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Liberalism Overthrown

June 2024
24min read

THIRTY YEARS AGO A HARD-FOUGHT gubernatorial campaign heralded the third great political upheaval of our century

IT WAS A FUNERAL TO REMEMBER. The rain had been pelting for hours when the mourners gathered in St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church, in the Sunset district, but now the skies cleared as four National Guard helicopters clattered overhead in a “missing man” formation ” as scores of dignitaries—governors and representatives, senators and aides from Sacramento and Washington, Los Angeles and New York—stared gravely at the casket, draped in the red and white state flag. It was February 17, 1996, and Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown, the liberal former governor of California, was being buried in San Francisco.

The mourners were burying more than a man; they were burying a political era. The decades-long liberal consensus that had begun with the New Deal had faded years before. But Brown’s passing offered friends and foes alike a chance to reflect upon that time.

As word of his death spread, the telephone at the Brown family home rang with calls from around the nation. Kathleen Kelly, one of Pat Brown’s ten grandchildren, walked outside the modest three-bedroom house in Benedict Canyon to address the reporters gathered in front. “My grandfather, I think, represented to so many people a compassion and a justice that we are just not seeing in this political era,” Kelly said. A political commentator named Sherry Bebitch Jeffe had been in New Hampshire covering the Republican presidential primary when she heard of Pat Brown’s death. “This place today,” she said, “is one million light-years away from where California politics and government were back then. Here I am following a group of men, including the incumbent, who are competing against everything that Pat Brown stood for … active government, government that could make civic life better for everyone. That is all under deconstruction right now, on all sides of the political spectrum.”

Why did liberalism fail? For the past thirty years that question has dominated many discussions of American politics, and the search for answers has become something of a national obsession. Conservative politicians, such as Newt Gingrich, tend to blame student radicals and pushy minorities for wanting too much too fast. Liberals generally either fault a white racist backlash or, when the issue is raised, act as if they were discussing sexual matters with their teenagers: They prefer to avoid the subject (remember Michael Dukakis in 1988?).


Scholars and journalists have also offered numerous explanations, and their studies of the civil rights movement, the Great Society, the New Left, and Vietnam have done much to answer the question, but most have missed a central reason: the rise as early as the 1960s of a well-organized, popular conservative movement bent on winning political power.

The best studies of the 1960s—Alien Matusow’s The Unraveling of America , John Morton Blum’s Years of Discord , and William Chafe’s The Unfinished Journey —pay little or no attention to the rise of the right, one of the most important developments of the decade. Instead, these books divide the politics of those years into neat categories, describing, in order, the triumph of New Deal and Great Society liberalism, left-wing challenges to liberalism, and the disintegration of the liberal coalition. If they mention conservatism at all, it is usually only after 1968, and the one serious study that deals with both liberals and conservatives—Thomas Byrne Edsall’s Chain Reaction —minimizes the role conservatives played in their own victories and argues that racial backlash was the main key to the rise of the right.

BROWN should have won in 1966: California’s economy was booming, and he was a popular incumbent.

PREVIOUS INTERPRETATIONS OF liberalism’s collapse are not wrong, but they are incomplete: None of them capture the complexity of the political transformations that took place in the 1960s. The decline of liberalism and the rise of the right were not, as many have suggested, two separate developments. Rather, they were inextricably intertwined, and to understand the sudden, dramatic shift, we need to examine how liberal failures and conservative successes worked hand in hand to reverse a long-standing political balance of power.

We also need to look back past the convulsions of the last thirty years and revisit a time that was so different- politically, ideologically, socially—from our own that it seems, as Pat’s son, Jerry, put it, “like a different country.” The time was 1966; the place, California. That year Pat Brown was being challenged by a bumptious political upstart from Southern California, Ronald Reagan.

Brown should have won. He should have won because he was a popular two-term incumbent, the economy was booming, migrants were thronging the West, hailing his state as the promised land, and he had accomplished more than any of his predecessors. In previous races he had defeated two of the Republican party’s political titans, the Senate minority whip William Knowland and former Vice President Richard Nixon. That last victory had earned him the nickname “the Giant Killer.”

