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Richard Nixon and the Quest for a New Majority
By Robert Mason
The University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Forgotten Americans The Republican Quest for a Majority in the 1960s
The 1960s began, as it would end, with appeals by a leading Republican for the support of forgotten Americans. In January 1961, Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona and an influential conservative, issued "A Statement of Proposed Republican Principles, Programs and Objectives," speaking to the "forgotten" and "silent" Americans "who quietly go about the business of paying and praying, working and saving." Goldwater identified them as the voters who could restore the Republican Party to majority status.
As Goldwater saw it, the Republican Party should seek new support by campaigning vigorously in opposition to the dominant strand of American liberalism. While mainstream liberals did not question the basic structures of the capitalist system, they saw two significant roles for government to fulfill. First, the government should ease human problems created by the capitalist economy, primarily through programs of social insurance that helped the needy poor. Second, the government should undertake limited intervention in the economy to promote its continuing buoyancy. Democrats were the more enthusiastic advocates of government activism, but many Republicans supported a paler version of similar policies, prompted by pragmatism if not by principle.
Goldwater offered a devastating criticism of these ideas. This government activism, he insisted, dangerously attacked traditional virtues of individual enterprise and self-reliance. Such policies pandered to the demands of interest groups and did not respond to individuals' needs. The growth of government, he maintained, fundamentally threatened freedom. Goldwater was sure that a majority of Americans agreed with him. If the Republican Party dedicated itself to the defense of individual liberty by scaling back the role of government, then the party could overwhelm the powerful Democratic coalition, which had dominated electoral politics since the time of Franklin Roosevelt.
Goldwater spoke of potential Republican supporters as "forgotten" because neither party demonstrated a commitment to their laissez-faire, antigovernment conservatism; they were the key to electoral victory. Many activists within the party liked this message and gave him their enthusiastic support. In 1964 Goldwater, as the Republican nominee for the presidency, had a chance to test his ideas. He suffered a resounding defeat. His belief in a possible majority of forgotten Americans was, it seemed, an illusion.
At the end of the decade, however, Richard Nixon engaged in a similar effort to mobilize forgotten Americans in support of his presidency and the Republican Party. Most famously, in a November 1969 speech, he called them "the silent majority." Elected president in the three-way 1968 race with 43.4 percent of the vote, Nixon needed to find new support to secure reelection. But Nixon had a larger goal. Like his predecessor Goldwater, Nixon believed that the Republicans could piece together an enduring majority that would take the place of the Democratic coalition.
Yet the substance of this effort differed greatly from Goldwater's even as the rhetoric remained familiar. While Nixon continued to sound a theme of opposition to big government, he did not seek to challenge the existing emphasis on government activism. He limited his criticisms to the argument that the implementation of most programs depended too much on an unresponsive bureaucracy and that the new programs of the 1960s helped small numbers of Americans while ignoring the problems of others. Not only did Nixon leave unchanged most of the programs developed by Democrats between the 1930s and the 1960s, but he was even ready to propose new programs and to increase federal spending further. He was no Goldwaterite.
Instead, Nixon's vision for the Republican Party rested on the assumption that in the aftermath of the great victory over Goldwater in 1964, the Johnson administration had alienated many Americans, who, by extension, were now ready to rethink their previous support for the Democrats. In short, Nixon's idea of the forgotten American represented a reaction to the tumult of the 1960s. Under the Johnson administration, the nation faced an almost unbearable array of problems-an intractable overseas war that caused social conflict at home, a growing exasperation with the measures liberals used to pursue egalitarian goals, serious racial unrest at a moment of significant racial progress, and a widespread malaise within a society seen as plagued by increasing lawlessness and by challenges to traditional notions of morality. Nixon promised to solve these problems and saw this promise as a route to revitalizing his party's fortunes on a more permanent basis.
When Goldwater and Nixon referred to forgotten Americans, the phrase had historical resonance. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt had pledged to help "the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid," a reference to people who were enduring immense hardship because of the Great Depression. When he became president, Roosevelt launched the New Deal, intending to rescue the economy from its crisis and to ameliorate some of the forgotten Americans' suffering. These people then formed the basis of the electoral coalition that Roosevelt mobilized, leading in time to the generation of Democratic dominance of national politics. Both Goldwater and Nixon argued that important sections of the Democratic coalition had once again been forgotten. These groups of Americans were not at the bottom of the pyramid. They were overlooked for different reasons. In Goldwater's eyes, most politicians had forgotten the individualistic conservatism of the American populace. By contrast, in Nixon's view, what had been forgotten was people's anxiety about the upheaval of the latter half of the 1960s.
Goldwater's Search for a Majority
In the early 1960s, Goldwater's vision for a Republican future won powerful support within the party. Goldwater won the party's nomination for the presidency thanks to a remarkable surge of grassroots enthusiasm and organization for the conservative cause, further aided by the relative weakness of the opposing candidates he faced. This activity reflected many conservatives' agreement with Goldwater's identification of forgotten Americans whose needs were unanswered by government. "To gain public support," wrote historian Mary Brennan, "many on the right believed that all they had to do was deliver their message to the American people." Among them was a former Hollywood actor who had become a spokesman for General Electric. During Nixon's unsuccessful 1960 campaign against John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan-"convinced that America is economically conservative"-wrote to the Republican candidate with some advice about how to mobilize support: "I don't pose as an infallible pundit, but I have a strong feeling that the twenty million non voters in this country just might be conservatives who have cynically concluded the two parties offer no choice between them where fiscal stability is concerned." But Nixon in 1960 failed to take the advice of conservatives, a decision about which he had no regrets. In a postelection meeting at the White House, he argued that the conservative approach was disastrously wrongheaded. "The Vice President commented," noted Bryce Harlow, an aide to Eisenhower and later to Nixon, "that anyone within the Party who is a cold-blooded analyst would have to say that the Goldwater view, had it been adopted in the campaign, would have lost by seven or eight million votes."
