After a wave of conservatism during the post-World War I economic boom known as the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression soured most Americans on laissez-faire economics and ushered in a rapid cultural shift toward social and fiscal liberalism, often known as the New Deal Coalition. Until the late 1960s, most Americans supported strong government intervention in the economy and, to varying degrees, in public policies to increase the rights of women and minorities. In 1968, however, American culture began to shift back toward conservatism in what is now known as the conservative resurgence. Between 1968 and the early 2000s, followed by a brief Tea Party eruption, how and why did America become more politically conservative?
Previous Era: The New Deal Coalition (1932-68)
In November 1932, Democratic presidential nominee Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), governor of New York, won in a huge landslide. He had famously promised a “new deal” for the American people, meaning direct federal aid for the millions of unemployed and struggling citizens affected by the ongoing Great Depression. His Republican opponent, incumbent president Herbert Hoover, had believed in laissez-faire economics and resisted the idea that the federal government should directly intervene in the economy. The depths of the Depression had soured most Americans on the laissez-faire economics of the Roaring Twenties, and Roosevelt’s New Deal, which he swiftly enacted upon taking office in March 1933, was extremely popular.
Active federal government intervention in the economy continued throughout the 1930s and into World War II, shortly after Roosevelt’s unprecedented election to a third term as president. Wartime spending finally healed the US economy fully from the Great Depression, and wartime executive orders pushing equal pay and anti-discrimination measures helped plant the seeds of both the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. The New Deal Coalition of broad support for federal government intervention in both the economy and to support the disenfranchised – such as GI Bill benefits for veterans – remained relatively strong after the war ended.
Setting the Stage: Post-World War II Conservatism
The Republican Party, damaged by Herbert Hoover’s hesitancy to provide direct federal aid between 1930 and 1932, did not return to prominence until 1946 when it retook control of Congress for the first time since 1931. Many voters were tired of wartime economic controls, such as rationing. The abolishment of wartime controls led to inflation, keeping voters aggravated at Democratic president Harry S. Truman, who had replaced FDR in April 1945. In 1947, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, placing restrictions on the actions of labor unions and weakening their power. This was the first major reversal of a New Deal reform.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Despite the sudden re-emergence of conservatism, especially against organized labor, the New Deal Coalition held, aided by a surprise re-election upset victory by Truman. Reinvigorated Republicans, plus Southern Democrats breaking away from their party due to anger over Truman’s civil rights executive orders, made it seem that Truman would not win a second term in the White House. However, Truman campaigned aggressively and appealed to the common person, advocating strengthening the New Deal with his Fair Deal proposals. In the end, the incumbent won a narrow re-election, surprising many journalists. Famously, the Chicago Tribune had been so prepared for a victory by Republican nominee Thomas E. Dewey that it pre-printed the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Undercurrent: The Cold War and the Second Red Scare
Beginning in the late 1940s, a growing movement of anti-leftist sentiment emerged due to the brewing Cold War between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. Despite the popularity of FDR’s New Deal reforms, carried on by Truman, conservatives criticized new proposals of government economic programs as “socialist” or “communist.” In 1952, Truman famously criticized Republicans for labeling New Deal reforms as “socialism.” However, Truman was aggressively anti-communist when it came to foreign policy and adopted the policy of containment to prevent the geographic spread of communism.
Fear of communist infiltration in the late 1940s and early 1950s created the Second Red Scare, which led to government policies that curtailed the liberalism of many Democrats, lest they be considered “soft on communism.” Therefore, despite the continued success of the New Deal Coalition and overall liberalism, threats of being a socialist or communist sympathizer were an effective political weapon used by conservatives. This weaponization of anti-communism weakened after 1954 with the implosion of US Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), who had enjoyed a meteoric rise as a virulent anti-communist. Still, it would remain a tool of political conservatives throughout the Cold War era.
1965-68: Turbulent Times Hurt New Deal Democrats
The New Deal Coalition held through the two terms of Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, a political moderate who had been courted by both political parties when deciding to run for office. Eisenhower continued the New Deal Coalition trend of strong fiscal stimulus through infrastructure with his support for the interstate highway system and many civil defense programs and agencies. These programs covered both Cold War fears and natural disaster relief. Thus, when Democrats returned to prominence in 1960 with the election of young John F. Kennedy as president, there had been no return to conservatism. Kennedy amplified Truman and Eisenhower on the path of increasing civil rights for minorities.
