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By the 1980s, new levels of discontent with government and society had left many Americans concerned about the direction of the nation. Some began to call for a return to more conservative approaches and values.

Liberalism and Conservatism

Do you consider yourself liberal or conservative?

Conservative writer Midge Decter was appalled at the looting and arson that rocked New York City during a blackout on the night of July 13, 1977. City officials and the media blamed the events on the anger and despair of youth in neglected areas. Decter disagreed:

"[T]hose young men went on their spree of looting because they had been given permission to do so. They had been given permission to do so by all the papers and magazines, movies and documentaries—all the outlets for the purveying of enlightened liberal attitude and progressive liberal policy—which had for years and years been proclaiming that race and poverty were sufficient excuses for lawlessness."

—from “Looting and Liberal Racism,” Commentary, September 1977

Midge Decter’s article blaming liberalism for the New York riots illustrates one side of a debate in American politics that still continues. On one side are people who call themselves liberals; on the other side are those who identify themselves as conservatives. In the 1960s, liberal ideas dominated U.S. politics. Conservative ideas gained support in the 1970s. In 1980 conservative Ronald Reagan was elected president.

Liberalism

In general, modern liberals believe that government should regulate the economy to protect people from the power of corporations and wealthy elites. Liberals also believe that the federal government should help disadvantaged Americans through social programs and by putting more of society’s tax burden on wealthier people. They believe that those with greater assets should take on more of the costs of government.

Although liberals favor government intervention in the economy, they do not support the government regulating social behavior. They are opposed to the government supporting or endorsing religious beliefs, no matter how indirectly. They believe that a society with ethnic and cultural diversity tends to be more creative and energetic.

Conservatism

Conservatives distrust the power of government and wish to limit it. They also believe that government regulation makes the economy less efficient, and that free enterprise is the best economic system. They argue that increased economic regulation could lead to regulation in every aspect of people’s behavior. Conservatives fear the government will so restrict people’s economic freedom that Americans will no longer be able to improve their standard of living. They generally oppose high taxes and government programs that redistribute wealth.

Many conservatives believe that most social problems result from issues of morality and character. They argue that such issues are best addressed through commitment to a religious faith and through the private efforts of churches, individuals, and communities to help those in need. Despite this general belief, conservatives often support the use of police powers to regulate social behavior.

Conservatism Revives

 

Why are some regions of the country more conservative or liberal than other areas?

During the New Deal era of the 1930s, conservative ideas lost influence in national politics. After World War II, however, conservatism began to revive.

The Role of the Cold War

The Cold War helped revive support for conservative ideas. First, the struggle against communism revived the debate about the role of the government in the economy. Some Americans believed that liberal economic ideas were slowly leading the United States toward communism and set out to stop this trend. They also thought the United States had failed to stop the spread of Soviet power because liberals did not fully understand the need for a strong anticommunist foreign policy. At the same time, some Americans viewed the Cold War in religious terms, seeing the struggle against communism as a struggle between good and evil. Liberalism gradually lost the support of these Americans as they increasingly turned to conservatism.

Conservatives Organize

In 1955 a young conservative, William F. Buckley, founded a magazine called National Review, which helped revive conservative ideas in the United States. Buckley worked to spread conservative ideas to a wider audience. In 1960 some 90 young conservative leaders met at Buckley’s family estate and founded Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). This independent conservative group pushed for their ideas and supported conservative candidates. By 1964, the new conservative movement had achieved enough influence within the Republican Party to enable the conservative Barry Goldwater to win the nomination for president. President Lyndon Johnson defeated him and won by a landslide.

The Rise of the Sunbelt

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the South and the West were more conservative than other regions. Southern conservatives, however, generally voted for the Democrats, while conservatives in the West voted for the Republicans. Thus, the party that won the populous Northeast would win the presidential election. Since the Northeast strongly supported liberal ideas, both parties leaned toward liberal policies.

This pattern began to change during World War II, when large numbers of Americans moved south and west for jobs in war factories. These Sunbelt states experienced dramatic population growth. For instance, Census Bureau data showed Florida’s population growing every year from 1946 until 2009. The movement was fueled by warmer climates and increasing job opportunities; Florida’s weather and expanding tourist industry met both criteria. As the Sunbelt’s economy expanded, these residents began thinking differently about the government than people in the Northeast did.

Sunbelt and Suburban Conservatism

Industry in the Northeast was in decline, leading to the region’s nickname, the Rust Belt. Northeasterners looked to the government to help them solve problems of unemployment, congestion, and pollution. In contrast, many Americans in the Sunbelt opposed high taxes and federal regulations that might interfere with their region’s growth. Many white Southerners were also angry with the Democrats for supporting civil rights, which they saw as the federal government’s effort to impose its policies on the South.

When Barry Goldwater argued that the federal government was becoming too strong, many Southerners agreed. For the first time since Reconstruction, they began voting Republican in large numbers. Although Goldwater lost, he showed that supporting conservative policies attracted Southern voters.

