In 1980, many people in America were unhappy with the way things were going. They didn’t feel good about the economy or the government. They wanted a change. That’s why they chose Ronald Reagan as their leader. He was a good speaker and he talked about making Americans feel good about their country again. But he wasn’t the only reason people voted for him.
A group of people called the New Right supported Reagan. Their ideas about America and its government were very different from what had been popular since the 1930s. They thought the government was too big and taxes were too high. They wanted to cut taxes to make businesses grow. They also thought government programs that helped people needed to be smaller. They didn’t the New Deal or the Great Society, and the definitely didn’t like hippies, women’s rights, and premarital sex. They wanted America to be respected in the world and for Americans to respect themselves.
Many people agreed with the New Right in 1980. In the past, people liked government programs like Social Security and Medicare, so why did Americans change their minds? Maybe it was the economy, or maybe people thought there had been too much social change in the 1960s. Or maybe Reagan and his supporters were just better at convincing people to think like them.
Why do you think America turned away from liberalism?
THE NEW RIGHT
To understand the move from liberalism to conservatism 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.
For a long time, Americans wanted change and liked liberal ideas. But in the 1960s and 1970s, some people thought liberals had gone too far. They were tired of high taxes and frightened by how fast the world was changing. Conservative Senator Barry Goldwater argued that it was time for a shift back to conservative government in his 1964 presidential campaign. He believed big government was the biggest threat to American freedom and that social spending and welfare needed to be cut. Although Goldwater didn’t win the election, some Americans started to think he might be right and his ideas began to catch hold. Importantly, leaders of big businesses began supporting 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
When politicians make laws, or give speeches, they often borrow ideas from experts who spend time working on the details of how a political philosophy, like conservatism, can get turned into reality. The Heritage Foundation was created in 1973 to do just that. The Heritage Foundation pays experts to write articles that explain conservative ideas and come up with suggestions for laws that Congress can pass. Around that same time, William Buckley started publishing a magazine called National Review that was also important in explaining and promoting conservative ideas. They focused on traditional values that they thought were being threatened by the changes happening in the 1960s. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, he listened to the Heritage Foundation’s recommendations and even hired some of their thinkers to work in the White House. The Foundation still supports conservative ideas today.
THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT
During the 1970s, a powerful group called the Religious Right joined the conservative movement in America. Christian leaders have been involved in politics for a long time. One famous example of this was the Scopes Trial in 1925 when religious conservatives were trying to stop schools from teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution because it conflicted with the Bible’s story of creation. In the 1970s, the religious right began reorganizing and getting involved in politics again.
The Christian right was not one group with one leader, but more of a collection of people who had similar goals. But there were important Christian leaders at the time. Some, like Jerry Falwell, believed in a strict interpretation of the Bible. Others, like Pat Robertson, believed that the Holy Spirit communicated directly with people. But despite their differences, all of the religious leaders agreed that America was becoming more immoral. They preached that homosexuality was wrong and that women should stay home to take care of their families. They criticized what they saw as a liberal media, such as TV, movies and music, that was promoting things like drugs, premarital sex, and radicalism to young people. They didn’t like that religion was being taken out of public schools and they encouraged parents to have their children go to private Christian schools or homeschool instead.
Many Catholics agreed with the religious right. During the 1960s, many reforms had been made in the Catholic Church. At a meeting called Vatican II, Catholic leaders agreed that the Mass, the Catholic church service, could be conducted in the local language instead of Latin. However, some 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.
The leaders of the religious right liked traditional ideas but they were not old fashioned. They were well organized and used technology to spread their message. For example, Pat Robertson created the Christian Broadcasting Network to reach more people. They built huge databases of supporters they could tap into when they needed donations. In 1979, Jerry Falwell created the Moral Majority, which was a group that raised money to defeat politicians who they thought were too liberal. They tried to control local school boards by promoting candidates who would vote for conservative ideas. When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, he happily accepted donations from the religious right. As the religious right grew, some voters started picking candidates based on their social views and not on their economic or foreign policy ideas. We call these Americans values voters. For them, a candidate’s opinion about abortion, divorce, school prayer, and church attendance are what matter most of all.
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
In the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan was able to win votes from Americans who had never before supported a Republican candidate for president. This new coalition included working Americans who were worried about high unemployment rates, inflation and high taxes. Reagan promised to help them by cutting government spending and lowering their taxes.
Southern voters who were unhappy with affirmative action and busing also found a friend in Reagan. He continued the Nixon Southern Strategy and won over White Southerners.
Catholics had voted for democrats for years, but many began voting Republican when Reagan promised to oppose abortion and promote family values. Even women, who were in the middle of a movement for equality in the 1970s, voted for Reagan. He was wise not to oppose the ERA, even though he didn’t say he was in favor of it either. And, it turned out that many women were worried about their families, and Reagan’s promises of helping the economy resonated with them.
City dwellers who were worried about rising crime also looked to Reagan for comfort. He portrayed himself as a law-and-order candidate and promised to make America strong again, both at home and in the Cold War fight against the Soviet Union.
Some former members of the counterculture who had grown up and started families also supported Reagan. These yuppies, short for young urban professionals, now had jobs, families, house payments and car loans to worry about. Reagan sounded like a good choice to these young adult Baby Boomers.
Reagan’s ability to bring together Republican voters and these new groups, the so-called Reagan Democrats, ended up forming a majority of American voters. Ever since Reagan’s first victory in 1980, Republicans have tried to appeal to this same coalition of Americans to win elections.
