In Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention, Senator Goldwater relayed his critiques of the Democratic Party as well as his proposals for changing the governing philosophy of America. Goldwater’s speech was primarily a warning against what he perceived as the expansion of communism both abroad and at home in the United States.
Senator Goldwater felt that the Democratic Party’s philosophy of a large and active federal government which would use taxpayer dollars to provide health, education and welfare to all citizens was essentially no different from communism. He felt that any system which centralized the state and empowered it to redistribute wealth, even with the best of intentions, was bound to result in the type of dictatorship found in Communist countries.
In 1964, the idea of a large and active federal government was quite popular. President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs were the best example of this ideology. These programs used the tax dollars of more successful Americans to fund programs intended to raise the standard of living for the poor and the hopeless. While this is certainly an understandable and noble goal, Senator Goldwater was warning that it would create a federal government that would be too powerful to respect the rights and property of its citizens.
Many people felt that Goldwater was an extremist because he was one of relatively few Americans who were speaking out forcefully against the liberal ideas that were dominating Washington, DC in those days. Goldwater used this slur of extremism and turned it onto his opponents to craft the most famous line of his speech. “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
Goldwater also made references to the violence that was plaguing America amid the civil rights movement. Goldwater understood that millions of white Americans were nervous about equality for African-Americans, and that a presidential candidate promising toughness and law and order would appeal to these white voters. He attacked the Johnson Administration by asserting that “Security from domestic violence, no less than from foreign aggression, is the most elementary and fundamental purpose of any government.”
He also attacked Johnson’s foreign policy, warning that “we are at war in Vietnam” and charging that President Johnson “refuses to say…whether or not the objective over there is victory.” This is similar to John McCain’s charges that Barack Obama does not seek “victory” in the war in Iraq. To Goldwater’s opponents, it seemed that Goldwater was pressing for a wider war, which Johnson had promised to avoid.
Goldwater’s arguments were all based on the premise that, aside from defending the country from external enemies and from domestic rioters, the federal government should have a very limited role in the lives of citizens. In fact, Goldwater opposed much civil rights legislation not because he was a racist, but because he honestly felt that the federal government did not have the legal or constitutional authority to force racists to integrate with blacks.
One of the most interesting quotes from the speech may illustrate why Goldwater was so loved by his supporters and so feared by others. When referring to the differences between the two parties, Goldwater said, “we Republicans see all this as more-much more- than the rest: of mere political differences or mere political mistakes. We see this as the result of a fundamentally and absolutely wrong view of man, his nature and his destiny.”
To win the presidency requires winning votes from a broad mix of people and compromising to build coalitions. It is not surprising then that a man who saw the majority party as having an “absolutely wrong view of man” was unable to win the election.