Supporters were crestfallen, but their resolve was firm.
Their candidate had refused to buckle to the pressure from party elite—the usual pressure from political managers, to move to the political center and tone down strong rhetoric, seeking to enlist the support of middle-of-the-road voters and avoid alienating the power brokers and stakeholders who benefit from the status quo. Instead, the candidate took a stand for what he believed and stuck resolutely to his guns. One of his campaign slogans was, “in your heart, you know he’s right.”
Supporters included many well-organized young people who rejected the values of conformism. Their goal was not to support a candidate who moved to the political center in order to win an election, but one who would take a strong stand and build a movement that would shift the center of gravity underlying American politics, even if it took time.
In the end, they succeeded.
I refer not to this year’s surprisingly tenacious candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, whose dark-horse candidacy gave Hillary Clinton fits through the primary and caucus season. Rather, I refer to the iconic conservative of 1964: Arizona’s Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who famously accepted his party’s nomination for President by saying “Extremism, in the defense of liberty, is no vice. And let me remind you that moderation, in the pursuit of justice, is no virtue.”
Thanks to Donald Critchlow’s book “The Conservative Ascendency” (University Press of Kansas: 2011), we know that Goldwater got shellacked by Lyndon Johnson in ’64, but observers at that time may not have appreciated what was happening. Four years later, in the midst of the Vietnam War, LBJ was so unpopular that he did not even seek re-election, and Republicans captured the White House. Goldwater supporters, on the other hand, ascended to power through the 1970s, nearly upsetting the re-nomination of President Ford in 1976 and ultimately catapulting Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. This did not happen by chance.
In fact, Reagan was one of Goldwater’s enthusiastic supporters. Then a General Electric spokesman and former actor, Reagan gave one of his most famous speeches in support of Goldwater’s small-government crusade. This was a major step forward on Reagan’s path, leading to the California governorship and ultimately the presidency. This speech was officially called “A Time for Choosing,” but it is so well-known among conservatives that many simply call it “The Speech.” (Read the speech transcript.)
Goldwater’s supporters also included many young people, particularly college students that were part of a new group called the Young Americans for Freedom. Organized in Sharon, Connecticut by conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., the YAF issued its own “Sharon Statement” (avoiding the word “manifesto,” which had a decidedly communist-sounding ring to it), condemning the middle-of-the-road politics of both parties and calling for a renewed commitment to small government, anti-communism, and religious values in public life. As Republicans, they sought a greater differentiation between the two parties, who they thought had clustered together in a political center that accepted too much big government: one that had gone soft in its opposition to communism and secularism alike.
Less than ten years later, galvanized by their opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision affirming abortion rights, conservative activists began to take over the Republican Party. Some of these were veterans of the YAF and the Goldwater campaign. They took on and defeated prominent moderate and liberal Republicans in primary elections, while challenging Democratic dominance in districts once thought unwinnable. In particular, they targeted the West and the South, culturally-conservative areas long accustomed to the Democratic Party by tradition and habit. They used then-novel computer technology to organize donor databases and make fundraising appeals, and fought at the grassroots by targeting church groups, party caucuses, and low-turnout elections such as those for school board and Republican precinct committeeman and –woman. Reagan nearly captured the GOP nomination, almost defeating a sitting incumbent of his own party in the bizarre, post-Watergate political environment of the mid-1970s. More gains came in 1978, with conservatives defeating both liberal Republicans and Democrats for a handful of key Congressional races. Finally, in 1980, the big prize: a President conservatives could call their own, along with a Republican majority in the Senate and a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats that effectively created a conservative majority in the House as well.
Tax cuts, beefed-up military spending, staunch anti-communist policies in Afghanistan and Central America, conservative social legislation, and deregulation swiftly followed. Sixteen years after Goldwater’s seeming defeat, the values for which he had stumped were victorious. Still a U.S. Senator, Goldwater was able to be a part of the revolution that his candidacy had launched.
Fast-forward to 2016: This year’s most visible young political activists are on the political left. Young people – particularly college students – are Feeling the Bern for tuition-free college, universal health care, regulations that break up huge banks, and other policies at the opposite pole from those once backed by Goldwater, Reagan, and the YAF. Yet I re-tell the story of conservatives’ rise to power because I think it has relevance to Sanders’ young supporters.
Like the YAF, Feel the Bern activists believe their party has sold out to the powers that be. Their argument that Hillary Clinton’s policies are little different from those of a moderate Republican nicely mirror the Sharon Statement’s condemnation of establishment Republicans. Like the YAF, Bernie supporters believe it is more important to be true to one’s values and support a candidate that they believe has integrity, than it is to make the kind of compromises that lead to short-term political victory by winning over moderates and big-money donors. Like the YAF, many Bernie voters are young and have lots of elections in front of them. Winning in 2016 is not as important to them as shifting the political center of gravity. Conservative activists took 16 years to move this center to the right. Will Sanders’ supporters have the same tenacity and patience to move it left?
