As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.
History 111 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
The 1970s and the 1980s: The Decline of Liberalism and the Triumph of Conservatism
No story in which one examines the history of late 19th and 20th Century America can be complete without an understanding of two terms that dominate the 21st Century political world - liberal and conservative. Our goal for the next two days is to gain a more precise understanding not only of these two terms, but of those to whom they were/are applied.
Discussion Goals: The 1970s and the 1980s: The Decline of Liberalism and the Triumph of Conservatism
- To discuss the characteristics of modern liberalism and conservatism and to compare and contrast the terms.
- To understand the decline of liberalism in the 1970s and how it contributed to the triumph of conservatism in the 1980s.
- To learn about the Election of 1980 that brought about the end of liberalism and the rise of conservatism.
- To understand Ronald Reagan, the man, as well as Ronald Reagan, the politician.
- To learn what happened to the economy, to the role of the federal government, and to U.S. foreign policy during the Reagan Presidency.
- To examine the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s conservatism in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries
- To understand the most controversial aspect of the Reagan Presidency - the Iran-Contra Affair.
Goal #1: To discuss the characteristics of modern liberalism and conservatism and to compare and contrast the terms.
Liberal - Derived from Middle English term liberalis, meaning befitting free men. Also the Latin term liber meaning freedom .
- Adjective = broad-minded, favorable to progress or reform.
- Noun = a person with broad-minded, progressive views, especially in politics or religion.
While liberal thought has a long history, modern liberal thought began with the Enlightenment by rejecting many earlier theories of government - The Divine Right of Kings, hereditary status, established religion. Early liberal movements opposed absolute monarchy and various kinds of religious orthodoxy while endorsing new concepts of individual rights under the rule of law - classical liberalism.
- Classical liberalism – emphasizes the belief that laissez faire capitalism based on little to no governmental interference in the economy will promote individual liberty. First articulated by John Locke (1632-1704) who described two fundamental ideas behind the idea of individual liberty:
- economic liberty – the right to own and use property; and
- intellectual liberty – the right to intellectual freedom of thought and conscience.
- Social liberalism - emphasizes the belief that because unregulated laissez faire capitalism and the profit motive can cause inequality of wealth, a stronger central government is necessary to protect individual liberty from the perceived excesses of capitalism.
- John Maynard Keynes was one of the strongest proponents of social liberals.
- By the end of the 19th century, some liberals asserted that in order to be free, individuals needed access to food, shelter, and education and they also needed governmental protection against exploitation.
- Then, during the Great Depression, the public's faith in laissez faire capitalism declined and many began to believe that unregulated markets could neither produce prosperity nor prevent poverty -
Conservative - Derived from Middle English term conserven,meaning to save, guard, preserve.
- Adjective = marked by moderation or caution.
- Noun = a person with moderate or cautious views, especially in politics or religion.
- Classical conservatism - emphasizes the belief that the proper purpose of government is to allow men to follow their chosen pursuits with maximum freedom. As Thomas Jefferson said in his first Inaugural Address, "A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government."
- Russell Kirk in "The Essence of Conservation" wrote in 1957:
"A conservative is not, by definition, a selfish or a stupid person; instead, he is a person who believes there is something in our life worth saving. Conservatism, indeed, is a word with an old and honorable meaning - but a meaning almost forgotten by Americans until recent years ... Conservatism, then, is not simply the concern of the people who have much property and influence; it is not simply the defense of privilege and status. Most conservatives are neither rich nor powerful. But they do, even the most humble of them, derive great benefits from our established Republic ... Conservatism is not simply a defense of capitalism... But the true conservative does stoutly defend private property and a free economy, both for their own sake and because these are means to great ends. Those great ends ... involve human dignity, human personality, human happiness. They involve even the relationship between God and man."
