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Essay: The 1980's - Return to Conservatism

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by Nicholas Klar

The year 1980 was a turning point for the U.S.A. An electoral majority of Americans repudiated the 'weak' Democratic President Jimmy Carter in favor of Ronald Reagan, a 'born again' conservative Republican who had vowed to return America to it's 'golden age' of the 1950's. It was judged in many quarters as a regression to old conservative values and part of a worldwide trend.

This paper will compare the Reagan/Bush era with the time of the Liberal Consensus to judge how successful the Republicans were in their quest to reinstate traditional values and prosperity. In this we will see that there were indeed similarities, but many contradictions too. It is also worthy to note that there was some real differences between the perceived and actual values of the two periods.

The Liberal Consensus of the 50's and early 60's can be traced back to the New Deal era of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Deal instituted much of what was taken for granted in later years, and formed a strong part of the consensus supported by both major parties. After WWII mainland United States had been left undamaged by the war and was now the industrial and military powerhouse of the world.

American exports and politics were became truly worldwide. Many Americans believed they '- had inherited the earth [as a] miraculous economic machine [which] had been anointed by God-.' [Terkel p.12] The Liberal Consensus came out of a time when most America felt good about their country and it's future. They had fought the 'good fight', and had won.

The economy was booming, with the American economy the envy of the world. It's citizens enjoyed superior wages (15X the rest of the world average) and a 35% increase in it's standard of living. In comparison, Ronald Reagan was elected coming out of a period of polarization and disillusionment. During the election campaign Reagan castigated Carter for his negative attitude.

Carter had dared to declare America's problem as a 'crisis of confidence'. At the same time American living standards and the economy were declining as it locked into serious competition with Europe, Japan, and rising Third World economies. In the 50's there was a decline in the 'sense of community' and rise in 'shopping mall' culture, which appeared to resurge in the 80's.

This factor is important. The leaders of post-war America had been intent on building consensus and unity. The new policies of the 80's were divisive, as Reagan and Bush sought to hold together a 'fragile alliance', and win over a majority through strong leadership.[Tyler May p.225] Whilst they pursued policies of polarization, they spoke of building unity. Roles were reversed, with government attempting to dictate to the people, not vice-versa.

There were two main groupings of the New Right, the social conservative and the laissez-faire conservative. These two worlds are fundamentally incompatible but converged, ' naming the forces responsible for America's decline.' [Klatch pp.195,6] Some acknowledged their divisions, others did not, but both enjoyed a shared hostility towards communism and big government. [Ibid p.5]

During the 50's it was argued that America had moved beyond ideology, had abolished class, and had achieved a consensus of government, business and intellectuals. Union membership began declining in the 1950's and opposition on the left became practically nil. There was no counterbalance to the all powerful consensus, at least none that was allowable. The vast majority wanted to prove themselves 'good Americans'. [Hodgson pp.69,75,98]

This was not the case during the 80's. The recession brought forth increasing militance and open dissent from those groups outside of the Republican 'alliance'. Grassroots organizations, on both the left and the right, were able to effectively voice their concerns to the American public. These groups evolved and adapted the successful actions of 60's and 70's protest movements. Independent information networks flourished outside of the mainstream media.

During the 80's Reagan and Bush successfully conjured up old Cold War images and a dualist world view of the 'Evil Empire'. Secular humanism in America was equated as one and the same as communism. [Klatch p.59] Hence communism, in all it's forms, was the enemy of both the church and free enterprise, and therefore also the U.S.

This was a integral part of the post WWII consensus when new change swept across America, and into Washington D.C. When Telford Taylor returned in 1949 after 7 years away he found it a very different place,

'I had left Washington at a time when it was still Roosevelt, liberalism, social action, and all these things. When I came back, the Dies committee, the cold war, I didn't know what hit me' [Ibid p.13]

Republicans in both eras played upon the attitudes of 'soft' Democrats. Democrats were blamed for the 'loss' of China to communism after WWII. Likewise Reagan accused Carter of 'losing' Nicaragua through his conciliatory approach.

