In 1980, confidence in the American economy and government hit rock bottom. Looking for a change and the promise of a better future, voters turned to Ronald Reagan for answers. Reagan was a good communicator. He was funny and offered an optimistic vision for America. However, his election was a result of more than just his engaging personality and outlook.
Reagan was the first president who was supported by what became known as the New Right, a group of people who had very different beliefs about America and its government. Their message was clear. Government had become too big. Taxes were high and needed to be cut to stimulate growth and investment. Government programs that had been part of the New Deal and Great Society needed to be trimmed down to size. Hippies, women’s rights advocates, teenagers engaged in premarital sex, lewd music and abortion rights supporters were ruining America’s moral character. Military spending needed to be increased to fix the degenerating state of the American war machine. The United States was still the largest superpower in the world with the best system of government and it was time to go back to the days when America was respected in the world and Americans showed some respect for themselves.
These sentiments were felt by many in 1980. But what gave them the power to override older ideas? The New Deal and Great Society had been enormously popular. Programs like Social Security, Medicare and Welfare were all popular. People had been enthusiastic about the Civil Rights Movement and had wanted change during the 1960s and 1970s. Why did they turn their back on those feelings?
Could it have been the economy? Perhaps it was that reformers had tried to make too many changes too quickly. Or, perhaps Reagan and his supporters were simply better leaders and did a better job of selling their point of view in the marketplace of ideas.
What do you think? Why did America turn away from liberalism?
THE NEW RIGHT
To understand the move from liberalism to conservativism it is important to understand what these two terms mean and the other names people use to describe them.
When looking at the world, and government especially, some people see problems and think that everyone should join together to use their collective power to make change. These people are liberals, and in their view, the best way to join together is through the power of government. For example, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided that poverty was a problem Americans could solve. To do this, he increased taxes and then used the money for programs like college loans and welfare. By paying taxes, everyone contributed to working toward a solution that no one could have solved individually. Because these ideas require the government to be involved in people’s lives and to take more of Americans’ money, the liberal approach is called big government. In the past century, Democrats have been the liberal party. Another way to describe them is to say that they are on the left. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Barack Obama’s stimulus are two other examples of liberal, big government, left wing solutions in action.
An entirely different approach is conservatism. Conservatives think that people know best what to do with their money and that they will make good choices about saving and spending because the money is their own. When government takes their money in taxes, politicians and bureaucrats have less incentive to spend wisely because the money is not really theirs. Conservatives fear that America’s wealth is wasted by big government schemes. They want fewer taxes and less regulation of business. Big government takes away their freedom by taking away the fruits of their labor. Why should a person work hard, they ask, if politicians are going to force them to give away their profits in high taxes? For this reason, conservatives believe in small government, and are on the right politically. Republicans have been the conservative party in the past century. Some examples were presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover in the 1920s, as well as Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush.
Liberals tend to embrace change in society. Social movements like the Civil Rights Movements, the women’s movements, campaigns to fight poverty, and so on are often supported by liberals. Conservatives usually prefer less change, especially when government is involved in forcing people to accept change such as in the case of affirmative action or Title IX.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency and initiated the New Deal in 1932, America as a whole embraced liberalism. They wanted change and wanted government to make that change happen. Since then, Democrats had been in the White House for 22 years, and Republicans for only 16. And those Republicans – Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford – were not particularly conservative.
But in the 1960s and 1970s liberals seemed to have gone too far. Americans were getting fed up with high taxes. Some people were frightened by how fast the world around them was changing. As the Silent Majority had shown in 1968, most Americans did not like the excesses on the left. Hippies, peace marchers, strikers, and bra burners seemed like troublemakers more than problem solvers.
The first Republican to forcefully advocate for a shift back to conservative government was Senator Barry Goldwater. He based his 1964 presidential campaign on the premise that the New Deal should be reversed. He declared that big government was the greatest threat to American liberty. Social spending and welfare, he said, needed to be cut to reduce the tax burden on individuals and families. Government regulations were inhibiting economic growth and personal freedoms. Of course, 1964 was only a year after John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Lyndon Johnson was riding a wave of popularity and had just initiated his War on Poverty. Americans were still excited about change in 1964 and Johnson won the election easily. Goldwater was too soon.
