The Resurgence of Conservatism in American Society in the 1970s and 1980s
In the 1980 presidential campaign, the Democrats were in trouble from the beginning. President Carter sought reelection, but his image was deeply hurt by double-digit inflation and bungling foreign affairs. The next Kennedy, Edward (Ted) Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic nomination. His campaign was damaged with the "Chappaquiddick incident" of 1969. After a night of partying, he'd driven his car off a bridge killing his female passenger, then delayed reporting it.
The liberal wave started during the Progressive Era, gained momentum with FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, crested with LBJ’s Great Society in the 1960s, and ran out of steam by the mid-1970s. Conservative Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidential election by arguing that “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The Departments of Energy (1977-) and Education (1979-) expanded federal bureaucracy some in the ’70s, but the public mood was shifting back toward smaller government at all levels. Ralph Nader’s idea of creating a bureaucracy for consumer protection went nowhere. The Civil Aeronautics Board went away in 1985 and the Interstate Commerce Commission (railroads and trucking) in 1995, their safety enforcements transferred to other agencies. America, of course, never swings all the way in one direction or the other — right or left — but the momentum and rhetoric shifted right during the conservative resurgence of the 1970s and after. To repurpose for liberalism what Winston Churchill said about the meaning of World War II’s Battle of El-Alamein for Nazi Germany: “this was not the end. It was not even the beginning of the end. But it was, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Does America really have a “big government?” Proportional to the size of its country, America’s government as of 2015 was fairly small by international standards, spending around 14.5% of national GDP output compared to Australia (18%), Germany (19%), Russia (19%), the United Kingdom (19%), and Canada (21%). These World Bank figures are lower than the Office of Management & Budget figures (right) that usually hover ~20%. The U.S. leads the world in total expenditures, though, spending ~$3.8 trillion in 2016 while collecting $3.3 trillion in revenue. America spends more on its military than its next eight competitors and twice that of China and Russia combined (SIPRI), but doesn’t provide health insurance for those under 65, except for Medicaid at the state level. Of course, spending and military power aren’t the only measures of a government’s size or reach; there’s also its legal/regulatory system and the power of law enforcement. Domestically, there’s a lot of noise about “tyranny” but, collectively, U.S. laws don’t stand out as being overly oppressive in comparison to other nations. Look at the chart on the right and think of how steadily the drumbeat has grown over the last decades about the government getting bigger and bigger. Some of that noise originates among those profiting from beating the drum, selling airtime on radio and cable or ads on blogs. Some of the noise originates from quarters unfamiliar with real tyranny or suspicious of a deep state within intelligence agencies operating outside the public or even regular government’s purview.
The historical literature of American conservatism is at a crossroads. Over the past two decades it has been one of the most dynamic subfields in American history, the subject of dozens of journal articles, books, and dissertations. In contrast to the many polemical works on conservatism that populate bookstores, this body of scholarship is wide-ranging, ecumenical, and grounded in serious archival research. The catalogs of major university and commercial presses from the past few years reveal titles on subjects ranging from libertarianism to the southern agrarians to the development of Christian conservatism (Judith Stein, 2010). Recent meetings of the Organization of American Historians (oah) and the American Historical Association have seen panels on the intellectual history of conservatism, teaching the Right, the Right in the 1960s, military history and conservatism, and the conservative movement in the 1970s. The 2010 meeting of the oah even featured a metapanel on the expansion of the subfield: “How Should Historians Study Conservatism Now That Studying the Right Is Trendy?” In 1994 Alan Brinkley wrote an oft-cited essay for a forum published in the American Historical Review arguing that historians had ignored conservatism to the point that it was an “orphan” of American political history. Today, instead of decrying the absence of scholarship on conservatism, historians might be forgiven for asking whether there is anything left to study in the history of the Right. It has explored a variety of different reasons for the growing power of the Right, ranging from anticommunism to civil rights opposition to the reaction against labor unions to discomfort with changing sexual norms. The questions that this new work on the conservative movement raises should be of great concern to any scholar working in twentieth-century American history and to anyone who cares about contemporary American politics (David T. Courtwright, 2010). In the early 1990s it was still possible to see the story of the twentieth century in terms of the triumph and expansion of liberalism, from the New Deal through the civil rights movement, feminism, the gay rightsmovement, and environmentalism.
On the whole, president Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, prohibiting discrimination against citizens with physical or mental disabilities. In 1992, he signed a major water projects bill that reformed the distribution of subsidized federal water in the West. In 1990, Bush's Department of Education challenged the legality of college scholarships targeted for racial minorities. In 1991, Bush nominated conservative African American Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. He opposed affirmative action. Thomas's nomination was approved by the Senate despite accusations from Anita Hill that Thomas had sexually harassed her. By 1992, the unemployment rate had exceeded 7% and the federal budget deficit continued to grow. Bush was forced to increase taxes to generate revenue for the federal government.
Burgin, “Return of Laissez-Faire”; Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism; and Juan Gabriel Valdes, Pinochet’s Economists: The Chicago School in Chile (Cambridge, Eng., 1995).
Julian E. Zelizer, Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years, 1981–1989; A Brief History with Documents (Boston, 2010)
David T. Courtwright, No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America (Cambridge, Mass., 2010)
Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies (New Haven, 2010)