Modern history

The Conservative Political Ascendancy

The backlash against affirmative action and the ERA confirmed that liberal reformers were losing ground to conservatives. By the early 1990s, liberalism had become identified with special interests and elitism, and conservatives could boast of numerous successes. The election of former California governor Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 reflected the spectacular growth in political power of the New Right, finishing what Barry Goldwater had started in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1964 (see chapter 26). Reagan pushed the conservative economic agenda of lower taxes and business deregulation alongside the New Right’s concern for traditional religious and family values. His presidency installed conservatism as the dominant political ideology for the remainder of the twentieth century.

The New Right Revival

The New Right emerged from a mixture of forces: the revolt against high taxes, the backlash against the growth of the federal government, the disillusionment of former liberal intellectuals known as neoconservatives, and the growth of the Christian Right. In the 1970s, working- and middle-class white resentment against antiwar protesters, hippies, black power militants, and feminist agitators found a new target in big government spending and high taxes. During the 1970s, taxation claimed 30 percent of the gross national product, up 6 percent from 1960. Although Americans still paid far less in taxes than their counterparts in Western Europe, and even though tax rates had fallen since World War II, Americans objected to rising state and federal taxes. Leading the tax revolt was the Sun Belt state of California. In a 1978 referendum, California voters passed Proposition 13, a measure that reduced property taxes and placed strict limits on the ability of local governments to raise them in the future. In the wake of Proposition 13, a dozen states enacted similar measures.

Economic conservatives also set their sights on reducing the federal income tax. They supported cutting personal and corporate taxes by a third in the belief that reducing taxes would encourage new investment and job creation. “Supply-side” economists, such as Arthur Laffer, argued that lowering tax rates would actually boost tax receipts: With lower taxes, companies and investors would have more capital to invest, leading to expanded job growth; with increased employment, more people would be paying taxes. At the same time, supply-side conservatives called for reduced government spending, especially in the social service sector, to ensure balanced budgets and to eliminate what they saw as unnecessary spending on domestic programs.

The New Right also benefited by the defection of disillusioned liberals. Labeled neoconservatives, intellectuals such as Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and Nathan Glazer reversed course and condemned the Great Society programs that they had originally supported. They believed that federal policies had aggravated rather than improved the problems government planners intended to solve. Of particular concern to many neoconservatives were affirmative action programs, the domination of campus debate and discourse by New Left radicals, and left-wing criticism of the use ofAmerican military and economic might to advance U.S. interests overseas.

Perhaps the greatest spark igniting the New Right came from socially conservative religious believers, mainly evangelical Christians and Catholics. Phyllis Schlafly—a Catholic, a former Goldwater supporter, and an ERA opponent—played a major role in connecting the political conservatism of the 1960s with the social conservatism of the following decade. Yet evangelical Christians most often provided the leadership and core support for this political movement. Evangelicals considered themselves to have been “born again”—literally experiencing Jesus Christ’s saving presence inside of them. By the end of the 1970s, evangelical Christians numbered around 50 million, about a quarter of the population. The Christian Right opposed abortion, gay rights, and sex education; attacked Supreme Court rulings banning prayer in the public schools; denounced Darwin’s theory of evolution in favor of divine creationism; and supported the traditional role of women as mothers and homemakers. Certainly not all evangelical Christians held all of these beliefs; for example, President Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian, did not. Still, conservative Christians believed that the liberals and radicals of the 1960s had spread the secular creed of individual rights and personal fulfillment at the expense of traditional Christian values.

Social conservatives worried that the traditional nuclear family was in danger, as households consisting of married couples with children declined from 30 percent in the 1970s to 23 percent thirty years later, and the divorce rate soared. The number of unmarried couples living together doubled over the last quarter of the twentieth century, and the percentage of children born to single mothers jumped from 18 in 1980 to 40 in 2007. This increase was part of a trend in developed countries worldwide, and among these nations the United States ranked in the middle between Iceland at the top and Japan at the bottom.

Since the 1950s, Billy Graham, a charismatic Southern Baptist evangelist from North Carolina, had used television to conduct nationwide crusades that attracted millions of followers. Television became an even greater instrument in the hands of New Right Christian preachers in the 1970s and 1980s. The Reverend Pat Robertson of Virginia founded the Christian Broadcasting Network, and ministers such as Jerry Falwell used the airwaves to great effect. What distinguished Falwell and Robertson from earlier evangelists like Graham was their fusion of religion and electoral politics. In 1979 Falwell founded the Moral Majority, an organization that backed political candidates who supported a “family values” social agenda. Within two years of its creation, the Moral Majority counted four million members who were eager to organize in support of New Right politicians. The alliance of economic, intellectual, and religious conservatives offered a formidable challenge to liberalism.