When foreign competition made inroads against American corporations in the 1970s, some people began to believe Goldwater had been right. Leaders of big business began wielding their financial resources to support politicians in the New Right.
Primary Source: Photograph
William Buckley and President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office of the White House. Buckley was a strong advocate for conservative ideas and as one of the Right’s intellectuals and editor of the magazine National Review, helped define what it mean to be a conservative in the 1980s.
THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION
Launched in 1973 with a contribution from Joseph Coors of Coors Brewing Company and support from a variety of corporations and conservative foundations, the Heritage Foundation sought to counteract what conservatives believed to be Richard Nixon’s acceptance of a liberal consensus on too many issues. In producing its policy position papers and political recommendations to Republican candidates and politicians, it helped contribute to a change in the way Americans thought about conservatism. Adding to the chorus of new conservative thinkers was William Buckley who edited National Review, a magazine that championed conservative ideas.
Part of their work was to glorify what it deemed to be traditional values, seemingly threatened by the expansion of political and personal freedoms. A criticism of their work is that they sanitized the negative aspects of the past. By ignoring problems like Jim Crow racism, they were able to make people more nostalgic for the good old days of the 1920s and 1950s when government was small, life was pure and simple, and business was booming.
When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, his administration looked favorably on the recommendations made by the Heritage Foundation and recruited several of its thinkers to serve in the White House. The Foundation continues to advocate for conservative ideas today.
THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT
In the 1970s, the conservative movement was joined by another powerful force in American society, the religious right. Religious leaders had long been involved in politics. Most notably, fundamentalists had worked to keep the teachings of Charles Darwin out of public schools. The Scopes Trial of 1925 sensationalized their efforts, and now they flexed their political muscle again.
The Christian Right had many faces. Fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible the same way that William Jennings Bryan had. Pentacostalists such as Pat Robertson claimed the Holy Spirit communicated directly with people on a regular basis.
Despite theological divisions, all evangelical leaders agreed that America was experiencing a moral decline. They preached that homosexuality was a crime against God, and that a woman’s place was in the home in support of her family. They criticized what they believed was a liberal media such as newspapers, television companies and recording studios for corrupting America’s youth by glorifying drug use, premarital sex, and radicalism. They chided the courts for taking religion out of the public schools and supported private Christian academies and homeschooling as alternatives.
Many Catholic Americans agreed with the sentiments of the New Right. A reforming spirit had also swept through the Catholic Church during the 1960s and reached its high water mark at a convention called Vatican II. At that meeting of the world’s Catholic leaders, Latin was dropped as a requirement for the Mass. Lay people were given a greater role in Church services. Support was given for outreach to other Christian denominations and Jewish synagogues. Conservatives worried that Catholic traditions that had been around for centuries were being swept away by liberals who did not care about biblical truths or morality.
New Right leaders were highly organized and understood the potential of mass telecommunications. Although they were conservative, they were not old fashioned. Pat Robertson formed the Christian Broadcasting Network to send his message. Like the traveling preachers of the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s, the Praise the Lord Club led by Jim Bakker transmitted faith healing and raucous religious revival to the largest viewing audience of any daily program in the world. They built massive databases containing the names and addresses of potential financial contributors and regularly solicited funds. In 1979, Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority. This group and hundreds of others raised money to defeat liberal senators, representatives, and governors. They sought to control school boards on the local level to advance their conservative agenda. Ronald Reagan freely accepted contributions from the New Right on his way to the Presidency in 1980. The voters who followed the lead of Robertson and Falwell and based their decisions on election day on which candidate best represented their beliefs about morality came to be known as values voters. For them, a candidate’s views on social issues were more important than his or her economic or foreign policy ideas.
