The ‘New Right’: The Transformation of American Conservatism since the 1970s

Conservative Activist Phyllis Schlafly campaigns against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1977. / Library of Congress, Public Domain

The ‘New Right’ that emerged in the 1980s can trace its roots back to the so-called ‘Old Right’ of the 1950s and 1960s.

By Dr. Jerome L. Himmelstein
Winthrop H. Smith 1916 Professor of Sociology
Amherst College

Sociology, Social Commentary, and the Rise of the Right

In the 1950s and early 1960s, most Sociologists believed that the era for ideologies had ended and was replaced by a rough consensus over political and social issues.  For this reason subsequent right wing movements were considered only to be episodical disruptions of American political life.  Therefore, the presence of the Radical Right was explained to be a fluctuating group of people protesting social change.  The groups would return to the consensus when it had adjusted to the transition.  This theory, referred to as “Status Politics,” is founded upon the assumption that Americans, preoccupied with their status, use politics to express their anxieties of moving up or down in their relative economic and social standings.  Expression usually takes the form of concern with moral decay or political subversion.  Basically, in this view the right wing was seen as fighting “modernity.”

By the late 1960s, however, sociologists began to drop the assumption of consensus within the electorate as radical ideas in the social sciences started to take root.  Nonetheless, the notion that the Right to politics was relatively small and insignificant persisted.   Most radical sociology in the following years took on the belief that American capitalism prospered with liberal constraints.  In this view the liberal reforms of the 20th century, once considered harmful to capitalism, were now considered tools for stabilizing a capitalist system upset by economic crisis or social unrest.   Capitalists were to embrace liberalism and a growing state because it helped it function with reforms like government regulation of the economy, social-welfare legislation, and collective bargaining.  Conservative resistance from the far right was still regarded as irrelevant, and ignored.   

However, by the 1980s it was obvious that the political right had been underestimated and misinterpreted the whole time.  The elections of many conservative leaders openly opposed to big government indicates big business had not been as intertwined with corporate liberalism or American capitalism, and a growing state as what was supposed in the years before.  Moreover, while an advanced industrial society necessarily encourages both the growth of large-scale organization (“rationalism”) and a decline in religious beliefs (“secularism”), ideologies that promote the opposite traits of individualism and zealous religiosity, may still ascend to power.  In hindsight, conservatism was actually part of a growing social movement with a clear ideology that lead to the New Right and the New Religious Right.   The rise of the Right had been unexpected by sociologists. 

New Deal Revolution and Delayed Reaction

1935 cartoon by Vaughn Shoemaker in which he parodied the New Deal as a card game with alphabetical agencies. / Wikimedia Commons

The roots of conservative thought started with opposition to the “liberal” programs of the New Deal.  In actuality, the New Deal was a practical, fairly moderate set of programs and reforms aimed at correcting the economic disaster of the Great Depression.  It did not create a comprehensive welfare state like those many European capitalist countries were instigating at the time.  It was actually less radical than many other proposals.  Nonetheless, the New Deal transformed politics in two ways:  it expanded the size of federal government; it caused the biggest political “realignment” in America since the Civil War—giving the Democrats power for many years to come. 

There was a “delayed” reaction to the New Deal, because its opponents were unable to organize an effective opposition from the time its programs began to be implemented in 1932 until the 1950s.  While economic prosperity in the late 1930s and 1940s did slow public support for additional New Deal programs to be added, there was not a counter conservative movement to undo those programs already in place.  After WWII the New Dealers had successfully maintained support by pointing out that the expenditure of the government during the war was proof that government spending could keep the economy growing. 

What came to dominate politics by the 1950s was a public consensus named “Cold-war Liberalism” or “Liberal Consensus.”  There are four elements of this consensus:  (1) an affirmation of American capitalism (as reformed after New Deal); (2) a belief that economic growth would help with social conflict;  (3) a positive role for government in economic life— promotion of economic growth by pumping money into economy; (4) an acceptance in the permanent American role in international affairs. 

Because of this consensus, conservatives were not able to pry public support away from the New Deal and Democrats.  Instead they resorted to challenging the Democrats on the international level and began accusing them of being “Soft on Communism.” (McCarthyism). 

By the 1950s the New Deal realignment had greatly strengthened the Democratic Party.  The problem conservatives were having was that their positions were not clearly defined.  They agreed with Democrats about capitalism and anticommunism, but they gave both concepts different meaning. Thus in the mid-1950s, conservatives began to realize they needed to reorganize their efforts and find a different approach.  In order to regain their political clout they needed to build their own movement, locate support in new places, and mobilize.  Finally, several years after they first began forming their opinions in response to the New Deal, the term “conservative” was adopted for the official name of their ideology and a set of common themes were accepted.

Thus, “conservatism” was reconstructed into a concise ideology:  In economics, conservatives are concerned with freeing the market from constraints of government.  They equate less government with more individual freedom and greater prosperity.  They advocate cutting taxes, domestic spending, and regulation for the freedom of creating producing and achieving more individual and national wealth. This view is known as economic libertarianism.  With regard to Social Issues, conservatives speak out against the decline of religion and its effect on family values, gender roles, and morality.  This view is known as social traditionalism.  On National Security, they usually want greater spending on the military for cold war.  This view is known as militant anticommunism.  

What binds all three elements together is the belief that society is self-regulating and harmonious, thrown out of balance by liberal unnecessary tampering.  Indeed, implicit in their ideology are two elements: (1) the central cause of America’s problems are liberal ideas; (2) a belief in the possibility of a natural, pristine harmony within institutions.  (free enterprise).  

