What does the 1964 presidential election have to teach us about party dynamics, civil rights and polarization? While many scholars have treated the dramatic candidates and characters such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater, Nancy Beck Young
’s Two Suns of the Southwest: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and the 1964 Battle between Liberalism and Conservatism
(University of Kansas Press, 2019)
is the first comprehensive political history of the 1964 election.
Young (Professor of History, University of Houston) interrogates the Eisenhower 1950s to understand both
Goldwater and Johnson as she focuses on internationalism, human rights, and fiscal conservatism. For her, 1964 was not what it seemed. The LBJ landslide was not the ascendance of liberalism or the death of conservatism: “Johnson’s frontlash strategy was not initially the preferred choice of either party liberals, who wanted him to coordinate with congressional races and run a campaign based on leftist policy agenda, or moderate democrats, who wanted him to focus on keeping the diverse in the party united, including the southerners who were threatening to abandon the party.” The Great Society would unite Eisenhower’s moderate Republicans with independents and Democrats (except the Southern Dixiecrats). In the long term, a version of that conservatism would succeed in the hands of Ronald Reagan: “Reagan had much to do with explaining how Johnson and Goldwater practiced the politics of ideology.”
The chapters follow both sets of primaries in chronological order highlighting personal foibles (e.g. the insecurity of LBJ felt about filling the JFK legacy), the importance of Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968. The Sunbelt functions as a character in this political history. She sees both candidates as “sons of the Old West” but each imagining disparate narratives of what defined the South West.
The book was written during the 2016 election and, in the podcast, Young reflects on similarities and differences between 1968 and our contemporary elections. Despite the ideological splits in 1968, Young believes that the parties and the public shared a faith in the US as a country: successful and moving forward despite differences over civil rights. She sees Biden and LBJ as similar: never the first choice of more liberal members of their parties and creatures of the Senate who know its internal politics. But she notes how LBJ’s legislative success in passing elements of the Great Society depended upon the huge majorities in the 89th Congress (the “Great 89th”) -- something any president elected in 2020 will be unlikely to have.
Eli Levitas-Goren assisted with this podcast.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013) and, most recently, “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” in the Journal of Politics (August 2020).