The Myth Of The Phoenix: Losses Resulting From Purity Tests Don’t Plant The Seeds Of Future Success

“Purifying” a political party by getting rid of moderates does not appeal to voters in the short run. Nor does it allow a party to become stronger in the long run, by allowing it to be reborn and rise from the ashes like a phoenix. But ardent liberals, conservatives, and libertarians often buy into such wishful thinking. In reality, such a strategy works neither in the short run, nor the long run.

It fails in the long run. It’s often said — falsely — by right-wingers and left-wingers that conservative Republican Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential nomination planted the seeds of Republican Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory by giving the GOP a distinctive conservative stamp that eventually attracted white southern voters, even though in the short run, the Goldwater strategy clearly failed, since the conservative Goldwater was drubbed in the general election by incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, who beat Goldwater by a whopping 25-percent margin, far more than he would have beaten a moderate Republican by. Right-wingers say this to rationalize venerating the politically inept Goldwater (who was a very nice, honest man but not good at PR), and to justify nominating conservatives even when they alienate some moderate voters in the short run.

Liberals falsely tie the GOP’s later victories to Goldwater to make it look like the GOP is built on a supposed “southern strategy” that appeals to white racism. Goldwater carried the Deep South, and no state outside it except for Arizona, carrying the Deep South only because he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which he opposed on constitutional federalism grounds). White southerners at the time opposed the Civil Rights Act for totally different reasons than Goldwater, who had long criticized segregation, and had been described by Life magazine as “instrumental in pushing the Pentagon to support desegregation of the armed services.” Many southerners opposed it out of pure racism, not out of legitimate federalist principles like Goldwater’s.

Goldwater’s position, falsely perceived as racism on Goldwater’s part, cost  him traditionally rock-solid moderate Republican states like Vermont and Maine, that had always gone Republican before, but which now are Democratic-leaning. Goldwater’s provocative and non-conciliatory speech at the GOP’s national convention (in which he said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”) and his ideologically tone-deaf refusal to callibrate his PR strategy to public opinion (like joking about cutting off the Eastern seaboard (the political base of the moderate GOP), and refusing to humanize his image by highlighting his service in World War II — he ordered campaign staffers to focus on the “issues” rather than highlight his war record, even though highlighting your war record is customary for presidential candidates who are veterans) allowed President Johnson to caricature the thoughtful Goldwater as a one-dimensional extremist. Since Goldwater won the Deep South in 1964 (the first Republican to do so), and Reagan won most of that same region in 1980, left-wing and right-wing ideologues claim that Goldwater laid the groundwork for Reagan’s 1980 victory.

This is pure, utter bunk. Any seeds planted by Goldwater died a quick death. Reagan easily won nationally in 1980 (carrying all but a few states, and winning by a double-digit margin of the popular vote), but barely — barely — carried the Deep South (just as Republican Richard Nixon did better in the upper south in 1968 than in the Deep South). While Reagan easily crushed Democratic incumbent President Jimmy Carter in states in the upper South that had, ironically enough, been carried by Democrat Johnson in 1964 (states like Virginia), and also carried states in the outer South that Goldwater lost (like Florida, Kentucky, Texas, and Arkansas), he just barely scraped by in the Deep South, almost losing to Carter in these states that Goldwater had easily won.

Not only did Reagan actually lose Georgia, but he also barely won in states that Goldwater carried like Mississippi (441,089 votes for Reagan vs. 429,281 votes for Carter), Alabama (654,192 vs. 636,370), and South Carolina (439,277 vs. 428,220). Not only that, Reagan lost among the actual southern voters who had voted for Goldwater 16 years earlier, winning the South only because he crushed Carter among young people in the South, even as he lost to Carter among the elderly in the Deep South.

The ideological-purification strategy fails in the short run. In 2010, the Tea Party Express helped hand the Democrats control of the Senate through a small-tent strategy grounded in wishful thinking that conservatives can do well in any state without tailoring their message to moderate voters. Candidates it helped nominate for the Senate in Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado went on to lose elections that their primary rivals would have likely won. These candidates all made needlessly controversial ideologically-loaded remarks about subjects that had little relevance to the issues before the U.S. Senate.

In Delaware, which went for Obama by a 5-to-3 margin, it was obvious that only a moderate Republican could possibly hope to win the general election in Delaware’s Senate race, and it was mathematically impossible for even a seasoned, well-qualified staunch conservative to win. But some Tea Party activists, in a fit of wishful thinking, successfully pushed the nomination of a conservative neophyte with no experience in government, who ran a memorably awful TV ad saying, “I am not a witch.” They shunted aside the state’s veteran moderate Republican congressman, who would surely have won the general election had he been nominated, since he led comfortably in general election polls, was well-liked by independent voters in Delaware, and had voted against unpopular legislation like Obamacare and the $800 billion stimulus package.

Polling data shows that self-described conservatives heavily outnumber liberals, even in staunchly liberal states like New York; but that’s because many self-described conservatives aren’t conservative, just less liberal than the liberal perspective they are constantly exposed to in a predominantly liberal media that makes them feel conservative by comparison through its sometimes strident, preachy, dogmatic leftism. (Professionals have also typically spent years being marinated in liberalism or leftism during their college studies, making them feel conservative compared to their left-leaning professors or college administrators even if they themselves are actually moderate or apolitical rather than conservative.)

Note: what I have written above discusses the pitfalls of driving out moderates from a political party, not driving out liberals masquerading as Republicans in a conservative state (like Kansas), or driving out right-wingers masquerading as Democrats in a liberal state. In Kansas on Tuesday, eight incumbent liberal Republican state senators were defeated in primary elections by more conservative challengers. These incumbents were not, as some media reports have suggested, moderates. They were liberals, so it might be that Ronald Reagan’s adage — that conservatives should not treat a more moderate party colleague as an enemy because they disagree over 20 percent of the issues — does not apply to them (Reagan is reputed to have said, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor.”). The liberalism of the defeated Kansas state senators is illustrated by the fact that they were backed by state employees, trial lawyers, and labor unions, supported vast increases in state spending and the appointment of activist liberal judges, and the fact that they effectively controlled the state senate in an alliance with liberal Democrats.