It feels like a busy schedule and an unplanned detour into some binge-watching of the West Wing has slowed my reading of Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2009), but I can’t more enthusiastically recommend the book. Perlstein, who also wrote the excellent Nixonland, deploys exhaustive research into incredible detail about the late 1950s and early 1960s to expose the political mindset of reactionary conspiracy that seems to so often emerge in the the United States. In this case, it came in the form of Barry Goldwater and a cadre of young conservatives convinced that General Eisenhower, the man who led the liberation of Europe, was a communist agent.
Where we have the TEA Party and its corporate funders, the sixties witnessed the Young Americans for Freedom and the John Birch Society.
There are so many excellent details in the book that resonate today, but I thought I’d highlight just a few.
It’s hard not to look back at a speech by Nelson Rockefeller’s Perlstein cites—an effort to turn back the tide of the reactionaries in his party then and wish a voice existed today within the party who might try again. Rockefeller said:
These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror. They have no program for America – no program for the Republican party. They have no solution for our problems of chronic unemployment, of education of agriculture, or racial injustice or strife.
These extremists have no plan and no program to keep the peace and bring freedom to the world.
On the contrary – they spread distrust. They engender suspicion. They encourage disunity. And they operate from the dark shadows of secrecy.
We could also do with this kind of courage from organizations like the American Legion:
Dan Foley, the new National Commander of the American Legion, sat down to write his first editorial for the American Legion’s magazine. He blasted the alarming rise in political extremism: I mean those individuals who would save America by forsaking its free institutions. I mean not just Communists and neo-Fascists who openly assail our system but, more especially, those who, in the conviction that theirs is the only right view, have lost sight of—and faith in—the fundamental processes of self-government. They claim to have the one true answer to every problem. They talk of setting aside the law when the law offends them. They are quick to cry “treason,” slow to admit error, and indifferent to arguments and facts that do not support their beliefs. They are not really leftists or rightists—but simply anarchists.
Perlstein’s book is an absolute must-read.