Primary Source: Voter’s Guide
This voter’s guide from the 2012 election was produced by South Dakota Right to Life, and anti-abortion group, and mailed to registered voters. It is a good example of how organizations have sought to activate values voters to go to the polls on election day with specific moral concerns in mind.
THE REAGAN COALITION
Ronald Reagan was able to put together a new coalition of voters, many of whom had never supported a republican for president.
Working Americans were frightened by unemployment rates nearing double digits. Inflation was pushing the middle class into tax brackets previously reserved for the affluent classes. Simply having more dollars did not make them richer since inflation also was decreasing the buying power of those dollars. Reagan promised to reduce their level of misery with sound fiscal policy and a tax cut.
Southerners disgruntled by affirmative action and busing found friendly ears in the Reagan campaign and he effectively continued the Nixon Southern Strategy and courted White Southerners.
For decades, Catholics had been the targets of discrimination but were protected by democratic mayors and New Dealers. Ultimately, their place in the Democratic Party was cemented when John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president was elected in 1960. However, in 1980, many Catholics started voting Republican when Reagan promised to oppose abortion and promote family values.
Although the women’s movement was in full swing in the 1970s and it would seem odd for women to support a conservative for president, Reagan also won their support. Reagan believed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was sufficient protection for women against discrimination. Once in office as governor of California, he had taken a mostly neutral position, neither supporting nor working against the ERA. This middle position did not appear to hurt him at the polls. He attracted a significant number of votes from women in 1980, and in 1984, he polled 56% of the women’s vote compared to 44% for the Democratic ticket of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, the first female candidate for vice president from a major party.
City dwellers concerned with rising crime looked to Reagan for comfort as he portrayed himself as the law and order candidate. Americans across demographic lines were warmed by his promises for a stronger America domestically and overseas.
Perhaps most surprising of all, some former members of the counterculture who were now young adults with careers and growing families supported Reagan. The 1960s and 1970s had been the era of the hippie, but Newsweek magazine declared 1984 the “year of the Yuppie.” Yuppies, whose name derived from young, urban professionals, were akin to hippies in being young people whose interests, values, and lifestyle influenced American culture, economy, and politics, just as the hippies had done. Unlike hippies, however, yuppies were materialistic and obsessed with image, comfort, and economic prosperity. Although liberal on some social issues, economically they were conservative.
Primary Source: Book Cover
It’s hard to know whether or not this book was meant to be taken seriously or as satire. In either case, it gives us the historians a good description of the Yuppie of the 1980s. These members of the Baby Boomer Generation had grown up, started families, and started voting for Republicans.
By taking traditional republican voters and adding these former democratic groups, Reagan formed a potent new coalition. The so-called Reagan Democrats crumbled the old alignment. Jimmy Carter, his opponent in the 1980 election, never stood a chance.
Voter turnout reflected this new conservative swing, which not only swept Reagan into the White House but created a Republican majority in the Senate. Only 52 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in 1980, the lowest turnout for a presidential election since 1948. Those who did cast a ballot were older, whiter, and wealthier than those who did not. Strong support among White voters, those over forty-five years of age, and voters with incomes over $50,000 proved crucial for Reagan’s victory. Since 1980, Republicans have relied on this same coalition.
Reagan’s primary goal upon taking office was to stimulate the sagging economy while simultaneously cutting both government programs and taxes. In an easy-to-remember phrase, he said during his first inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
His economic policies, called Reaganomics by the press, were based on a theory called supply-side economics, about which many economists were skeptical. Influenced by economist Arthur Laffer of the University of Southern California, Reagan cut income taxes for those at the top of the economic ladder, which they expected to motivate the rich to invest in businesses, factories, and the stock market in anticipation of high returns. According to Laffer’s argument, this would eventually translate into more jobs further down the socioeconomic ladder. Economic growth would also increase the total tax revenue, even at a lower tax rate. In other words, proponents of trickledown economics promised to cut taxes and balance the budget at the same time. Reaganomics also included the deregulation of industry to encourage growth and higher interest rates to control inflation, which were already underway when Reagan took office.
