Turning Right in the Sixties

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Brennan, Mary C. Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.


Summary

Written by Mary Brennan in 1995, “Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP” explains the rise of the right wing of the conservative party during the 1960’s. The book begins in the 1950’s, when the Republican Party was a party dominated by moderates such as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Vice President Richard Nixon, and President Dwight Eisenhower. Conservatives, who at the time were a minority in the party, felt that their beliefs and opinions were not represented by rest of the party. These conservatives were strongly anti-communist and were also against the growth in government that had come up a generation before as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In addition, many were also cultural traditionalists, who felt that America’s cultural, religious, and moral heritage had been damaged.

In response to their situation, many conservatives either joined or started numerous organizations and/or publications outside of their party to advocate and articulate their views. For example, the “National Review”, a magazine published by conservative William F. Buckley became one of the most prominent publications to articulate the conservative viewpoint, which it has remained to this day. Meanwhile, one of the most well known conservative organizations was the John Birch Society. The John Birch Society was a controversial organization that was strongly anti-communist but also advocated extreme conspiracy theories. For example, the John Birch Society argues that President Eisenhower was actually a communist agent. Organizations such as the John Birch Society presented a problem for conservatives. On one hand, they needed more support to take over the Republican Party from moderates, on the other hand, working with and supporting organizations such as the John Birch Society could portray all conservatives as extremists and cost them their chance of gaining support from moderates.

In the 1960 Presidential election, conservatives tried to exert their growing influence by attempting to get prominent conservative Barry Goldwater, Republican Senator from Arizona, named as Richard Nixon’s vice-presidential nominee. Despite their attempts, the spot on the ticket went to Henry Cabot Lodge. Despite their defeat, conservatives continued their grassroots efforts, and were able to nominate Goldwater as the Republican presidential nominee in 1964. In this election, conservatives had several major problems that ensured a victory by President Lyndon Johnson. These problems illustrate the youth and inexperience of the conservative movement during this election. One of their main problems was that Johnson was able to paint Goldwater as an extremist who was out of touch with mainstream America. Another major problem was that Goldwater’s staff and his key supporters were generally inexperienced and not well adapt at running a major political campaign. Also, a problem was Goldwater himself. Although he was very popular among conservatives, he did not present himself as well as Johnson, who was the consummate politician.

As the conservative’s influence and power in the Republican Party grew, they continued to push the party towards the right. Although Richard Nixon was again nominated, and this time elected, in 1968, Nixon knew that he and other moderates could no longer ignore the conservative wing of the party. Twelve years later the conservative’s goals were finally recognized, as they were able to nominate, and elect, conservative Ronald Reagan to the White House.

Commentary


Jim Sweeney, Fall 2006

One of the things that I found most interesting about this book was some of the terminology that Brennan used. While Brennan seemed to be generally supportive of the conservative movement, and its attempts to capture the Republican Party, she often used language, which would lead the reader to believe otherwise. She often referred to those on the right as “right-wingers” which referring to those on the left as “liberals”. This tone could lead the reader to believe that Brennan was attacking the conservative movement, although I clearly think that is not the case.

Overall, what I found most interesting, and what I knew the least about, was the conflict between more mainstream conservatives, such as those involved with the National Review, and the more extreme conservatives involved with organizations such as the John Birch Society. I knew from my own personal experiences and prior knowledge, about the conflict between the liberals and moderates versus the conservatives in the Republican Party, however I did not know very much about the various conflicts within the conservative movement.

One area that I wished the book had touched on more is the time between the 1968 and 1980 Presidential Elections. Granted, in both the 1972 and 1976 Presidential elections there was already an incumbent Republican president, but I would have been interested to know more about the conservative attempt to nominate Ronald Reagan in 1976 over then President Gerald Ford. Also, given that the book was written in 1995, I wonder if Brennan might have been able to discuss the complete Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

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