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Better Dead Than Red

Stephen Joseph Scott

November 11, 2022

By 1960, moderate conservatism, i.e., President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s brand of temperate Republicanism had overshadowed the traditionalist views of Senators Robert Taft and Joseph McCarthy throughout the halls of power in Washington D.C., which led to a sense of alienation and marginalization by those members and their constituents that stood within the orthodox wing of the GOP. “As a result, that constituency began to organize at the grassroots. According to a conservative directory, for example, the number of right-wing groups more than doubled between 1957 and 1965—the largest number of which operated out of Southern California [slowly branching out nationwide]” [1]. A single-candidate stratagem transpired within this “new conservative” movement of the early ‘60s and ultimately manifested itself in the form of one man: Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater – and his well-known brand of “cowboy conservatism.”

Goldwater was an ardent believer in the “American way of life” which, according to him and his followers, encompassed the principles laid out below in a way that not only exemplified the lone righteous path forward for the nation, but also stood as an exemplar of integrity, truth, and justice to the world. One of a long list of motivational factors sat at the heart of this movement’s galvanizing behind a single candidate’s vision of what defined “true conservatism” and their key to a winning strategy: electoral politics through grassroots mobilization - which they believed was the only path to affect national governance by bringing the nation back to the traditional values that had made it great: the spirit of entrepreneurialism; hard work; limited federal government; limited taxation; minimal regulations over business; the sanctity of private property; the inviolability of the individual; personal responsibility; states’ rights; law-and-order; and, a strong and well-funded national defense. After the release of his book The Conscience of a Conservative, ghostwritten in 1960 by L. Brent Bozell brother-in-law of conservative National Review founder William F. Buckley, the book, and, the Senator both, became run away hits – making Goldwater the nation’s most prominent conservative. His doctrine of American fundamentalism strictly eschewed FDR’s New Dealism; its progressive tax policy; the national welfare state; race and class issues; worker’s rights; unions; and women’s rights, as elements of socialism or worse yet “communism,” which were a desecration detrimental to the unique freedoms enshrined, by the nation’s framers, within the United States Constitution.

These sentiments were previously stressed in fellow arch-conservative Strom “Thurmond’s Platform of the States’ Rights Democratic Party,” [2] or Dixiecrats, a coalition of disaffected southerners within the Democratic Party that represented its ultra-conservative wing which shattered the Democrats’ then Solid South in 1948, “We believe that the Constitution of the United States is the greatest charter of human liberty ever conceived by the mind of man" [3]. Thurmond, Governor of South Carolina from 1947 to 1951 and later US Senator, became the protuberant figure of states’ rights and racial traditionalism, who in 1956 outlined a “Southern Manifesto” condemning school integration [4], and later performed a record twenty-four-hour filibuster in contradiction to a 1957 Civil-Rights bill [5]. What Thurmond made evident to the conservative right was that the race-issue could place the South in play, meaning, “race” could help shift traditional white voters to the conservative cause, a factor that would become interlaced within conservative electoral politics for generations to come.

When it came to the race-issue, Lewis Gould explains, ironically, that “Goldwater had supported the civil-rights laws of 1957 and 1960, but he stopped short on the 1964 proposal' [6]. A staunch constitutionalist, the Senator “believed, based on the anti-civil rights views of such legal advisers as William Rehnquist and Robert Bork, that the measure was unconstitutional” [7]. Goldwater took, what he alleged to be a principled stand and “decided that he would vote against the law in the Senate: ‘The problem of discrimination cannot be cured by laws alone,’ he told his colleagues. States’ rights prevented the government from interfering with ‘local issues’ such as race relations” [8]. In the end, Goldwater benefitted from white-fear over the race-issue in the South. As such, “every Republican presidential candidate after Barry Goldwater would reach out and seek to expand the new, white conservative base in the South that he had helped to create” [9] - what would later become known as the Southern Strategy. Which paradoxically took the shape of a sleight-of-hand in that, school integration was “wise and just” he declared, but federal courts imposing such a doctrine was a violation of “states’ rights” which was intolerable from his point of view [10]. Ultimately, Goldwater’s appeal to his white-southern conservative base took the form of fear mongering, “The Civil Rights Act, he continued, would make the federal government into a ‘police state’ and would lead to ‘the destruction of a free society’” [11].

