Home » Uncategorized » Embodying Arizona, Invigorating Conservatism, Changing a Nation (For Better or Worse): Barry Goldwater’s Rhetoric of Rugged Individualism

Embodying Arizona, Invigorating Conservatism, Changing a Nation (For Better or Worse): Barry Goldwater’s Rhetoric of Rugged Individualism

Text Widget

This is a text widget. The Text Widget allows you to add text or HTML to your sidebar. You can use a text widget to display text, links, images, HTML, or a combination of these. Edit them in the Widget section of the Customizer.

John Hammerback, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus of Communication

California State University, East Bay

Image of Barry Goldwater campaigning in March, 1964, used under Creative Commons.

If ever an influential public figure embodied the spirit of Arizona, that person is Barry Morris Goldwater, and if ever a political leader relied heavily on public address, again it’s Goldwater. In large part through an extraordinarily intensive rhetorical campaign, in part a result of providence, he projected the persona of a rugged individualist. His personal image both reflected the state’s frontier heritage, incarnating dominant qualities of those early Arizonans who tamed the wild frontier and wide-open spaces filled with deserts and mountains, and mirrored the personal qualities of contemporary Arizonans, characteristically a self-reliant people who lived informally, lacked pretense, valued self-reliance and freedom to do it their way, and collectively embraced a conservative ideology that called for personal responsibility and strength necessary to live with a minimum of governmental interference.

After Senator (R, AZ) Goldwater decisively lost his presidential bid in 1964, he continued to be an important influence in Republican politics up through the 1980s. His outspoken advocacy of his right-wing principles, sometimes in disagreement with the mainstream of his Republican party, eventually earned him respect across the political spectrum and a hallowed place in the history of conservative politics in America. By the end of his career he was seen as a straight-talking man of unshakeable integrity who stayed true to his ideals. Although he was in many ways a maverick and frequently accused of looking backward rather than forward, he has been credited with moving the Republican party rightward, paving the way for the elections of President Ronald Reagan and a host of other conservative officeholders, and giving life and energy to right-wing politics and policies previously considered moribund.

As a genuinely rhetorical phenomenon, Goldwater’s story invites attention from students of communication and perhaps particularly from those in Arizona. What in the message and man accounted for the zealous support in the first half of the 1960s that only he among conservatives could wield? What inventional resources did he display that could and would aid later right-wing leaders and want-to-be leaders? To address these questions, I will offer a short, informal version of what my research on Goldwater tells me. For those who want more details, see my articles on Goldwater in the journals cited  below plus a chapter, written in collaboration with Richard J. Jensen, in American Orators of the Twentieth Century: Critical Studies and Sources.

A brief overview of my rhetorical analysis: Goldwater communicated a personal image, substantive message, and implied audience that merged to create multiple and overlapping lines of identification with audiences; their identification with him reconstituted many of them and persuaded others, often reordered their qualities of character so that they could enact his agenda for them by campaigning optimistically, tirelessly, and selflessly for his election. The primary sources of his substantive messages and personae can be located in his heritage, life, and appearance, and in the content, organization, style, and (in his speeches) delivery of his discourse. In every case, what these sources told audiences comports snugly with the ethos of Arizona.

Now, to the campaign that brought Goldwater national attention and prominence. Without the usual means to political power, that is, without legislative accomplishments, a dominant political network, millions upon millions of dollars of personal wealth, or a large constituency, Republican Senator Goldwater entered the 1960s as a relatively insignificant player on the national stage. An unflinching conservative during a period dominated by liberal politics, he seemed destined for obscurity. His rhetorical efforts would turn this picture upside down.

From 1960 to 1964 he embarked on an unceasing campaign of words, giving more than 200 speeches each year, first as a fund-raiser for  the GOP, later as a candidate for the presidential nomination and then for president. Audiences read as well as heard him: He wrote a column carried in 200 newspapers three times each week and authored a best-selling book, The Conscience of a Conservative. Goldwater’s effects on audiences soon caught the attention of journalists and other close observers.  In 1963 Tom Wicker, for example, reported in the New York Times that the Arizonan was “easily the most sought-after and most traveled Republican speaker, the biggest recipient of Republican applause at any party meeting.” The once-obscure Senator seemingly had created among conservatives something believed impossible at that time: Excitement, optimism, zestful energy, a willingness to work hard and long for what had often been seen as a stodgy, elitist, selfish, and dying ideology. Perhaps the most striking example of the power of the “amateur political machine” he inspired was his pivotal victory over Nelson Rockefeller in the California primary, which Goldwater won despite his opponent outspending him $3.5 million to $1.5 million, and almost all Republican leaders or major newspapers endorsing Rockefeller. Congressional Quarterly noted that “credit for Goldwater’s victory was given to his large army of enthusiastic workers who manned the polls and got out the vote.” He went on to win the nomination on the first ballot at the GOP convention. In the presidential election, however, incumbent Lyndon Johnson handily defeated him, notwithstanding the all-out efforts of the relatively small group of true believers fully committed to Goldwater and his cause.