Reconstructing an Ideology

17 August 1860 edition of Le Libertaire, Journal du mouvement social, a libertarian communist publication in New York City. / Wikimedia Commons

Since conservative ideology has remained fundamentally the same since the 1950s, to understand conservative ideological beliefs in the Reagan Era — we need to look at how it was first constructed and how its constituent elements fit together

Although their core concern remained the same as it had been since the New Deal, the conservatives of the 1950s sought to transform their case against “collectivism” in two ways.  (“Collectivism” was term used to describe the growing tendency of the state to organize and plan social life).  First, on international issues they moved from an “isolationist” standpoint to an “anticommunist” standpoint.  Historically, they had advocated against the United States’ involvement in international affairs.  However, this was not a political possibility in the post-war era, as it became increasingly obvious that the U.S. has an interest in world politics.  Conservatives, thus, switched from being isolationists to being anticommunists.  Before the restructuring of 1950s this was an area of disagreement for conservatives.  Many conservatives, while accepting that the isolationist standpoint was no longer feasible, advocated a “non-interventionist” position of limited foreign policy using limited resources.  They were wary of political power and its unintended consequences.  By contrast, the  “interventionist” position called for total mobilization and throwing all resources into fighting anticommunism.  The official conservative position was decided to be of the interventionist philosophy because there was more public support for it.  By clarifying their position on this issue, conservatives were finally able to distinguish their policies from the “containment” policies used by the Democrats. 

Second, on domestic issues conservatives attempted to revise their arguments against domestic “collectivism” and their defense of laissez-faire, or “pristine capitalism.”  They had always criticized big government for hampering economic prosperity, and advocated unregulated capitalism for promoting it, but the liberal consensus and the fact that increased government spending coincided with economic health since the New Deal made their position not very appealing or credible.   What changed in the 1950s was that conservatives sought to make their case for their position in a different way– they attempted to make a moral case for their version of capitalism.  They managed to do this by bringing together two very different (even contradictory) kinds of conservative language:  a libertarianism that emphasized individualism and freedom; and a traditionalism that stressed moral order and community.  In this way, conservatives attempted to isolate from traditionalism an emphasis on moral truths and integrate it into a basically libertarian outlook. 

The three central features of Libertarianism are:

  1. The root problem of the modern world is the loss of individual freedom, and a limited state is the pre-condition of that freedom.  The primary freedom is economic and requires the unrestricted right to use one’s property, spend one’s money, and sell one’s skills.
  2. Society is an association of self-directed individuals.  It is not itself an entity; it has no goals, interests, or rights as a whole.  Any effort to define a distinct common good undermines individual freedom by providing the potential basis for collectivism.  It is assumed that individuals have the capacity for self-control and self-direction, and that while everyone pursues their own personal goals they can live harmoniously in society.
  3. The main supports of individual freedom are the major elements of capitalism—private property, the market, and the organization of economic life around private profit.  The major threat to individual freedom is the growing state direction of economic life.

Libertarianism is in essence a defense of a type of capitalism known as “pristine capitalism.”  It is capitalism in which the market does not give way to a growing state role in structuring economic relations and distributing income; individual entrepreneurship does not give way to the bureaucratic corporation; competition does not give way to monopoly; concrete, owner-controlled property does not give way to abstract stock ownership.  The libertarian defense of pristine capitalism has often tended to be materialist and secular in nature.  Capitalism is justified by its superior efficiency, its promotion of technological innovation and material progress.  The appeal is to individual self-interest because capitalism maximizes individual prosperity.   Libertarian arguments dominated conservative and right-wing Republican views from the New Deal until the 1950s.  They rejected collectivism on the basis that it assumes there exists an ethical code in society and that it is the role of the state to pursue goals based on this code.

Traditionalist conservatism began with the thought of Anglo-Irish Whig statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, whose political principles were rooted in moral natural law and the Western tradition. / National Portrait Gallery (London), Wikimedia Commons

The three central features of Traditionalism are:

  1. The major problems of the modern world are the decay of belief in a divinely rooted, moral order and the decline of community.  The loss of spiritual values has left human beings without an overarching purpose and justification for life other than the materialist goals of pleasure and success.  There has been a decline of shared beliefs and institutions like family, church and community that bind individuals to each other.  The effect is that humans attempt to fill the void left by all this decay and decline with a collective government, because it offers a false substitute sense of belonging and an unnatural promise of utopia.
  2. The image of society is more than just an association of individuals each pursuing their own self-interest.  There are moral or emotional bonds, shared beliefs, and public virtue to hold society together.  The task of maintaining these shared beliefs may fall to the sate, or intermediate institutions like families, neighborhoods, or churches.  The individual capacity for self-control and freedom requires such a society.
  3. A decay in beliefs and the decline in community are tied with the growth of capitalism.   Because the loss of moral order undermines any basis for self-control, humans are left open to external direction.  The assumption that happiness in this world is a valid right leads people toward “collective capitalism” in which the state must increasingly get involved to regulate.

Traditionalists claim that the right to private property is essential to ward off these trends.  However, they do not defend capitalist property of stocks and bonds.

There were many similarities and differences between the views of Libertarians and Traditionalists.  On one hand, both were preoccupied with the growth of the sate as a organizer and planner of social life; both believed there was an order of things that left to itself would take care of itself; and both defended private property and were skeptical of egalitarian attempts.  On the other hand,