The Triumph of Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980 consolidated the growing New Right coalition and reshaped American politics for a generation to come. The former movie actor had transformed himself from a New Deal Democrat into a conservative Republican politician when he ran for governor of California in 1966. As governor, he implemented conservative ideas of free enterprise and small government and denounced Johnson’s Great Society for threatening private property and individual liberty. “Government,” Reagan observed, “is like a baby, an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.” His winning combination of support for conservative economic and social issues carried him to the presidency.

Reagan triumphed over Jimmy Carter and John Anderson, a moderate Republican who ran as an independent candidate (Map 27.3). The high unemployment and inflation of the late 1970s worked in Reagan’s favor. Reagan appealed to a coalition of conservative Republicans and disaffected Democrats, promising to cut taxes and reduce spending, to relax federal supervision over civil rights programs, and to end what was left of expensive Great Society measures and affirmative action. Finally, he energized members of the religious right, who flocked to the polls to support Reagan’s demands for voluntary prayer in the public schools, defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, and a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion.

Reagan’s first priority, however, was stimulating the stagnant economy. The president’s strategy, known as Reaganomics, reflected the ideas of supply-side economists and conservative Republicans. Stating that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Reagan asked Congress for a huge income tax cut of 30 percent over three years, a reduction in spending for domestic programs of more than $40 billion, and new monetary policies to lower rising rates for loans.

MAP 27.3

The Election of 1980 Ronald Reagan won 50.7 percent of the popular vote in the 1980 election, but his margin of victory over Jimmy Carter was much greater in the electoral vote. Reagan won the votes of the South and many disaffected Democrats in the urban North. A third-party candidate, John Anderson of Illinois, won 6.6 percent of the popular vote, demonstrating significant disapproval with both major parties.

The president did not operate in isolation from the rest of the world. He learned a great deal from Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister who took office two years before Reagan. Thatcher combated inflation by slashing welfare programs, selling off publicly owned companies, and cutting back health and education programs. An advocate of supply-side economics, Thatcher reduced income taxes on the wealthy by more than 50 percent to encourage new investment. West Germany also moved toward the right under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who reined in welfare spending. In the 1980s, Reaganomics and Thatcherism dominated the United States and the two most powerful nations of Western Europe.

In March 1981, Reagan survived a nearly fatal assassin’s bullet. More popular than ever after his recovery, the president persuaded the Democratic House and the Republican Senate to pass his economic measures in slightly modified form. The initial results were disastrous—unemployment rose to 9.5 percent in the wake of government cutbacks in spending. However, the government’s tight money policies, as engineered by the Federal Reserve Board, reduced inflation from 14 percent in 1980 to 4 percent in 1984. By 1983 the unemployment rate had also fallen, while the gross national product grew by a healthy 4.3 percent, an indication that the recession of the previous two years had ended.

The success of Reaganomics came at the expense of the poor and the lower middle class. The Reagan administration slashed federal spending by cutting benefits that affected mainly the poor and marginal workers dependent on government supplements. The president reduced spending for food stamps, school lunches, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (welfare), and Medicaid, while maintaining programs that middle- class voters relied on, such as Medicare and Social Security. However, rather than diminishing the government, the savings that came from reduced social spending went into increased military appropriations. Together with lower taxes, these expenditures benefited large corporations that received government military contracts and favorable tax write-offs.

As a result of Reagan’s economic policies, financial institutions and the stock market earned huge profits. The Reagan administration relaxed antitrust regulations, encouraging corporate mergers to a degree unseen since the Great Depression. Fueled by falling interest rates, the stock market created wealth for many investors. The number of millionaires doubled during the 1980s, as the top 1 percent of families gained control of 42 percent of the nation’s wealth and 60 percent of corporate stock. Reflecting this phenomenal accumulation of riches, television produced melodramas depicting the lives of oil barons (such as Dallas and Dynasty), whose characters lived glamorous lives filled with intrigue and extravagance. In Wall Street (1987), a film that captured the money ethic of the period, Gordon Gekko, the main character, utters the memorable line summing up the moment: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”

In reality, however, greed did not work for most people. The gap between the rich and the poor widened. During the 1980s, the nation’s share of poor people rose from 11.7 percent to 13.5 percent, representing 33 million Americans. Severe cutbacks in government social programs that had alleviated suffering in the past worsened the plight of the poor. Poverty disproportionately affected women and minorities. The number of homeless people grew to as many as 400,000 during the 1980s, as chronically unemployed workers, the mentally ill, and single mothers sought shelter in subways, under bridges, and in parks. While the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, the middle class diminished in size. From a high of 53 percent of families in the early 1970s, the middle class shrank to 49 percent in 1985.

