Standard-Bearer of the Right

Standard-Bearer of the Right

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus
by Rick Perlstein
Hill and Wang, 2001, 671 pp., $30

No political movement in America these last twenty-five years has rivaled conservatism in appeal or influence. Everywhere one looks, conservative outlooks dominate public opinion: the market is celebrated as the most effective and just distributor of society’s resources; government expenditures of any sort, other than for national defense, are condemned as ineffective or harmful to the Gross National Product; morality and social discipline are regarded as the only legitimate touchstones of social policy.

Despite conservatism’s influence, historians of the twentieth-century United States have had a hard time giving this political movement its due. Libraries are choked with books on the history of liberalism and the left while the shelves on the history of conservatism are spare. In part this imbalance reflects historians’ natural tendency to neglect the recent past and to focus instead on the more distant past, the first half of the twentieth century, when liberalism, in the form of Progressivism and the New Deal, really was the most important American political movement. This imbalance, however, also reflects the composition of liberal arts faculties at most colleges and universities, where liberals and leftists are abundant and conservatives are in short supply. Conservative intellectuals, by and large, have disdained the academic career path, preferring instead the work offered them outside universities in well-heeled conservative think tanks, where they tend to devote themselves to political philosophy and public policy rather than history.

The mere fact that Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm devotes 516 pages to six years of the conservative movement (1958-1964) is itself a statement about this movement’s importance. Perlstein has chosen his period well, for these were the years in which Republican conservatives embraced the enigmatic Barry Goldwater as their tribune, used him to take back the Republican Party from its moderate, Dewey-Eisenhower-Rockefeller wing, and challenged the dominant liberal creed of managed capitalism, racial integration, activist government, and a vigorous but restrained anticommunism. And although conservative Republicans suffered a humiliating defeat in 1964, the principles they had embraced and the organization they had built endured, soon to bring them local, state, and then national victories. Perlstein tells this story with energy and insight, and in lively prose.

Perlstein’s book is not entirely successful, for he has two big ambitions that do not always mesh. He wants to recover a lost world of conservative Republicanism—the individuals first responsible for rein...

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