McCarthyist type smear tactics were employed to alienate opponents of the Conservative agenda. Ultimately, Reagan and Bush won their places in the Oval office through the public support of what became known as 'Reagan Democrats'. Reagan in a sense was able to effectively 'scare the white working male.' [Aust. Left Review p.56]

In liberal consensus grew the elements of how America viewed itself. The preservation of capitalism was vital, avoiding the excesses of right and left. Capitalism was not to be the downtrodden type, therefore social welfare, taxes on the wealthy, and regulation were legitimate government roles. Growth was not 'worshipped' as it later would be. [Hodgson p.80]

This changed during the latter period when the Republican Party embraced far-right free market policies, lowering taxes and slashing government spending on social programs. Poverty was not spoken about and the middle class were portrayed as the 'most deprived'. These supposedly were the people most hurt by tax increases, and Democratic 'tax and spend' policies.

Economic and political liberties were the basis of laissez-faire conservatism within New Right Republicanism. There were no defined gender roles, as with the social conservatives, because the individual was at the heart of their beliefs. The public good was served by an individuals self interest. [Klatch pp.33,4] Hence, big government was viewed as the first step on the road to socialism.

The social conservatives viewed big government as usurping God's authority, whilst their laissez-faire counterparts saw it as an intrusion on there individual rights. [Klatch p.85] The Great Society of LBJ had seen more implicit government intervention as a good thing. [Gettlemen & Mermelstein p.121] The welfare system of the consensus was accused of being, ...designed to save money instead of people, and tragically ends up doing neither.' [Kerner p.12]

This shows some parallel with conservative welfare policies under Reagan and Bush. Like the recent L.A. riots (which the King verdict was only a spark for), the 1967 violence '...was foreshadowed by an accumulation of unresolved grievances [and]...unwillingness of...government to respond.' [Ibid p.8]

Despite the Republican rhetoric of the 80's, government intervention was still rife, including massive spending on the military. This can be compared with the 50's when many of the New Deal programs began to be eroded in favor of military spending. In both era's military interests were tied to community interests. Even today we see the public backlash from the closing of military bases.

The basis of the Liberal Consensus was the nuclear family with strict gender roles. Martin Luther King Jr. had used this when speaking of 'building family'. Stable family lives were an integral and necessary part of national security and civil defense.

Social conservatives in the 80's saw the family as the moral foundation of society, and which transformed self interest into the greater good. [Klatch pp.23,4] Under conservative rule the family now, '...landed squarely in the center of hotly contested politics.' [Tyler May p.225]

When George Bush spoke of wanting American families to resemble 'The Waltons' and not 'The Simpsons' he was evoking a simpler time of 'happy families'. Coincidentally, Bart Simpson's reply was "Hey, I'm praying for America too!". Similar was the Dan Quayle/Murphy Brown saga. No consensus existed in the familial realm because the families of the 80's were a far cry from those of the 50's, personal lifestyles reflecting a much wider disparity.

Large families were considered a drain on finances and impediment to successful careers. Divorces, single parent families, and live-in arrangements rocketed in the post-consensus period. By the 80's college age women were as career oriented as their male peers. Career, not family, was the new benchmark of success.

Independence was no longer considered a bad thing and childlessness was on the rise. [Tyler May pp.183,220] Wealth accumulation was more important, as bumper stickers proclaimed, "The one who dies with the most toys wins!". In the movie 'Wall Street' Micheal Douglas, as character Gordon Gekko, declared, "Greed is good".

During the 50's consumerism was portrayed as virtuous. [Tyler May p.166] American freedom was the freedom to buy. Eighties style consumerism no longer focused on family labor-saving devices, but on leisure and self indulgence. The counter-culture had turned into the 'Me Generation'.