And Ronald Reagan, his likely opponent in the 1966 general election, was no Richard Nixon. A fervent rightwinger, a mediocre actor, and, most encouraging, a political novice, Reagan seemed easy prey for the Giant Killer. Surely, the governor thought, his constituents would never put someone with such scant experience and such shallow, extreme views in charge of the most populous state in the nation, would never reject a liberal, progressive philosophy for an antiquated conservatism more appropriate to the nineteenth century. The forces of history seemed once again to be on his side.

Pat Brown was a Catholic, a Californian, and a career politician. Above all, he was a liberal. But he hadn’t always been one. Born in San Francisco in 1905, a year before the great earthquake razed the city, Edmund G. Brown early developed an interest in politics. In the seventh grade he delivered a “give me liberty or give me death” speech on behalf of World War I Liberty bonds so rousing that classmates started calling him Pat, short for Patrick Henry. The name stuck.

In 1928 Brown ran for the state assembly as a Calvin Coolidge Republican. Soundly defeated, he returned to his fledgling law practice in San Francisco. A few years later, as the Great Depression settled on the nation, he began to question the wisdom of his laissez-faire philosophy. His high school chum Matthew Tobriner (a future state supreme court justice) told Brown to wake up: FDR’s victory was no ordinary political event but the beginning of a new political era. Tobriner gave Brown copies of The New Republic and quoted the columnist Walter Lippmann on the need for economic reform. In 1934, with farm prices at record lows and twenty million Americans out of work, Pat Brown became a Roosevelt New Dealer.

The switch was not unusual. Like many young men of his generation, Brown had come to believe that the ideas of Coolidge, Harding, and Hoover held little hope for the unemployed millions. Those ideas, Brown said years later, represented “an appeal for human selfishness. … I never regretted the change, not for a minute.”

He had little reason to. As a moderate Democrat he built a political résumé second to none: In 1943 he was elected San Francisco district attorney, seven years later he became the state attorney general and earned a reputation as a tough law-and-order man, and in 1958 he became governor of California—just the second Democrat to hold that post in the twentieth century.

BROWN felt so sure he could beat Reagan that he connived to help Reagan get the Republican nomination.

ALTHOUGH HIS predecessors were virtually all Republicans, they were also, like him, liberals. Hiram Johnson, the progressive governor who dominated California politics from 1911 to 1917, was one of the great crusaders of the era; he rid the state of the corrupting influence of the Southern Pacific Railroad and won passage of such landmark political reforms as the referendum, recall, and initiative. During his tenure brothels were banned, racetrack gambling outlawed, workmen’s compensation laws enacted, and eight-hour days adopted. Earl Warren shared Johnson’s vision. Governor from 1943 to 1954—the longest tenure in state history—Warren built highways, housing, schools, prisons, mental health facilities, and parks, and in so doing met the needs of the three million new residents who moved to California during his incumbency.


But in California no one more incarnated the forces of liberalism than Pat Brown. He helped build the largest and most prestigious state university system in the country as well as the California water system, which each day brought two billion gallons of the precious liquid from the rainy north to the arid south. He won passage of fair-housing legislation, established a Fair Employment Practices Commission, reformed state labor laws, increased unemployment insurance, and expanded welfare benefits. He believed in the ability of government to improve the human condition—a central tenet of postwar liberalism —and he brought the state into unprecedented areas of California society.

“Think big,” Pat exhorted fellow Californians in his 1962 race against Richard Nixon. In the boom years of post-World War II America, many politicians thought big. But in vision and public works, none thought bigger than Pat Brown.

In early 1966 Brown felt so good about his chances against Ronald Reagan that he did what many politicians in his position would have done: He played dirty to help Reagan get the Republican nomination. George Christopher, the moderate Republican former mayor of San Francisco, who was challenging Reagan in the primary, had been convicted in 1940 of violating milk-pricing laws. It was a minor transgression and had done little damage to Christopher’s political career. Until 1966. The Brown campaign got wind of the scandal, and in the two months before the June primary Brown’s people spoon-fed the story to reporters. In early May the governor’s team hit pay dirt when the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson wrote two ferocious articles about the milkcontrol-law violation. “Pearson’s putrid piece… ,” one prominent Christopher supporter said, “can be laid right at the door step of Pat Brown’s political outhouse. Brown, of course, wants to … destroy George Christopher, and thus have Ronald Reagan nominated.” Don Bradley, one of Brown’s top campaign aides, responded: “Mr. Christopher is a cry baby. … George Christopher’s arrest record … [is a matter] of public record which Mr. Christopher has yet to explain adequately. Mr. Christopher has been ducking the truth for years.” It was a blow from which Christopher’s candidacy never recovered.