Americans living in the West also responded to conservative criticism of the government. Westerners resented federal environmental regulations that limited ranching, controlled water use, and restricted the development of natural resources. By 1980, the Sunbelt’s population had surpassed that of the Northeast, giving these conservative regions more electoral votes.

During the 1960s and 1970s, many Americans moved to suburbs to escape urban chaos. Even there, however, they found the middle-class lifestyle they desired was in danger. Rapid inflation had caused their buying power to shrink while taxes remained high. Tax cuts became a national issue. As conservatives called for tax cuts, middle-class voters flocked to their cause.

The Religious Right

Some people were drawn to conservatism because they feared that American society had lost touch with its traditional values. Some Americans with conservative religious faith were shocked by Supreme Court decisions protecting the right to an abortion, limiting prayer in public schools, and expanding protections for people accused of crimes. In addition, student protesters’ contempt for authority seemed to indicate a general breakdown in American values and morality. These concerns helped expand the conservative cause into a mass movement.

The feminist movement's push for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) also upset some religious conservatives because it challenged aspects of the traditional family. Phyllis Schlafly's efforts to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment played an important role in the conservative resurgence. In 1972, Schlafly founded the Eagle Forum, a political interest group whose purpose was to educate voters and lobby the government on behalf of conservative social issues, particularly issues involving the family and women's role in society. 

Protestant evangelicals were the largest group of religious conservatives. After World War II, a religious revival began in the United States among this group. Ministers such as Billy Graham and Oral Roberts built national followings, and some owned their own newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and television networks. With television, evangelical ministers reached a nationwide audience. These televangelists included Marion “Pat” Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who founded a group called the Moral Majority. The Moral Majority built up a network of ministers to register new voters who backed conservative candidates and issues. The group registered 2 million new voters in the 1980 election.

Gun Control and the NRA

For many Christians, the single defining issue that brought them into the conservative movement was the Roe v. Wade decision upholding the right to abortion. For another group of Americans, particularly in the south and west, the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968 became the focus of their concern about growing federal power.

Rising crime rates in the 1960s convinced Congress to impose additional regulations and controls on gun sales and ownership. For many Americans, the law seemed to be a step toward taking away their second amendment rights to own a gun. In response, the National Rifle Association (NRA) began to focus on politics.

The NRA was formed in 1871 to help improve people's skills in the use of firearms. It did not engage in extensive lobbying until the 1970s when conservatives within the organization took control and began an intensive effort to lobby Congress whenever legislation involving gun control and Second Amendment rights was proposed. The NRA's large membership and organizational skills have continued to play an important role in the electoral success of conservative political leaders since the 1970s.

 A New Coalition

As a result of all of these different political, economic, and social concerns, a new conservative coalition came together in American politics. Conservatives began to believe that society had lost its way. Political scandal, economic worries, growing federal power, and ongoing social turmoil seemed to plague the nation. International events such as the withdrawal from Vietnam seemed to make the nation look weak. Many Americans were tired of upheaval. They wanted stability and a return to what they remembered as better times.

The Rise of Think Tanks

Despite the rising support for conservative ideas, and the emergence of a new conservative political coalition, many conservative leaders in the 1970s worried that there was no mechanism for taking broad conservative ideas and turning them into specific policy ideas and solutions that the government could actually implement. Many conservatives had been disappointed with Richard Nixon. Nixon had used conservative rhetoric in his speeches, but often supported liberal approaches to governing. Nixon had backed the Family Assistance Plan, the New Economic Policy, and the creation of the EPA, in part because those were the only solutions to specific problems being proposed.

In 1973, several leading conservatives established the Heritage Foundation, the first in a series of new think tanks that conservatives created in the 1970s and 1980s. The purpose of the Heritage Foundation, and think tanks in general, is to provide political leaders with research papers, policy ideas, and concrete recommendations on how to change the law in support of the think tank's values and beliefs.

In 1981, the Heritage Foundation published a report with 2000 specific suggestions on how to reduce the size of the federal government and move government in a more conservative direction. President Ronald Reagan's administration implemented many of these proposals, and many people at the Heritage Foundation were chosen for positions in the Reagan administration.

Think tanks have continued to proliferate in the years since. There are dozens of conservative and liberal think tanks today where researchers develop policy proposals and ideas for legislation.

Thinking Like a HISTORIAN
Contrasting
Throughout history, the terms liberal and conservative have not always had the same sense as they do today. Culture and history have influenced their meanings. For example, after the Napoleonic Wars, European leaders met at the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) to reconstruct Europe. Conservatives included monarchs, nobles, and church leaders who supported the idea that Europe should return to its pre-Napoleonic political and social order, a hierarchical one in which the lower class submitted to the rule of the upper class. There was fear that democratic “rule by many” would lead to rule by an uneducated mob. On the other hand, liberals represented the middle class and advocated a separation of powers, natural rights, and a republic. Understanding that a word’s definition may change over time is important for a clear reading of history. 

Reviewing Vocabulary

TEKS: 10E, 10F

Using Your Notes

TEKS: 10E, 10F, 13A, 24B

Answering the Guiding Questions

TEKS: 10E, 10F, 13A 

Writing Activity

TEKS: 10E, 10F, 13A