Barry Goldwater, senator from Arizona from 1953 to 1965 and 1969 to 1987, was the most libertarian of all the major candidates running for president in the 20th century. As the Republican nominee in 1964, he proposed a voluntary option for social security, termination of the farm subsidy program, privatizing parts of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and keeping welfare “a private concern.” No one should have been surprised by his antigovernment crusade given what he had written in his 1960 best‐​selling manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative. The turn to freedom in America will come, he maintained, when the people put in public office those who pledge to enforce the Constitution, restore the Republic, and proclaim: “My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.”

Goldwater’s radical message in the 1964 campaign was not well received: He defeated his opponent in only six states, and he received only 38.5% of the popular vote. But his uncompromising stand for freedom at home and abroad laid the foundations of a political counterrevolution that led to Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980 and Newt Gingrich’s historic Contract with America in 1994. Barry Goldwater was, in fact, the most consequential loser in presidential politics.

He was an unlikely revolutionary: the grandson of a Jewish itinerant salesman who became a millionaire; a college dropout; a master mechanic and ham radio operator; a gifted photographer whose sensitive portraits of Native Americans have hung in galleries around the world; an intrepid pilot who flew more than 170 different planes in his lifetime, including the U-2. Goldwater was a fiercely independent Westerner who opposed Big Government, Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Media. He called himself a Jeffersonian republican with a small “r.” He had deep‐​seated reservations about the Religious Right and its prolife, antigay positions.

His presidential candidacy marked the beginning of a shift in modern American politics from liberalism to a more conservative economic philosophy that continues to this day.

Further Readings

Goldwater, Barry M. The Conscience of a Conservative. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Middendorf, J. William. A Glorious Disaster: Barry Goldwater’s Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Lee Edwards
Originally published