It was also a classic miscalculation. In the 1950s and 1960s liberal politicians and journalists dismissed conservatives as “kooks” and “crackpots” with no hope of winning political power. “Republicans,” a typical article read in 1966, “try to make the voters afraid of the world.” Right-wingers, another explained, liked to “complain about the twentieth century.” Pat Brown could not have agreed more. In 1964, during the fight over Proposition 14, a move to repeal the Brownendorsed Rumford Fair Housing Act, the governor described his conservative opponents as fascists: “There have been echoes in this state of another hate binge which began more than thirty years ago in a Munich beer hall. These echoes come from a minority of the angry, the frustrated, the fearful. They do not represent California or its people. But what they do represent—the spasm reaction of hatred—does exist not only in California but elsewhere in our nation and in our world.”

BERKELEY, October 1, 1964: the thirty-two-hour standoff launched a decade of student protest.

When Brown heard Reagan might oppose him, he was at once incredulous and delighted: “Ronald Reagan for Governor of California?” Brown wrote in 1970. “We thought the notion was absurd and rubbed our hands in gleeful anticipation of beating this politically inexperienced, right-wing extremist and aging actor in 1966.” In January 1965 one of Brown’s secretaries sent Jack Burby, his press secretary, an article predicting that Reagan would run for governor. “Bring him on,” Burby scribbled in the margin.

But before Brown could do battle with Reagan, he had to contend with Sam Yorty, the maverick mayor of Los Angeles, who was running against Brown in the Democratic primary. Yorty was the George Wallace of California politics, an acid-tongued conservative Democrat, who had become known for his scalding attacks on liberal elites. In early 1966 Yorty concentrated his fire on Pat Brown: The governor coddled leftwing radicals, did nothing to halt the proliferation of drugs, stood by while Communist agitators fomented riots on campus, and had lost touch with the common man.

FOR MANY, Watts and Berkeley reinforced the sense that disorder and immorality were taking over.

Worst of all, Brown had failed to crack down on black rioters in Watts. Imposing law and order, Yorty thundered, was the only way to quash the violence in South Central L.A. Yorty’s police chief backed him all the way. “We are interested,” Chief William Parker declared, “in maintaining order.” When Watts erupted, Parker explained the disorder this way: “One person throws a rock and then, like monkeys in a zoo, others started throwing rocks.” Yorty returned the favor to the chief posthumously when at Parker’s funeral in 1966 he crooned, “God may not be dead, but his finest representative on earth has just passed away.”

Berkeley was also a favorite subject of the mayor. During the campaign a reporter asked Yorty what he thought of a report on the situation there recently issued by a state senate committee. He hadn’t had a chance to analyze it, Yorty responded; then, said the San Francisco Chronicle , he “launched into a lengthy dissertation on ‘filth’ on the campus.”

There are times in American history when events are so unsettling, so disruptive to the normal patterns of social interaction, that they shake the political foundation to its core. In 1919 race riots, widespread labor unrest, the battle over women’s suffrage, and the rejection of Wilson’s cherished Versailles Treaty helped end two decades of progressive reform and usher in the new era of retrenchment that Warren G. Harding called a “return to normalcy.” Normalcy ended in 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt, with no firm ideas about how to govern, began to forge a new political coalition that brought workers, blacks, and Southern whites together in the belief that government had the capacity to improve their lives. And in 1966 the third great political upheaval of this century began.

IN CALIFORNIA THE NEW ERA MIGHT be said to have begun on October 1, 1964, when police at the University of California, Berkeley, arrested Jack Weinberg, a former student, for setting up a civil rights table on campus. The police were about to drive Weinberg off to jail when several hundred students surrounded their car. The standoff lasted for thirty-two hours, and it not only launched the Free Speech Movement but also marked the beginning of almost a decade of student protest. Ten months later, on a scorching summer day, the black ghetto of Watts some three hundred miles south of Berkeley exploded in violence. When the riots finally subsided, the statistics told the story: thirty-four dead, one thousand injured, four thousand arrested, two hundred million dollars in property damage, and sixteen thousand law enforcement officials deployed.