Religion played a vital role. Fundamentalism in the 80's was compared to the religious revival of the 50's. Here there was declared absolute right and wrong, absolute morality, and defined gender roles. Communism, secular humanism, big government, and feminism symbolized the threat to religion and family. [Klatch p.119] Ronald Reagan declared himself a 'born again' Christian committed to 'family values', and family man par excellence.[Tyler May p.225]

Reagan was declared the new champion of the 'Religious Right', led by such figures as Pat Robertson of the 700 club and Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority. Jimmy Carter (who must be noted has a sincere faith) was accused of compromising true American religious values. However, 'Christian' groups were no longer arguing from the strength of the dominant paradigm, as they had in the 50's.

This is one reason they sought to 'reclaim America'. The U.S. was portrayed as having slidden of God's path into moral decay. [Klatch pp. 25,6] 'Family values' were an antithesis to the status quo as the 70's moved into the 80's. New Right proponents led a backlash against the gains of the pacifist, gay and civil rights, and feminist movements. Many organized around single issues, abortion being the most visible, and utilized counter-culture type tactics.

At the same time many sought to revive the cold war and ideology of domesticity. They called for militance in foreign policy, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, and condemned radicalism, feminism and the sexual revolution. [Tyler May pp.224-5] Feminists were blamed for denying a women's worth in the home. [Klatch p.134] Women (and immigrants) were accused of taking away the jobs of male 'breadwinners'.

Between 1947 and the early 60's all Presidents, Democrat or Republican, believed strongly in the 'shared vision' of the Liberal Consensus. Yet there was still a denial of fundamental internal problems, like poverty and racism. It was not until the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson that they were 'rediscovered' and any real attempt made to tackle them.

Until then they had been brushed away with the assumption that America's problems only came from outside, most commonly the 'red threat'. But not all issues of the latter conservative period could be automatically tied to the 'Soviet threat'. Nonetheless much of the Republican focus turned toward foreign policy, notably in Central America and the Middle East.

Republicans refuted the 'Vietnam Syndrome', allowing the United States to once again fight 'just wars', including covert actions. Ronald Reagan supported 'freedom fighters' in Nicaragua, and warned of Soviet tanks massing on the El Paso. Pat Robertson declared the U.S. as having a 'special role in the universe'. [Klatch p.23]

Fifties style propaganda re-emerged, attempting to show the U.S. as a moral and decent world force that would 'save' the world for democracy. This echoed McCarthyist prophecies of a '...showdown between the democratic Christian world and the Communistic atheistic world.' [Speech, Wheeling WV, 1950]

Increased military spending during the 80's strengthened the political clout of the military industrial complex which had grown-up during the 50's. [Lecture 1.21.93] George Bush was acknowledged as the 'foreign policy' President who was unable to achieve much domestically. In the election of 1992 Bush tried to gain advantage by constantly pressing the point of Bill Clinton's 'draft dodging' as un-American.

There were many marked differences between the 50's and the 80's. The Liberal Consensus was indeed more liberal and less divisive than the right wing conservative policies of the 80's. There was some sense of shared values in the post war period, not a shaky alliance of uncomfortable bed partners.

Social policies and fiscal intervention were legitimate government roles during the 50's, but apparently less so in the 80's. Indeed, there appears a redefining of conservative politics in the intervening years. Many policies of the Reagan/Bush concurred strongly with those of the 50's, particularly relating to the Cold War and the military.

But there is a major difficulty judging issues which are clouded by perceived and actual values. Citizens of the United States do not think or act as one, and could not be expected to. Liberty, democracy, freedom, and justice are shared national symbols, yet a plurality of groups look at them from different vantage points. [Klatch p.215] However,' thing is certain: gender, family, and national politics are still intertwined in the ongoing saga of postwar cultural change.' [Tyler May p.226]


Australian Left Review December 1992/January 1993

Godfrey Hodgson 'America in our Time' NY:1986

Marvin Gettlemen and David Mermelstein 'The Great Society Reader' 1967

Rebecca Klatch 'Women of the New Right' Philadelphia:1987

National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) 'Report' 1968

Studs Terkel 'The Good War' NY:1984

Elaine Tyler May 'Homeward Bound : American Families in the Cold War Era' NY:1988

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "The 1980's - Return to Conservatism " - + date accessed

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