Sunday, May 3, 2009

Book Review

As the conservative movement goes into at least a temporary decline, it is worth understanding how the conservative movement rose and completely took over the Republican Party.  The story is told in Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.   Originally the book was released in 2001 but Nation Book rereleased it this spring in response to the popularity of Nixonland

Before the Storm tells the story of the rise of the conservative movement in the 1950s and early 1960s that culminated with Senator Barry Goldwater's securing of the Republican nomination for President in 1964.  Perlstein does a great job in telling how the conservative movement grew as a rebellion against the staid "liberal" consensus of the 1950s.  To be conservative was to be on the avant-garde fringe of American society and it attracted a great intellectual flowering that included people like William F. Buckley.  

People who are almost forgotten to history but whose roles are important to the rise of the modern right are given their due.  There is Clarence Manion a Notre Dame law professor who was in many ways a forerunner of Rush Limbaugh.  Manion was the first to see how a conservative political movement could built and who originated the idea of convincing Goldwater to run for President.  Manion's first choice, however, was not Goldwater but Orval Faubus the segregationist Governor of Arkansas. There is also Clifton White who organized the insurgency that placed Goldwater at the top of the 1964 ticket by understanding the arcane rules that governed the election of delegates to the nominating convention.  This sounds like a certain presidential nominating contest of recent memory.

At the center of the narrative is Barry Goldwater.  Goldwater comes off as a visionary leader of a movement who really doesn't want to lead a movement.  Goldwater also comes off as symbolic of much of the conservative movement.  His family fortune is built off government subsidies but he becomes an anti-government crusader.  Goldwater is opposed to segregation but his conservative principles won't let him support the Civil Rights Act.  This appeals to many southerners and Americans of all regions who are opposed to the aims Civil Rights movement; chief among them is a Phoenix lawyer fighting desegregation named William Rehnquist.

The main opponent is Nelson Rockefeller the liberal Republican Governor of New York but really the enemy is the establishment who refused to see the political earthquake that Goldwater represented.  The political pundits of the era receive a particularly harsh judgement for being so invested in the idea of consensus that they cannot understand the fact that the U.S. is dividing along political lines.

Today, as the Democrats become ascendent in Washington D.C. the Republican Party is in for a period in the political wilderness.  As the debate in Republican circles rages over whether the best strategy is to moderate or hew more closely to conservative principles, Before the Storm tells the story of the last such debate in the GOP and might provide a guide to what we can expect.

I give Before the Storm my highest recommendation.  


No comments:

Post a Comment