  1. Libertarians argued the central problem was the tendency to restrict individual freedom in the name of a common good or shared values, and that such a tendency leads to collectivism, while Traditionalists argued that collectivism arises from too much individualism, not too little: the breakdown of shared beliefs leads to preoccupation with material goals which then leads to collective capitalism;
  2. Libertarians believe that freedom and individualism are hampered when there is presumed to be a common moral code, while Traditionalists believe that moral order implies constraints on both freedom and individualism;
  3. The two views have different notions of society.  Libertarians believe society is an association, while Traditionalists believe it is a community;
  4. Libertarians take for granted that the individual has the capacity for self-direction and self-control and their condition for freedom is negatively defined as an absence of constraints. Traditionalists, in contrast, do not have as much faith in individuals to direct their lives alone without the help of shared beliefs and social bonds.  Their freedom is positively defined in such a way that certain conditions are necessary to enable individuals to be free;
  5. Libertarians avoid defining moral standards of how individuals ought live because they are wary of any collectivist implications of a common good.  They believe the central concern of social and political institutions should be to establish the conditions under which individuals can pursue their own goals, not to define goals for them.  Traditionalists, however, focus on defining moral standards of how individuals ought to live because they are wary of the collectivist implications of a moral vacuum.  It believed that social and political institutions should be based on the common good defined by society’s values;
  6. Everything about libertarianism requires minimal state action, while traditionalism, although wary of the state when  it is not supported by a society of shared beliefs, it also defined a state of positive action in which the goal of politics is more than simply ensuring a negative freedom;
  7. Finally, libertarians saw pristine capitalism as the solution to collectivism, while traditionalists had a more complicated view.  They were not completely anti-capitalists, although they did view capitalism as opening the door to collectivism by undermining the community, centralizing property, reducing the majority of people to dependent wage and salary earners, and propagating materialist values.  They opted for a distributist vision of a society in which there exists personal property held by many.

There is obvious difficulty in combining these two languages into one coherent conservative ideology that makes sense.   However, the attempts to do so were imaginative and clever.  First, they explained that the libertarian concern with individual freedom and the traditionalist concern with moral order and virtue can be intertwined.  On the one hand, pursuit of virtue is impossible without freedom because an act cannot be virtuous unless freely chosen, and on the other hand, freedom would be empty without a higher goal.  Put this way, in the political sphere freedom is an end in itself, while in the moral sphere, it is a means for the human pursuit of the good. 

The most important part of this argument is to establish that the capitalism libertarians consider essential to freedom must be seen as inherently good or even divinely ordained, or else validation for it is debatable.  Striped of this assumption, there are only the materialist and secular justifications for pristine capitalism that were previously ineffective in the years leading up to the 1950s.  As long as the collectivism of a welfare state (democratic socialism) appears to work, the only objections to it that can work are the abstract moral and spiritual ones. 

In this way, conservatives figured out they could criticize the welfare state, even if it leads to a better material life, on the basis that it undermines human dignity and independence.  If people decide that the social engineering of collectivism is desirable, conservatives can still muster support against it by arguing that freedom is “the true condition of man’s created being.”  When freedom is glamorously depicted as a moral, religious, or patriotic concept, anything that violates that freedom in its purest form can be designated undesirable.  Conservatives basically sought to use traditionalist moral order to reposition individual freedom as a priority above all other social goals; to make individual freedom the one social goal for society.

Left without the use of moral, spiritual or religious justifications for freedom, human happiness is the only justification for freedom.  The single-minded pursuit of happiness degenerates quickly into the pursuit of mere pleasure, which then leads to the demand for the state to solve problems (collectivism).  When human happiness is the justification for freedom, people will eventually seek to limit that freedom in order to achieve happiness, because pure freedom and wide happiness cannot coexist in a society.  The ethical concerns about capitalism including inequitable distribution of income can be avoided by justifying freedom morally.  

What conservatives sought, in short, was a religious justification of pristine capitalism.  They were saying that the decline of freedom and pristine capitalism coincides with the decay in the belief in God.  Paradoxically, the secular and materialistic outcomes of pristine capitalism were given as a reason for moral decay— and the solution is pristine capitalism. 

Libertarianism did not have to give up its negative, economic concept of freedom, its individualist concept of society or its pristine capitalism, but merely had to base its arguments on a moral order rooted in religion.  Traditionalism had to give up virtually everything except its emphasis on a moral order.  However problematic the combination was accepted by both schools of conservative thought because it was the first argument that effectively could be used to criticize domestic collectivism.  The conservatives portrayed a capitalism in which the pursuit of profit and individual success led neither to imperfections in the competitive market nor to the decay of belief in moral values.  If reality contradicted this ideal, it was easy to manipulate liberal policies, growth of the state, and unreligious liberal ideas to be the blame.    The strength of conservatism is the capacity to picture a natural order in society that functions most efficiently without government interference, and to blame any disruption of that order on liberal elites, their policies, and their ideas. 

The Growth of a Movement:  Old Right and New

Calvin Coolidge / Library of Congress, Public Domain

After a clear ideology was formed in the 1950s, the growth of the conservative movement progressed in two phases:  In the “old” right phase, from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, conservatism finally became an effective political contender;  and in the “new” right, from the mid-1970s into the 1980s, the movement reached full maturity and became for a time a dominant force in American politics. 

The central issues surrounding the first phase of the old right are why the movement grew and why it failed to have more impact.  In the early 1960s there was an explosion of conservative activity.  There was some friction within the movement between the “radical right” and less radical conservatives.  The radicals were convinced of a communist conspiracy that was taking control of American life, while the more respectable conservatives targeted a liberal political culture as the real problem.  However, the spectrum of disagreement did not deter conservatives from focusing on the same enemy—the liberal establishment, supporting the same causes, getting funds from the same sources, and sharing the same leaders and ideas.  

Although the movement branched out into different types of voters, it started out with three primary bases that gave it access to political channels and financial resources:  first, they shared support among Republicans; second, they drew financial support from the business community; third, they appealed to the upper middle class of affluent, well educated and professional/ business people. 

Conservatives collected new support from a variety of sources.  Many were attracted to the movement because of their anger at the growth in drugs, pornography, promiscuity, and the overall decay in moral standards.  

