Chapter 13: The Conservative Moment

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Speech

Senator Barry Goldwater – Acceptance Speech at the 1964 Democratic Convention

In 1964 when Barry Goldwater prepared to accept the nomination for President at the Republican National Convention few political observers believed he had much of a chance of winning the White House.  His acceptance speech didn’t help matters much. Instead of presenting voters with a palatable brand of conservatism, Goldwater delivered a political call to arms that rejected the post-war consensus on containing Communism aboard and maintaining the modern welfare state at home.

Delivered to a raucous conservative crowd Goldwater gave his opponents no quarter attacking the “swampland” and “dead-end streets” of  “collectivism” and made the promulgation of freedom, from government intervention at home and Communism overseas, the key element of his political appeal. There was no ambiguity and no room for compromise in Goldwater’s words. Indeed his harshest invective came against moderate Republicans who he accused of “fuzzy and futile” thinking. In the speech’s coup de grace he gravely intoned that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

The speech was ridiculed as a disaster and it only intensified Goldwater’s image as a political extremist. Not surprisingly he was swamped on Election Day as his opponent Lyndon Johnson won the greatest popular vote victory in American history. But the Goldwater speech would endure by shifting the ideological direction of the Republican Party toward harder-edged conservatism. As conservative commentator George Will would later muse, Barry Goldwater won in 1964 – it just took 16 years to count the votes!

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