Liberals and Conservatives compared
Goal #2: To understand the decline of liberalism in the 1970s and how it contributed to the triumph of conservatism in the 1980s
Factors leading to the decline of liberalism in the 1970s: While historians are still debating the factors that brought about a decline in liberalism in the late 1960s and the1970s, these are the main reasons that most agree upon:
- The Johnson administration’s Civil Rights legislation and the War on Poverty.
- Many middle class Southern Democrats abandoned the Democratic Party because they associated it with Civil Rights legislation, support of the counter-culture, and an emphasis of providing federal assistance to the disadvantaged and minorities.
- As Ronald Reagan famously said during the 1980 election, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; it left me.
- The failure of the Democratic and Republican Parties to “stay the course” in Vietnam. "Stay the course" is a term popularized by Ronald Reagan and later used by George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush which means to pursue a goal regardless of any obstacles or criticism.
- The Republican Party's disgrace by the mainstream presidencies of Nixon and Ford.
Many conservatives believed Nixon and Ford had been too liberal and what the nation needed was a return to conservative leadership.
- Nixon disgraced the party with Watergate.
- Nixon reversed the Cold War policy of containment and instead fostered the policies of détente (French meaning "release of tensions") that advanced the improvement of Cold War relations with the USSR and China. Nixon's detente policy was perceived by many Republicans to be "soft on communism."
- Ford signed the Helsinki Agreement in 1975 - in which the U.S. recognized Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe in return for the Soviet agreement to observe international human rights principles - and conservatives saw it as an act of appeasement.
- The foreign policies of the Carter Administration that many conservatives thought were both liberal and dangerous:
- Carter was perceived as “..weak and soft, a wimp more interested in human rights than national security, and more concerned about arms control than weapons development.” (Diggins, p. 160).
- Carter was perceived as “soft on communism,” especially:
- In a speech at the University of Notre Dame when he told Americans to get over their “inordinate fear of communism.”
- When he recognized the Chinese government and cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In his televised speech to the American people, Carter revealed that the U.S. and Communist China had secretly and suddenly decided to end nearly 30 years of warlike estrangement. The two countries would establish normal diplomatic relations on Jan. 1.
- When he gave up the Panama Canal after heated debate and many Republicans felt that Panamanian communists were behind the Canal liberation movement.
- Carter ignored the new, escalated phase of the Cold War in which detente was over and the USSR extended its interest into the third world nations and into uprisings in the Middle East.
- The domestic policies of the Carter administration. On assuming office in 1977, President Carter inherited an economy that was slowly emerging from a recession. He had severely criticized former President Ford for his failures to control inflation and relieve unemployment, but after four years of the Carter presidency, both inflation and unemployment were considerably worse than at the time of his inauguration.
- The annual inflation rate rose from 4.8% in 1976, to 6.8% in 1977, 9% in 1978, 11% in 1979, and 12% in 1980.
- Although Carter had pledged to eliminate federal deficits, the 1979 deficit totaled $27.7 billion and the 1980 deficit was nearly $59 billion.
- In 1980, 8 million people were out of work.
In short, by the late 1970s, many Americans no longer trusted their government.
- They were mired in pessimism that arose from five previously flawed or failed presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter).
- They were tired of actual or perceived liberal leadership since the New Deal (five democratic presidents = FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter versus three republican presidents - Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford.)
- They longed to re-embrace American exceptionalism.
- Some of these dissatisfied Americans were Democrats, some were mainstream Republicans, and some were disgruntled conservatives.
Americans were ready for a change - for an end to liberal leadership, especially in the Presidency, and for the beginning of conservative leadership. And that was what guided the election of 1980.
Goal #3: To learn about the Election of 1980 that brought about the end of liberalism and the rise of conservatism.
Throughout the 1970s, conservatives were developing their agenda. They knew that by mid-decade, Americans were not quite ready for a real change. What they needed to bring them back to the Executive branch was a Democrat with a failed domestic and foreign policy to come into power – and as we have seen, Jimmy Carter provided just that. Thus, Ronald Reagan ran for the Presidency at a time when Americans were ready for change - change built solidly upon modern conservatism and a rejection of social liberalism.