In both his nomination and presidential campaigns, Goldwater attracted supporters who were far more ardent than were followers of other conservative leaders of that period. In an article in the Quarterly Journal of Speech I offered an analysis of his rhetorical dynamics, focusing on Goldwater’s Burkean identification with four not-mutually-exclusive groups who constituted his core audience: college students, Americans frustrated with complex problems and desiring simple solutions; traditional conservatives; and the far right. Years later in an article in the Southern Communication Journal I extended my study into his presidential campaign and refined my analysis, applying a three-part model (substantive message, first or personal persona, and implied auditor or second persona) to analyze how his discourse changed the very character of his audiences.

Goldwater’s three primary themes and arguments allied with those themes form the center of his substantive message from 1960-64 and remained consistent during most of his long career: Government must be reduced to enable humans to be free and self-reliant, private property must be protected, and communism must be opposed and confronted boldly and strongly. He added three appeals to form a complementary psychological context for his themes: patriotism, simplified answers and issues, and unhappiness with the status quo. These themes and appeals created an overarching substantive message of rugged individualism.

Partly a result of his good fortune or providence, Goldwater’s persona or image matched his themes. He appeared to be self-reliant, dynamic, persevering, bold, brave, natural, active, and uncompromisingly committed to principles, the rugged individual who could live without undo assistance from government, who could prosper from the fruits of one’s own labor and should be allowed to keep whatever is created and owned, and who could confront communism with strength and conviction. These personal qualities were communicated to audiences through Goldwater’s discourse as well as through sources beyond the words from his own lips and pen.

Goldwater’s speeches and writings told much of his story, sometimes explicitly, often implicitly. His blunt and unadorned style, for example, or his straightforward and slightly unpolished delivery might cause some teachers of rhetoric and public speaking to recommend refinements and adaptations. Yet by appearing honest, uncomplicated, bold, and direct, he depicted himself as representative of the values of Arizona’s and the nation’s frontier forbears and, in Goldwater’s rendition of reality, of contemporary citizens who needed these qualities and more to survive and thrive. Goldwater’s substantive message, meanwhile, clearly underscored the need for a rugged individualist leader to carry out his themes, an uncompromising figure reminiscent of our past when issues and lives seemed simpler, and (second persona) for rugged individualists to carry out his agenda for change. 

Goldwater’s image as a rugged individualist was reinforced by his heritage, life, and appearance. His campaigns publicized his lineage in an Arizona pioneer family who had helped to tame the wild frontier and make its fortune; and identified his own adventurous, bold, and active life as shown, for example, by his experiences as a jet-airplane pilot, explorer, ham-radio operator, and race car driver. Adding a final brush stroke to his portrait was his trim, tanned, athletic appearance, made so by conscious exercise and diet as well as by fortuitous genes.

The story above offers an explanation of how Goldwater created a relatively small but highly influential audience who would see in themselves some of the personal qualities attributed to Goldwater in his campaign’s discourse. Many members of his audiences took on reformulated definitions of self that mirrored what they saw in their leader; consequently they slid easily into the mold of the ideal audience that Goldwater presented. As I wrote elsewhere, “the completed rhetorical transformation left audiences indistinguishable from their leader in many ways. They were optimistic, active, bold, energetic, positive, willing to take an unpopular stand for a moral issue and in possession of simple truths.” This rhetorical reformulation, I have contended, explains how he seemingly came out of nowhere to win the presidential nomination. Yet Goldwater’s story of rhetorical success does not end there. Contesting an early view of his career as a rhetorical failure because of his failure to expand his far-right ideology during the 1964 presidential election, several scholars more recently have taken a long-range view. Among the newer interpretations: “what [President Ronald] Reagan learned so well from Goldwater’s experience was the power of image” [Robert Allen Goldberg, Barry Goldwater]; and, Reagan’s “ongoing narrative celebrates extraordinary qualities that mark Goldwater’s heroism: his courage, his wisdom, his commitment to his convictions, his grit” [Kathryn M. Olson, Communication Quarterly, 1995]. In short, the Arizonan left a potent inventional legacy, demonstrating how conservatives could be unified and animated to act out qualities needed to win elections and invigorate an ideology—qualities quite unlike those that had usually been associated with the right in American politics. It is at least plausible that Goldwater contributed mightily to the subsequent rise of the right that changed America’s political landscape, for better or for worse, even to our present day. What Arizonan has relied on rhetorical discourse to leave deeper imprints on our history and culture, imprints that lead straight back to Arizona’s history and culture?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: