What are three reasons for the rise of conservatism in the late 20th century?

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There were a number of factors that led to a significant rise in the American conservative movement in the latter part of the 20th Century. One had to do with the increasing dissatisfaction with many of the liberal projects promoted by President Johnson as part of the welfare programs of...

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There were a number of factors that led to a significant rise in the American conservative movement in the latter part of the 20th Century. One had to do with the increasing dissatisfaction with many of the liberal projects promoted by President Johnson as part of the welfare programs of his Great Society. By the 1970s, it had become clear to many that the federal government was unable to solve many of America's domestic issues through these programs. This caused many to move in a more conservative direction when addressing issues such as poverty, housing, and racial injustice.

The rise in conservatism can also be partially explained as a response to the Democratic Party's rather pacifist foreign policy. With the Vietnam War raging and the country's Communist foes seemingly gaining in strength, there were many Americans who saw the Democrats as too weak to put a stop to these problems. Many favored the stronger approach towards countering communism championed by the conservatives in government.

Social issues also played a large part. During the 1980s, the Christian right stepped up its political involvement. This informal coalition of evangelical and fundamental Christian churches had been around for some time. However, by increasingly pushing a conservative political agenda, it started gaining more support among mainstream denominations. Mobilizing its efforts through grassroots activism and sophisticated lobbying, the Christian conservative movement became a vocal and powerful force by the end of the century. As such, it was able to successfully promote much of its conservative agenda.

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One factor was the decline of the post-war economic consensus in Western capitalist countries. For many years parties across the political spectrum had committed themselves to certain economic policies in order to avoid a rerun of the Great Depression. Such policies included high levels of public spending, the maintenance of full employment, and an increased role for government in the provision of social welfare.

By the late 1970s, however, the consensus began to break down as the prevailing Keynesian orthodoxy was seen not to be working. Both inflation and unemployment rose sharply, leading some on the political right to look for alternatives. A case for radical economic reform had been made for a number of years by conservative figures such as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. But their message went largely unheeded during the heyday of post-war liberalism. However, by the late 70s, and against the backdrop of a struggling economy, more and more Americans began throwing their support behind a conservative, free market agenda.

A second reason was the increased prominence in American public life of the religious right. What had previously been little more than a fringe movement began to exercise considerable influence within the Republican Party, shifting the balance of power away from the East Coast Rockefeller establishment towards evangelical Christians, mainly in the South and West of the country.

If the advocates of monetarism, free market economics, and Public Choice theory gave conservatism its intellectual heft, the religious right provided its social ideology. There was a widespread sense of social malaise in the United States in the late 70s, with a perception among many that liberal policies of successive administrations had led to increased crime, drug abuse, and family breakdown. Christian groups were at the forefront of campaigns to defend traditional, Bible-based teachings in relation to social issues. In particular, the religious right led an increasingly strident campaign to get Roe v Wade overturned, or at the very least, to restrict access to abortions at the statewide level.

A third reason for the rise of conservatism was a sense that the United States was somehow losing its way on the international stage. The Carter administration had been perceived as weak in relation to the ever-present threat of the Soviet Union. Conservatives decried what they saw as an overreaction to the failures of the Vietnam War, culminating in a less assertive, more diplomatic approach to foreign policy.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it seemed that this assessment had been largely vindicated. But worst than that for conservatives was the deposing of the Shah of Iran earlier that year and the subsequent taking of American hostages. To conservatives, these dangerous developments were the direct consequence of what they felt was a weak, vacillating foreign policy on the part of the Carter administration. As a result, the United States stood greatly diminished on the world stage, they believed, leading many to conclude that a more robust, more ideological approach was needed if the United States were to regain its position of international authority.

 

 

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There are a number of reasons for the rise of conservatism in the late 20th century. First, the threat of communism caused many Americans to begin defining themselves and their beliefs in opposition to those of the communists. Part of this included looking to the past (hence the term "conserve") for inspiration and ideas. They celebrated the American founding fathers and the traditions they instituted because these separated them from the communists.

Second, the end of the New Deal era led Americans to seek a new vision for the future. The New Deal era was characterized by expansive government programs and spending. As the Cold War progressed, people identified the New Deal vision for America as reminiscent of socialism. Conservatives provided a vision for America that advocated less government intervention and greater trust in the private business sector. For many Americans, the new vision was conservatism.  

Third, the conservative movement produced charismatic leaders who succeeded at communicating conservative ideals to the American public. Russel Kirk's The Conservative Mind and William F. Buckley's creation of National Review provided the conservative movement with intellectual capital, and politicians such as Ronald Reagan gave conservatives a political outlet.

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