centrism — they can look to a perhaps surprising example: the conservative movement of the twentieth century.

The resurgence of conservatism is a story bigger than just a few elections; it encompassed a wholesale shift in values, beliefs, and narratives. It featured everything from tireless grassroots organizing to the creation of an alternative, conservative media landscape.

But when we marvel at how the GOP has transformed itself into a disciplined, rigidly ideological force that has stubbornly yanked society closer to its ideal, a big part of that story involves the way conservative activists took on the GOP establishment in the chaotic 1960s.

“They Are Stupid”

It’s hard to overstate just how defeated conservatism, particularly in its free market form, was following the Great Depression. That crisis birthed a decades-long “liberal consensus,” ushered in by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal — perhaps more accurately thought of as the “long exception” to American politics’ history of pro-business orthodoxy.

The Republican Party wouldn’t return to the Oval Office for two decades, while free market, small-government ideas were broadly discredited in the eyes of much of the public. “Their number is negligible and they are stupid,” Dwight Eisenhower, the man theoretically meant to be the standard-bearer for the Right, said about conservatives looking to roll back the New Deal.

Even when Republicans did win power, they governed like Democrats. Eisenhower talked a good game on the campaign trail, but once in office, he maintained and solidified the status quo set up by his predecessors, with some minor alterations. It’s a familiar story for left-wing activists frustrated with the Democratic party’s centrism in the twenty-first century.

Conservatives were livid. They called Eisenhower’s presidency “dime-store New Dealism,” and former president Herbert Hoover accused his administration of being infected with the “Karl Marx virus.” Conservatives charged establishment Republicans with what they called “me-tooism” — governing not according to “traditional” conservative principles of small government, but joining in with the Democrats for the sake of staying electable. (Those “me-too” Republicans weren’t always just keeping an eye on the polls; some happened to genuinely believe in civil rights and activist government.)

It was around this time that conservatism as a tangible movement began to gestate. Right-wing intellectuals started publications to broadcast their ideas and connect like-minded Americans, such as Human Events, Modern Age, the Freeman, and most famously, National Review. These cheap, ephemeral magazines were designed to be passed around to friends, family, neighbors, coworkers — and employees. It helped that these efforts were buttressed by lots and lots of cash from wealthy right-wing industrialists.

But despite this elite involvement, the resurgent conservative movement was a genuine grassroots affair. Americans around the country joined the slew of right-wing political organizations that began popping up throughout the 1950s, like the far-right John Birch Society, where they connected with other far-flung conservatives and threw themselves into political activism. Women were particularly key to this, such as the middle-class suburban housewives of Southern California who formed the epicenter of the burgeoning conservative revival.

The last straw for disgruntled conservatives came in 1960, when presidential nominee Richard Nixon made a deal with his defeated rival for the Republican nomination, the liberal New York governor Nelson Rockefeller  — the embodiment, for conservatives, of the weak-kneed Eastern liberal Republicanism — to adjust the party platform in a more liberal direction in exchange for Rockefeller’s endorsement. Conservatives denounced this so-called “Treaty of Fifth Avenue” as a “surrender”; Arizona senator Barry Goldwater labeled it the “Munich of the Republican Party.”

By the time 1961 rolled around, increasingly organized conservatives were fed up, setting the stage for the mini-civil war to follow.

Baring the Fangs

Part of the right-wing war on the GOP was fought from within. Public relations consultant F. Clifton White and William Rusher, the publisher of the National Review from 1957 on, had spent the 1950s first taking control of the New York City Young Republican Club, then pushing the national Young Republicans to the right by bringing in a flood of new, conservative members and spreading their influence to the organization’s machinery. White and Rusher’s group of conservatives, known as “the Syndicate,” aimed by 1963 to take over the 400,000-strong national Young Republicans, then one of the country’s largest political organizations.

It was Rusher and White who spearheaded the “draft Goldwater” movement, using their institutional ties to build a movement to push the reluctant ultraconservative into running in 1964, and working behind the scenes to get him the necessary delegates. The group knew his chances were slim, but with Nixon bowing out and Rockefeller a seeming lock for that year’s nomination, they feared that “the advancing cause of conservatism will sustain a setback from which it might not recover for a generation.” Goldwater would have to run as a spoiler to save it.