This Senator’s extreme ideological fight for Americanism and his militant stance against the Soviet Union was succinctly summarized in his slogan “Better Dead Than Red,” meaning, it was better for the nation to suffer a nuclear holocaust than to be ruled by communists. Thus, Goldwater believed, that the nation must strive to achieve and maintain military global dominance through the superiority of nuclear weapons [12]. In fact, Goldwater fumed against what he considered a lack of principle (in the form of capitulation) of so-called American liberalism, by stating, “The rallying cry of an appeasement organization, portrayed in a recent novel was, ‘I would rather crawl on my knees to Moscow than die under an Atom bomb’” [13]. Thus, Anticommunism (or the belief in a shared enemy), as Niels Bjerre-Poulsen affirms, became the “ideological glue” within the modern conservative crusade [14].

Saber-rattling, bellicose posturing and fear mongering in American politics was in no way unique to Barry Goldwater. Previously, by 1950, after the allied forces defeated Nazi Germany in World War II, the hopes and aspirations of most Americans seemed limitless. But with the acquisition of atomic weapons by the Soviets; Eastern Europe behind an “Iron Curtain”; and, Communist China victorious in anticolonial revolution, ominous signs lurked everywhere, including within the shadows of US national governance. In light of that, Senator Joseph McCarthy, in his 1950 “Lincoln Day Address,” declared, “In my opinion the State Department … is thoroughly infested with Communists” [15]. In this speech, McCarthy not only sowed the seeds of his own destruction but cultivated and promulgated a belief system that said communist sympathizers were there, behind the scenes, in all walks of American life – a belief system that undergirded, propelled, and persisted within America’s “new conservatism,” encouraging its rise to prominence. In addition, William Buckley, who David Farber asserts, “had more than any other individual strengthened the conservative cause” [16], was the voice of the intellectual new-right and a McCarthy supporter, at least initially, who helped sustain that belief system, later avidly damning organized labor and “big government liberalism as a veiled variant of … communist evil” [17].

Retrospectively, 1940 to 1947 saw union membership in the US surge from 7 to 15 million [18], a trend that horrified conservatives by exemplifying a growing socialist presence in America. But a legislative land-mark victory, soon to come, would later help galvanize and inspire future generations of traditionalists to fight for their cause, i.e., the battle against “collectivism” in all its forms, hence summarized by Marc Dixon:

Business-led efforts to curtail unionism at the national level culminated in the highly restrictive Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Among other things, the … Act outlawed secondary boycotts, allowed for "employer free speech" during union election drives, [clamped down on communist infiltration], and ceded jurisdiction to the states in the regulation of union security and Right-to-Work laws. [19]

As Robert Mason verifies, “regulation of organized labor amounted to significant challenges to New Deal liberalism” [20]. In fact, according to David Lawrence, founder of U.S. News (a long-time conventional publication), the Taft-Hartley Act was the first conservative victory in the long crusade to reverse, what conservatives believed to be, the dangerous socialist-tide of the 20th century New Deal. Lawrence proclaimed that, “America has turned away from state socialism, wherein the government is the master and the citizen is the servant” [21], which was a succinct summary of a key factor of limited government woven within the philosophy of American conservatism past, present and future. Moreover, as Bjerre-Poulsen queries, “So what, if anything, did Goldwater the ardent advocate of ‘right to work’ laws have to offer union members? Freedom from ‘government interference’” [22]. In effect, by the early 1960s, and with the help of the “Senator from the West,” small government rhetoric and right-to-work laws were directly absorbed and adopted in over twenty states across the US [23]. The new conservative movement was on the rise.

In the ‘60s, the conservative movement like the New Deal coalition, which remained in part throughout the 1950s, was an electoral coalition at its core, but it varied in variety and nature. Its electoral base was more racially alike but still diverse, merging business heads with southern suburbanites and northern manufacturing workers who were previously and consistently Democrats. Lisa McGirr exposes an interesting tactical alignment within conservatism made evident by the emergence, in the 1960s, of longtime Democrat and staunch segregationist, George C. Wallace. Wallace, an ardent anticommunist, also utilized, as McGirr explains, “the language of a lower-middle-class populism, [which] held deep attachments to New Deal programs, the welfare state, and unions—attachments that were anathema to most Southern California (as well as national) conservatives” [24]. As a consequence of these partialities, conservatives in Orange County and nationally, avoided third parties; and continued, to a great extent, committed to working with and within the Republican Party. However, Wallace’s appeal to labor (or working-class-populism) would later enshrine itself in conservative politics.

