After the 1964 Presidential election of Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater, there was some talk about the end of the Republican Party. In a blowout victory, Johnson was able to get 61% of the popular vote. As Rick Perlstein wrote in Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, two of the nation’s ”most respected” political scientists thought that the dominance of the conservatives within the Republican Party would bring an end to the competitive two-party system.
Johnson sensing an actual mandate from the American people gave a speech where he outlined the role of American government in the next half century to provide for a “Great Society.” In a commencement speech for the University of Michgan he outlined the role:
“For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people. The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization…The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.”
Perlstein wrote after the election “the Republican National Committee could hardly raise the $200,000 each month necessary to keep its office open.” It’s not as if this disaster was not predictable. Nixon lobbied for a draft of George Romney for the 1964 Presidential nomination and called Goldwater’s nomination would be a “tragedy” as Perlstein wrote.
But the part of the Republican Party that was energized by the Goldwater nomination was the fringe portions of the party. The ones that Goldwater had helped stoke to be able to get the nomination. The John Birch Society was able to increase their members after the Goldwater defeat. Unlike the usual #demsindisarray stories that are so frequent throughout the election season, this was more similar to #Republicansindisarray. The Washington Post wrote that there was an “attempted gigantic political kidnapping by fanatics.”
There are two ways to respond to electoral defeats. The first way to respond is to try to moderate your stances and to move to the middle to try and find voters. This is the way the Democratic Party tends to respond to electoral defeats. After the 1972 beatdown of George McGovern, the Democratic Party nominated Jimmy Carter to be President. The other way is to not moderate your stances at all and even double down on your stances. The stances can’t change but you do rely on the world around you to change to be able to match your already held stances. This would seem like a risky strategy. However, I don’t think this is technically what happens.
I’ll explore the 1960s and the Republican Party in much greater detail. But the short of it is that I believe that the Republican Party uses natural fears that people have to motivate their base. When we see them double down on their positions, it is because the positions that they are advocating for are for policies of fear. That’s what the next few posts in this series will be about. It will be about how fear is being used constantly by the Republican Party.