After 1960, moderation lost to Goldwaterite conservatism. Goldwater's message mobilized a constituency that counted in the contest for the Republican nomination. "The explanation for Goldwater's convention strength," observed sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, "is to be found in the fact that the Republican Party is run largely by men who are active because of a very conservative ideology and who can afford the time for politics." Outnumbering within activist ranks the urban professionals and executives who often preferred a more moderate form of Republicanism, these conservatives had a special commitment to laissez-faire economics-car dealers, real estate agents, lawyers in small or medium-sized practices, and owners of small businesses. As Nixon noted in 1960, the pursuit of conservative conviction indeed had dangers. Faith in the existence of a conservative majority seemed to be based on illusive instinct rather than political calculation. Even rank-and-file Republicans had serious doubts about the way forward offered by Goldwater. Shortly before the convention that nominated Goldwater, a survey found that 60 percent of Republican voters supported William Scranton, the moderate governor of Pennsylvania and presidential aspirant, and only 34 percent preferred the Arizonan. Such figures were hardly encouraging. To succeed, a Republican presidential candidate needed not only to secure the votes of most Americans who identified with his party but also to reach out to a sizable number of Democratic supporters and to many "independents," or loyal supporters of neither party. If, having tapped the enthusiasm of many activists, Goldwater could not even secure enthusiastic support among voters who usually supported Republicans, his ability to find a majority came into question.
Nevertheless, Goldwater and his supporters remained convinced of the existence of a hidden majority in favor of conservatism. The way to find it, they thought, was twofold. First, as Reagan suggested to Nixon in 1960, Republicans should articulate with absolute clarity a commitment to conservative principles rather than blurring differences with the Democrats. The argument assumed that voters stayed home because "me-tooist" Republicans running for the presidency failed to enthuse and mobilize potential supporters. The conservative strategy intended to offer the electorate "a choice, not an echo," according to the phrase popularized by Phyllis Schlafly in her book explaining the approach. Second, Goldwaterites thought that the South offered an especially promising source of votes. The South's solid support for the Democratic Party represented an ideological aberration. Despite widespread conservatism in the region, hostility to Republicans remained the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The conservatives sought to persuade white southerners at last to overcome this hostility; national Democrats' increasing commitment to the cause of civil rights created a propitious moment in which Republicans could make their case. They calculated that the addition of the South to existing areas of party strength would create a sound majority within the Electoral College.
Despite his confidence in the fundamental conservatism of the American people, Goldwater sensed that 1964 was not a promising time to mobilize this majority. The nation was prosperous and the president popular; Goldwater doubted that Americans wanted a further change of leader in the aftermath of John Kennedy's assassination. Nevertheless, Goldwater did not compromise his conservative mission. His acceptance speech emphasized his rejection of compromise: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." During the campaign, Goldwater's conservative mission included four distinctive components. First, he attacked activist government and advocated fiscal conservatism. As The Conscience of a Conservative indicated, this was the most important element of his politics. Second, within the contemporary context of the struggle for civil rights, his stress on states' rights had the important implication that, under Goldwater, the federal government would not challenge practices of racial inequality. Third, his foreign policy emphasized strident anticommunism and an urgent requirement for a strong defense to protect all American interests. Fourth, he raised a set of concerns about ills within American society, most notably crime and what became known as "permissiveness."
The contrast with Lyndon Johnson was sharp. At the center of his new administration, Johnson placed his goal of a "Great Society," announced at the University of Michigan in May 1964. "We stand at the edge of the greatest era in the life of any nation," he said in Detroit the following month. "For the first time in world history, we have the abundance and the ability to free every man from hopeless want." By the fall, as the elections approached, a set of task forces was hard at work creating the legislation necessary to achieve this breathtakingly ambitious goal. Moreover, significant action as well as rhetoric was already occurring. First, in response to the campaign for legal equality for African Americans, Johnson worked strenuously to persuade Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Second, Johnson requested and Congress delivered the Economic Opportunity Act, a multifaceted initiative that created ten antipoverty programs.
Goldwater's rejection of activist government constituted a serious misunderstanding of the contemporary mood. While many Americans in fact possessed a conservative impulse, it often coexisted with liberal beliefs. According to a fall 1964 survey of public opinion, a majority of the American electorate was indeed "ideologically" conservative. The majority of Americans favored the principles of limited government and individual self-reliance. But at the same time, most people were "operationally" liberal, strongly supporting specific examples of governmental programmatic activism. For example, more than three-quarters of respondents agreed with the abstract statement that the poor were at least partly to blame for their predicament, but many respondents also agreed with the specific statement that the government had a role in trying to reduce unemployment and poverty. Traditional beliefs regarding individualism remained strong, while support for government activism, in place since the Great Depression, had also gained force. On the one hand, the strength of ideological conservatism explains the confidence of Goldwater and his supporters that they could win the allegiance of many voters. In some senses, many Americans were indeed conservative. On the other hand, the strength of operational liberalism exposes the misguided nature of that confidence. "As long as Goldwater could talk ideology alone, he was able to ride high, wide, and handsome," wrote public opinion analysts Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril. "But the moment he was forced to discuss issues and programs, he was finished."
Race was not an important element of the Goldwater philosophy, but issues of civil rights formed a vital part of the American scene at the time of his candidacy. Treating them in the same way as other examples of federal government activism, Goldwater applied his antigovernment philosophy in response to civil rights issues.
Excerpted from Richard Nixon and the Quest for a New Majority by Robert Mason Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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