The period from the end of World War II up until the late 1960s was very much the heyday of liberalism in the United States. Throughout this pivotal era in American history, there was a general consensus that the government had a more significant role to play in the running of the economy than was thought previously acceptable. At the same time, social attitudes, especially in relation to race, gradually underwent significant change. To some extent, the state of the economy was closely linked with the prevailing social climate. For as long as the liberal interventionist state continued to deliver sustainable levels of economic growth, it seemed that society would itself become more liberal, open, and tolerant.
There were of course dissenters from the prevailing consensus. Die-hard conservatives had never accepted either the increased economic role of government nor the spread of liberal social values. But such figures tended to be marginalized, even more so after their torch-bearer Senator Barry Goldwater had been comprehensively defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election.
As the United States entered the 1970s, however, liberalism started to unravel. The chief cause of its decline was the world economic crisis, precipitated by a sudden sharp increase in the price of oil. It seemed that the policies that had served the United States so well since the war had no answers to the growing problems facing the economy. And in the wake of economic problems came social problems too, with drugs, violent crime, and family breakdown becoming a regular feature of American society.
An opportunity was thus created for a social and economic alternative, and conservatives were more than happy to step into the breach and provide it. No longer the scorned and marginalized figures of old, they came to greater prominence in both the media and political life, offering the American people a competing vision to a dominant but fading liberalism.
Allied with the increasingly powerful Religious Right, conservatives gradually began to take over the Republican Party, giving them a public platform from which to disseminate their ideas. And those ideas, whether people agreed with them or not, were readily comprehensible: the economic crisis was largely a consequence of too much government involvement; the government needed to get out of the way, cut taxes, and regulations and let businesses do what they do best—create jobs. Conservatives said society had lost its way by departing from traditional family values; the results were increased crime, drug abuse, and a growing disrespect for authority. And in relation to crime, the courts and the politicians had been too soft, allowing way too many criminals to evade appropriate punishment. Liberalism had seriously undermined respect for law and order, claimed conservatives, and a new, much tougher approach was needed.
Gradually, conservatives began to lay the groundwork for the so-called Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. In the process, the old liberal consensus collapsed. Government was no longer seen as part of the solution to social and economic problems; government was the...
problem. A new consensus emerged, one based upon a much more hands-off role for government in running the economy, allied with a sense that society had departed too far from traditional norms and values. To a large extent, this consensus still holds in American politics today. Whereas many politicians at the national level are proud to proclaim themselves conservative, one would be hard-pressed to find similar affirmations from those, who in a bygone era, would've gladly identified themselves as being liberal.