Barry Goldwater, Father of the Tea Party

On the 50th anniversary of his ‘extremism in the defense of liberty’ speech to the 1964 GOP convention, it’s time to credit Goldwater as the true father of the Tea Party.


Fifty years ago on July 16, 1964, Arizona’s conservative senator Barry Goldwater began his presidential run with a speech at the Republican National Convention that is still remembered for its peroration. “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” Goldwater declared, “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

The immediate target of Goldwater’s ire was not his Democratic opponent, Lyndon Johnson, who earlier in July had signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Goldwater was trying to distinguish himself from his moderate, Republican rivals, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and Pennsylvania governor William Scranton. Both insisted Goldwater was scaring away the swing voters Republicans needed with his unyielding conservatism.

Rockefeller and Scranton were right. In the November election, Lyndon Johnson crushed Goldwater by 16 million-vote margin (43 to 27 million), winning 61 percent of the country to Goldwater’s 39 percent.

Goldwater’s long-run influence is a different story. As we look back on the 1964 election with today’s Tea Party conservatives in mind, it’s clear that Goldwater’s beliefs have outlasted his resounding defeat. There was, it has turned out, an enduring quality to the bumper stickers that declared after Goldwater’s defeat , “One of 27,000,000 and Proud of it.”

The roots of today’s Tea Party conservatives, especially Texas Republican Ted Cruz, have been attributed to a long list of Republican politicians, from Joe McCarthy to Ronald Reagan, but over the last half-century, no major Republican figure has had such an impact on conservative thought as Barry Goldwater.

Informing Goldwater’s convention speech—and requiring our attention once again—is his now barely known book, The Conscience of a Conservative. Written with the help of Brent Bozell, an editor at William Buckley’s National Review, The Conscience of a Conservative first appeared in March 1960, then went through 20 printings in four years, eventually selling 3.5 million copies. The book was just 123 pages long, but in an age of ’60s liberalism, it served as a primer for conservatives.

At the center of The Conscience of a Conservative were a set of beliefs that Goldwater was prepared to go down to defeat with rather than compromise. On government, taxes, and welfare, Goldwater was a Tea Party presidential candidate before there was a Tea Party.

At the core of The Conscience of a Conservative lies Goldwater’s unwavering distrust of government, and on the basis of that distrust his arguments against graduated taxes and welfare take root.

“Throughout history, government has proved to be the chief instrument for thwarting man’s liberty,” Goldwater insisted. Weakening it domestically was thus his primary task. Shutting down the government, as the Tea Party-led Republicans did for 16 days in 2013, certainly would not have worried him. “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size,” he wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative. “My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.”

From this premise it followed that graduated taxes of any kind were morally and economically unsound, as far as Goldwater was concerned. “The graduated tax is a confiscatory tax,” Goldwater insisted. The true aim of the graduated tax was “to bring down all men to a common level,” and conservatives had no alternative except to oppose the graduated tax (whether on income, inheritance, or gifts) on the grounds that all “artificial devices for enforcing equality among unequal men must be rejected.”

As for the poor, they were on their own in Goldwater’s America. The federal government, he argued, should not be in the business of taking care of the poor. “Welfarism,” as Goldwater constantly called welfare, was the path to socialism. It had endured, he believed, because it was sold to the country on the false notion that “government has an obligation to care for the needs of its citizens.” The government has no such obligation, Goldwater insisted. The humane way to help the poor from Goldwater’s perspective was private charity, “where both the giver and the receiver understand that charity is the product of the humanitarian impulses of the giver, not the due of the receiver.”

Three months after Goldwater’s convention speech, in an essay he titled “The Long View: Goldwater in History,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter sought to put Goldwater in context. Hofstadter, the author of The Paranoid Style in American Politics, concluded his Goldwater analysis by asking, “When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever gone so far?”

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A good question, but it missed the final critical element of Goldwater’s appeal—his self-assured calm. Like Ronald Reagan, who, in the same month that Hofstadter published his essay, attracted national attention by defending Goldwater as man of compassion, Goldwater struck his followers as utterly reasonable. His views might be extreme, but he did not come off as a wingnut while presenting them.

Goldwater’s delivery of his Republican National Convention speech was done, as Tom Wicker reported in The New York Times, “in a quiet voice with almost no gestures.” He would not, his manner made clear, hedge his beliefs in order to win the presidency or be open to middle-of-the-road compromises with Democrats.

Today, Goldwater would have understood why, at a meeting last year of the Heritage Foundation, Senator Ted Cruz declared, “We need 100 more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate.” In making a role model of a Southern diehard like Helms, who once called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress,” Cruz was doing what Goldwater always thought crucial—embracing conservatism at its most extreme, no matter the cost.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.