Barry Goldwater’s loss in the Presidential election of 1964 was one of the most overwhelming defeats in U.S. history. He won just six states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and his home state of Arizona, with less than 40% of the popular vote.
Except for Arizona, every state he won was part of the Deep South, hardcore segregationist states, in other words. Goldwater himself was not a segregationist, but he did believe in “States’ Rights” as a matter of constitutional conviction and federalism. The use of this doctrine to support segregation supposedly caused him genuine discomfort, at least according to “Shakespeare,” Goldwater’s nickname for his speechwriter Karl Hess (who later became a radical left libertarian, but that’s another story).
Let’s look at the state by state election returns for Goldwater’s top 19 states:
South Carolina: 58.89%
South Dakota: 44.39%
North Carolina: 43.85%
Mississippi is the real standout, of course, and the good people of Mississippi were pretty forthright about the reasons for their votes; it was in furtherance of a segregationist objective (it goes without saying that there were practically no eligible black voters in Mississippi at the time).
I’m not going to speak states other than Tennessee (and for reasons that will become apparent, North Carolina) on this list, since I have no personal knowledge of their situation at that time. (I did live for a while in North Carolina, some years before 1964, and it shares some characteristics with Tennessee).
At first blush, one might think that Tennessee might have been fertile ground for Goldwater. For one thing, unlike many other southern states, it actually had a functioning Republican Party. This owes to the peculiar geopolitical configuration of Tennessee. Tennessee, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. I grew up in Middle Tennessee, sometimes called the “Nashville Basin,” which is bounded by the “Highland Rim.” Middle Tennessee also sometimes considers its boundaries to be the Tennessee River, though strictly speaking, that extends Middle Tennessee well into the Appalachians to the east, but Nashvillians are nothing if not expansive.
But East Tennessee is Appalachian, and has been a Republican redoubt since the Civil War. Indeed, the separate politics of the Appalachians gave rise to the State of West Virginia in 1863, for similar reasons: the mountain people wanted no part of slavery and, in fact, resented the competition of cheap slave labor.
West Tennessee, by contrast, is Deep South. It was cotton country, and its “cultural capital” is Memphis, which serves the same function to Mississippi. When a Mississippian speaks of going to “the city,” he is more likely to be speaking of Memphis than any city in Mississippi itself.
So West Tennessee actually voted in significant numbers for Goldwater, giving him 9 out of 21 counties. Likewise, East Tennessee stayed significantly Republican, with only Chattanooga and 5 counties including Knoxville edging into Johnson territory. It may be noted that Tennessee cities at the time generally followed the machine political model of northern cities like Chicago. Blacks were not disenfranchised in Tennessee urban areas; they formed an important part of the Democratic political base. This was also true of Memphis, which voted for Johnson.
So prior analysis would have suggested a squeaker, maybe like Florida, or even closer. Yet Goldwater lost Tennessee and Kentucky big time. Why?
Three letters: TVA.
Barry Goldwater had gone on record as being against the Tennessee Valley Authority, which he considered socialist. Actually if socialist means “government ownership of the means of production, it surely was socialist, although that didn’t stop Goldwater from supporting the Central Arizona Project, another big federal water project in his own state. In any case, Goldwater had said that he’d sell TVA “for a dollar” if he had to. Editorial cartoonists in Tennessee had a field day.
Goldwater didn’t even bother to campaign in Tennessee; his running mate, William Millar came and did a lackluster job of it. Johnson came to Nashville though, and stated that he would never sell TVA roughly 1,264 times by my count, though I admit I may have dozed off somewhere near number 500.
North Carolina also had plenty of cheap power coming from federal projects, and that may be part of why they went against Goldwater. But North Carolina and Virginia are both Tobacco States, and tobacco farmers knew from whom all blessing flowed: the Federal Government controlled the tobacco industry to the benefit of the farmers in those days, much less so now.
So let’s emphasize what happened to Goldwater in Tennessee. The Conservative candidate was defeated in a southern state because he was against socialism and they were for it. They had their goodies and they wanted to keep them. That’s “conservative” sure enough, but it’s not “Conservative.” It’s only very recently that “privatization” of TVA has become a real topic for discussion, under the rationale of “it will reduce costs.” That it will, I tell my political friends in Tennessee; it just won’t reduce prices. Layoffs will happen; costs will be cut; then prices will be raised. And the gap between the two will go to the shareholders, because that is how it works. That’s how it’s _supposed_ to work. People understood that in 1964; it’s only 40 years of propaganda and forgetting that gets them to think otherwise.
The 1964 novelty of voting something other than a straight Democratic ticket had its effects, as did the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the backlash from it, especially the Public Accommodations portion, which in Tennessee at least, resulted in a silly period when waiters at some restaurants would pretend that you had a reservation, if you were white, and regrettably inform you that only those with reservations would be served, if you weren’t.
In any case, the 1966 election for Senate produced the first Republican Senator since Reconstruction: Howard Baker Jr. The 1970 election produced the next, Bill Brock, who managed to take out Al Gore Sr., in a campaign that emphasized Gore’s connections to the Kennedy family. Brock had been a congressman, and, to the best I’ve been able to ascertain, voted against both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1966. He was a real conservative, but lost in 1976 to the Carter coattails or the Ford backlash, take your pick.
The Republicanization of the south was retarded first and foremost by the stranglehold that the Democratic Party had on the Statehouses, giving incumbent Democrats the power of gerrymandering districts and outright voter fraud. The Voting Rights Act of 1966 also extended the period of Democratic hegemony by replacing the rapidly defecting whites with newly enfranchised blacks. In 1968, the “Goldwater South” went for Wallace, who hoped to have some leverage as a result, but Nixon won outright, so no deals were cut, as such. Nixon did take Tennessee and North Carolina, however.
The question of race in Presidential politics is muddled during the 1970s, owing to the lopsided victory of Nixon in 1972, and the southern candidate Carter in 1976. Reagan, however, kicked off his Presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a move that drew raised eyebrows in many quarters. Reagan barely won Tennessee in 1980, with a less than 0.3% margin.
But the march of Republicans through the South continued during the entire period from 1964 to the 1990s. Every election brought another “first Republican Senator/congressman since Reconstruction” story, as well as ongoing “flips” where a former Southern Democrat decided that the Republican Party was more to his liking. Was it because Republicans were more “conservative?” Sure, provided you remember that “conservative” can include “socialist” if it is perceived as an advantage to the voter.
Was there racism involved? Well, I have your reservation right here, Mr. White. We’ll be happy to seat you now.