It's customary to think that modern American politics began in 1960. That's the year John F. Kennedy harnessed the power of television to win the presidency, the year American politics turned from a referendum on the past to a debate about the future, the year modern polling and modern media began their slow climb to dominance in our politics.
But lately I've been thinking that this theory, which I have done my share of propagating over the years, is dead wrong and deeply misleading.
This is not an idle parlor game, a kind of hot-stove league for the history-minded. It's a serious question because its answer helps explain the world we live in now - and the Washington politicians who this summer and fall hold in their hands the fate of the Supreme Court nomination of John G. Roberts, Jr.
And so I'd like to adjust the old theory and move the marker up four years - within the historical margin of error, I suppose, but a significant change nonetheless. The forces that shape our politics today can be traced not to the 1960 election but instead to the 1964 election, when President Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas trounced Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
Note that in 1964, for the first time, both candidates were from the Southwest. No one talked of the Sunbelt then, but already American politics was drifting southwesterly. Note that this was not a close race. No one suspected then that the beneficiary of the LBJ landslide would be the Republicans - not just Republicans, but Goldwater-brand conservatives. Note that the places Goldwater won that year, besides his home state, were five states in the Deep South. No one suspected that this would be the base of the newly reconstructed Republican Party.
The record bears this out. Republicans have won three of those states (South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi) the last seven elections in a row. The GOP has won the other two (Louisiana and Georgia) five times since 1980. There's still a Solid South, but it's not the one that Abraham Lincoln built and Franklin Delano Roosevelt sustained. It's the one that Barry Goldwater built and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush sustained.
But the important legacy for American politics isn't that the South is as Republican now as it once was Democratic. Regional party allegiances change all the time, which is why no one sits in wonder about the Whig Midwest that was built by William Henry Harrison. Shifts happen.
Instead, the important legacy is that Johnson and Goldwater - polar opposites - built a politics of polarization that now controls the way we are governed. They took broadly diverse parties and reshaped them into the more narrow ideological parties we have today. They didn't know it, but they created an important departure in American history.
Until 1964 the Democratic Party was a comfortable home for liberals and conservatives. It was, in fact, a rule of thumb that the powerful committee chairmen were conservatives, mostly from the South, while the rank and file were liberals, mostly from the Northeast and the Midwest industrial centers.
Until 1964, the Republican Party was also a comfortable home for both liberals and conservatives. It was an uneasy peace, with hostilities actually breaking out in 1952 when Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio, the personification of the Old Guard, sought the presidential nomination that eventually went to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The party's liberals in Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts and scattered other places didn't yet feel endangered.
But since the 1964 election, when Goldwater promised a choice and not an echo and when Johnson fought bravely under the banner of the Great Society and the civil-rights movement, the parties have become increasingly ideological.
Johnson won the election and, just as he predicted privately, lost the South for his party for a generation. That was the cost of his embrace of civil-rights legislation, a cost he was prepared and even proud to pay. Goldwater lost the election and, as almost no one predicted privately or publicly, the Republicans eventually embraced the Arizonan's creed. The election defeat of 1964 was the price Republicans had to pay to win the prize of the Reagan Revolution and its successor movement, the George W. Bush administration.
Indeed, no one ever won so big as the Republicans did by losing so big in 1964.
In that loss they found a new star (Ronald Reagan) and were committed to following a new star (modern conservatism). Out of the debris of the Goldwater defeat, Reagan and direct-mail specialist Richard Viguerie, who built a fortune and a new political movement out of the Goldwater contributor lists, created a new force in American politics: conservatives with a positive program, not simply conservatives who were against what the liberals wanted or who wanted a more frugal version of what the liberals wanted.
"Goldwater was a transformational figure," says Robert Borosage, who is co-director of the liberal activist group the Campaign for America's Future. "He laid out a pure set of ideas and the Right, after its stunning defeat, decided to build from the bottom up."
The liberals of Lyndon Johnson and the conservatives of Barry Goldwater drifted apart, as did the two parties they represented. The old politics had just one last gasp left in it - the two terms of Richard Nixon. By the time the nation had purged itself of the virus of Watergate, in the 1980 election that took Reagan to the White House, the old politics were as dead as the politics of the bloody shirt.
Johnson chased the Southern conservatives, the neoconservatives, and some of the culturally conservative elements of the labor movement out of the Democratic Party. Goldwater chased the social-welfare liberals out of the Republican Party. Together Johnson (who regarded Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, the personification of the Democratic conservative, as a father figure) and Goldwater (who was scornful of social conservatives and impatient with their demands) built a politics they would not recognize today, and maybe wouldn't even like.