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I would say that one of the critical elements in the rise of Conservatism in the modern American political landscape was what Nixon termed as "the silent majority." On some levels, the social unrest of the 1960s went very far in alienating this group, contributing to the feelings that their voices were not being validated by the political authority and social landscape:
The Silent Majority was mostly populated by blue collar people who did not take an active part in politics. They did, in some cases, support the conservative policies of many politicians. Others were not particularly conservative politically, but resented what they saw as disrespect for American institutions.
Whether valid or not, Nixon's invocation of this group resonated and helped to articulate the condition of Conservative validation. Adding to this was the concept of the "Reagan Democrat," who came to prominence as traditional Democratic voters broke with their party and voted for the Conservative Reagan in 1980 and 1984. These individuals were almost a modern incarnation of the Nixonian "Silent Majority:"
..."Reagan Democrats" no longer saw Democrats as champions of their working class aspirations, but instead saw them as working primarily for the benefit of others: the very poor, feminists, the unemployed, African Americans, Latinos, and other groups. In addition, Reagan Democrats enjoyed gains during the period of economic prosperity that coincided with the Reagan administration following the "malaise" of the Carter Administration. They also supported Reagan's strong stance on national security and opposed the 1980s Democratic Party on such issues as pornography, crime, and taxes.
I think that both emerging demographics in Nixon and Regan's times, the last two strong Republican presidents, might help to explain the resurgence of Conservatism.
I would argue that the resurgence of conservatism has come as a backlash against the major changes that have been happening in the US since the 1960s.
There are many ways in which the US has changed in this time. Some examples are:
- Social changes. Minorities of all sorts have become more vocal in demanding rights and have been given more rights by the government. Women work more outside the home than they did in 1964. There are more immigrants and America is generally becoming less white. All of these are serious changes that have caused a backlash.
- The Vietnam War. This conflict exposed differences among Americans in terms of their attitudes towards the military and towards traditional ideas of patriotism. The protests and upheaval associated with the war also caused a backlash among many.
- Government economic policies. Government has grown a great deal during this time -- from LBJ's Great Society to G.W. Bush's Medicare drug benefit to "Obamacare." This has caused a conservative backlash against "big government."
So, America has changed in many important ways since 1964. These changes have caused a backlash among many who are not comfortable with the changes. This is why conservatism has come to be such a major force in our politics today.
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