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 While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.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

Photograph of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980 debate

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

  1. To discuss the characteristics of modern liberalism and conservatism and to compare and contrast the terms.
  2. To understand the decline of liberalism in the 1970s and how it contributed to the triumph of conservatism in the 1980s.
  3. To learn about the Election of 1980 that brought about the end of liberalism and the rise of conservatism.
  4. To understand Ronald Reagan, the man, as well as Ronald Reagan, the politician.
  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.
  6. To examine the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s conservatism in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries
  7. 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.

Cartoon of the Liberal BrainCartoon of the Conservative Brain

Liberal - Derived from Middle English term liberalis, meaning befitting free men. Also the Latin term liber meaning freedom .

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.

Conservative - Derived from Middle English term conserven,meaning to save, guard, preserve.

Liberals and Conservatives compared

Chart of liberal and conservative beliefs

Chart of Liberal vs. Conservative Beliefs


Goal #2: To understand the decline of liberalism in the 1970s and how it contributed to the triumph of conservatism in the 1980s

Presidents

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:

In short, by the late 1970s, many Americans no longer trusted their government.

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:

  1. The only televised debate between the candidates.
  2. 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?

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.

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?

Graph showing spending during Reagan administration

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Decreased the unemployment rate from 7.1 when he entered office to 5.5 when he left office.
  4. Decreased the prime interest rate from 15.26% when he entered office to 9.32% when he left office.
  5. Increased the Dow Jones industrial averages from 950.68 on the day of his inauguration to 2235.36 on the day he left office.
  6. Increased the per capita disposable income from $9,722 when he entered office to $11,326 when he let office.
  7. Tripled the national debt from $908.5 billion when he entered office to $2.684.4 trillion when he left office.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Failed to achieve the promise of supply-side economics – economic growth.

What happened to the role of the federal government during Reagan's Presidency?

  1. 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.
  2. Reagan’s Cartoon "Government is the problem"administration left the bedrock programs of the New Deal – like social security – firmly in place.
  3. 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.
  4. Reagan’s administration increased federal spending for the military, especially with SDI/Star Wars – cost $60 billion during his two terms.
  5. 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.
  6. 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. 
  7. 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?

  1. 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:
  2. Reagan supported anti-communist groups around the world. Through the Reagan Doctrine, his administration funded
  3. 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
  4. 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

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

Poster of Republican criticism of Reagan today


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