Watts and Berkeley were the two most visible issues in California in the mid-sixties, but there were plenty of others to reinforce the sense that disorder and immorality were taking over. In 1965, just one year after Californians had voted overwhelmingly to repeal Pat Brown’s Fair Housing Act, the state supreme court declared the repeal measure unconstitutional and reinstated the antidiscrimination law. At Berkeley protests against the Vietnam War popped up, and a shortlived Filthy Speech Movement, in which students took turns shouting “F—!” over loudspeakers in Sproul Plaza, raised the specter of “educational anarchy.” Residents read stories about LSD, saw photos of unkempt hippies parading the streets of San Francisco, and were told that their state had the good fortune to be producing 60 percent of the nation’s “booming smut trade.” One conservative activist vividly summed up many Californians’ feelings about the last: “This crud falls into the hands of teenagers and younger persons … and the worst stuff comes in books like ‘Seed of the Beast,’ which describes sexual intercourse between animals and humans, and ‘Queer Daddy,’ which contains vivid descriptions of almost every other kind of perversion. … The message … is that if you haven’t practiced homosexuality, you just haven’t lived.”

The polls showed that nine out of ten Californians disapproved of antiwar demonstrations; they identified “crime, drugs, juvenile delinquency” as the most pressing issue confronting their state; “racial problems” came in second; “student discipline at the University of California,” sixth.

Berkeley was a particular sore point. Tuition was free there, and the university was widely seen as the crown jewel in the state’s educational system. So when The Saturday Evening Post —that citadel of middle-class values—reported that “on the sunny, seemingly serene Berkeley campus, rebellion is fashionable and it is widely believed that half the student body has experimented with marijuana,” taxpayers were upset. Berkeley Citizens United, a local conservative group, issued a mock U.C. curriculum in which the entering class could look forward to taking “Riot 101, Russian Language 101, and Dirty Books 101,” while sophomores were required to devote two minutes per week to “Personal Hygiene” and eleven hours to “Draft Dodging, Troop Train Delaying, and Composition (4-Letter Words).” Those fortunate enough to make it to their junior years could take “Police Car Sit-in 331, Car Burning Lab, and Public Speaking Lab (Yelling and Shouting).”


AT OTHER TIMES—SAY, IN THE 1950s—Sam Yorty might have come across as a mere hooligan, flinging wild political charges that bore little relation to the larger scene. But in the mid1960s his attacks on the liberal establishment rang true for increasing numbers of Californians.

In the early weeks of the primary Brown simply ignored Yorty. Then, when the mayor seemed to gain in the polls, he went on the attack: “This little man has flipped his lid. Yorty thinks everyone is against him. … [The] psychiatric term for this … [is] paranoia—and I think this is the best way to describe the Mayor of Los Angeles.” But Brown never campaigned vigorously against Yorty; he dismissed him and saved his money for the general election.

When the primary returns came in on June 7, Brown was shaken. He had won, of course, but it was a near thing. Yorty had received almost a million votes, 38 percent of the Democratic total. One thing was immediately clear: If Yorty’s supporters decided to vote for Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee, in the general election, Brown would probably lose. Though a massive defection of voters from one party to another was unlikely, the governor was worried; he had to keep Yorty Democrats in the party fold.

The California Democratic party’s leaders gathered less than a week after the primary to discuss their strategy for the general election, and they came away from the meeting confident that liberalism was alive and well. Reagan, who had walloped Christopher by more than seven hundred thousand votes, had “got a free ride” during the primaries, Robert L. Coate, the Democratic state chairman, announced. That would soon change, Eugene Wyman, California’s Democratic National Committeeman, predicted, when the actor was exposed as a “staunch defender of the far right … a disgrace to the Republican Party and a threat to the politics of moderation which has given this state wise and able leadership in the past two decades.”

In 1964 Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic party had succeeded in painting Barry Goldwater as an extremist who would jeopardize national security and gut popular federal programs. In 1966 Pat Brown and his Democratic supporters thought they could do the same thing to another fierce conservative who despised most government involvement in the marketplace and took strong lawand-order stands on crime, social unrest, and immorality.

