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Rick Santorum: The Barry Goldwater of the 21st Century

Barry Goldwater has the unique distinction of being the most important loser in modern politics. After his failed 1964 bid for the White House, his conservative platform worked its way into a position of dominance in the Republican party, eventually leading to the landslide victory of Ronald Reagan.

The American political landscape is frequently defined in terms of pendulum-like swings between dominance of left and right ideologies and attitudes towards government.

And, after milquetoast nominee after milquetoast nominee running the primary gambit on the right, it’s time to ask, has the next Goldwater moment come?

The 2012 election cycle saw the unlikely rise of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum from dark horse socially conservative candidate to winner of the all-important Iowa caucus. Santorum, a social conservative, thought subject to a media interrogation that would have made Torquemada proud, would go on to win 11 primary states before dropping out to attend to the health of his youngest daughter.

Could Santorum have ultimately gone on to win the election? It is, of course, impossible to say. However, this may be an ancillary detail to a larger political truth.

Where Santorum stood alone as a true conservative in the 2012 race, he is joined this cycle by a bevy of right-wing candidates, representing exponential growth in conservative messaging compared to the last cycle.

Where the trend in 2012 was towards moderation and centricity, ostensibly to earn the all-important independent vote, candidates this cycle are actually scrambling to produce conservative credentials, or spin their actions into something that looks to be anti-establishment.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz labels the Constitution as his standard on his campaign website. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul claims to be running to “restore liberty to ourselves and future generations.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio highlights the family as the most important part of society. Jeb Bush, though not an official candidate, positions his Right to Rise PAC as an opportunity “to move up the income ladder based on merit, hard work and earned success.”

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All these are examples of traditional conservative messaging. And, where, even as recently as the 2014 midterm elections, messages such as these were labelled as being too divisive and a danger to Republican victory, they are now becoming the early standard of the 2016 race.

Santorum, then, really ought to be looked at as a Goldwater for the 21st century. Where his 2012 rival candidates sought to distance themselves from conservative “extremism,” Santorum braved a faux media storm and rode an unlikely wave to early success.

True, Santorum differs from Goldwater in two significant ways. He did not lose, he withdrew, and he did so at a much earlier stage of the electoral cycle.

However, the fact that some part of his messaging resonated with enough of the GOP’s voting populace is significant. It was a channel for the frustrations for conservatives in the populace at a time when the GOP and the media told them they were “whacko birds.”

The 2014 election was a wave for the right. Yet, despite a clarion voicing of desire to see government adopt more limited stances, the Republican leadership has continued to blunder their way through legislation, continuing to disparage their conservative members and ultimately frittering away every advantage they’ve had.

At this early stage of the game, especially now that the advent of the Internet and the Citizens United decision have made it easier for average people to participate and influence elections, conservatism seems poised to dominate the presidential debate, making another 1980s style right-wing victory seem likely.

Rick Santorum, rather than being laughed off as an unserious candidate without policy distinction, should be given some credit in helping to make this possible.

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About Katherine Revello

A recent graduate of the University of Maine, where she majored in journalism and political science, Katherine Revello is an aspiring political commentator. Her focuses include theory, the philosophy of money and populism. Currently, she is a graduate student at Villanova University. She is the founder of The Politics of Discretion, a blog dedicated to advancing her philosophy of discretionism. Follow her on Twitter: @MrsWynandPapers