The Conservative Resurgence

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In what ways did the 1970's signify a shift towards more conservative politics in American life? What factors, movements, and groups helped bring this change about?

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The 1970s did, to a large degree, signify a shift towards greater conservatism in the United States.  We typically think of the 1980s as the more conservative decade since that was the decade of Ronald Reagan.  However, the election of Reagan in 1980 was largely brought about by factors that had been percolating throughout the 1970s.  Let us examine some of the causes of this move towards conservatism.

One major cause of this move was the backlash against the 1960s.  The 1960s had been a time of growing liberalism.  During the 1960s, American society became more liberal with the rise of the counterculture.  This led to a breakdown of traditional values in such areas as sexuality, patriotism, and respect for authority.  In the 1970s, there was something of a backlash against this trend.  It can be seen in such things as the rise of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority.  This trend can be said to have been accelerated by the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.  This decision galvanized conservative Christians and encouraged them to become more involved in politics.

The 1960s were also the decade of Civil Rights.  By the early 1970s, this had led to such things as affirmative action and attempts to bus students from black neighborhoods to white schools to promote integration.  These actions caused many whites to feel that the government was helping minorities at the expense of working class whites.  This feeling was captured in such things as the anti-busing movement in Boston and in the movement of working class white people towards the Republican Party.  During this time, the GOP came to be seen as the party of white people while the Democrats became more of the party of minorities.  This helped to push whites towards conservatism and Republicanism.

The 1960s were also the decade of really big government spending on social programs and of greater regulation.  This was the time of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty.  Even under President Nixon, the government was quite willing to involve itself in the economy.  It was, for example, under Nixon that the Environmental Protection Agency was created.  This agency is now seen by conservatives as a major example of excessive government regulation.  Because there was so much regulation and so much government spending in the 1960s and early 1970s, many people in the 1970s came to believe that the government was getting to be too big.

By the end of the 1970s, these factors had pushed American politics far to the right of where it had previously been.  Reagan had been seen as a Goldwater-type who was too radical for American politics in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.  By the end of the 1970s, American political opinions had changed enough that Reagan would be elected president in the first year of the next decade.  Thus, we can certainly say that the 1970s represented a movement toward conservatism.  This happened because Americans were concerned with cultural, racial, and governmental changes that had dominated the 1960s.

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