Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

by Rick Perlstein

Paperback, 2002




Hill and Wang (2002), Edition: 1, 688 pages


Acclaimed historian Rick Perlstein chronicles the rise of the conservative movement in the liberal 1960s. At the heart of the story is Barry Goldwater, the renegade Republican from Arizona who loathed federal government, despised liberals, and mocked "peaceful coexistence" with the USSR. Perlstein's narrative shines a light on a whole world of conservatives and their antagonists, including William F. Buckley, Nelson Rockefeller, and Bill Moyers. Vividly written, Before the Storm is an essential book about the 1960s.

User reviews

LibraryThing member dzdorfman
The best book I have ever read on modern American politics and I was a political science major in college. I lived through this era, but knew very little at the time of what Perlstein discovered in his research and vividly describes. The 1984 Presidential election was the first one I worked on (although not eligible to vote). So feared by East Coast Republicans that volunteers successfully fund-raised for the Democratic Party in my area, but instead of soliciting "Dollars for Democrats," as the Party previously did, we sought donations in the name of "Dollars for Johnson." The book superbly captures the fear and anger that lay at the root of the Goldwater phenomenon, as well as well-thought-out practical organizing tactics Goldwater supporters used to capture the nomination against great odds, which Perstein persuasively argues they consciously borrowed from principles used by American Communists in the 1930s and 1940s. The book also anticipates the contemporary Tea Party movement, particularly the true-believer, uncompromising nature of what passes for American "conservativism" today.… (more)
LibraryThing member JFBallenger
First in Perlstein's magisterial series on the rise of the far right in U.S. politics. A lot of people have been going back to Arendt's Rise of Totalitarianism to understand Trump's America. That's worthwhile (I reread it myself last year), but I would argue the far right's takeover of the GOP that these books chronicle is much more important to understand as the political context that made Trumpism (or something like it) not only possible but perhaps inevitable.

They are also just rollicking good narrative political histories.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Before the Storm describes the beginnings of the modern Republican/Democratic split. For example in 1960, Vermont went Republican which seems laughably impossible these days. In 1964 it went Democrat for the first time and has not looked back since. Other states similarly lined up to how we recognize them today. What happened? Barry Goldwater, an ultra-conservative, re-arranged politics along the southern strategy which was primarily concerned with civil rights and the ideology of communism versus capitalism ("freedom"). At the same time, as blue collar jobs were replaced with white collar and increased prosperity, politics shifted from what can be done to make life better, to fear of things getting worse, keeping what you have. Thus civil rights and communism were the perfect bogymen to strike fear in the hearts of voters to create a new political force to challenge the existing order. It would take 20 years, and four books by Perlstein to describe the ultimate triumph of Regan and the insanity we have lived with since, culminating most recently with the storming of the US Capital in 2021. So long as people buy into the fantasies of self-sufficiency and fear mongering, there will be a misinformed, paranoid and angry base of Americans to contend with.… (more)
LibraryThing member mattries37315
I bought Before the Storm after reading Perlstein's Nixonland expecting it to be not a prequel, but the first of what will most likely be multi-volume history of the rise of the conservative movement in the United States. Before the Storm not only fulfilled, but exceeded those expectations as one learns the roots of conservative ideas and how slowly they were put into words to that could be consumed by the average American one day. Before the Storm is also about how the conservative movement found their standard-bearer in Barry Goldwater, who was reluctant to take up the call and when he did surrounded himself with those unequal to the task of a national political campaign. But as Perlstein shows while Goldwater's official campaign failed, the political operatives that has set-up his nomination before being discarded had established themselves in "unofficial" citizen groups planting the beginnings of an army to be reaped later by Ronald Reagan.

If one could find faults it would be that Perlstein didn't give an in-depth description of the 1952 GOP Convention that conservatives always pointed out as being stolen from them, it was referenced many times but never delved into.

To those wanting to understand our present political landscape, I recommend this book to know how it developed in the past.
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LibraryThing member Steve_Walker
One of the best histories of the American conservative movement. Perlstein does an excellent job of describing the twists and turns that led the Republican party to embrace Goldwater. In his narrative we catch glimpses of individuals who will, down the road, play a major role in the shaping of the GOP. The cold war and the civil rights movement play a major role in the shaping of the neo-cons to come. After two hundred years, Thomas Jefferson's "Fire Bell in the night" is still ringing. Pointing to a issue that will not go away. If you want to understand where we stand as a country, read this book and proceed on to"Nixonland" and "The Invisible Bridge". It will be time well spent.… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
This book focusses on the 1964 election, which looked like disaster for the American conservatism, but turned out to be its seedbed. "Before the Storm" is of course the first volume in a three volume trilogy on the rise of the conservative movement in the U.S., and it does show very clearly that things changed a long time before 1980. Perlstein shows that Goldwater didn't create that movement, but did galvanize it, inspiring a passionate group of believers who became the conservative ground troops in the years ahead. And he also shows that Goldwater's crushing loss in 1964 wasn't just about a still-powerful American consensus. It was about Democratic skullduggery, brilliant advertizing, and an amazingly badly run Republican campaign. Goldwater himself comes across as a remarkably decent person, but as one who never really got into being a Presidential candidate.