There were also complaints about society from the left side of the spectrum—the black rebellion, the student movement, the counterculture, opposition to the Vietnam War.  This radicalism of the late 1960s condemned the continuing concentration of wealth, misplaced priorities, and racial, class, and gender injustice, and the dissenters argued that emphasis on growth was ruining the quality of life.   Ironically, this activity on the left actually created an even wider opening on the right.  In response to the overwhelming growth of factions on the left, many Democrats retreated to the right in protest—some for patriotic reasons, some racial, and some concerned with law, order and morality.    For instance, the backlash of the Democratic party’s advocacy of civil rights legislation drove large numbers of white southerners out of the party.

Another ironic addition to the conservative cause was people with a new appreciation of unregulated capitalism after experiencing the rapid progress of industrialization, urbanization, and population growth.  Although these advances would not have been possible without the government spending that subsidized its growth, the state was beginning to be thought of as impeding further growth.

Finally, conservatives benefited from a broad public dissatisfaction with major institutions as a result of the growing perception that government leaders were corrupt, unresponsive, and subservient to special interests.  Conservative calls for a smaller federal government were seen as a solution.

The tumultuous political environment during the 1960s and 1970s assisted the conservative movement in capturing support on such a diverse range of concerns and issues, not because of its particular ideological positions, but rather because of the common enemy it was able to attack on all these different grounds.  It was able to adopt a broad antiestablishment rhetoric and appeal to a wide variety of complaints.

Nonetheless, in spite of this growth in the conservative movement, up until the mid-1970s, liberalism continued to dominate.  Conservatives were disappointed by unsuccessful attempts to ward off the Equal Rights’ Amendment, growth in government domestic spending, new regulatory agencies concerned with occupational health and safety, equal opportunity, and environmental protection. 

George Wallace in 1968. / Wikimedia Commons

The weaknesses of the conservative movement in the old right phase were:

  1. the movement failed to attach itself politically to two of its most likely advocates of their cause, Richard Nixon and George Wallace;
  2. Many of the discontents conservatives spoke of were politically ambiguous, and if they led voters away from liberalism and Democrats, they did not redirect them to conservatism and Republicans;
  3. Finally, there had not been an economic downturn to undermine liberal economic philosophy and the association of Democrats with national prosperity and progress.

The central issues surrounding the second phase, the new right, is what accounts for the dramatic change in the movements success. Conservative leaders began to meet in 1973 and 1974 to figure out what needed to be done to finally see electoral success for their movement.  They agreed that the conservative failure lay not in a lack of opportunities but in a failure of leadership, organization, and effective outreach to new constituencies.  They needed a network of organizations to make their conservative presence felt, so that they could achieve an independent identity with enough political clout to influence the direction of the Republican party and politics.  The conservative network grew substantially in the latter half of the 1970s with the help of computer data banks to keep up with conservative contributors, conservative PACs, conservative organizations concerned with policy making, coordinating the efforts of congressmen, organizing conservative programs, influencing the media, pursuing conservative issues in the courts, as well as countless single-issue organizations. 

The New Right made a systematic effort to reach out to new constituencies in many ways:  (1) established ties with the popular George Wallace;  (2) took a more active and direct approach in appealing to voters who were traditionally Democrats but tended to be socially conservative on specific issues, including abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, feminism, drug use, pornography, school textbooks, busing, affirmative action, gay rights, etc.  They stressed specific issues to specific constituencies;  (3) Most important, the New Right organized the growing evangelical Christians of the late 1970s into a political force by establishing the Republican party as the more moral “religious” party.

Nonetheless, the most striking characteristic of the New Right was actually its continuity with the Old Right in ideology and leadership.  Ideologically, the only two differences that occurred in the New Right are the emphasis on particular social issues and the adoption of supply-side economics.  The New Right’s standpoint on social issues summoned the basic traditionalist themes that were integrated into conservative ideology in the 1950s.  Moral order, community, and constraint were used to discuss the social issues.  On the other hand, any discussion of economic issues utilized the libertarian themes.  Similarly, they made use of the two almost contradictory terms to capture broader support with a gender division.  The male perspective of work was courted with libertarianism, while the female perspective of family was courted with traditionalism.   This ideological division of labor was useful for combining constituent support from unrelated voter issues.  Using libertarian language, conservatives could criticize compulsory unionism for restricting freedom of choice for millions of American workers, call for a more economic freedom, and praise individualism, opportunity, and self-fulfillment.  Then, in direct contrast, using traditionalist language, they could promote very different themes and still stay within the boundaries of conservatism.  Talking about abortion rights they could rationalize the restriction of free choice.  They could talk about how society cannot exist without recognition and adherence to a common good, which requires people to act out of motives larger than their own narrow self-interest. 

New Right leaders such as Ronald Reagan began to take notice in the mid-1970s of the theory of supply-side economics.  The basic argument was that high marginal tax rates are a major cause of economic stagnation and hence tax cuts are the key to economic prosperity.  They proclaimed that by cutting marginal tax rates, investment, work and creativity could be stimulated — and thus economic growth would occur.   A significant cut could produce enough economic stimulus actually to increase government revenues by greatly expanding the tax base.  A large tax base and low tax rates will yield as much revenue as a smaller tax base and higher rates. 

This new theory reoriented conservative economic thinking in two ways:  first, it made reducing the size of government more acceptable because it emphasized cutting taxes (giving money back to voters) before dealing with cutting of spending and programs (taking money away from voters);  second, it conveyed optimism by suggesting that the problems of big government could be solved with little pain.  Before supply-side theories, conservatives had to promote painful remedies, including tight money and balanced budgets.  Moreover, the affects of a tax cut are felt by individuals and corporations, the poor and the rich, and therefore can be a politically popular tool.  It has allowed the party to disregard deficits far larger than ever before politically feasible. 