That said, from 1945 throughout the 1960s and beyond, Communism and/or “collectivism,” stood as the central threat to obtaining what conservatives deemed a free and prosperous society where an individual (through entrepreneurism, “traditional values” and hard work) could reign supreme in his own life and reach his highest potential. As Bjerre-Poulsen confirms, “while anticommunism was only one aspect of conservatism, it was without a doubt the most important in terms of publicity and public support” [25]. One organization that occupied this space and developed a lasting impact on the philosophy of individualism over the “disease of collectivism,” imbedded within the movement, by 1960, was Robert Welch’s John Birch Society. The Birchers (as they were also known) became a principal grassroots conservative organization, with remarkable strength throughout the Southwest. Bircher hysteria (and/or extremism) branched out in all directions, stressing to its membership that “Communist infiltration and influence [continues] right inside our own continental borders … unions which control our shipping, and many vital parts of our economy are Communist-ruled….” [26]. This organization saw the fight for civil-rights, and government support, as a method of “fomenting internal civil war” in the country, which was a form of aiding and abetting the Communist side in that war [27]. Another unifying factor within the movement’s development was desegregation: The battle against “liberal judges,” and specifically, the fight to impeach Justice Earl Warren (an Eisenhower appointee) who the Birchers saw as a supporter of integration which, in their view, amounted to a Communist plot [28]. Ultimately, Welch took a step too far (in 1960) by circulating a text entitled, The Politician, where he alleged that then President Eisenhower, himself, was “carrying out Communist orders” [29], but this only partially discredited the society. For the most part, the organization remained formidable, motivating the members of the Republican party of Texas and California – which supported Goldwater in ‘64 and provided an active theme for Ronald Wilson Reagan (former actor turned political spokesperson) summarized in the group’s slogan, “Less government and more responsibility” [30].

Reagan’s televised speech A Time for Choosing (just prior to the election in ‘64) not only stood as an electrifying moment for the new conservative cause in general, but it aided Goldwater; and, furthermore, it shifted the center of gravity of the Republican Party from the old Northeastern Establishment to the newly established Sunbelt conservatives: “Goldwater’s views, which in 1964 had been widely [regarded] as extreme … [would] become part of Republican orthodoxy. Most evident was his ‘law and order’ theme … after antiwar protests, inner-city-riots, and soaring-crime-rates, [had] revealed its true potential” [31]. Reagan railed against excessive taxation, big government, welfare, and the Great Society – which later, in 1966, helped him become California’s most popular Republican governor [32]. Reagan spoke the anti-communist language of the new conservative movement by pounding away at government bureaucrats, “There is only an up or down – up to man’s old-age dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order – or down to the ant-heap [of] totalitarianism” [33]. He demonstrated for his audience his political views with a “humorous anecdote” on the age-old antagonisms that lie between the haves and the have-nots and big government, “We have so many people who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without coming to the conclusion that the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one. So, they are going to solve all the problems of human misery through government and government planning” [34]. Reagan hit an emotional, if not motivational, nationalistic nerve within the grassroots conservative right by declaring, “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth" [35].

As Mason points out, grassroots-organizing was nothing new to the Republican Party. In fact, it goes back to Senator Robert Taft’s early 1950s bitter-uphill-battle against Eisenhower: “Arguments about the party’s minority problem informed the battle between Eisenhower and Taft. Taft insisted that enthusing grassroots Republicans led to good organization, which in turn maximized the party’s vote. The way to enthuse activists was via a stress on conservatism” [36]. Goldwater, and his devotees, certainly those with a sound political memory, would, by 1960, take those consequential sentiments to heart. In fact, Mason continues, “It was not the power of his strategic argument that won the nomination for Goldwater. Instead, it was the success of the pro-Goldwater movement within the party” [37]. That said, although Goldwater lost big to President Lyndon Baines Johnson in ‘64, a committed grassroots conservative movement aimed at national power had taken shape [38].

That committed character was personified by Phyllis Schlafly (an Illinois lawyer and ardent Republican activist), through the release of her seminal, pro-Goldwater, 1964 book, A Choice Not an Echo; and her staunchly anticommunist and antifeminist conservative newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report – where, in the early 1970s, she espoused the imperative to stop the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which demanded equal-legal-rights for all peoples irrespective of sex in the workplace; educational opportunities etc. But Schlafly saw it differently, as she later outlined in a Washington Star interview:

I think it is destructive…. I think their goals can be summed up … as a takeaway of the legal rights that wives now have.… [It] is pro-abortion…. [and it] is pro-lesbian, which is certainly an anti-marriage movement … So, I consider … their principal objectives … antifamily. [39]

Due to what she believed was the nation’s descension into “moral depravity,” Schlafly teamed up with Richard Viguerie, a fellow Catholic, who pioneered, in the early 1960s, an innovative fund-raising-technique through a mass-mailing-stratagem that penetrated into an array of largely conservative Christian organizations and societies later known as the “Moral Majority” [40]. According to Robert Freedman, this movement spawned, “from a combination of factors: the reduction of sectarian tensions that enabled different denominations to engage in common pursuit of moral reform via the political process … and a reaction against the growth of social liberalism in the 1970s” [41]. As a result of their efforts and reach, the ERA amendment fell short of the 38-state requirement for approval - which represented a huge victory for not only Schlafly and Viguerie, but also for the New American Conservative movement as a whole.