BROWN was shaken: If Yorty’s supporters decided to vote for the GOP nominee, Brown would probably lose.

But by the mid1960s Ronald Reagan was not, nor did he appear to be, an extremist. Reagan spent much of the 1950s sharpening his conservative philosophy as a spokesman for General Electric; he travelled from plant to plant, promoted the company’s image, and spoke to workers and businessmen about the evils of high taxes and big government. “The Speech,” as his standard talk came to be called, interspersed lively and entertaining stories with political tidbits about the wonders of the free-enterprise system.


The year 1964 proved pivotal for both Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement. Having already become a well-known figure in California right-wing circles, he agreed to serve as state co-chairman of Citizens for Goldwater. His big moment came in the closing days of Goldwater’s campaign. In a last-ditch effort to sway voters, Reagan went on national television to speak on behalf of Goldwater. The speech, “A Time for Choosing,” did little to help the Republican presidential candidate, but conservatives found Reagan’s performance so stirring that they immediately hailed him as one of the rising stars of the Republican right.

Holmes Tuttle and Henry Salvatori, two wealthy Southern California businessmen, liked what they saw so much that they asked Reagan to run for governor in 1966. Don’t just say no, Tuttle pleaded; take some time to think about it. Reagan agreed, and the Friends of Reagan, the campaign’s fundraising arm, was organized. From the outset the candidate had the backing of many wealthy Angelenos. More important, he had shrewd political advisers who thought they knew how a conservative could win the governorship. Stu Spencer and Bill Roberts, California’s top political consultants, advised Reagan to avoid illtempered remarks and to work with moderate Republicans; they designated him a “citizenpolitician” and started calling his reform program the Creative Society, in hopes of blunting voters’ fears of conservatives as out-of-touch naysayers; and they hired two behavioral psychologists, Kenneth Holden and Stanley Plog, to help Reagan with the issues. “He knew zero about California when we came in, I mean zero,” Plog recalled, but Reagan was a quick study and knew how to convey his ideas in a clear and forceful manner.

He was also careful to avoid the more radical ideas and statements that had so harmed other conservatives. Goldwater, during his presidential campaign, had threatened to “lob [missiles] into the men’s room at the Kremlin.” During his race Reagan spoke of a better California. “Our problems are many,” he said in the speech announcing his candidacy, “but our capacity for solving them is limitless.” When pressed about his support from radical right-wingers, Reagan explained that they were buying his philosophy, not the other way around.

THE ONLY TIME HE APPEARED to be a genuine fire-breathing radical came in March 1966, during a debate with George Christopher in front of the Negro Republican Assembly. Ben Peery, a black Los Angeles businessman, asked Reagan how he could solicit black votes after having opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When Christopher expressed similar doubts, Reagan, who had been under attack all day, threw down his note cards. “I resent the implication that there is any bigotry in my nature,” he shouted. “Don’t anyone ever imply I lack integrity. I will not stand silent and let anyone imply that.” Then he stormed out of the debate, muttering, “I’ll get that S.O.B.”

Holden, who was in the audience, watched appalled, then managed to reach Reagan at home and pleaded with him to return to the event: “Why don’t you come back and have a drink with the delegates? It will ease a lot of hurt feelings.” Reagan eventually did so, but his advisers were aghast. Nothing frightened them more than the charge of extremism. The issue had helped sink Goldwater in ’64, and it could do the same to Reagan in ’66. Another outburst, they warned, could doom his campaign and end his political career. Reagan promised that it would not happen again.

It didn’t. In August 1966 California Democrats released a twenty-nine-page paper, “Ronald Reagan, Extremist Collaborator.” Reagan was not a moderate Republican, it claimed, but actually a dangerous radical, his campaign was “riddled” with members of the John Birch Society, he accepted money from extremist groups, and he opposed government programs like Social Security and federal aid to education. Serious charges, but they didn’t stick. When Democrats presented Reagan with a press release claiming that Spencer-Roberts—his own political consultants!—had once identified him as an “extremist,” the candidate coolly called the move a “diversionary tactic to avoid campaigning on the issues.” In the end Reagan just seemed too good-looking, too upbeat, and too witty to be a member of any lunatic fringe.

