Tea Party Activists Aren’t Gearing Up For 2016 — They Want To Refight 1964

1964 GOP Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater CREDIT: AP
1964 GOP Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater CREDIT: AP

The conservative movement’s choice for president believes that whites-only lunch counters should be legal. He believes that business owners’ rights trump civil rights, that Medicare should be undermined or even destroyed, and that workers simply have too much power to demand better wages and working conditions from their employers.

I write this words today, two days after voters in the Conservative Political Action Conference’s straw poll selected Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) as their preferred candidate for president in 2016, but they could have just as easily been written in 1964 as Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater was consolidating the support he’d need to become the GOP’s presidential candidate.

Like Paul, Goldwater opposed the federal ban on whites-only lunch counters. Like Paul, Goldwater backed so-called “right to work” laws intended to undermine unions — and the higher wages those unions bring. And like Paul, Goldwater had no love of Medicare. Goldwater once mocked the idea that seniors should enjoy government-provided health insurance as akin to giving them free “vacation resorts” and “a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink.” Paul supports a plan to roll back Medicare that would even make Paul Ryan blush.

The first time Republicans sought the White House with this agenda, it did not turn out too well for them. President Lyndon Johnson trounced Goldwater in one of the most devastating landslides in American history. And yet, if the CPAC straw poll is any indication, the party’s increasingly dominant conservative wing is eager for a rematch.

Out Of The Closet

The parallels between Goldwater’s ascendance and the rise of Tea Party candidates like Paul stretch beyond their similar policy prescriptions. Indeed, the Tea Party is as much at war with Republicans who might compromise their own purity as it is with Democrats who reject hardline conservative values altogether. “We need another come-to-Jesus meeting,” former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (R-AK) told CPAC this past weekend. “America is counting on the GOP to get it right, and that’s why the establishment can’t blow it.”


Goldwater offered similar protests against a Republican establishment that, in his mind, had strayed too far from the conservative path. The Arizona senator slammed Republican President Dwight Eisenhower for operating a “dime store New Deal,” and he offered himself up to voters as an out and proud alternative to Republicans afraid to be seen as too conservative. Goldwater’s 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative opened with a direct swipe at self-hating conservatives — “I have been much concerned that so many people today with Conservative instincts feel compelled to apologize for them.” And his campaign buttons and billboards appealed directly to conservative voters to come out of the closet. “In your heart,” Goldwater’s most famous campaign slogan read, “you know he’s right.”

(Johnson supporters responded with a slogan of their own: ‘’In your guts you know he’s nuts.”)

Conservatives like Goldwater had good reason to remain in the closet in the 1960s. The last president to serve a full term before the dawn of the Great Depression was Calvin Coolidge, a staunch conservative who once proclaimed that “[c]ollecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.” In the lead up to the Depression and for several years after it began, the Supreme Court enforced a kind of laissez faire political orthodoxy by striking down laws banning child labor, guaranteeing a minimum wage and protecting the right of workers to organize.

Then the New Deal and the massive government spending project known as “World War II” happened, and America emerged from the Depression as the wealthiest and most powerful nation that ever existed. In 1964, the year Johnson defeated Goldwater, the United States saw an eye-popping 5.8 percent growth in its gross domestic product. Conservative economic theory seemed wholly discredited by the 1960s, and the economics of the New Deal and the Great Society appeared entirely vindicated.

Goldwater’s Constitution

Nevertheless, Goldwater borrowed heavily from pre-New Deal conservatism in shaping his own views. One of the central tenets held by conservatives prior to and during the Roosevelt Administration was that liberalism is not just wrong, it is also forbidden by the Constitution. This is why the Supreme Court so blithely struck down laws benefiting workers in the lead up to the Great Depression. And it’s also why the American Liberty League, a kind of proto-Tea Party formed to oppose FDR and the New Deal, framed its objections largely in constitutional terms. As one early Liberty League supporter described the organization’s creed:

I believe in the Constitution of the United States; I believe in the division of power that it makes, and that it is the duty of every public officer to observe them [sic]. I believe in the rights of private property, the sanctity and binding power of contracts, the duty of self-help. I am opposed to confiscatory taxation, wasteful expenditure, socialized industry, and a planned economy controlled and directed by government functionaries.

Goldwater, more than any other Republican of his era, sought to revive this notion that the Constitution was a fundamentally conservative document. In announcing his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, Goldwater argued that its provisions regulating private business — the bans on whites-only lunch counters, employment discrimination, racial exclusion in hotels and similar practices — all violated the Constitution. “I find no constitutional basis for the exercise of Federal regulatory authority in . . . these areas,” Goldwater announced on the Senate floor. “[A]nd I believe the attempted usurpation of such power to be a grave threat to the very essence of our basic system of government.”


In a subsequent speech, Goldwater added that he also opposed the civil rights law because he thought that it violated business owners’ right of “freedom of association.” “There’s a freedom to associate and there’s a freedom not to associate,” Goldwater declared. And the right to not associate with black people was apparently part of this second “freedom.”