Doing this will take serious organizing skills. This is where Bernie’s veritable army of supporters can learn a lot from the YAF and the Goldwater veterans. If they are in for the challenge, here are a few tips:
- Target Low-turnout Elections
If Sanders and his voters have one signature issue, it is their absolute outrage at the way both political parties have, in their view, caved into the pressure of “the establishment”: wealthy bankers, corporate CEOs and Board members, and their hangers-on who manipulate the political system to their own benefit, avoiding both taxes and accountability while raking in subsidies.
Do these still-young activists realize that this is not purely a federal problem? In state and local governments across the country, generous tax packages are dangled before big businesses in order to get them to locate in one place over another. There is little, if any evidence that Tax Increment Financing and other incentives produce any overall growth to local economies, primarily because they are a zero-sum game in which all local governments are forced to compete. What they do is hollow out the local tax base, forcing communities to rely on residential property assessment and regressive sales taxes to fund schools, police, fire, and other local services. Taking the anti-corporate crusade to state and local government could lead to “truces” among municipalities that would stop the giveaways and safeguard tax bases from further depletion.
As if that weren’t enough, another Bernie priority—the $15-per-hour minimum wage—can also be implemented at the state and local level. Indeed, some states and localities have already done so. More gains for progressives in local office means more places with a majority to pass such legislation — not to mention more chances to show, contrary to critics’ worries, that it does not cause widespread job loss.
- Run for Office
Now seventy four years old, it is not clear that Bernie is the one who will ultimately ascend to the presidency if the progressive left does triumph. Besides, no one person can make up a grassroots movement. It is time for these liberal young activists to look, not at Bernie, but at themselves—are you ready to seek public office? Our media culture obsesses on the Presidency, but this is not where things start. Bernie’s backers can start their insurrection in the Democratic Party, or as independents, but either way they should seek jobs like precinct committeeman and –woman, getting spots on platform-writing committees, and running for offices like school board, city or county commissioner, and state representative.
Like a “deep bench” in baseball, well-qualified, thoughtful, articulate candidates for offices like these form the ranks from which future members of Congress and even Presidents will be chosen. Many of these elections, including party primaries, have low voter turnout, which tends to reward those who are well-organized and passionate. Sanders did better in caucus states, which reward perseverance and passion, than in primary states, in which voters need only mark a ballot. The energy of these supporters can be tapped to start taking and holding government and party offices from the bottom up. Besides, state and local government is where key decisions are often made, for example the overly-generous tax packages given to business.
- Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
It may seem odd for Sanders and his activists to take heart from the right-wing Goldwater-Reagan coalition. Yet, it is important to learn from them regarding tactics, if not ideology. Buttressed perhaps by their religious faith, late-twentieth-century conservatives did not fret about the loss of a few seats or one election. They had long-term goals and planned accordingly. Party activists like Newt Gingrich carefully planned out strategies to target districts as they became winnable, and to differentiate themselves from establishment politicians on key wedge issues that would appeal to voters. If they had folded their tent and gone home after 1964, none of this would have happened. They had a twenty year plan and they seized on opportunities as they became available, meeting periodically to track progress. They built a deep bench of state and local officeholders and sought higher offices when they came within reach.
4. Organize, Organize, Organize
In the ‘70s, conservative activists realized that computers could be used to keep track of supporters and target fundraising appeals. These computers might seem museum-quality crude today, but at the time it was revolutionary. Knowing who your voters are, being able to reach them when needed, and raising money by bundling lots of small contributions are all essential skills in today’s politics. Today’s counterpart may be the social media savvy taken for granted by many of Bernie’s younger backers, who cannot remember a time when there was no Internet. Activists in Bernie’s campaign and #BlackLivesMatter have shown us that social media is not a place to rant against one’s political opponents, it is an organizing tool, and they have used it effectively. These skills will come in very handy at bundling small contributions and organizing voters, particularly in low-turnout elections like party primaries.
Bernie Sanders will be 90 years old in 16 years. Many of his supporters will not even be 40.
Who knows? Maybe this year’s Sanders campaign has launched a new generation of activists that will shake up the Democratic Party in the years to come, leading a grassroots revolution that will ultimately elect a President and Congressional majority and make real change to our creaky political status quo.
Someday, maybe they’ll call him Bernie Goldwater.
About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.