Tax cuts are in tune with the classic libertarian vision of pristine capitalism by emphasizing that the state is largely an impediment to economic health.  Further, in justifying tax cuts, conservatives imply that individual creativity and productivity, not rational planning, are still the essence of capitalism.  At the same time, traditionalist ideals can be incorporated into supply-side economics with a construction of a moral case for capitalism to go along.  For example, the Reagan administration in 1980 argued that “capitalism is not only economically productive but morally good as well, since its creative impulse is fundamentally altruistic and divinely inspired.”

The newness of the New Right can be observed in the greater optimism and activism of the period, more than in changes to the ideology.  They just found a new way to market their same old philosophies.  They began to attack “the establishment” and “the elite” in the name of the people.  In this way, the wording invokes emotional reactions in the people— responding more to the symbolic phrasing than to actual reality of the argument.  Defining issues in such as way as to invoke emotions by the mere choice of words is an effective marketing tool to influence people’s opinions.  The description of an issue can be manipulated in this way to encourage popular support just as easily as it can to discourage it.  The “pro-choice” and “pro-life” arguments both use this ploy to invoke emotional response.  Without being fully informed about or truly understanding both sides of the debate, a person could easily hear one version of the issue and its stylized position term, and be influenced to be on that side.  Often the side of a debate that generates the most support is the one that is the frequently heard or with the most clever catch phrase, rather than the one that most people would agree with if all the facts were known. 

Reagan’s victory in 1980 completed the conservative ascent and was proclaimed to be the greatest triumph for conservative thought since the American Revolution.   The secret to the conservative movement’s transformation from contender to victor does not lie in internal changes since it has changed little since the 1950s.  Nor can the secret lie simply in growing public discontent or social upheaval, of which the 1960s had more than the late 1970s.  It lies instead in broader changes that teamed up various discontents into the tangible form of activists, money, and votes.

The triumph of conservatism in the late 1970s and the early 1980s was closely tied to three phenomena:

  1. the rise of the New Religious Right, which sprung from the emergence of social issues and the reassertion of evangelical Christianity;
  2. the conservative mobilization of big business, which came about from the changing nature of American capitalism perceived by capitalists themselves;
  3. the revival of the Republican party, which resulted from the complicated interplay of economic voting, realignment, and dealignment in electoral politics.. 

The Rise of the New Religious Right

Jerry Falwell, whose founding of the Moral Majority was a key step in the formation of the “New Christian Right”. / Liberty University, Wikimedia Commons

The New Religious Right refers to a set of organizations that emerged in the late 1970s, their leaders, and the movement that these leaders and organizations fostered.  Though this movement made an attempted to sway a broad, religiously based conservative thinking, its lasting impact was on the white evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. 

Although the New Religious Right took typically conservative stands on all issues, its main emphasis closely paralleled the language of moral traditionalism.  There are three reasons that this religious movement emerged at this time:  (1) the organizing efforts of the New Right leaders played a pivotal role in founding the new religious organizations and in recruiting and training its leaders;  (2)  the organizational infrastructure of the evangelical and fundamentalist subculture that had been growing for several decades was utilized.  Conservatives discovered they could use the previously untapped religious and cultural networks that already existed within these religious movements for mobilizing their resources.  The electronic ministries, the superchurches, and the network of independent fundamentalist churches provided the means through which conservatives could mount a comprehensive campaign with a customized message;  (3) the discontents, if they did not actually increase during this time, at least became more politically salient because of the emergence of the so-called social issues.  In the 1970s and early 1980s, issues like abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, drug use, sexuality, the nature of the family, and the content of public education.  The prevalence of these issues became important for a variety of reasons:  the partial transformation of America into a post-industrialist society and the emergence of post-materialist values; complicated and contradictory changes in gender roles; and growing polarization of Americans between the religiously devout and the irreligious.

Both the rise of the social issues, and the long-term explosion of evangelical and fundamentalist religious institutions led to the growth of the New Religious Right.  However, their contribution is relatively mild.  The reconstruction of evangelical and fundamentalist religions, which occurred between the 1940s and 1960s, produced only marginal political realignment.  While social issues raised broader moral questions for all of the more traditionally religious, its political influence never fully extended beyond its evangelical and fundamentalist base.  Its full political impact was not experienced by among religious persons in general.  Given the strong relationship between social conservatism and religiosity, one might have expected that religious persons on the whole would have been especially prone to shift their political loyalties to the Republican party.  However, church attendance had a major impact on political realignment only among the evangelicals.  Even if social issues did not have a direct impact on the general public, they may help to mobilize activists who get people out to vote and help shape who they vote for.  

The Mobilization of Corporate Conservatism


The political mobilization of big business in the mid-1970s gave conservatives greater access to money and channels of political influence.  Ronald Reagan’s election has been seen as the end result of a decade-long corporate mobilization against the liberal policies that had threatened to limit their profits in the 1960s and early 1970s with the enlargement of the bargaining power of workers.

Subsequently, a popular point of view describes a major shift in the balance of power in the U.S. since the rise of conservative power.  In recent years there has been a significant erosion of the power of those on the bottom half of the economic spectrum—including not only the poor, but the working and middle classes as well.  At the same time there has been a sharp increase in the power of the economic elites—those that fall in the top fifteen percent of the income distribution.  The growing economic crisis of the 1970s provided the opportunity for political representation of the interests of the business community and the affluent to win approval of drastic change in economic policy, especially regressive tax reforms and cuts in domestic spending.  This lopsided redistribution has been attributed to five things:

  1. the growing betrayal of upper middle-class loyalties to the Republican party;
  2. the Republicans’ growing edge of financial and organization resources over the Democrats;
  3. the polarization within the Democratic party;
  4. the declining clout of organized labor;
  5. finally, above all, the political mobilization of big business and its systematic effort to reshape the American political agenda.