Under Kennedy’s successor, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, the growing Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement began causing cultural clashes. After the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, tensions grew as many African Americans felt insufficient progress was being made in reducing discrimination and mistreatment. In 1966, the Black Panther Party was created and advocated for armed self-defense for African Americans rather than the strict nonviolence of Martin Luther King, Jr. Large race riots between 1965 and 1968 eroded some white moderate support for the Civil Rights Movement, and rising inflation from Vietnam War spending and Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty programs eroded support for his administration.
1968: Downfall of Liberal Icons
The Conservative Resurgence that began with Richard Nixon was likely aided by the tragic demise of two liberal icons shortly before the 1968 presidential election: Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and Civil Rights Movement icon Martin Luther King, Jr.
On April 4, Dr. King was shot dead on a hotel balcony by escaped fugitive James Earl Ray, prompting a wave of distress and mourning across the country. In the year prior to his assassination, King had been active in championing liberal causes beyond the Civil Rights Movement, such as the anti-war movement and pro-labor actions.
On June 6, US Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-MA), younger brother of former president John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in a hotel kitchen with a .22 caliber revolver. Similar to King, “Bobby” Kennedy was a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement (though, ironically, he had ordered King’s phones tapped in 1963 as Attorney General because he thought King might be a communist) and the poor. Kennedy was performing well in the Democratic presidential primaries and had just won the California primary on June 5, meaning he had a realistic shot of potentially winning the Democratic presidential nomination and, therefore, the presidency. With Kennedy’s assassination, the liberal New Deal Coalition had lost two major icons in 1968.
1968-69: Richard Nixon Calls for “Law and Order” & the “Silent Majority”
The race riots of 1965-68 and the growing protests against the Vietnam War and the draft led many political moderates and independents to support the “law and order” message of Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1968. This message was aided by the fact that the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was affected by riots. Many Americans had grown weary of the Johnson administration’s inability to control unrest and were receptive to Nixon’s appeal to conservative values.
After winning the presidential election in 1968, Richard Nixon also appealed to the “silent majority” of middle-class moderates who were not protesting in a famous speech on November 3, 1969. Positive reactions to Nixon’s speech, where he outlined his policy of Vietnamization to gradually withdraw US forces from Vietnam and transfer combat responsibilities to the military of South Vietnam, led the president to continue to war. Voters were also supportive of Nixon’s plans to reform some of Lyndon Johnson’s expensive Great Society welfare programs; he criticized the existing welfare system as “perpetuating dependency” on government support.
Early 1970s: Busing Debate Causes Rifts
Around the time of Richard Nixon’s elevation to the White House, a new policy was further weakening support for the Civil Rights Movement: desegregation busing. In the years since the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), relatively little had been achieved by banning the racial segregation of public schools. This was because most American cities were relatively racially segregated by neighborhood, meaning wealthier schools remained almost entirely white, and poorer schools remained almost entirely Black or Hispanic. Following the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Supreme Court decision in 1971, desegregation busing was declared constitutional and became a policy for many school districts.
Controversially, many white parents resisted busing, even in Northern cities. In some cities, like Boston, protests erupted upon enactment of desegregation busing. Black students were often subject to hostility upon entering schools that had recently been almost entirely white. Support for the program was not universally popular among minorities, either, as it often required their children to be bused far from home. As expected, Republican president Richard Nixon was opposed to desegregation busing, which did not hurt his record-setting 1972 re-election landslide, where he won the greatest popular vote margin in history.
1978: Bakke v. California Weakens Affirmative Action
Despite the humiliation of Richard Nixon between 1973 and 1974 due to fallout from the end of the Vietnam War and the infamous Watergate scandal, culminating with Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in August 1974, the nation did not return to a liberal political culture. Despite some environmental policy and foreign policy liberalism under Democratic president Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976 over Nixon’s former vice president Gerald Ford, there remained opposition to a return to the Civil Rights Movement policies of the 1960s.
In a move that some consider the end of the Civil Rights Movement era, the US Supreme Court significantly curtailed the use of affirmative action by universities in its 1978 decision in California v. Bakke. The decision declared that specific seats could not be set aside for minority applicants and that race could only be considered part of a holistic application process.
Affirmative action had become a popular tool in the early 1970s to remedy continued racial and gender discrimination in hiring and promotion, especially in government jobs like law enforcement. Mandatory affirmative action for federal contractors had begun in 1965 under Lyndon Johnson, but enforcement was often lax. Public opinion was often mixed, and survey results were highly variable based on the wording of questions. Many moderates and independents who had supported civil rights reforms up to 1965 were critical of affirmative action, likely due to fears that it could limit their own educational and career opportunities.
