McCarthyism, Nixon, and the Republican Party

I’ve often noted that the modern Republican Party is not something which Barry Goldwater could support. During the later years of his life he objected to both the influence of the religious right in the Republican Party and to the criminality of Richard Nixon and called himself a liberal. I have also compared the tactics of the modern Republicans to those of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and Joseph McCarthy. Neil Gabler, writing in The Los Angeles Times, makes the same point:

The creation myth of modern conservatism usually begins with Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who was the party’s presidential standard-bearer in 1964 and who, even though he lost in one of the biggest landslides in American electoral history, nevertheless wrested the party from its Eastern establishment wing. Then, Richard Nixon co-opted conservatism, talking like a conservative while governing like a moderate, and drawing the opprobrium of true believers. But Ronald Reagan embraced it wholeheartedly, becoming the patron saint of conservatism and making it the dominant ideology in the country. George W. Bush picked up Reagan’s fallen standard and “conservatized” government even more thoroughly than Reagan had, cheering conservatives until his presidency came crashing down around him. That’s how the story goes.

But there is another rendition of the story of modern conservatism, one that doesn’t begin with Goldwater and doesn’t celebrate his libertarian orientation. It is a less heroic story, and one that may go a much longer way toward really explaining the Republican Party’s past electoral fortunes and its future. In this tale, the real father of modern Republicanism is Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the line doesn’t run from Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush; it runs from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin. It centralizes what one might call the McCarthy gene, something deep in the DNA of the Republican Party that determines how Republicans run for office, and because it is genetic, it isn’t likely to be expunged any time soon.

The basic problem with the Goldwater tale is that it focuses on ideology and movement building, which few voters have ever really cared about, while the McCarthy tale focuses on electoral strategy, which is where Republicans have excelled.

Gabler explores this in greater detail. This could also be seen in this year’s election where members of Barry Goldwater’s family endorsed Obama while John McCain utilized the tactics of Joe McCarthy.


  1. 1
    Jerry Weaver says:

    Another thread you could trace would be Billy Graham-Pat Robertson-Pat Buchanan-Mike Huckabbe. The reality is that the Republican Party is quite splintered these days, similar to how the Democratic Party was for so many years.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:


    Agree with the religious right influences you mapped out. I’d also include Bush in there. Traditionally the Republicans would give lip service to the religious right to get their votes and then try to ignore them in office. Bush was the first to actively promote their agenda beyond what was necessary to keep them in line.

    There is actually a lot more I would have normally said on this topic, along with linking back to some of the earlier posts on that. I found the article I linked to while I had limited time with WiFi available while traveling (and changing plans due to one flight coming in too late to make a connection). Unfortunately I wasted most of that time responding to a comment on the war on science before I saw this. If I saw this first I would have spent the time discussing it further and wouldn’t have wasted time responding to someone who thinks the war on science comes from liberals who oppose creationism and global warming denialism.

    If I have more time later I might at least add links to related posts on this topic.

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