Industry is a factor that also needs to be highlighted here given its effects on demographic shifts, “new growth industries in defense and electronics not only to Orange County but also to other regions in the West and South” [42], were a major boon to the conservative right in sheer numbers alone, since “the older northern industrial cities of the East and Midwest saw a decline in their manufacturing base. The resulting demographic … changes would eventually help shift the balance of economic and political power in the nation increasingly southward and westward” [43]. In fact, the new conservative campaign spread throughout the territory, in a grassroots style, focusing primarily, at least initially, in the sphere of the middle-class, “…the rank-and-file cadres [of southwestern] communities - the housewives, doctors, engineers, dentists, and businessmen who had come into public view some years earlier to fight the collectivist menace in their schools [and] churches…” [44] – now, trudged the streets of their districts successfully disseminating literature and ideas on conservatism and its disposition. Farber unveils an interesting motivational factor woven within the movement’s commitment. On the one hand, by ‘64, “…Goldwater had been a flawed candidate. His ill-considered talk of atomic bombs and Asian land wars had given the liberals [i.e., President Johnson] the language with which to mock him, transforming his campaign slogan from ‘In your heart, you know he’s right’ to ‘In your guts, you know he’s nuts’” [45]. But on the other hand, Goldwater had undeniably inspired a generation of conservative activists by teaching them the grit and political power of “bare-knuckles [cowboy] conservatism” [46].

The battle of influence and ideas (in the war of Right vs. Left ideology) would certainly span decades, climaxing in a late 1960s left oriented “counterculture” that included an antibusiness, antiwar, antipoverty, and pro-environmental stance which rattled corporate America and business-leaders across the country. After the GOP’s slim Presidential victory in 1968, Richard Milhous Nixon, who Adolf Reed Jr. argues, did more for the American left than any subsequent Democratic President (in the form of Environmental Protection, Affirmative Action and Occupational Safety and Health standards etc.) [47], would deal a severe rightward blow to that war of ideas (in the form of a long-term win for the new conservative movement), by appointing renowned corporate lawyer Lewis F. Powell Jr. to the Supreme Court. Earlier, Powell had laid out, in his 1971 “Confidential Memorandum (the Powell Memo), a corporate oriented; well-funded, systematic approach to capitalism’s triumph over “socialism” - not by winning politically, but by influencing the public mind: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation … [central to that planning was] the role of the National Chamber of Commerce” [48] and other corporate organizations, think-tanks etc. - in countering what Powell considered a broad attack on the “free-enterprise system.” That methodical organizational effort included: staffing right-wing scholars at universities; reevaluating textbooks especially in the Social Sciences; and “the FBI’s yearly publication [and evaluation] of speeches made on college campuses by avowed Communists” [49]. But it did not stop there. According to Powell, the national television networks and other outlets including radio, scholarly journals, national publications, and paid advertisements should be “monitored” in the same way that textbooks should be kept under strict surveillance – to systematically submerge the rhetoric of the “New-Left” [50].

Finally, the seeds of future successes of New Conservatism had been firmly sown in the fertile soil of the 1960s with a social-issues (antiestablishment) movement on “the left,” again, demanding an end to the Vietnam war; environmental safeguards; civil-rights for African Americans and women’s rights etc. - manifesting in the form of domestic unrest (in urban areas and on college campuses) which propelled the Right to organize against, in their view, the collectivist ramifications, cultural polarization and racialized leveling of LBJ’s “Great Society.” In addition, as Mason states, “This [counter] Social Issue [movement] also involved issues of … ‘permissiveness,’ subjects like drug use and sexual behavior” [51], from which the new conservative crusade, by the end of the decade, became galvanized, organized and mobilized (with the support of business leaders and politicians alike) in terms of strategy, ideas, networks and communications: “[A] movement, which first mobilized middle-class men and women to action against the communist menace, had reconstructed itself [on moral grounds] earning a new political respectability” [52]. This repackaging of the conservative movement’s image across the American political landscape later shifted its language from “us and them” to “We the People,” which propelled the social conservative cause to new heights not seen since the late New Deal era. With this newly found influence in hand, the movement began immediately to implement all steps, it believed, would help tear down what remained of the “communist-inspired” New Deal mandate. That said, political scientist, Everett Ladd intimates, “[this] tendency toward increasing conservatism within the [Republican party’s] ideological journey … left it decreasingly well equipped to communicate with ordinary voters who were generally more centrist” [53].