The other key initiative was “Operation Takeover,” the name given to conservatives’ plan to wrench control of the California Republican Assembly (CRA) from moderates. It started with a Republican splinter group called United Republicans of California (UROC), a self-defined right-wing vanguard that grew to 20,000 members by 1964, and pledged fidelity to conservative principles over the “whims of the people.” It ended with the state’s Republican Party falling to conservatives, as the CRA endorsed Goldwater over Rockefeller and delivered the California primary for him.

The Republican establishment was none too happy, griping in a subsequent report about the “rather vociferous persons” who had taken over Republican volunteer organizations. CRA president William Nelligan complained that “fanatics of the Birch variety have fastened their fangs on the Republican Party’s flanks and are hanging on like grim death.”

Goldwater’s capture of the nomination was also assured by grassroots organizations like Watchdogs of the Republican Party, a mostly female grassroots group that pressured Republican leaders, delegates, and the public to support the senator. Goldwater’s general election campaign ended in a disastrous defeat, but in retrospect it’s viewed as a key political watershed that set the stage for the Right’s subsequent dominance.

These efforts were in turn fed by pressure on the GOP from outside, as conservatives launched a series of challenges to establishment Republicans through quixotic campaigns that didn’t always result in victory. Back in 1958, conservatives and moderates in the California GOP had fought bitterly over who their gubernatorial nominee would be, with the conservative choice — the right-to-work-supporting William Knowland — winning out. Knowland lost badly, but his campaign galvanized the state’s budding conservative movement.

So did a 1962 gubernatorial primary campaign against Nixon by California right-wing activist Joe Shell (who would go on to mastermind “Operation Takeover”) and another by conservative attorney Loyd Wright against senator Thomas Kuchel. Out east, disgruntled Republicans started the Conservative Party in New York to counter the influence of the Liberal Party, weaken Rockefeller, and “exercise leverage” over the major parties.

Perhaps the most famous of such quixotic campaigns was National Review editor William Buckley’s 1965 bid for mayor of New York under the Conservative label, which saw him siphon off the votes of disgruntled “backlash” Democrats. Buckley’s unsuccessful campaign — covered nationwide with the same intensity as Ronald Reagan’s similar but victorious gubernatorial campaign in California a year later — was a considerable stepping stone in the realignment of national Republican politics.

Those in the firing line of mid-century conservatives were understandably unhappy. Buckley’s GOP opponent labeled him “an assassin from the ultraright.” The GOP tried to gut the Conservative Party through rule changes, insisting it would only help liberal Democrats win elections. Republicans regularly complained about the “extreme” elements trying to take over the party.

But the conservatives had the last laugh. It was ultimately their political vision that would triumph thanks to these efforts — not just within the GOP, but in politics as a whole, a process set in motion by an unruly group of activists who were fed up with the party that represented them and decided to do something about it.

Winning the War

Of course, none of this is to claim an equivalence between the right-wing radicals of the mid-century and today’s Left. The conservative extremes of the time believed in a conspiratorial anticommunism, the dismantling of the New Deal, and were often motivated by racist resentment. Today’s left-wing radicals want a kinder, more tolerant society that at minimum provides health care to everyone and abolishes economic exploitation.

And in fact, today’s Left is in some ways better placed than the Right was at its lowest point. Left-wing publications are flourishing. The internet makes it easier than ever to spread left-wing ideas, which are slowly catching on within the mainstream (even if the Right is far better spreading its ideas through video). The Left has already had a Goldwater-like moment with the Sanders campaign, which galvanized leftists and progressives around the country. Membership of groups like the DSA has not only exploded, but they have won power in parts of the country, and as of Wednesday are now preparing to send Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress.

The story of the conservative movement may not be an exact model for these burgeoning efforts. But if nothing else, it shows the value of continuing to aggressively challenge the Democratic Party and its hold on power wherever possible, and to tune out calls for compromise and accommodation from shaken party leaders. Conservatives didn’t see their goals come to fruition by asking nicely; and the Democratic Party leadership won’t cede ground by request, particularly when an entire, highly lucrative cottage industry feeds off its patronage.

Democratic socialists won’t win every race in the future. But perhaps the best lesson from the travails of the mid-century right is that setbacks, losses, and failures don’t last. And as for the victories, they can endure a lifetime.