In the late-1970s, big business did, indeed, successfully promote policies it deemed in its interests, including cutting tax rates on profits and investment income, defeating labor law reform, preventing the creation of a consumer protection agency, limiting the growth of government domestic spending, and promoting deregulation of specific industries. 

The immediate reasons for business mobilization are obvious.  In the middle of the 1970s corporate leaders saw a political crisis in the face of economic stagnation.  U.S. dominance of the world economy was starting to wane.  Economic growth, profits, and employment dropped, demands on government escalated.  The previous arrangements of business-labor compromise, and the Keynesian welfare state (the government management of the business cycle and social welfare programs) had begun to lose effectiveness.  While those arrangements had once suited capitalism, began to create intractable government expenses, which made labor costs hard to cut.  In addition, new regulatory agencies that sprung up in the late 1960s and early 1970s received wide spread business contempt.  The capitalist enterprise was being threatened by a society of Americans who had come to expect an ever-increasing standard of living and security, and who made demands on government when the market did not provide what they expected.  As government spending and regulation increased to keep up with their demands, the rate of private investment fell.  Businesses felt powerless as they were forced by government to act in ways detrimental to their interests.  Thus, businesses were faced with both economic and political despair—the combination of which inspired them to act. 

They concluded that the political crisis was a result of democracy itself, which undermines the power of business in capitalist countries.  They also pointed to an ideological cause for the political crisis: political approval and understanding of business was at an all time low.  The people were distrustful of business because they didn’t understand the importance of capitalism and business to their own lives.  Business described this political crisis in broad terms, and thus sought a broad response. 

Big Business began to mobilize politically in the mid-1970s.  They sought to influence the political process by expending greater resources, increasing their level of political organization, and establishing new means of influence.  They threw all their support into the conservative movement, agreeing with its stance on limited government. They mobilized together in a hegemonic way overlooking the differences within the many different types of business.  They attempted not only to influence specific pieces of legislation but also to shape policy discussion and formation in a way hospitable to big business. 

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta addressing the Business Roundtable in June 2017. / U.S. Department of Labor, Wikimedia Commons

There are four main areas that business concentrated its efforts of political mobilization:

  1. Direct lobbying of Congress on the behalf of big business as a whole was one key element.  The Business Roundtable, an organization that represented the vast majority of large corporations, emerged in 1972 and became a powerful lobbying force in shaping legislation.
  2. Corporate campaign contributions to candidates became more ideological and more carefully coordinated.  The campaign reform laws of the early 1970s introduced Political Action Committees to the campaign finance world and a vast resource for businesses to promote their interests with the Legislature.
  3. Big Business also stepped up its efforts to shape the assumptions underlying political discussion of economic issues.  They supported public television series that advocated free enterprise, they produced films and other educational materials for classroom use, they endowed dozens of professorships of private enterprise at leading colleges and universities, and most importantly, they used “advocacy advertising” which sells political beliefs and thus appeals to the public as citizens rather than as consumers.  Its aim is not to provide direct benefits to any company, but rather to help sponsor a political climate conductive to business as a whole.
  4. Finally, the most important element of the big-business mobilization was the flow of corporate money to conservative research organizations.  The expansion of the conservative network of policy-oriented research and discussion organizations was the major way in which big business was able to influenced major government policies.  A substantial amount of money was directed for the support of supply-side economics theory, which became central to the ideology of the Reagan administration, as well as to studies of the free market, conservatism and the study of religion.  The rise these so-called political “think-tanks” went beyond attempts of shaping specific individual policies.  They provided broad justification for conservative ideals, proposals for specific policies, public policy issues for distribution to members of Congress, the executive branch, and the press.  They were, also, a major source for high-level appointees in the Reagan administration.  Conservative think-tanks provided an effective interface between the world of big business and the world of conservative ideologues.  In the process, it made big business more ideological and conservatism more influential. 

The rise of the conservative corporate mobilization destroyed every existing theory of the state and class in sociological tradition at that time.  One popular theory that was prevalent before mobilization, called “pluralism,” argues that capitalists are not a ruling class and their political power is limited for three reasons:

  1. Business is seen to be only one among many interest groups capable of influencing politics.  There are many power structures, which come to play in assorted importance on each issue of public policy.  Different groups of society have levels of involvement in the varying issues according to their relevance to each group’s own interests.
  2. Balance of power has been shirted from those who control property, to those who control technical innovation and the flow of ideas.  There was a change in the mode of access to power means that inheritance is no longer a determining factor, and at the same time, a change in the nature of power-holding itself (technical skill rather than property, political position rather than wealth)— both of which led to the breakup of the capitalist-based ruling class.
  3. Even if ownership of productive property might give capitalists a high potential for control, they have a low potential for unity.  The general rule is that classes rarely act in a unified manner, unless their modes of gaining wealth and privilege are in jeopardy.  The lack of class unity means that capitalists are likely to seek short-term economic gains from the government, rather than getting involved in shaping long-term public policy. 

The capitalist class is prevented from being a ruling class by both the external constraints of competition with other interest groups, and their internal inability to act in a hegemonic fashion.   Pluralist theory makes it easy to understand why business might at some point find itself in need of mobilization.  An important assumption of pluralism is that business is not as successful as other groups to shape policy, because business is disorganized and lacks the capacity to organize as a class.  They are assumed to be only able to organize into political groups within the individual industries.  In contrast, the most important feature of the political mobilization of big business in the 1970s and 1980s was precisely its hegemonic nature.  Big businesses were able to organize across-the-board to seek a reorientation of American politics.  The pluralist theory, thus, does not have much use for explaining the relationship between the capitalist class and the state. 