Many politicians, including Republicans, were wary of Reagan’s economic program. Even his eventual vice president, George H. W. Bush, had referred to it as voodoo economics when competing with him for the Republican presidential nomination. When Reagan proposed a 30% cut in taxes to be phased in over his first term in office, Congress balked. Opponents argued that the tax cuts would benefit the rich and not the poor, who needed help the most. In response, Reagan presented his plan directly to the people.
Often called The Great Communicator, he was noted for his ability, honed through years as an actor and spokesperson, to convey a mixture of folksy wisdom, empathy, and concern while taking humorous digs at his opponents. Indeed, listening to Reagan speak often felt like hearing a favorite uncle recall stories about the good old days before big government, expensive social programs, and greedy politicians destroyed the country. Americans found this rhetorical style extremely compelling. Public support for Reagan’s plans, combined with a surge in the president’s popularity after he survived an assassination attempt in March 1981, gave Reagan the support he needed to enact his conservative agenda into law. On July 29, 1981, Congress passed the Economic Recovery Tax Act, which phased in a 25% overall reduction in taxes over three years.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
This cartoon criticizes Ronald Reagan’s economic policies by emphasizing the idea that tax breaks for the rich will not trickle down to the middle and lower classes as he had promised.
Reagan was successful at cutting taxes, but he failed to reduce government spending. Although he had long warned about the dangers of big government, he created a new cabinet-level agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the number of federal employees increased during his time in office. He allocated a smaller share of the federal budget to antipoverty programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (welfare), food stamps, rent subsidies, job training programs, and Medicaid, but Social Security and Medicare entitlements, which benefited his supporters, were left largely untouched. Indeed, in 1983, Reagan agreed to a compromise with Democrats in Congress on an injection of funds to save Social Security, which included a payroll tax increase.
Reagan was less flexible when it came to deregulating industry and weakening the power of labor unions. Banks and savings and loan associations were deregulated. Pollution control was enforced less strictly by the Environmental Protection Agency, and restrictions on logging and drilling for oil on public lands were relaxed. Proponents of the environmental movement were incensed and the position of the two parties in terms of environmental protection was further entrenched.
Believing the free market was self-regulating, the Reagan administration had little use for labor unions, and in 1981 the president fired twelve thousand federal air traffic controllers who had gone on strike to secure better working conditions. His action effectively destroyed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization and ushered in a new era of labor relations in which, following his example, employers simply replaced striking workers. The weakening of unions contributed to the leveling off of wages for the average American family during the 1980s.
THE CULTURE WARS
The social and religious conservatives who supported Reagan felt emboldened during the 1980s and pressed their agenda. The resulting culture wars, have been raging since.
Primary Source: Photograph
Bands like Motley Crue were the focus of social conservatives such as Pat Buchanan who feared they were harming America’s children with both their lyrics and their lifestyle.
Perhaps no one has articulated this view quite as well as Pat Buchanan, a speechwriter for Nixon and later presidential candidate. In 1992, he told the Republican National Convention that, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” In addition to criticizing environmentalists and feminism, he portrayed public morality as a defining issue. “The agenda [Bill] Clinton and [Hillary] Clinton would impose on America – abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units – that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country.” Buchanan’s speech encapsulates the conservative view that preserving traditional values was synonymous was preserving America’s greatness.
President Reagan was never a great social warrior the way Buchanan might have hoped, but during his presidency, concern over a decline in the country’s moral values welled up on both sides of the political aisle. One battlefield of the conflict was the entertainment industry. In 1985, anxiety over the messages in popular music led to the founding of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a bipartisan group formed by the wives of prominent Washington politicians including Susan Baker, the wife of Reagan’s treasury secretary and Tipper Gore, the wife of then-senator Al Gore, who later became vice president under Bill Clinton. The goal of the PMRC was to limit the ability of children to listen to music with sexual or violent content. Its strategy was to convince the recording industry to adopt a voluntary rating system for music and recordings, similar to the Motion Picture Association of America’s system for movies.
