The Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election are a good example of why a growing number of Americans believe the party is destined to be relegated to the dustbins of history because it’s been hijacked by right-wing radicals and loud-mouthed buffoons. But modern Republicans, no matter how dysfunctional their politics might be, didn’t ruin the party. Much of the fault lies with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
The party began to lose its respectability 1964. That was the year that President Lyndon Johnson responded to the African-American Civil Rights Movement by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had been passed by Congress with bipartisan support. Johnson eloquently described the importance of the law in a nationwide TV speech before he signed it at the White House on July 2, 1964. It was certainly one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history.
Later that month Republican presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller was booed during a speech at the Republican national convention in San Francisco when he warned against the growing influence of right-wing extremists within his party. The Republicans went on to nominate conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona as their presidential candidate in the 1964 election. Goldwater had opposed the Civil Rights Act in the Senate and his presidential campaign emphasized states’ rights, despite the fact that this was the rallying cry of Southern segregationists. He even argued that business owners had the right to decide whom to hire, whom to do business with, and whom to serve in their stores or restaurants. (Sound familiar?)
Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan Opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Goldwater was defeated by Johnson in a landslide, but he’s still considered the father of the modern conservative movement because the radical policies he espoused didn’t die with his defeat. They were carried forward by former Hollywood movie actor Ronald Reagan, who had given an eloquent speech in support of Goldwater during the election. Reagan’s speech didn’t change the election’s outcome, but it did make him a star among conservatives. He succeeded in getting elected Governor of California in 1966. In 1968 students at the state’s universities conducted non-violent strikes to demand equal access for minorities to public higher education, the hiring of more minority faculty members, and the addition of ethnic studies classes. Reagan encouraged local police to violently break up the strikes.
He was re-elected in 1970 and then ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nominations in 1968 and 1976, and finally succeeded in becoming the party’s nominee in 1980 and subsequently defeated Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter.
Reagan launched his successful 1980 presidential campaign by giving a speech at the Neshoba County Fair, near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been brutally murdered in 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan. He said he opposed the Civil Rights Act and believed in states’ rights because he didn’t think the federal government should intrude into local local matters. He also refused an offer from the NAACP to speak at their 1980 annual convention.
Reagan and Goldwater should never be forgiven for their opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Their argument that it wasn’t about racial justice but about the abuse of federal power was wrong. It’s part of their political legacy, which is largely responsible for the ideological bankruptcy that’s destroying the modern Republican Party.