One of the ironies of recent history is that many who condemned Senator Goldwater in 1964 for his statement “Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice” four years later demanded: Freedom in defence of extremism. Many liberals who found the ideological tendencies of the Goldwater conservatives intolerable, were most ideological-minded in the McCarthy movement. These democrats who distrusted doctrinaire politics four years ago, constituted the vanguard of the McCarthy-ites. There are many interesting parallels that can be drawn, in particular similarities in their style of politics. Perhaps both presidential campaigns were a manifestation of the “paranoid style” of American politics—of the extreme right and left.

Followers of both candidates characterized their leader most frequently as: “He can be trusted.” “He stands up for what he believes.” “He speaks out on issues other politicians like to avoid.” “Having the guts to lay things on the line.”

In both presidential election years we witnessed the “privatization of politics,” that is, the individual conscience of the leader became his guide, as well as that of their followers. Both McCarthy and Goldwater entered the race to face the “deep moral crisis” and offer their simplistic solutions. The conservatives glorified Goldwater, the liberals idolized McCarthy. Students deified McCarthy and embarked on a “Children’s Crusade” in ’68. Most followers in both camps felt that their leader had given them a new sense of participation, a new hope of reconciliation in the spirit of America.

The purists in both movements saw their party as an organization of true believers. They wanted their party to present clear alternatives to the American people. Their leaders lacked the ability to compromise on their party’s platform. McCarthy could not even endorse his party’s nominee; not until the very last moment when it was too late and then only half-heartedly. Many doctrinaire liberals could not even vote for their party’s candidate whom they called the “drugstore liberal.”

It is significant that few commentators attempted to point out these and other similarities. No special supplements in reformed or other journals appeared on “Liberalism and Political Leftism,” “Fight for the Left,” “The Gospel according to McCarthy.” Perhaps they were too deeply involved to reflect objectively on this radical swing from right to left. In 1964 the opinion-makers through the mass media engaged in a FEAR campaign against Goldwater. Four years later they built up their own doctrinaire hero. It is possible that the writers were more concerned about the recent rise of conservatism in particular than extremism in general. If one candidate is considered an extremist then the other is equally so.

It is widely held that the 1964 election was an exception. It will be said that the 1968 election was a unique election. Others will believe that both elections challenged an accepted theory of American politics; namely. the theory that party politics in America is non-ideological. This latter theory is only a perception of reality, not reality itself. If one does not share this myth, the last two presidential elections are not temporary aberrations, but a continuation of the ideological pattern of our politics. In our opinion, the ideological conflict has only intensified, the gap between left and right has widened. The future promises more of the same.

Personally, we admire statesmen of “principle” who take a public stand for what they believe. We do not equally admire the principles on which they stand. Interestingly enough, even though both McCarthy and Goldwater lost, they claimed victory for their cause. Both urged their followers not to form a third party, but to work within their respective parties and gain control of the party and mold it after their image. It is not inconceivable, however, that with a few more Goldwaters or McCarthys, Americans will be liberated from the existing two parties and the two-party system.

There is cause for hope and confidence as one reflects on these candidates and their courage. Both showed what an individual without massive organization and great finances can accomplish. Neither based his candidacy on expediency, but upon conviction. They again illustrated that a leader with a message is heard. What message can we bring to heal a nation?


Ph. C. Bom is professor of Political Science, Dubuque University, Dubuque, Iowa.