Because the Carter team did not have a strong record, it decided its only chance for reelection was to go after Reagan by painting him as a wild-eyed conservative ideologue who could not be trusted to maintain the peace. For several months, the strategy worked and it appeared that by September, Carter would win.So what happened? Two things:
- The only televised debate between the candidates.
- The Carter campaign pursued a debate with Reagan because they thought it would give the president a chance to display his great command of complex issues, and that Reagan might stumble or look confused. Only when the Reagan camp saw how tight the race was did they agree to debate at all.
- However, rather than sounding dangerous or overwhelmed, Reagan calmly brushed aside Carter's attacks, shaking his head and saying, "There you go again."
In his closing statement, Reagan brilliantly framed the election in his favor: "It might be well if you ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?" If so, he said, vote for four more years of Carter; if not, "I could suggest another choice that you have."
- Carter's failure to get the Iranian hostages released. Unfortunately for Carter, the 1980 election coincided with the one-year anniversary of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran. Many Americans blamed him for the ongoing crisis - and they showed their anger at the polls.
Thus, the results of the 1980 Election was a landslide victory for Reagan and the beginning of 12 years of conservative leadership in the White House.
In fact, many people called the election the beginning of the “Reagan Revolution.”
Goal #4 - To understand Ronald Reagan, the man, as well as Ronald Reagan, the politician
The dozens of biographies that have been written about Ronald Reagan fail to agree about many things - especially the degree to which he was or was not an effective president. But there is one thing about which all authors agree - Reagan the man shaped Reagan the politician.
What are the most important points to know about Ronald Reagan, the Man?
- His early family life was chaotic - his father was Irish Catholic and had a serious drinking problem, while his mother was an evangelical Christian. They moved from place to place during his early years while his father took various jobs. They settled in Dixon, Illinois when he was 9 - which for the first time in his life, brought much stability.
- Both parents had a role in shaping the man Reagan would become - his father's alcoholism and allegiance to the Democratic Party and his mother's absolute allegiance to evangelical Christianity.
- Reagan had reason to be optimistic and believe in the American Dream - after graduating during the Depression from a small Bible College in Illinois, Reagan had a dream of becoming a radio sports broadcaster, but he had no experience. Nonetheless, he managed to get a job and within four years, he became one of the most celebrated sports broadcasters in the Midwest.
- In 1937, he moved to Hollywood to begin working for Warner Brothers - thereby achieving another success story in the American Dream.
- In Hollywood, he had an average career.
- He joined and eventually became president of the actor's union - the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG)
- Became involved in pro-Roosevelt, Democratic Party politics.
- In 1947, Reagan became disillusioned with the Democratic Party which he believed was now driven by high taxes that helped to support big government. After he was approached by FBI agents, Reagan agreed to become an informant for the FBI - to identify communists within SAG.
- In 1954, General Electric asked Reagan to serve as master of ceremonies for a new, half-hour weekly television show, GE Theater. As part of his contract, Reagan toured all 185 G.E. plants across the nation where he increasingly found himself in conservative economic and political environments where audiences eagerly responded to his attacks on taxes and wasteful government spending and regulations.
- In 1964, the Republican Party asked Ronald Reagan to give a 30-minute prime time speech as a former Democrat turned Republican and to endorse the conservative agenda of Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater - the "A Time for Choosing" speech.
This was his formal and official switch to the conservative agenda that would characterize his politics as two-term Governor for California and then as a two-term President of the U.S.
- In 1966, Reagan won the election for Governor of California after winning 55 of its 58 counties. His campaign emphasized two main themes:
- A plan "to send the welfare bums back to work", and
- A plan "to clean up the mess at Berkeley" by ending the anti-war and anti-establishment student protests at the University of California at Berkeley.