Overall, this book is well worth reading, for anyone with an interest in American politics -- present as well as past. It does at times get a bit bogged down in the granular detail of the campaign: that sort of who said what to whom on what phone call is more interesting when you know who most of the characters are, and a lot of the players from 1964 have slipped into the mist. Still, I enjoyed the book, and am looking forward to the next two in the trilogy.
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LibraryThing member Shrike58
Rick Perlstein seems to have never met a political anecdote he didn't like, as this is largely an over-stuffed sandwich of the political anecdotes associated with the rise and fall of Barry Goldwater as a presidential candidate. Perlstein thus takes you from the machinations of the conservative activists disgusted with the corporate liberalism the Republican leadership embraced after the final failure of Robert Taft, to Goldwater's love/hate relationship with the whole idea of being his party's standard bearer, to the self-sabotage inflicted by the the "Arizona Mafia" surrounding Goldwater, and winding up with Lyndon Johnson's drive to achieve total victory using Kennedy's martyrdom and the fear Goldwater inspired in non-enthusiasts. The ultimate point being that this was the "beta" test for the GOP style of politics up to the current day, in the wake of the withering of 19th-century style party organization.

What Perlstein doesn't do quite as well is talk about the "American Consensus" that was to shatter in the Sixties. In considering all the social stresses coming to a head as of 1964, one gathers that he regards this notion as being merely an illusion of pundits and academicians who imagined the end of politics. This means his grasp of the context of the time seems a little shallow. This is then mostly a chronicle of fear, not of positive ideals, on either side of the political aisle.

I also wonder a bit whether Perlstein really has a good grasp of military matters, as he only seems prepared to deal with senior military officials as caricatures. Perlstein almost always takes the political figures he's writing about seriously, even if he has little use for their ideology.
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LibraryThing member queencersei
In 1964 the political establishment of both parties were terrified that conservative firebrand Barry Goldwater would sink the Republican party. The Republican establishment tried to rally behind several different candidates to derail Goldwater, to no avail. Out of touch with the mainstream electorate and crippled by his own missteps, Barry Goldwater went on to lose the general election to LBJ in one of the most epic defeats in Presidential politics.
Instead of being the end of the story for the conservative movement though, Barry Goldwater was a harbinger of things to come. In many ways the Republican party of 2016 is the party of Goldwater. His anti-government, take no prisoner stances have become party dogma. It was the Goldwater campaign that moved the GOP away from it's historical support of civil rights and wrote off the minority vote in favor of disaffected southern Democrats. This was the campaign that repudiated moderate Republicans such as Eisenhower. To truly understand why the Republican party is the way that it currently is, a study of Barry Goldwater and the movement he spurred is crucial.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
A thoroughly detailed and fascinating account of the Goldwater movement and the 1964 presidential campaign. If you're a political junkie like me, this is practically catnip; the text runs to more than five hundred pages, but it fairly flew by. Perlstein goes far beyond straight-up political history, though, bringing in all kinds of social/media/cultural elements to contextualize the politics. And no matter how much you think you know about the '64 campaign, you'll learn something new, I can almost guarantee it.

And the best part is, Perlstein's written two more books so far, so there's plenty more catnip to be had.
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LibraryThing member gbelik
This is a fascinating tale of how the conservatives seemingly highjacked the Republican party in 1964 to nominate Barry Goldwater for president. The election of that year proved to be a disaster, but, of course, the tale won't end there. The organizations, individuals and ideas taking form in 1964 will revive with a renewed vigor later (there are two more volumes in this trilogy). And now, the liberal Republicans that the Goldwater contingent battled that year (Rockefeller, Javits, Scranton etc) long gone and as is their strand of political thought.

At times I found the details of campaigns to be tedious and I would skim a bit, but by and large, this is a very informative and enjoyable book.
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LibraryThing member john.cooper
2016 is not the first year Republican presidential politics seemed batsh*t crazy. Once before we had a nominee whom pundits and analysts considered an unqualified lunatic; who caused foreign observers to question the sanity of the American electorate and worry about the global future; who resolutely flew in the face of accepted wisdom about how to run a campaign. How such a candidate emerged not (as now) in a climate of polarization but in one of placid liberal consensus is the subject of this book. Along the way you'll meet players such as Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Phyllis Schlafly and William Rehnquist, and learn how at one time both Democratic and Republican parties included both reactionary and progressive elements, so that neither organization could be simply labeled "conservative" or "liberal." The Democrats partnered Northern labor-movement activists with Southern racists. The Republicans paired Western might-makes-right libertarians with Eastern elitist intellectuals. How Goldwater's candidacy was made inevitable by a mostly unknown cadre of true believers flying under the radar is the central drama.

The book reads like an ironic thriller, its twists and turns always surprising despite the overall tone of amused disbelief, punctuated by earnest excitement. Perlstein loves his subject and every page includes a great story. The day after I finished Before the Storm, I went out and purchased his next book, Nixonland. I have a feeling I'm going to be crediting these books for keeping me sane and giving me perspective during interesting times.
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LibraryThing member bontley
Story of the complacent and confident Moderate wing of the Republican party overwhelmed by a vocal and active Conservative 1964. Good book, sequel (Nixonland) was better and an easier read.


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