The Reagan administration’s relaxed regulation of the corporate sector also contributed to the unbalanced economy. Federal agencies concerned with environmental protection, consumer product reliability, and occupational safety saw their key functions shifted to the states, which made them less effective. The president also aided big business by challenging labor unions. In 1981 air traffic controllers went on strike to gain higher wages and improved safety conditions. In response, the president fired the strikers who refused to return to work, and in their place he hired new controllers. Reagan’s anti-union actions both reflected and encouraged a decline in union membership throughout the 1980s, with union membership falling to its lowest level since the New Deal (16 percent). Without union protection, wages failed to keep up with inflation, further increasing the gap between rich and poor.

Reagan’s landslide victory over Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in 1984 sealed the national political transition from liberalism to conservatism. Voters responded overwhelmingly to the improving economy, Reagan’s defense of traditional social values, and his boundless optimism about America’s future. Despite the landslide, the election was notable for the nomination of Representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York as Mondale’s Democratic running mate, the first woman to run on a major party ticket for national office.

Reagan’s second term did not produce changes as significant as did his first term. Democrats still controlled the House and in 1986 recaptured the Senate. The Reagan administration focused on foreign affairs and the continued Cold War with the Soviet Union, thus escalating defense spending. Most of the Reagan economic revolution continued as before, but with serious consequences: The federal deficit mushroomed, and by 1989 the nation was saddled with a $2.8 trillion debt, a situation that jeopardized the country’s financial independence and the economic well-being of succeeding generations.

The president also reshaped the future through his nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court. Starting with the choice of Sandra Day O’Connor, the Court’s first female justice, in 1981, Reagan’s appointments moved the Court in a more conservative direction. The elevation of Associate Justice William Rehnquist to chief justice in 1986 reinforced this trend, which would have significant consequences for decades to come.

The Implementation of Social Conservatism

Throughout his two terms, President Reagan pushed the New Right’s social agenda with mixed success. Conservatives blamed political liberalism and an increasingly secular society for what they saw as a decline in family values. Their solution was a renewed focus on conservative Christian principles. In addition to trying to remove evolution and sex education from the classroom and bring in prayer and patriotism, the New Right stepped up its opposition to abortion. The Reagan administration required family planning agencies seeking federal funding to notify parents of children under age eighteen before dispensing birth control, cut off financial aid to international organizations supporting abortion, and provided funds for “chastity clinics” that preached sexual abstinence. Despite these efforts, conservatives could not convince the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Social conservatives also felt threatened by more tolerant views of homosexuality. The gay rights movement, which began in the 1960s, strengthened during the 1970s as thousands of gay men and lesbians made known their sexual orientation, fought discrimination, and expressed pride in their sexual identity. However, the gay rights movement also inspired personal and political attacks. Then, in the early 1980s, physicians traced an outbreak of a deadly illness among gay men to a virus that attacked the immune system (human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV), making it vulnerable to infections that were usually fatal. This disease, called acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), was transmitted through bodily fluids during sexual intercourse, through blood transfusions, and by intravenous drug use. Scientists could not explain why the disease initially showed up among gay men in the United States; however, New Right critics insisted that AIDS was a plague visited on sexual deviants by an angry God. “The poor homosexuals,” mocked Pat Buchanan, a Reagan adviser. “They have declared war on nature and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.” As the epidemic spread beyond the gay community, mainly through blood transfusions and illegal intravenous drug use, gay rights organizers and their heterosexual allies raised research money and public awareness. By the early 1990s, medical advances had begun to extend the lives of AIDS patients and manage the disease.

Increased immigration also troubled social conservatives as another reflection of the general societal breakdown. The number of immigrants to the United States rose dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s following the relaxation of foreign quota restrictions after 1965 (Figure 27.1). During these decades, immigrants came mainly from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and eastern and southern Asia and tended to settle in California, Florida, Texas, New York, and New Jersey. Like those who came nearly a century before, most sought economic opportunity, political freedom, and escape from wars; and like their predecessors, they brought with them foreign languages, their native cultural practices, and poverty. By 1990 one-third of Los Angeles’s and New York City’s populations were foreign-born, figures similar to the high numbers of European immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century.