Contrary to the ideas of pluralism, political sociologists, since the 1960s, have generally assumed that capitalists are a “ruling class” that has dominated American politics throughout the 20th century.  Two more types of theories expand on this “ruling class” premise in different ways:

  1. Structuralist theories argue that ruling classes’ interests were routinely ensured by a state that acted without outside political influence from the capitalist class;
  2. Instrumentalist theories, in contrast, argue that capitalists are sufficiently active and politically organized to pursue their class interests effectively.  They contend that the capitalist class decisively influences state policies through a network of private policy-making bodies.  Through this policy formation process, the capitalist class determines the framework of government policy-making and public discussion on major issues.  The issue is not who controls the state or how the state is constrained to guarantee capitalist interests, but rather through what processes are the class interests of capital effectively formulated and transmitted to the state. 

However, when one compares what happened in the 1970s with political mobilization of business to these theories, both ruling class falls short.  The fact that it was advantageous for business to employ a new mobilization implies that the resulting arrangement was an improvement with heightened, better-coordinated, better-organized political activity (if it wasn’t they would not have done it).  The problem is that if before the change, capitalism was already actively and politically pursuing big business interests (instrumentalists)—the change would have been redundant; and if before that change, capitalism was achieving its interests through the state (structuralists)—the change would have been unnecessary.  

In addition, the sense of powerlessness felt by the executives was not compatible with either concept of the capitalist “ruling class.”  Also, both sociological theories of a capitalist ruling class believed that economic problems would yield statist solutions.  They both assume that in response to economic crisis or social unrest, either the capitalist class or the capitalist state will seek to expand the role of government with liberal social-welfare, regulatory policies, or corporatist efforts at planning.  However, in contradiction, the response to political and economic problems in the mid-1970s was to limit the role of government, not utilize it to overcome the problems.  The approach big business took instead, bypassed what it had previously used to encourage economic growth, “corporate liberalism”— government involvement and subsidization of investment, research and development, labor training, and infrastructure.  

The instrumentalist theory had the most significant advantages of the three theories when used to explain the corporate political mobilization.  The hegemonic element of the mobilization was not hard to explain with the instrumentalist view, because it had always assumed hegemonic action on the part of big business.  Also, because of the instrumentalist image of long-term class-wide unity, the theory has no difficulty explaining how the mobilization seemed to make a disorganized class suddenly organized.  Finally, since the instrumentalist view argues that the policy formation network is the major way in which the capitalist class can influence the state.  Accordingly, any shift in the political role of big business should make itself felt by changes in the network.  This is exactly what did occur when the political mobilization was taking place in the 1970s.   Instrumentalism stops short of explaining:  why capitalists, if a ruling class, would have to mobilize;  why their mobilization took a conservative direction;  why corporate executives felt so powerless;  and why big business as a whole did not merely take a political initiative to change specific problems, but also transformed the capitalist politics of all business. 

All three available images of the capital class as a political actor—pluralism (passive and not a dominate class); structuralism (passive and a dominate class);  instrumentalism (active and a dominate class)—have difficulties fully explaining the political mobilization movement.  The passive images of the capitalist class make it difficult to understand how capitalists suddenly developed the capacity to act in a hegemonic way.  The active image fails to explain why capitalists had to mobilize in a concerted way.  The assumption (by all theories) that capitalists had reconciled themselves to liberal domestic policies and state intervention in general conflicts with how easily businessmen rejected liberalism in the 1970s and does not shed light on why they embraced conservatism rather than industrial policy and corporatism. 

Two assumptions help in resolving those problems:  (1) different government policies are best for capitalism at different times in history.  The policies that serve capitalism vary over time, depending on the specific problems involving capital, and the specific resources available for resolving these problems at a given historical moment;  (2) the degree to which capitalists can act in a hegemonic way depends on the nature of those policies.  At issue in this case, is not whether capitalists are really a ruling class—a question of political impact—but rather the extent to which they are capable of acting in a unified, mobilized way—a question of political organization.  Big business adopts liberal or conservative polices with different degrees of unity, mobilization, and enthusiasm. 

There is always less enthusiasm for liberal policies, than conservative ones for two reasons.  First, liberalism usually involves a tradeoff for capitalists.  There are several examples of liberal reforms that are beneficial to business: social insurance programs help to enhance consumer demand by elevating the spending power of consumers and to alleviate social unrest; unions dampen conflict in the workplace; and regulatory agencies limit harmful competition.  However, these reforms are done with the cost of a transfer of resources, power, or legitimacy away from capitalists to other groups.  When liberal corporatism is in place, capitalism thrives, but capitalist activity and capitalists themselves lose respect among the public.  Conservatism, on the other hand, does not involve contradictions of this kind.  Their policies that call for less regulation, fewer entitlements, and weaker unions, instead transfer resources, power, or legitimacy to capitalists.  They do not carry the same costs for capitalists as liberal policies do.  Second, another reason for less enthusiasm for liberal policies is an inherent distrust of government by capitalists. 

The fact that liberal reforms rarely gained enthusiastic business was not very important since the support of no more than a framework of influential corporate leaders are needed in order to pass them—-because the reforms received enough support from other constituencies.  By contrast, Conservative policies both required and encouraged broad-based capitalist movement.  They required mobilization because business is the natural constituency for such policies; they encouraged it because there is not a conflict between short-term and long-term interests and because they coincided with the instinctive reaction of the capitalist class. 

In short, big business moved from corporate liberalism to corporate conservatism, because changing social conditions made conservatism more parallel with their interests.  This reallocation also involved a significant mobilization of resources, energy, and enthusiasm on the part of an already organized capitalist class.  There was corporate support for the shift because conservatism requires none of the trade-offs for big business that liberalism, even when it is historically appropriate, demands.    Finally, conservatism won support from corporatism, because of the deep antistatist bias of American business.

The image of big business as political actor that emerges from this is not clearly defined.  The relationship between big business and the state is more variable and subject to historical contingency than is implied by the notion of a ruling class.  The capacity of big business to organize itself broadly, to address basic issues of policy, and to bring its influence to bear on American politics is much greater than implied by pluralism.  This aspect of social reality is more complicated than the theories about it.  