- He easily won a second term in 1970.
- In 1975, Reagan left office and immediately focused on his plan to run for President of the United States.
What are the most important things to know about Ronald Reagan the politician? The events in Ronald Reagan's life prior to his political career had a deep influence on the following beliefs that shaped his role as a politician.
- American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny - The U.S. - the best country in the world with the best people - is on a divinely appointed mission to serve as a beacon of liberty for the rest of the world.
- Consistent optimism - "History was destined to have a happy ending" - just like the movies in which he starred.
- American Dream - Americans lived in a nation where anything was possible and where the American Dream was available to anybody who wanted it.
- Protestantism - Americans need not be held back by strict, Calvinistic religious doctrines but instead, should pursue "a life of good works and charity." God was benevolent and forgiving.
- Economic liberty - Americans should be free to do what they wished economically. He believed that economic freedom was far different from that of the Democrats - especially New Deal democrats who believed that economic freedom required the federal government to combat poverty, increase economic security for all Americans, and bolster the purchasing power of all Americans.
- Reagan's economic policy was firmly grounded in traditional laissez faire economic concepts
- Such economic nonintervention and property protection would reverse previous liberal policies that redistributed wealth by confiscating property via taxation.
- Decreasing taxes via supply-side economics was the key to his economic policy. Reagan believed that tax reductions would encourage business expansion, which, in turn, would lead to a larger supply of goods to help stimulate the entire economy.
- Government was the problem - Americans should not look to the government to solve their problems because government was the problem. Government was a threat to individual and economy freedom. The people, not the government and not even the Constitution, were the ultimate source of sovereignty. Reagan, then, reflected traditional American conservative thinking in his desire to decrease the power of the federal government and increase the power of the state governments. He often said, "Government does not solve problems, It subsidizes them."
- Deregulation - Various activities and welfare programs that liberals thought were the responsibility of the federal government should be taken over by private interests - especially charitable and religious organizations. Deregulation would restore the historic distinction between federal and states rights and would limit both the entitlement and welfare systems created during the New Deal.
- Tax Cuts - Taxes were a type of governmental theft, not as the liberals claimed, a civic responsibility to pay for schools, road, health, military security. The economy works best when individuals have money to make their own choices to work, save, produce, and consume. If Americans have to pay more taxes when their income increases, the work incentive would decrease and hurt the economy.
- Supply-side economics - By decreasing taxes, productivity increases and the government collects more revenue as more people pay taxes.
- Anti-communism - Under what became known as the Reagan Doctrine, the U.S. provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist guerrillas and resistance movements in an effort to "roll back" Soviet-backed communist governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The doctrine was designed to diminish Soviet influence in these regions as part of the administration's overall Cold War strategy.
- By his second term in office, Reagan favored abandoning the traditional conservative idea of winning the Cold War militarily in favor of negotiating a political end to the Cold War.
- To that end, Gorbachev and Reagan held four summit conferences between 1985 and 1988; the first in Geneva, Switzerland, the second in Reykjavik, Iceland, the third in Washington, D.C., and the fourth in Moscow.
- At each, Reagan pursued his belief that if he could persuade the Soviets to allow for more democracy and free speech, it would lead to reform and the end of Communism.
The events of Reagan's live and these political beliefs contributed to Reagan the President.
Goal #5 - To learn what happened to the economy, to the role of the federal government, and to U.S. foreign policy during the Reagan Presidency.
What happened to the economy during Reagan's Presidency?
- Failed to balance the budget – something that many academics has explained was impossible during wartime (and the Cold War was very expensive) when military budgets must increase.
- Reduced the long-term inflation rate from 12.5 when he entered office to 4.4 when he left office – almost a quarter of what it had been eight years earlier.
- Decreased the unemployment rate from 7.1 when he entered office to 5.5 when he left office.
- Decreased the prime interest rate from 15.26% when he entered office to 9.32% when he left office.