In reaching these views, Goldwater relied on the advice of two men who would go on to become some of the most influential constitutional thinkers in the conservative movement.

The first was a fairly obscure Arizona lawyer named William Rehnquist, who would later rise from this obscurity to become Chief Justice of the United States. The same year that Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, the Phoenix City Council enacted a similar ordinance banning many forms of discrimination by private businesses. Rehnquist was one of only three people who testified against the proposed ordinance, and he later published a letter to the editor of the Arizona Republic laying out his objections. Though Rehnquist conceded that discrimination by the government itself was out of bounds — “All of us alike pay taxes to support the operation of government, and all should be treated alike by it,” the future chief justice wrote — he held very different views about the government’s power to address private racism. The ordinance, according to Rehnquist’s letter, “does away with the historic right of the owner of a drug store, lunch counter, or theatre to choose his own customers.”

Goldwater sought out Rehnquist’s advice on whether he should support the Civil Rights Act, and then he sought a second opinion from a Yale law professor named Robert Bork — the same Robert Bork that President Ronald Reagan would try and fail to put on the Supreme Court. Yet Goldwater must have known what advice Bork would have given him when he asked for it, as Bork had already laid out his views in a 1963 article published in the New Republic. The principle behind a federal ban on whites-only lunch counters, Bork argued in that piece, “is that if I find your behavior ugly by my standards, moral or aesthetic, and if you prove stubborn about adopting my view of the situation, I am justified in having the state coerce you into more righteous paths. That is itself a principle of unsurpassed ugliness.”

In Your Guts Your Know He’s Nuts

After Johnson’s decisive victory over Goldwater, Republicans largely turned away from Goldwater’s hardline views. Though the party’s next presidential nominee, Richard Nixon, infamously embraced a “Southern strategy” seeking to appeal to white racists, he was careful not to go so far as to oppose LBJ’s landmark civil rights legislation. In a 1964 speech attacking what he called the “irresponsible tactics of some of the extreme civil rights leaders,” Nixon also praised the Civil Rights Act itself — predicting that “[i]f this law is effectively administered, it will be a great step forward in the struggle for equality of opportunity for all Americans.”


As Chief Justice of the United States, Rehnquist sat on three cases where one of his fellow justices — Justice Clarence Thomas — embraced a Goldwateresque view of the Constitution that would have rendered the Civil Rights Act unconstitutional. Yet Rehnquist did not join Thomas’s opinions in these three cases.

Bork also repudiated his past opposition to the Civil Rights Act during his 1973 confirmation hearings before he became Solicitor General of the United States. At these hearings, Bork reportedly “said that he had changed his mind and that his 1963 article had been a kind of thought experiment.”

Which is why Rand Paul’s 2010 statement, that the “hard part about believing in freedom” is that you must also believe in the legality of whites-only lunch counters, is so remarkable. When Paul came out against the Civil Rights Act, he did not simply come out against a widely cherished law, nor did he just take a position well to the right of the Republican Party’s explicit views. Paul embraced a view that was rejected by the very same people who were its leading proponents at the time that the Civil Rights Act became law. The CPAC attendees who embraced Paul as their candidate are effectively trying to wipe away all of this history — the defeat of Goldwater, the reputation of Goldwater’s views by the GOP, the evolution of men like Bork and Rehnquist — and relitigate the election of 1964 more than half a century after Johnson won it in a landslide.

Indeed, in reality, they are doing far more than that. When I floated the premise of this article on Twitter, Mother Jones’ Nick Baumann pointed out to me that “Barry Goldwater and Rand Paul would disagree on the single most important social issue” — abortion.

Perhaps because Goldwater rose to prominence before Americans’ views on abortion began to polarize along partisan lines, the man who once defined conservatism went to his grave wildly out of step with his party on this contentious issue. Indeed, in a 1994 interview, Goldwater complained that “a lot of so-called conservatives . . . think I’ve turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion.” Abortion, according to Goldwater, is “a decision that’s up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the religious right. It’s not a conservative issue at all.”

Even more remarkably, Goldwater became a staunch supporter of gay rights in the twilight of his life. After retiring from the Senate, Goldwater supported allowing gay people to serve openly in the military, and he even became honorary co-chairman of a push to ban a federal ban on job discrimination against gay Americans.

In other words, thirty years after Goldwater opposed a federal ban on job discrimination on constitutional grounds, he became one of the leading proponents of a federal ban on job discrimination. Even Barry Goldwater eventually rejected Barry Goldwater’s rationale for opposing the Civil Rights Act.

And yet, Rand Paul does not. Nor does Paul share Goldwater’s views on abortion. Indeed, Paul introduced legislation that would “extend the Constitutional protection of life to the unborn from the time of conception.”

The man CPAC favored to be the next President of the United States, in other words, makes the Godfather of conservatism look like Martin Luther King. Three decades after his own presidential race, Goldwater himself understood that the views he once championed were wrong. Yet Tea Party conservatives would foist these views upon the nation regardless.