What leftists can learn from Barry Goldwater

Organization, dedication, and infiltration can beat entrenched money

Barry Goldwater.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Henry Burroughs)

How should leftists treat the Democratic Party? After the primary defeat of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton's loss to President Trump, and the endless examples of weakness and hesitation from Democrats since then, the party appears like a lost cause — and that's when the party leadership isn't straight-up voting to give Trump sweeping surveillance powers. This has led many leftists to bitterly forswear the Democratic Party altogether.

But that would be rash. In many ways, leftists are in a similar position to that of movement conservatives in the early 1960s. In fact, they could learn a lot from the example of Barry Goldwater's run for president in 1964. He proved that disciplined organizing and dedication could defeat big money inside a political party.

It's hard to imagine now, but in the 1950s hardcore conservatives were a repressed minority faction within the Republican Party. New Deal Democrats had dominated national politics since 1932, and the Republicans' liberal faction had taken over the GOP by arguing that since the political center of gravity had shifted far to the left, accommodations were needed to compete at a national level.

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Only by nominating Dwight D. Eisenhower for president — a moderate who was a wildly popular war hero to boot — had Republicans managed to knock Democrats out of the White House in 1952. Naturally enough, Eisenhower made no attempt to rip up the New Deal. On the contrary, he expanded Social Security and built the Interstate Highway System. In a letter to his brother, he noted that only "a few Texas oil millionaires" and such types wanted to get rid of basic New Deal programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance. "Their number is negligible and they are stupid."

As detailed in Rick Perlstein's classic history Before the Storm, conservatives fumed at Eisenhower's compromises. They built up publications like National Review and organizations like Young Americans for Freedom and the John Birch Society (an authoritarian cult-like group that argued, among other fruitcake conspiracy theories, that Eisenhower was a secret communist). They also looked for a leader who would not accept liberal compromises. They found one in Goldwater, a hard-right senator from Arizona.

In 1964, Goldwater boosters carefully laid the groundwork to seize the Republican nomination from the dread liberal Nelson Rockefeller, without even telling Goldwater at first. The central figure in this effort was F. Clifton White, a brilliant organizer who quite literally learned how to abuse parliamentary procedure from American Communists. He developed an ultra-detailed understanding of the nomination process — then largely controlled by party organizations, not primary elections — and patiently built up a national organization that could deliver the nomination to the right-winger. Working in secret, White got dedicated activists to show up to Republican precinct committee meetings, or set up new ones where they didn't exist, then built that up into control of county and state-level party committees, thereby laying the groundwork for a Goldwater run.

For leftists, White's way of looking at the Republican Party has a lot to recommend it. He saw not just the implacable interests united against him, which did exist, but a rattletrap jalopy of an organization, with a million points of vulnerability, that could be used to advance his politics. While the parties have changed a lot over the days, this remains true.

In vast swathes of the country, the Democratic Party basically does not exist, and a relative handful of leftists could "take over" — that is, bring into existence as viable political operations — thousands of local and city committees, and thereby start working on state parties. That would allow the party to simultaneously contest many long-shot races in red states where it often doesn't even try, and allow the left to pressure the national party committees to support actual leftists and progressives — like James Thompson, a Sanders Democrat who nearly won a special election in a very red Kansas House district — instead of the milquetoast neoliberals they generally favor.

The overall goal here is to use the existing party machinery to advance leftist politics wherever it makes tactical sense, from local school boards all the way up to the presidency.

It does not mean all of White's tactics are fair game, of course. The abusive parliamentary maneuvers he used to lock down the 1964 convention, for example, would be both less effective today when parties are considerably more democratic than they used to be and highly likely to backfire.

There are two other important differences between modern leftists and White's conservatives.

The first is money. Bircher leader Robert Welch had a huge candy fortune, and White could tap a good number of reactionary businessmen to help him with his effort. For obvious reasons, leftists won't have that luxury.

But is campaign cash actually decisive? To White, money was much less important than careful planning and dedication, because the liberal Republicans had even more money — and none more than Rockefeller himself, who built up a gigantic political machine with his vast fortune. Indeed, White had a huge uphill battle to convince right-wingers to donate to what seemed like a doomed ideological crusade, and even to convince Goldwater to run at all. Many Republicans thought that Goldwater was so conservative that he would get steamrolled by Johnson at the polls.

That brings me to the second difference: ideology. The liberals were correct that Goldwater was out of step with the electorate (many also refused to campaign for the GOP nominee), and they were temporarily vindicated when he went down to absolutely crushing defeat, losing by nearly 23 points. It turned out that being against the Civil Rights Act and for the use of nuclear weapons in war was a losing proposition in 1964. However, that election turned out to be a hinge point in politics. After Goldwater's run, conservative ideology became dramatically more popular in both parties, and while the liberal Republicans did momentarily take the initiative, conservatives eventually won again, culminating in the election of Reagan in 1980.

Today, by contrast, left-wing ideas like Medicare for all, boosting Social Security, and paid family leave are dramatically more popular than Goldwater's platform in 1964, and getting more so ever since the 2008 economic collapse and Sanders' failed primary bid. Leftists' policy advantage ought to balance out their relative lack of deep-pocketed donors — and as Sanders showed, you can still raise quite a lot of money from millions of small donations.

The point is that yes, American politics is rigged against the left. But America's ragged, disorganized political parties are not dictatorships, and Goldwater's experience shows that fervent organizing and dedication can beat entrenched money. It may take years, but the left can win.

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