- Increased the Dow Jones industrial averages from 950.68 on the day of his inauguration to 2235.36 on the day he left office.
- Increased the per capita disposable income from $9,722 when he entered office to $11,326 when he let office.
- Tripled the national debt from $908.5 billion when he entered office to $2.684.4 trillion when he left office.
- Greatly increased the adjusted gross incomes of Americans making over a million dollars from 4,414 individual tax returns filed with the IRS when he entered office to 34,944 by 1987.
- Quadrupled the difference between what Americans spent for foreign goods and what foreigners spent for American exports (trade deficit) from about $343.3 billion when he entered office to $137.3 billion when he left office.
- Failed to achieve the promise of supply-side economics – economic growth.
What happened to the role of the federal government during Reagan's Presidency?
- Reagan’s administration sharply reduced federal funding for the antipoverty programs created under Lyndon Johnson – food stamps, school lunches, and low-income housing. In return, he made grants available to the states to spend money as they saw fit on a wide array of projects previously supported by the federal government.
- Reagan’s administration left the bedrock programs of the New Deal – like social security – firmly in place.
- Reagan’s administration used the powers of the federal government to regulate the morality and behavior of the nation in a way that sustained social conservatism.
- Reagan’s administration increased federal spending for the military, especially with SDI/Star Wars – cost $60 billion during his two terms.
- Reagan’s conservative view of the federal government - that it was the problem and it needed to be brought under control – permeated his presidency and gained continued to gain support in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
- Reagan expanded the role of the federal government - especially the executive branch and the military. Reagan’s belief system would not allow him to ask Americans to discipline consumer desires or stay out of debt. So Americans kept spending, going into debt, AND making demands on the government. In other words, Reagan could not reverse the American belief in entitlements.
- Reagan's conservative policies ushered in a new era of splits and divisions within the ideology - especially with the risse of neoconservative thought and passionate conservatism.
What happened to foreign policy during Reagan's Presidency?
- In his first term, Reagan escalated the Cold War with the USSR, marking a sharp departure from the earlier, more liberal, policy of détente advocated by Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. His administration's policy toward the USSR had three characteristics:
- Decrease Soviet access to high technology and diminish their resources, including depressing the value of Soviet commodities on the world market.
- Increase American military buildup to strengthen the U.S. negotiating position.
- Force the Soviets to devote more of their economic resources to defense.
- Reagan supported anti-communist groups around the world. Through the Reagan Doctrine, his administration
- the Mujahideen in Afghanistan,
- various right-wing, anti-socialist groups in Latin America, especially the "freedom fighters" in Nicaragua, as well as in El Salvador and Guatamala.
- When Mikhail Gorbachev became chairman of the Politburo in 1985, Reagan relaxed his aggressive rhetoric toward the Soviet Union. The USSR was economically disintegrating; indeed, Moscow had built a military that consumed as much as 25% of the Soviet Union's gross national product at the expense of consumer goods and investment in civilian sectors. Thus, Reagan adopted a new position of negotiating with the USSR from strength. Among his accomplishments were
- Working with Gorbachev so that he gave major concessions to the United States on the levels of conventional forces, nuclear weapons, and policy on Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe.
- Giving a speech in the USSR, at Gorbachev's request, on the benefit of a free market economy.
- These and other accomplishments helped to bring about the end of the Cold War declared by George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev in 1989.
- In 1984, Reagan used the term "war against terrorism" to help pass legislation designed to freeze assets of terrorist groups - especially those Middle Eastern groups believed to be involved in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing which killed 241 U.S. and 58 French peacekeepers. (The concept of an American "war on terrorism" did not begin until after 9/11)
Goal #6 - To examine the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s conservatism in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries
- A dramatic shift of the nation’s political discourse from liberalism to social conservatism. The social contract of mutual dependence and government oversight that came about during the New Deal has been replaced by traditional values of individualism and unrestrained economic acquisition. As Jules Tygiel wrote, "Reagan's greatest accomplishment lay in the realm of ideology and politics. American conservatives came to embrace Reagan as a visionary, the triumphant personification of their beliefs and the foundation on which to consolidate their hold on the American electorate." (p. 201)
- A continued belief among Democrats and Republicans alike in decreasing taxes, the magic of the unfettered marketplace, and a desire to decrease government size and control over our lives.