1980: Rise of the New Right With Ronald Reagan
The Bakke v. California decision arrived at the same time as a growing backlash to the Women’s Rights Movement and its goal of an Equal Rights Amendment. Many conservative factions united in 1980 around Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, former governor of California. The “New Right” included Protestant evangelicals, defense hawks, and business leaders who supported traditional conservative goals of lower taxes and reduced government regulations. They won support from many Americans who felt the Carter administration had placed too many burdensome regulations on businesses.
Reagan also reinvigorated conservatism by focusing on aggressive foreign policy, returning the Cold War to tensions not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis by denouncing communism and substantially increasing US military spending. He invaded the small island nation of Grenada in the Caribbean to overthrow a radical socialist regime, winning a geopolitical victory when the USSR did not respond. Finally, Reagan also cut taxes, handing a victory to traditional conservatives. Between the increased defense spending and the tax cuts, the US economy saw strong growth for the first time since the 1960s. Reagan’s reforms were popular, and he won a landslide re-election victory in 1984. His popularity continued through his second term and helped buoy his vice president, George Bush Sr., to victory in the 1988 presidential election over Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.
1994: Republican Congress & Contract With America
Despite the strong popularity of Reagan and his New Right coalition, a popular, youthful Democratic presidential nominee named Bill Clinton defeated Republican incumbent George Bush Sr. in the 1992 election. In the 1994 midterms, however, Republicans made a strong comeback. Borrowing from the ideas of Ronald Reagan, the Contract With America proposal unveiled by congressional Republicans listed eight promises they would pursue if they regained control of the legislature. They involved conservative fiscal and political reforms like auditing federal spending for waste, balancing the federal budget, and making it more difficult to pass tax increases.
With a strong economy similar to the Roaring Twenties, many moderates and liberals felt it was acceptable for the federal government to take a step back on social welfare programs. A welfare reform act in 1996 made several changes to “welfare”: it would now be primarily administered by the states, and the goal would be to limit the length of time one could receive benefits in order to incentivize people to find employment. Conservatives also complained about high crime rates, which peaked in 1991, and successfully pushed through a 1994 crime bill that increased punishments for violent crime. High crime rates in urban areas up through the early 1990s helped make conservative messaging on “law and order,” similar to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, continuously popular.
Early 2000s: “Compassionate Conservatism” & Terrorism Fears
The two terms of the Clinton presidency saw strong economic growth, reduced crime rates, and relative peace worldwide. This forced conservatives to change their messaging to remain competitive as the 2000 election rolled around. Texas governor George W. Bush, a relative moderate by today’s standards, introduced the concept of “compassionate conservatism” when running for president in 2000. He argued that conservative principles like competition and choice could be used to help ensure the welfare of children and those who were struggling. He praised the 1996 welfare reform and promoted education reform in 2002 using his new philosophy, arguing that the struggling deserved government support – but with accountability attached.
During George W. Bush’s presidency, conservative defense hawks received a major political boost after the September 11 terror attacks. Fears of future terrorist attacks on American soil helped solidify support for the Bush administration and its increased spending on the military and federal intelligence agencies. Despite significant protests against the Iraq War, which began in March 2003 with a US invasion of that nation due to allegations of its possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), Bush won re-election in 2004 with help from “security moms” who wanted to retain a president who was tough on terrorism and crime. Many considered security moms to be swing voters, making them a crucial voting bloc.
2010-12: Tea Party Republicans Battle New Liberal Reforms
The defense hawk wing of the Republican Party lost some support after 2004 due to the dismal situation in Iraq. By February 2005, with rising American casualties during the controversial occupation of Iraq, support for the conflict had dropped below 50 percent. When the 2008 election rolled around, the Iraq War had weakened public support for the Republican Party. The victory of Democratic nominee Barack Obama, the first nonwhite president in America’s history, seemed to predict a cultural shift back toward political liberalism. However, Obama’s election and the rapid passage of the Affordable Care Act, done by a slim Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress, resulted in the rise of a new conservative movement: Tea Party Republicans.
In 2010 and 2012, conservative Republicans made gains in Congress, largely campaigning on reducing taxes and government intervention in the economy – especially health care. Tea Partiers were successful in increasing media attention on government spending and the national debt. However, critics accused much Tea Party zeal to be based more on racism against Barack Obama, an African American, than genuine concern about fiscal issues. The Tea Party faction fizzled shortly after the 2012 elections, and some argue that it was the end of the true Conservative Resurgence. The election of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in 2016 is seen as part of a populist resurgence rather than the continuation of conservatism, with Democratic populist candidate Bernie Sanders also achieving unexpected success in the primaries.