Most historians agree that, by the end of the 1960s, the conservative branch of the Republican Party had largely taken control of party direction. The “Reagan Revolution” of 1980 secured the GOP for conservatives, and while the events of the 2008 election may prompt considerable soulsearching, the party of Lincoln has maintained an undeniably conservative ideological orientation for almost 30 years. Too often, scholars have regarded the process of conservative transformation as a foregone conclusion. Historian Laura Gifford offers an innovative examination of the 1960 presidential election that restores an essential sense of contingency to the process.
In the years prior to 1960, the GOP could have taken its agenda from a number of sources and pursued a number of directions. By the end of the 1960 campaign, however, Republican liberals had lost the battle over the party’s future, and thereafter conservatives would take the lead in formulating GOP policy. The initial establishment of control over the party’s future direction marked the first step toward the culmination of modern conservatism in Reagan’s election. While liberals and conservatives were equally optimistic about their futures in the Republican Party in January 1960, by December a fundamental shift in power had taken place.
The Center Cannot Hold provides an analysis of interactions between three key party leaders—liberal Nelson Rockefeller, conservative Barry Goldwater, and moderate Richard Nixon—and six key constituencies: liberals, African Americans, conservative intellectuals, youth, Southerners, and ethnic Americans. Gifford’s study of these interactions demonstrates that conservatives successfully used grassroots organizations to develop networks that could push the Republican Party in a rightward direction. Furthermore, conservative leaders responded to their supporters more effectively than did liberal and moderate leaders. Ultimately, individuals and groups possessed the means to alter the shape of the American party system.