The organization also produced a list of particularly offensive recordings known as the filthy fifteen. By August 1985, nearly twenty record companies had agreed to put labels on their recordings indicating explicit lyrics, but the Senate took up the issue anyway. While many parents and a number of witnesses advocated labeling records, most of the music industry rejected them as censorship. Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and folk musician John Denver both advised Congress against the restrictions. In the end, the recording industry suggested a voluntary generic label, which is still in use today.
Presidents have a great deal of power to influence the courts because they have the authority to appoint new federal judges, including members of the Supreme Court. Ronald Reagan generally advanced conservativism with his appointments. In his eight years as president, he was able to choose three Supreme Court justices, including the appointment of William Rehnquist as Chief Justice. By applying the 10th Amendment, which reserves powers to the states that are not explicitly granted in the Constitution, he led the Court in striking down laws that, in his interpretation of the Constitution, were examples of the government taking too much control away from the states.
Reagan also appointed Antonin Scalia, a strong advocate for a conservative interpretation of the Constitution. Scalia served for 30 years as the anchor of the right wing of the Court. However, Reagan was not entirely opposed to making change. He appointed Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to the Supreme Court. O’Connor was a moderate who sometimes served as the Court’s swing vote. Like O’Connor, Reagan’s fourth appointment to the Court, Anthony Kennedy was often the deciding vote between the Court’s four conservative and four liberal justices. When Kennedy retired in 2018, Republican President Trump nominated a conservative, Brett Kavanaugh to replace him, again shifting the Court to the right.
A liberal approach to governing and solving society’s problems prevailed in America from the days of the New Deal in the 1930s through the 1970s. By comparison, modern America is quite conservative. In the past few decades, fundamentalist Christians have exercised a powerful influence on elected officials, especially Republicans. Access to abortion has been limited. The Supreme Court dismantled major portions of the Voting Rights Act and a succession of Republican presidents have kept taxes low. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 marked the point when Americans turned away from liberalism and embraced this more conservative outlook. But why did this happen?
Perhaps people blamed the struggling economy of the 1970s on liberals and decided to try conservative ideas instead. Maybe taxes had gotten too high. Perhaps it was because some liberals went too far and had tried to change society too radically with the counterculture, new wave feminism, and Great Society. Perhaps teenagers smoking marijuana were getting too high! Perhaps it was simply a matter of America correcting itself by moving to the right like a pendulum on a clock swinging back toward the center after decades of liberal leadership.
What do you think? Why did America turn away from liberalism?
BIG IDEA: There was a backlash in the 1970s and 80s to the extreme liberalism of the 1960s. Americans elected conservative politicians and the culture wars emerged as an element of partisan politics.
The Great Society programs were examples of the liberal idea that government should do a lot to fix problems in society. Also during the 1960s, the counterculture was challenging traditional social norms. In the 1970s, Americans turned away from these liberal extremes and embraced ideas that are more conservative. This was the Conservative Revolution.
The first champions of conservative ideas were academics and Senator Barry Goldwater who lost his campaign for president in 1964. They started the New Right. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the presidency. He was a champion of conservative ideas about taxes, government spending, and social norms.
Reagan was supported by traditional Republican voters as well as some former Democrats who were upset about high crime, the poor economy, and the counterculture.
Reagan promoted trickle-down economics. He wanted tax breaks for the wealthy and businesses. He believed this would create economic growth because businesses would have more to spend to hire workers and that eventually everyone would benefit. Reagan also cut government spending and regulation.
In the 1980s, culture wars raged. Social conservatives tried to censor music and promoted conservative candidates in elections.
Reagan nominated conservatives to the Supreme Court.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Barry Goldwater: Republican senator from Arizona who ran for president in 1964 but lost. He was the first to promote conservative principles that would become known as the New Right.
Heritage Foundation: Think tank that promotes conservative policies and laws.
William Buckley: Founder and editor of National Review. He and his magazine championed conservative ideas.
Pat Robertson: Founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and champion of the Religious Right.