Nevertheless, armed with a powerful belief in the free-market-system, meshed within a strident religiosity or moral rectitude, this New-Right struggle would find itself not on the fringes of the American mainstream, but assimilated as a mainstay in American culture - culminating in a “clean-sweep” in 1981 in the form (of the small-government doctrine) of one man: Ronald Wilson Reagan, summarized as “the Reagan Revolution,” a fierce reaction against the “malaise” of the late 1970s [54]. Reagan, embodying the spirit of Goldwater and all the aspirations of the new conservative movement, optimistically placed the country on a steadfast and broad conservative trajectory, social, economic and military, for which the movement was ecstatic. In fact, George Will (conservative political commentator), famously summarized the Goldwater/Reagan nexus, per the former California governor’s Presidential win, by stating, “we … who voted for him [Goldwater] in 1964 believe he won, it just took 16 years to count the votes….” [55].

  1. Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, 2015), 113.

  2. “Platform of the States’ Rights Democratic Party,” August 14, 1948, The American Presidency Project:

  3. Ibid.

  4. The Declaration of Constitutional Principles, Congressional Record, 84th Congress Second Session. (Washington DC, March 12, 1956).

  5. Nadine Cohodas, Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change (New York, c1993), 296–297.

  6. Lewis L. Gould, The Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party (New York, 2014), 253.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. David Farber, The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History (Princeton, 2010), 85.

  10. Barry M. Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (Princeton, 2021), 17–24.

  11. Farber, Rise and Fall, 76.

  12. Goldwater, Conscience of Conservative, 107.

  13. Ibid., 86.

  14. Niels Bjerre-Poulsen, Right Face: Organizing the American Conservative Movement 1945-65 (Copenhagen, 2002), 39.

  15. Joseph R. McCarthy, “Lincoln Day Address,” February 20, 1950, available at:

  16. Farber, Rise and Fall, 75.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Leo Troy, “Trade Union Membership, 1897-1962,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 47, no. 1 (1965): 93.

  19. Marc Dixon, “Limiting Labor: Business Political Mobilization and Union Setback in the States,” Journal of Policy History 19, no. 3 (July 2007): 313.

  20. Robert Mason, The Republican Party and American Politics from Hoover to Reagan (Cambridge, 2011), 116.

  21. David Lawrence, “America Turns the Corner,” U.S. News, July 11, 1947.

  22. Bjerre-Poulsen, Right Face, 246.

  23. Dixon, “Limiting Labor,” 319.

  24. McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 115.

  25. Bjerre-Poulsen, Right Face, 57.

  26. Robert Welch, The Blue Book of The John Birch Society (San Francisco, 2015), 24.

  27. Ibid.

  28. McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 129.

  29. Robert Welch, The Politician (Belmont, Massachusetts, 1963), 109.

  30. Welch, Blue Book, 99.

  31. Bjerre-Poulsen, Right Face, 297.

  32. Totton Anderson and Eugene Lee, “The 1966 Election in California,” The Western Political Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1967): 546.

  33. Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing,” October 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library:

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ibid.

  36. Mason, Republican Party, 144.

  37. Ibid., 191.

  38. Farber, Rise and Fall, 85.

  39. Judy Flander, “Interview with Phyllis Schlafly,” Washington Star, January 18, 1976.

  40. Farber, Rise and Fall, 130.

  41. Robert Freedman, “Uneasy Alliance,” in Seeking a New Majority, ed. Mason and Morgan (Nashville, 2013), 125.

  42. McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 27.

  43. Ibid.

  44. Ibid., 112.

  45. Farber, Rise and Fall, 85.

  46. Ibid.

  47. Adolph Reed, “Why Labor’s Soldiering for the Democrats Is a Losing Battle,” New Labor Forum 19, no. 3 (October 1, 2010): 14.

  48. Lewis F. Powell Jr., “Memorandum: Attack On American Free Enterprise System,” August 23, 1971, available at:

  49. Ibid.

  50. Ibid.

  51. Mason, Republican Party, 218.

  52. McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 260.

  53. Quoted in Mason, Republican Party, 245.

  54. Farber, Rise and Fall, 128.

  55. George Will, “The Cheerful Malcontent,” Washington Post, May 31, 1998.

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