REAGAN called Brown “soft” on everything: black rioters, campus degenerates, drug dealers, hippies.

He had, in short, all the markings of a candidate with a finely tuned political campaign, something that conservatives, for all their ideological fervor, were unaccustomed to. He also represented a movement that, by the mid-sixties, was hell-bent on winning political power.

After the election was over, the Los Angeles Times reported: “Don Bradley, the governor’s campaign chairman, said Brown was the victim of a national movement toward conservatives that resulted from voter resistance to Negro gains.” Race, of course, has almost always played a central role in American politics. In the eighteenth century the Constitutional Convention nearly disbanded over the issue of slavery; less than a century later the question re-emerged with such force that it took six hundred thousand American lives to settle the issue; in this century the great black migrations from the rural South to the urban North helped thrust civil rights to the center of national debate; and in the 1960s the growing disillusionment with the black struggle for freedom gave conservatives a powerful issue with which to pry lower-middle-class Americans from the Democratic coalition.

Reagan’s campaign was no exception. His stances on fair housing, urban riots, crime, and welfare all appealed to whites increasingly resentful (and fearful) of blacks and members of other minorities who seemed to be getting “special privileges.” Race was a central issue. But it was not, as some have suggested, the only one. Rather it fitted into a larger set of ideas about the iniquities of big government. The two issues were so intertwined that to understand Reagan’s campaign —and the rise of the right—we must understand how the issue of race fitted in with and reinforced conservatives’ broad antigovernment message.

Throughout the campaign Reagan repeatedly charged that the bureaucratic welfare state coddled minorities, raised middle-class taxes to meet the growing costs of welfare, threatened individual liberty, and failed to impose order on the small but dangerous numbers of radicals, dissidents, and criminals. In 1966 events helped reinforce Reagan’s ideas.

NO ISSUE WAS BIGGER THAN public morality—law and order—and Reagan rarely wasted an opportunity to expound on liberal shortcomings in this area. Berkeley, much to his campaign’s delight, stayed in the news throughout 1966. In the first week of May the state senate Sub-Committee on Un-American Activities released a long-awaited report on the University of California. A few days later Reagan appeared at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and explained before a cheering throng that he had not yet seen that report; then, suddenly, he whipped out a different one on Berkeley, from the Alameda County district attorney’s office (where the future Attorney General Ed Meese worked), and said, “The incidents are so bad, so contrary to our standards of decent human behavior, that I cannot recite them to you from this platform in detail.” But he went right on to describe—in detail- a dance at Berkeley sponsored by an antiwar group.

“The total crowd was in excess of 3,000, including a number of less-thancollege-age juveniles,” Reagan began. “Three rock ’n’ roll bands were in the center of the gymnasium playing simultaneously all during the dance, and all during the dance movies were shown on two screens at the opposite ends of the gymnasium. These movies were the only lights in the gym proper. They consisted of color sequences that gave the appearance of different-colored liquid spreading across the screen, followed by shots of men and women[;] on occasion, shots were of the men’s and women’s nude torsos, and persons twisted and gyrated in provocative and sensual fashion. The young people were seen standing against the walls or lying on the floors and steps in a dazed condition with glazed eyes consistent with the condition of being under the influence of narcotics. Sexual misconduct was blatant.”

This moral decline, Reagan continued, had begun in 1964, “when the so-called free-speech advocates, who in truth have no appreciation for freedom, were allowed to assault and humiliate the symbol of law and order, a policeman, on the campus; and that was the moment when the ringleaders should have been taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the university once and for all.” The audience cheered.

Almost all the issues, in fact, fitted in with Reagan’s promise to restore order. On Vietnam? Reagan proposed simply that we “go in there and do it.” Antiwar demonstrators? Charge them with treason. Urban riots? Just invoke the law. Crime? Lock criminals in jail, and don’t handicap the police.

Meanwhile Reagan used racial issues to draw attention to what he saw as the dangerous excesses of big government. His position on California’s Fair Housing Act was typical. The law, he charged, embodied the dangers of an expansive and encroaching government. Yes, he said, he despised bigotry just as much as the next guy, but in the end the government had no right to tell people how to sell or rent their property. In 1966 welfare and taxes also became hot political issues. There were, Reagan said at one campaign stop after another, people moving to California not for the opportunity to work but for the chance to get on welfare: “You have to live in California for five years to be governor, but you can get on welfare in twenty-four hours.”


