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February 24, 2005

Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm

Kevin Drum raves about Rick Perlstein's extraordinarily good Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus:

The Washington Monthly: BEFORE THE STORM....Last year Rick Perlstein sent me a copy of his 2001 book Before the Storm, a look at the rise of Barry Goldwater and movement conservatism in the early 60s. I thanked him, and then put it aside and didn't pick it up again until last week.

What can I say? I'm an idiot. Before the Storm is one of the best political books I've ever read and one of the best descriptions of the roots of modern American conservatism anywhere. It's not just that it's deeply researched and meticulously written — though it is — it's that Perlstein has the rare gift of bringing the past to life. He gives you a sense of what it was really like to be alive during that era, something that few authors seriously try and even fewer ever accomplish.

I have one big analytical quarrel with Rick, however. Goldwaterism certainly did--in the long run--unmake Republican Party commitment to the New Deal Consensus. But in the short run Goldwaterism had other consequences: the damage it did to Republican congressional power were the only things that made the Great Society possible: the Johnson-era expansions of the social insurance state and the Nixon and post-Nixon-era expansions of the regulatory state were possible only on congressional foundations that had been created by Goldwater's Samson act directed against the Republican establishment.

To make possible the Great Society--and then to cheer when Ronald Reagan rolls back 10% of it--Goldwaterism was the greatest own-goal and act of political delusion by conservatives in the twentieth century.

Posted by DeLong at February 24, 2005 12:35 PM