Northern Illinois University Press


The Center Cannot Hold

The 1960 Presidential Election and the Rise of Modern Conservatism

Laura Jane Gifford

“An important, engaging study.”—Timothy Thurber, Virginia Commonwealth University

“Full of precious research gems, The Center Cannot Hold casts new light on presidential politics in 1960 and the rightward shift that was already occurring in the Republican Party at the time, setting the stage for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.”—Donald T. Critchlow, author of The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History

“By examining the 1960 election from various perspectives, Laura Jane Gifford has contributed significantly to conservative historiography. Her easy style makes the book accessible to the general as well as the academic audience.”—Mary C. Brennan, Texas State University–San Marcos

Most historians agree that, by the end of the 1960s, the conservative branch of the Republican Party had largely taken control of party direction. The “Reagan Revolution” of 1980 secured the GOP for conservatives, and while the events of the 2008 election may prompt considerable soulsearching, the party of Lincoln has maintained an undeniably conservative ideological orientation for almost 30 years. Too often, scholars have regarded the process of conservative transformation as a foregone conclusion. Historian Laura Gifford offers an innovative examination of the 1960 presidential election that restores an essential sense of contingency to the process.

In the years prior to 1960, the GOP could have taken its agenda from a number of sources and pursued a number of directions. By the end of the 1960 campaign, however, Republican liberals had lost the battle over the party’s future, and thereafter conservatives would take the lead in formulating GOP policy. The initial establishment of control over the party’s future direction marked the first step toward the culmination of modern conservatism in Reagan’s election. While liberals and conservatives were equally optimistic about their futures in the Republican Party in January 1960, by December a fundamental shift in power had taken place.

The Center Cannot Hold provides an analysis of interactions between three key party leaders—liberal Nelson Rockefeller, conservative Barry Goldwater, and moderate Richard Nixon—and six key constituencies: liberals, African Americans, conservative intellectuals, youth, Southerners, and ethnic Americans. Gifford’s study of these interactions demonstrates that conservatives successfully used grassroots organizations to develop networks that could push the Republican Party in a rightward direction. Furthermore, conservative leaders responded to their supporters more effectively than did liberal and moderate leaders. Ultimately, individuals and groups possessed the means to alter the shape of the American party system.

(2009) 252 pp., 14 illus.
ISBN 978-0-87580-404-0
cloth $32.95 t

Laura Jane Gifford is an adjunct professor of history at George Fox University, Western Oregon University, and Warner Pacific College.

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-404-0
The Center Cannot Hold $32.95