THROUGHOUT THE CAMPAIGN Brown was on the defensive. Reagan called him “soft” on black rioters, campus degenerates, drug dealers, and hippies. As Berkeley imploded, Brown seemed indecisive. During the Free Speech Movement, for example, when students occupied Sproul Hall, he hesitated before calling in the cops to arrest them as trespassers. A local radio station interspersed its coverage of the arrests with a commencement address Brown had given at the University of Santa Clara a few years earlier. “Thank God,” the governor had said that day, “for the spectacle of students picketing. … At last we’re getting somewhere. The colleges have become boot camps for citizenship, and citizen-leaders are marching out of them. … Let us stand up for our students and be proud of them.”

Pat Brown was a decent man. He cared about people, and he governed with the hope of improving their individual lives. But his sympathy for civil rights and student grievances and his concern for the growing urban poor gave voters the impression that he had encouraged many of the disruptive elements that had thrown California into its present turmoil. Even when he took decisive action—like calling out the National Guard to quell riots in San Francisco and Oakland—people wondered how he had let things get out of control in the first place. What, voters asked Reagan during the campaign, would he do “about those bastards at Berkeley”? More, he invariably replied, than Pat Brown ever would.

Nor could Brown count on the support of the more liberal members of his party. The Vietnam War and urban riots saw to that. As a staunch supporter of President Johnson’s Vietnam policy, the governor had an unprecedented problem on his hands in 1966: Si Casady, the head of the California Democratic Council (CDC), the party’s largest volunteer organization in the state, was encouraging young men to burn their draft cards. Under pressure from the White House, Brown forced Casady to resign. But the problem didn’t go away. Students who in other times could have been counted on to hand out leaflets and knock on doors for the Democratic nominee continued to protest the war, and even its more moderate opponents had trouble getting excited about re-electing a man so strongly identified with the policymakers in Washington.

The social upheavals of the early and mid-sixties had transformed the political climate. By 1966 Reagan’s antigovernment ideology had come to appear moderate, rational, and a force for order. Brown, by contrast, seemed allied to the radical left and the increasingly militant civil rights leadership. The governor admitted himself that he was caught in a “political vise” between a growing left-wing movement that attacked liberalism for not going far enough and a conservative revival promising, among other things, to restore order. It was not a good position to be in, because in 1966 the political center—which, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once put it, is “vital” to the preservation of freedom—collapsed.

During the desultory final days of the race, his lead gone, Pat Brown remained uncomprehending. “Why, oh why, my friends,” he pleaded, “would you turn this state over to a man who has never fought before a city council or a board of supervisors?” At a night rally in San Bernardino, when the electricity failed, Brown said, “They can cut off the electricity, but they can’t shut up the greatest governor California has ever had.”

ON NOVEMBER 8, 1966, REA- gan beat Brown by almost a million votes. Four years earlier, when Brown had defeated Nixon, the former Vice President, in a spasm of indignation and anger, had lit into the journalists arrayed before him. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” Brown was determined to avoid repeating that fiasco. When the votes were finally tabulated, he went before his deflated supporters and thanked California “for giving me eight wonderful, marvelous years.” When he finished, his advisers suggested he leave through a rear exit. Instead the governor stepped down from the podium and plunged into the crowd of loyal supporters. Then he walked out to his limousine, climbed inside, and started to cry.

Sam Yorty had other plans that night. The maverick mayor had refused to endorse either candidate during the campaign, but as soon as Reagan’s victory was assured, he left little doubt about where his sympathies lay; he hurried over to the hotel where the victory celebration was under way and congratulated the governor-elect.

Individual communities also told the story that day. Norwalk was one of the many Democratic working-class suburbs that had sprouted in recent years along the Pacific coast, and on Election Day 1966 Norwalk was one of many Southern California Democratic communities that voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan.

Norwalk’s rejection of Pat Brown is, on one level, strange. Three out of four voters were registered Democrats, and residents had traditionally favored liberal government programs like Social Security and workmen’s compensation. And the government had done much to ensure the city’s economic well-being; many residents worked at nearby defense and aerospace plants, and the Metropolitan State Hospital employed fourteen hundred men and women.

