The Conservative Resurgence

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What are the reasons why new conservatism rose to prominence in the US between 1960–1989?

The rise of new conservatism was largely a result of libertarian and family-values ideals combining in the latter part of the twentieth century. This spurred on reactionary movements against greater government involvement under the Great Society and the counterculture and civil rights movements.

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The rise of new conservatism was partly an outgrowth of the libertarian movement that began in the 1950s. Supporters of this believed that unfettered capitalism and individual autonomy were at the very heart of American notions of liberty. They felt that the regulatory state that resulted from the New Deal...

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The rise of new conservatism was partly an outgrowth of the libertarian movement that began in the 1950s. Supporters of this believed that unfettered capitalism and individual autonomy were at the very heart of American notions of liberty. They felt that the regulatory state that resulted from the New Deal was a threat to this. By the 1960s, many young conservatives were concerned about the growing nature of the federal government. The Great Society programs of President Johnson were seen as a continuation of the overreach of big government. This perceived threat led many to turn towards a more conservative viewpoint.

Race relations also led many to a shift towards conservatism. Under President Johnson, the Democrats became the party of promoting civil rights in the country. This led to segregationist white southerners abandoning the Democratic Party.

Much of new conservatism was a reactionary movement against the changing social norms of the time. Many Americans felt threatened by the counterculture movement that was sweeping the nation in the 1960s and 1970s. These conservatives were focused on morality and virtue and less on the regulatory side of government. They wanted to restore what they saw as the erosion of traditional values that they saw as the bedrock of American identity. They felt that the expansion of rights in the country had gone too far. They were also alarmed at the progress of the sexual revolution as characterized by Roe v. Wade and increased access to birth control. They saw the increasing role of women in the workplace coupled with declining birth rates as a real threat to American values. Even the passage of Title IX in 1972 galvanized many new conservatives. These conservatives felt that these changes were leading to the erosion of society as well as law and order. Backed by numerous religious groups, conservatives rose in prominence and influence during this period.

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Although he was crushed by Johnson in the 1964 presidential election, Barry Goldwater's vision of the new conservatism, as articulated in "The Conscience of a Conservative," galvanized the right in the 1960s and 1970s with its emphasis on freedom defined as "personal responsibility."

Conservatism grew as the Great Society programs under President Johnson expanded government in the 1960s. This elicited the consternation of those who thought the federal government's role in people's lives should shrink. Other catalysts included the widespread social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s: assassinations, Civil Rights protests, Vietnam protests and student protests made the world seem (to some) rife with lawlessness and crime. This allowed Nixon to run successfully on a law and order platform in 1968.

As inflation increased in the 1970s due to the worldwide spike in oil prices, many people blamed taxes and government programs for their smaller paychecks and not the decisions of the Arab oil cartel to cut back on oil production. Furthermore, the successful passage of Proposition 13 in California, a "tax revolt" which froze property taxes, showed conservatives that they could run successfully on a "no tax" platform. 

Roe v. Wade, which allowed women the right to an abortion, charged up the religious right, which believed the precedent established in this case was an instance of judicial overreach and felt abortion was murder. They became vocal proponents of conservative candidates running on anti-abortion platforms.

Abortion and other social issues, lower taxes, and "personal responsibility" became the winning mantras that propelled Ronald Reagan to power against a backdrop of economic distress in 1980.

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If I were asked to name four reasons why conservatism rose to prominence in the time period you mention, I would list the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Great Society, and the Counterculture.  These can all be boiled down to one reason as well:  we can say that conservativism rose to prominence because many Americans felt that the US had moved too far towards liberalism.  All four of the factors I mentioned were part of this move to the left.

The Civil Rights Movement helped move America towards conservatism by awakening racial resentment among whites in the South.  Beginning with this movement, many whites have come to feel that liberals favor non-whites over whites.  The move towards conservatism is partly a move away from liberalism since many whites now feel that liberals are anti-white.

The Vietnam War helped move America towards conservatism because of the protests that it provoked. During the Vietnam War era, liberals were very anti-war.  Some liberals even seemed to be anti-America.  Many Americans who might once have been liberal or moderate were appalled by the attitudes of some anti-war activists.  They moved towards conservatism and its overtly patriotic attitudes.

The Great Society helped move America towards conservatism because it spent tremendous amounts of money trying to fix things that many Americans did not regard as problems.  Once the Great Society programs were enacted, the government was spending on (among other things) anti-poverty programs, on environmental protection, on consumer protection, and on the arts.  Now, the government was taking taxpayer money and spending it on things that did not seem important to many people or, at the very least, did not seem like things that the government should be responsible for.  Because of this, many Americans moved towards conservatism and its promise of smaller government and lower taxes.

Finally, the Counterculture helped move America towards conservatism because it seemed like traditional values were being completely thrown away.  Many Americans were horrified by the “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” focus of the hippies.  They felt that American society was turning its back on traditional morality and decency.  They gravitated towards conservatism with its greater respect for authority.

In all four of these instances, we see America becoming much more liberal in the 1960s.  As the country moved more towards the left, a backlash emerged among people who thought things had gone too far.  This backlash caused conservatism to rise to prominence during this time.

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