Jerry Falwell: Champion of the Religious Right who founded the Moral Majority in 1979 to promote conservative candidates.
Moral Majority: Organization founded in 1979 by Jerry Falwell to promote conservative candidates and policies.
Values Voters: People who make decisions about who they will vote for based on the candidates’ positions on social issues such as abortion or prayer in schools.
Law and Order Candidate: A candidate who promotes strict law enforcement and promises lower crime rates.
Yuppie: Young materialist people obsessed with their image, comfort and economic prosperity during the 1980s. The name is short for young, urban professional.
Reagan Democrats: Voters who had supported Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s but chose to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Some of these voters included Catholics, values voters, and White working-class voters.
The Great Communicator: Nickname for Ronald Reagan that referenced his easygoing manner and ability to share his ideas. He was good at jokes and had been an actor and spokesman for General Electric before becoming president.
Pat Buchanan: Republican politician who championed conservative ideas. He had been a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and later ran in the Republican presidential primary in 1992.
William Rehnquist: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1986 to 2005. He was conservative and the Court under his direction restricted the power of the federal government.
Antonin Scalia: Justice of the Supreme Court from 1986 to 2016. He was a champion of conservative ideas while on the Court.
Anthony Kennedy: Justice of the Supreme Court from 1988 to 2018. He was the swing justices between the conservative and liberal justices and therefore wrote some of the most important decisions in the 2000s.
Liberal: People who see change as a positive and like the idea of using the government as a way to implement large-scale changes. In modern times, the Democrats represent this political idea.
Big Government: The idea that the government should collect more taxes and do many things. This is a liberal idea.
Left: In terms of politics, being on this side means a person is liberal.
Conservative: People who are skeptical of change. They do not want government to be involved in peoples’ lives any more than necessary. In modern times, the Republicans represent this political idea.
Small Government: The idea that the government should only do what people cannot do on their own. This is a conservative idea.
Right: In terms of politics, being on this side means a person is conservative.
New Right: A shift in the Republican Party that occurred between the 1960s and 1980s. It promoted strict conservative ideas and was a reaction to the strong liberal political atmosphere of the Great Society.
Religious Right: A coalition of Christian religious organizations begun in the 1970s that promote conservative ideas and candidates.
Liberal Media: The idea that the news media, including television, newspaper, and radio news outlets promote liberal ideas. A few news outlets have been established to provide a conservative alternative to this supposed bias. A reasonable reader of the news can see that some different outlets have a conservative or liberal bias.
Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem: Famous quote from Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address that captures his ideas about the size of government.
Explicit Lyrics Warning Labels: Warnings on music indicating that the lyrics contain profanity. They were first used in the 1980 as a result of the culture wars.
Reaganomics: Nickname for President Reagan’s economic policies. He wanted lower taxes on the wealthy and lower regulations on business.
Supply-side Economics: Idea that the best way to promote economic growth is to lower taxes and reduce regulations on business so that business will produce more.
Trickledown Economics: The idea that reducing taxes on the wealthy would eventually benefit everyone since the upper classes would use the extra money to hire workers or make purchases that would pass the money down through the economy.
Voodoo Economics: Nickname for Ronald Reagan’s economic policies. Coined by George H. W. Bush, it criticized the idea that tax breaks for the wealthy would every benefit the middle or lower classes.
Deregulation: The process of reducing laws and rules on business. In theory, the cost of complying with such rules slows down business, so reducing them will improve the economy.
Vatican II: Meeting of Catholic leaders between 1962 and 1965. It resulted in major changes to Catholic practice including changing the language of daily mass from Latin to local languages.
Culture Wars: Conflicts in the 1980s between social conservatives and liberals. They focused on such things as school prayer, women in the military, and explicit lyrics in music.
Firing of the Air Traffic Controllers: 1981 action by Ronald Reagan that demonstrated a weakness of labor unions in the era of the New Right.
Economic Recovery Tax Act: 1981 law that reduced the overall tax rate to 25% over three years. It was the centerpiece of Ronald Reagan’s economic policy.