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Lesson Plan

1964 Republican Convention: Chaos & Conservatism

About this Video
This six-minute video introduces students to the “civil war” between the Republican Party’s moderates and conservatives that led to one of the most raucous conventions in American political history. After disciplined and combative conservative forces successfully nominated Senator Barry Goldwater, the party’s moderates sabotaged their own nominee at the convention, virtually ensuring President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in November. Vividly illustrating both the electoral high-water mark of American liberalism, as well as the birth of modern conservatism, the video is useful for lessons covering the 1964 election, the rise of the conservative movement, or the political context of the Great Society.
  • How “outsider” conservatives battled “insider” moderates for control of the Republican Party in the 1950s and 60s.
  • How aspects of the modern Republican Party’s rhetorical style and ideology are rooted in Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign.
  • How Goldwater’s nomination resulted in a raucous convention and contributed to an electoral landslide for President Lyndon Johnson.
  • Social Studies
  • Civics & Government
  • U.S. History
  • Civil Rights
  • Campaigns and Elections
  • Lyndon Johnson
  • Political Parties
  • 1960s America
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

In 1964, conservative Republicans swept into their convention in San Francisco determined to win back the party from what it perceived as the Eastern, Wall Street wing of the party.

They launched a disciplined floor campaign to secure the nomination for Senator Barry Goldwater, a “cowboy conservative” from Arizona, known as an opponent of Communism who was strong on defense – and strongly opposed to civil rights legislation.

Moderate Republicans, led by New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, were horrified by Goldwater’s extremism, and feared he and his energetic supporters would destroy the party .

The resulting clash between opposing Republican factions turned the nationally-televised convention into a battleground that was hardly settled when Goldwater was finally nominated.

Annoyed by the continuing attempts by “Rockefeller Republicans” to undercut his message and his support, Goldwater refused to follow tradition and unite warring factions.

Instead, he used his acceptance speech to bury his party opponents with the line: “I would remind you, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

That phrase would resound through history, but in 1964 the moderate Republicans got in the last word: Goldwater was perceived by voters as too extreme to be president, and lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson.

Goldwater’s defeat was not without repercussions. It opened the Republican Party to a strain of conservatism that would culminate in the nomination of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Essential Questions
  • How was Barry Goldwater trying to change the Republican Party? How were his politics and worldview different from those of Republicans like President Eisenhower or Nelson Rockefeller?
  • How did the new medium of television affect public perceptions about the convention?
  • How did moderates like Nelson Rockefeller respond to Goldwater’s nomination?
  • How did the convention affect the outcome of the election in November?
Lesson Procedure
  • How did Goldwater’s campaign affect the rhetorical style and ideology of the Republican Party in the decades following 1964? In style and ideology, do you think modern Republicans are more similar to Nelson Rockefeller, or Barry Goldwater? Why?
  • Barry Goldwater ran as an “anti-establishment” and “outsider” candidate in 1964, but many liberal and populist Democrats have also run for President as anti-establishment outsiders. Where are the roots of this theme in American politics? Why are Americans, on both ends of the ideological spectrum, often attracted to candidates who claim to be rebelling against the established political order?
  • In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1964, Barry Goldwater declared, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Does extremism ever play a useful role in American politics? How do we define extremism? Given America’s two-party system, why is it challenging for an extremist candidate to win a presidential election?
  • Political scientists sometimes categorize particular presidential elections as “realigning” – elections that fundamentally realign the ideology and political coalitions underlying the major political parties. Lincoln’s election in 1860 and Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 are frequently cited as examples. Some scholars regard 1964 as a realigning election, while others disagree. Why do you think some scholars would regard it as realigning? Why do you think some scholars disagree with this designation? How does 1964 compare with 1932 and 1860?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "Lessons From the 1964 Republican Convention: Declaring War on the Establishment" Retro Report

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.

Skill 1.B: Explain a historical process.

Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE)

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