- A continued commitment to Reagan’s deep belief that foreign “evil empires” - including the USSR and those in the Middle East that were designated by the next three presidents as supporting terrorists - should be defeated, not just contained.
- An ongoing desire to feel good about America’s exceptional role in the world and in our mandate to spread democracy to communist and Middle Eastern nations.
- No great shift from New Deal politics or repeal of liberal issues. Reagan did little to make abortion illegal, stem the tide of women's roles in the economy, or promote the passage of a constitutional amendment restoring prayer in public schools.
Addionally, Reagan did little to destroy the welfare state. He failed to curtail or repeal Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
- The entrance of the religious right into politics as evangelical Christians began to vote, run for political office, and support a new "Contract for America." This was especially apparent in 1994 when the "Contract for America" brought Republican leadership to both houses in Congress for the first time in 40 years. Their conservative agency - in many ways, far more conservative than that of Reagan, became to embrace deregulation; lower taxes; loosen environmental controls; dismantle the welfare state; discredit bilateral and multilateral approaches to the world’s problems, especially by criticizing U.S. involvement in the United Nations; decrease federal government role in social welfare issues and devolve federal power downward to the states; andincrease the role of the federal government in moral and military issues.
- An emphasis on ideology rather than reality shapes many Americans' world view. Many base our political belief system upon the ideals of what we want, rather than the reality of what we have.
- The belief that "evil empires" still exist and they still seek to destroy the legacy of freedom embraced by the United States. While some fear of communism continues to exist, the Soviet enemy has largely been replaced by another, perhaps greater enemy – terrorists and terrorism.
- Factionalism within the Republican Party between the traditional, social conservatives who support the states' rights agenda of the Jeffersonians; the compassionate conservatives; and the neoconservatives. Thus, at the end of Reagan’s Presidency, many moderate Republicans continued to support him and his policies and praise the brand of conservativism he brought to America. However, those on the right were disappointed and waited for the time to be right to bring a dedicated conservative to office - one that voiced the beliefs of two new types of conservatives - the neoconservatives (many of whom served under Reagan) and the passionate conservatives.
- Compassionate conservativism - emphasizes that our government has a compassionate duty to serve the needs of the poor, sick, and aged and it should do so through the mechanisms of the free market economy.
They believe that taxpayer dollars should be redirected from government welfare agencies to private religious and civil organizations arguing that:
- social problems are better solved through cooperation with private companies, charities, and religious institutions instead of the federal government; and
- social services should be outsourced to small, local civic associations and liberal organizations that have a detailed knowledge of the best way to serve the needs of people in their communities
- Neoconservatism - emphasizes that the traditional Jeffersonian view of the best government being that which rules least is outdated and must be replaced by a new kind of conservative strong central government suitable for governing a modern democracy by:
- Providing welfare services to all people who need them while, at the same time, giving people choices about how they want those services delivered.
- Allowing people to keep their own money - rather than having it transferred via taxes to the state - with the condition that they put it to defined uses.
(Such as allowing Americans to choose their own private social security accounts and their own private health and child-care providers, and providing parents with vouchers that enable them to choose which schools their children will attend.)
- Passing federal legislation and/or encouraging U.S. Supreme Court decisions that support the moral positions of many conservatives - especially anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage issues.
Goal #6 - To understand the most controversial aspect of the Reagan Presidency - the Iran-Contra Affair
To access a Selected Chronology of the Iran-Contra Affair, go to: http://users.humboldt.edu/ogayle/hist111/irancontra.html