FIGURE 27.1 Immigrant Arrivals to the United States, 1960-2000

Following the relaxation of foreign quota restrictions after 1965, immigration to the United States rose dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, peaking in the early 1990s. Between 1970 and 2000, nearly 21 million immigrants arrived in the United States, mainly from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and eastern and southern Asia.

Source: Data from 2000 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

As happened during previous immigration waves, many Americans whose ancestors had immigrated to the United States generations earlier expressed hostility toward the new immigrants. The New Right provoked traditional fears that immigrants took away jobs and depressed wages, and questioned whether these culturally diverse people could assimilate into American society. Cities and states, led by California, enacted laws making English their official language. The migration of illegal immigrants intensified the controversy. In 1985 the Reagan administration, with bipartisan congressional support, fashioned a compromise that extended amnesty to undocumented aliens residing in the United States for a specified period and allowed them to acquire legal status. At the same time, the act penalized employers who hired new illegal workers. The measure allowed Reagan and the Republicans to appeal to Latino voters in the Sun Belt states while convincing the New Right that the administration intended to halt further undocumented immigration.

The Presidency of George H. W. Bush

After Reagan left office, his two-term vice president, George H. W. Bush, carried on his legacy. The son of a former senator from Connecticut, Bush made a fortune in the Texas oil business and began his political career as a member of Congress in the mid-1960s. After losing the Republican nomination to Reagan in 1980, Bush joined the ticket as vice president. In doing so, he abandoned his moderate Republican political views and became a loyal follower of Reaganomics. In his 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, Bush defended conservative principles when he promised: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” The Republican candidate attacked Dukakis for his liberal positions and accused him of being soft on crime. Bush also affirmed his own opposition to abortion and support for gun rights and the death penalty. At the same time, however, he also called for a “kinder, gentler nation” in dealing with social justice and the environment.

Once in office, George Bush had to deal with problems that he inherited from his predecessor. Reagan’s economic programs and military spending had left the nation with a mounting federal budget deficit, which reached nearly $300 billion in 1992 and slowed economic growth, resulting in another recession in 1990. Unemployment reached 7 percent, and state and local governments had difficulty paying for the educational, health, and social services that the Reagan and Bush administrations had transferred to them. To reverse the downward spiral, Bush abandoned his “no new taxes” pledge. In 1990 he supported a deficit reduction package that included more than $130 billion in new taxes, which failed to solve the economic problems and angered Reagan conservatives who had never fully trusted Bush. He also departed from anti-Washington conservatives when he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), extending an assortment of protections to some 40 million Americans with physical and mental handicaps.

Bush had a mixed record on the environment. In 1989 he continued supporting oil drilling after the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef off the coast ofAlaska, dumping nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. By contrast, in 1990 the president signed the Clean Air Act, which reduced emissions from automobiles and power plants. Two years later, however, the president opposed international efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions, greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Bush also courted conservatives in his nomination of Clarence Thomas to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American justice. Thomas belonged to a rising group of conservative blacks who shared Republican views supporting private enterprise and the free market system and opposing affirmative action. As chief of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Reagan, Thomas had generally weakened the agency’s enforcement of racial and gender equality in the workplace. He also opposed abortion and denounced welfare. Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment did not stop his advancement. Following his confirmation battle in 1991, Thomas became one of the most conservative members of the Court.

Despite Bush’s overtures to conservatives, his popularity plummeted to 34 percent in 1992 based largely on his inability to revive the sagging economy. He ran for reelection against Governor William Jefferson (Bill) Clinton of Arkansas, a candidate skilled in the art of political maneuvering. Learning from the mistakes of Michael Dukakis, Clinton ran as a centrist Democrat who promised to reduce the federal deficit by raising taxes on the wealthy and who supported conservative social policies such as the death penalty, tough measures against crime, and welfare reform. Though he did pledge to extend health care and opposed discrimination against homosexuals, Clinton relied on his mainstream southern Democratic credentials to deflect any claims that he was a liberal. Bush also faced a challenge from the independent candidate Ross Perot, a wealthy self-made businessman from Texas, whose campaign against rising government deficits won 19 percent of the popular vote, mostly at Bush’s expense. In turn, Clinton defeated the incumbent by a two-to-one electoral margin.


• What was Reaganomics, and what were its most important long-term consequences?

• How did conservative ideas shape the social, cultural, and political landscape of the 1980s and 1990s?

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