Yet on another level Norwalk’s support for Reagan was not strange at all. The city had been conceived in a revolt against government. Like those of many nearby bedroom communities, Norwalk’s residents resented the Los Angeles board of supervisors; simple street repairs sometimes required weeks of fighting with the county bureaucracy. The people of Norwalk wanted to control their own affairs, and in 1957 they won a charter from the county and incorporated. By the mid-sixties their grievances with government had reached the boiling point: Taxes were too high, the welfare state seemed out of control, the fair housing law was raising fears of lower property values and higher crime rates (in 1966 only three black families lived in the town), and the counterculture, the new left, minorities, and liberals seemed to have dedicated themselves to the common purpose of flouting the values that Norwalk residents held dear. Government had become a remote institution out of touch with the needs of ordinary citizens.

WHY DID CALIFORNIANS revolt against liberalism? Most studies of the sixties suggest that liberalism and conservatism were two separate, isolated political movements whose paths did not cross until the end of the decade, when liberals were already in retreat. Most books on the politics of this decade focus on some aspect of the American left: the civil rights movement, the counterculture, the antiwar movement. Studies of liberalism, of which there are surprisingly few, tend to explain the demise of the New Deal coalition as the result of internal weaknesses: failure in Vietnam and the limitations of the Great Society reforms. The few detailed studies of modern conservatism (which only recently has been recognized as a serious political movement worthy of scholarly attention) similarly emphasize changes within the movement—the growing number of right-wing organizations, the repudiation of extremists, and conservatives’ use of social issues—to explain the right’s success.

THE governor was in a “political vise” between a growing left-wing movement and a conservative revival.

These accounts are important, but they don’t explain—at least not entirely- how conservatism replaced liberalism as the dominant force in American political life. It is true that student protests, urban riots, pornography, and antipathy to civil rights did much to discredit liberalism. Liberal Democrats, after all, were the party in power, and on their watch things seemed to fall apart.

But liberalism failed for two other, lesser-known reasons. It collapsed first because the white working and middle classes, men and women in communities like Norwalk, had come to mistrust —and at times despise—what they had held in high regard since the 1930s: centralized government power. In the thirties liberals had used government to establish a lifeline for the millions of Americans left bewildered and impoverished by the Great Depression, but by the 1960s unprecedented prosperity, partly the product of liberal reforms, had given rise to a new middle class that was hostile to high taxes and to many of the social programs they financed. This newly minted middle class expected liberals to denounce immorality and social disorder, to speak out for traditional values, and to stop paying so much attention to the dispossessed—the poor, the minorities, the radicals. On all these counts this restive majority found liberals wanting. The white backlash was the most visible, and perhaps the most potent, issue feeding the new antigovernment mood. But it was also part of a larger revolt, a much deeper disillusionment with liberal government and those who championed it.

BY 1966 Reagan’s antigovernment ideology had come to seem moderate, rational, and a force for order.

Liberalism failed also because—and this is rarely acknowledged —conservatives had transformed themselves into powerful political contenders armed with a devastating critique of their opponents. In the mid-sixties the conservative movement emerged as a smoothly running political machine; it had repudiated extremism, developed a more positive political platform that stressed the efficacy of individual initiative, and found a middle class receptive to its message. By the mid-sixties the right was able successfully to portray liberals, the supposed champions of the common man, as elitists who had lost touch with the needs and aspirations of ordinary Americans.

The campaign between Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan shows that we can’t understand the failure of liberalism without understanding the rise of the right. Brown’s and Reagan’s careers were not always linked, but their fates were. Brown became governor at a time when conservatives were just beginning to find a coherent political voice; his policies helped galvanize the movement, and his failure to resolve the social crises of the decade paved the way for Reagan’s victory in 1966, a victory that came in part from years of conservative organizing.

Thirty years ago this November Pat Brown’s political career—and the liberalism it epitomized—came to an abrupt end. As a politician Brown had his flaws: He wasn’t terribly charismatic, he was not a man of powerful intelligence, he had been in office eight long years, and he looked bad on television. But in 1966 he possessed one crippling defect: He was a liberal. And when Pat Brown went down, so did the philosophy that he had clung to throughout his adult life. It has never really recovered.

The Legacy of the Sixties

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