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.
When Ronald Reagan became president, the economy wasn’t doing well. Instead of creating new government programs to give people jobs, the way FDR had done during the Great Depression, Reagan thought that getting rid of government programs and lowering taxes would fix the problem. He thought that if people were able to keep more of their money, they would spend it and the economy would start to recover. He captured this idea in a famous quote in his first speech as president, he said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Newspapers nicknamed his idea Reaganomics. He believed that if he cut taxes for rich people, they would invest more in businesses, factories, and the stock market, and this would create more jobs for people with less money. He thought that he could cut taxes because if more people were working, more people would be paying taxes and the government would still get enough for what it needed. To help businesses grow, Reagan also wanted to deregulate industries, or get rid of some of the rules they had to follow.
Some people, including Republicans, didn’t like Reagan’s plan. Even his future vice president, George H. W. Bush had called it voodoo economics. When Reagan proposed a big tax cut, Congress didn’t vote for it because they thought it would only help rich people. So, to convince Congress to support him, Reagan talked directly to the people to get them on board.
Reagan was known for being a great speaker. He used jokes and a friendly tone to make people feel like they could trust him. People liked listening to him talk about how things used to be before the government got too big. After an assassination attempt in 1981, Reagan’s popularity grew even more. This helped him get the support he needed to pass his tax cut plan and in 1981, Congress passed the Economic Recovery Tax Act, which lowered taxes by 25% 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 lowered taxes, but didn’t do as well at cutting government spending, even though he talked about how bad big government was. He spent less money on programs to help poor families, like welfare, food stamps, and job training. However, he started the Department of Veterans Affairs, and more people got jobs working for the government while he was president. He also didn’t change Social Security or Medicare, which helped the people who supported him. In fact, he worked with Democrats in Congress to get more money for Social Security in 1983, which meant people had to pay more taxes.
Reagan wanted to make it easier for businesses to make money by reducing rules and regulations. He cut back on rules banks had to follow. The Environmental Protection Agency, which made sure companies did not pollute the environment, also had less power. This made many people who cared about the environment angry. The government also made it easier for companies to cut down trees for lumber and paper and to drill for oil on government land.
Reagan did not like labor unions. In 1981, he fired thousands of air traffic controllers who had gone on strike. This led to the end of their union, and other employers started doing the same thing. This made it harder for workers to demand better wages and working conditions, which is why the average pay that workers earned did not go up much during the 1980s.
THE CULTURE WARS
During the 1980s, social and religious conservatives who supported President Reagan started what we know today as the culture wars. Pat Buchanan, a speechwriter for Nixon and later presidential candidate, described the conflict as a “religious war” for the soul of America. He believed that preserving traditional values was the key to America’s greatness.
Although President Reagan was not a social warrior like Buchanan, many conservatives worried about changes in the country’s moral values during the 1980s. One battleground for the culture wars was the entertainment industry. Conservatives worried about the messages their children were hearing in movies, TV and especially music. A group of the wives of Washington politicians started the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in 1985. They wanted to stop children from hearing explicit and violent lyrics by convincing the recording industry to use a rating system for music that would be similar to the ratings movies have.
The PMRC produced a list of particularly offensive recordings, known as the filthy fifteen. When Congress threatened to pass a law forcing the music companies to use a rating system, they agreed to put a generic label on their recordings warning parents about explicit lyrics. We still use this same system today.
The culture wars are still going on. Abortion, LGBTQ rights, books in school libraries, what we teach in history classes and saying Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas are all current examples of the culture wars that have been raging since the 1980s.
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.
One way presidents can influence the country is by choosing who becomes a judge, including those in the Supreme Court. As a conservative, Ronald Reagan chose judges that shared his beliefs. During his time as president, he picked three Supreme Court justices, one of whom he made the Chief Justice. One of Reagan’s choices was Antonin Scalia, who was a strong believer in following the Constitution exactly as it was written. Scalia was on the Court for 30 years and was usually on the conservative side. Over the years, the Supreme Court made more rulings that conservative Americans liked, in part because of the conservative justices that Reagan had picked.
But for Reagan, being conservative didn’t mean he was totally against change. He picked Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to be a Supreme Court justice. She was a moderate and sometimes voted with the liberals on the court.
Reagan’s fourth choice was Anthony Kennedy, who over the years turned out to be a moderate justice. Many times he had the deciding vote between the four conservative and four liberal judges on the Court. When Kennedy retired in 2018, President Trump chose a conservative named Brett Kavanaugh to replace him. This changed the Court again and made it more conservative.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, Americans used liberal ideas to solve problems, but now the country has become more conservative. More people are holding on to traditional values and beliefs instead of being open to new ideas. Fundamentalist Christians have played a larger role in politics and have influenced new laws such as those that limit abortion. Since the 1980s, Republican politicians have also chosen to keep taxes low.
The shift towards conservatism can be traced back to the 1970s and the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. Why did this change happen? Some people blamed the bad economy of the 1970s on liberal ideas and wanted to try a different approach. Others thought that taxes were too high and needed to be cut. Some felt that liberals were attempting to change society too much. After all, the 1960s were the time of the Civil Rights Movement, counterculture, and feminism. Some people may have wanted to return to traditional values, while others may have been looking for something new. Perhaps America just needed to move back towards the middle after years of liberal ideas.
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.