The New Republican Edge:  Gains Without Realignment

President and Mrs. Reagan at the 1981 inauguration parade. / Wikimedia Commons

While the New Religious Right and corporate conservatism were undergoing changes in the 1970s and 1980s, so was the relationship between conservatism and the Republican party.  The conservative movement played a pivotal role in the resurrection of the Republican party.  The central questions are what kinds of gain were made, and what changes in the electorate made these gains possible. 

Applying these questions to at the Reagan years, these questions are often altered into a question of whether or not American politics underwent an electoral realignment during Reagan’s two terms.  The focus becomes finding out if there had been a fundamental shift in political allegiances (realignment) in the late 1970s and 1980s.   Concluding that there had been is to say that the Reagan victories reflected shifts in political and ideological allegiances—voters who elected Reagan did so because of preference to Republicans and conservatism.  By contrast, concluding that there had not been a realignment is to say that the shift reflected a range of “short-term” judgments by voters about individual leaders, specific issues, and immediate social conditions.  The voters’ economic judgments can further be described as taking place in a period of weakening political loyalties, also called dealignment. 

However, the problem with this approach is that the question of whether or not a realignment had occurred gives insight into only one aspect of the actual nature of Republican gains and the electoral changes that made them possible.  Using only the realignment issue leads to incorrect or incomplete insight into the broader issues it attempts to explain.  It confuses the situation in three ways:  First, it encourages seeing the broader political landscape all-or-nothing terms; Second, it encourages viewing electoral races as either ideological polarized and issue-oriented, or as simply reaction to the present state of economy and personal judgments on candidates; Third, it does not provide insight into the original question about the gains of the Republican party.  

In reality the causes of the Republican gains were a “political mosaic” in which the ultimate outcome is a result of different aspects of the political environment of the time that were simultaneously influencing the electorate in different ways.  The realignment issue is one of the ingredients in the mosaic.  Among some groups, especially white southerners and evangelists, “selective” realignment did occur in favor of Republicans.  The dealignment issue contributes as well.  Among other voters, a growing tendency to make race-by-race judgments about specific candidates, rather than relying on deeper party loyalties, demonstrated the growth of dealignment, which probably helped Republicans since their superior control of money and greater organization allowed them to target undecided voters in close races by making use of new political technologies.  In addition, the general tendency of voters to engage in a economic voting, a third aspect in the mix, was also advantageous to Republicans because it allowed the transfer of the reputation as the “party of prosperity” from the Democrats to the Republicans in the 1980s, and may have had a long-term impact on the political impressions of young voters who were just beginning to form their opinions during this time. 

The Reagan elections did not reflect a critical realignment like that of the 1930s, which realigned voters’ party identifications to the advantage of Democrats; the republican party did not become a new majority party; the social bases for support of the two parties did not shift fundamentally; and the public opinion did not shift significantly to the right.  First of all, while the Republicans dominated the presidency in the 1970s and 1980s, it did not make progress in Congress or the state legislatures.  Electorally, it did not succeed in becoming the major political party.  Second, the 1986 elections demonstrated the limitations of the Republican gains.  In spite of Ronald Reagan campaigning in 22 states for Republicans in congressional midterm elections only one year after he overwhelmingly won reelection of the presidency, his effort was a failure.  In fact, there was even an opposite effect, in which the Democrats managed to pick up enough extra seats in the election to gain control of the Senate.  Third, political coalitions did not undergo any major shifting during the 1980s.  The same electoral cleavages that were formed by the New Deal persisted and the relative Democratic advantage among these voters remained. Fourth, nearly all measures of ideology and issue positions used by public-opinion polls showed no substantial move to the right.  The gains in Republican party identification and presidential victories came almost entirely from the sector of the electorate least attuned to issues and ideology.  Democrats, far from losing support for their ideology and issues, actually made up ground. 

Nonetheless, while the Republican party did not become the new majority party, it still managed to shake the electorate up enough to help close the gap in party identification.  According to Gallup polls, between the years 1950 and 1984, Democrats usually held at least 40 percent of the electorate nationally, mainly hovering in the 45 percent range, while Republican identification always remained below 35 percent.  The summer of 1984, however, showed a more even contest.  Democrats, who had gotten used to their party’s consistent 14 to 22 point advantage, were shocked to see that Republicans only trailed them by 4 points; they had 35 percent party identification electoral base to the Democrats 39 percent.

Shifts like that in party identification only shows electoral change (realignment) if that shift governs political behavior, which was not the case here.  Instead, there was a weakening of party identification and a deterioration of its relationship to political behavior in the 1970s and early 1980s—hence, a dealignment.  The “swing vote” became very important to winning elections.  The number of people calling themselves independents has significantly increased and now is usually in the range of 30 percent.  People describing themselves as strong supporters of either party declined from 38 percent in 1964, to 29 percent in 1984.  Many voters change their identification frequently as they shift their vote preference.  In the course of all this, split-ticket voting and incumbency voting has rose.  The percentage of incumbents in the House who won their reelection with at least 60 percent of the popular vote rose from 59% in 1956, to 86% in 1986.   The volatility of the electorate made it difficult for either party to put together a consistent coalition.  As Reagan left the White House, the gap between the two parties opened back up to 29 – 42 percent with Democrats in the lead once again.  The ease with which dramatic shifts occurred throughout the 80s demonstrates the volatility created with dealignment.

The evidence of dealignment can be used to argue that the Reagan elections had little ideological implications, but simply reflected the changing state of economy.  Looking at it from this perspective, the crucial factor in American elections is voters’ perceptions of economic conditions, a behavior known as economic voting.  The election of Reagan in 1980 can be attributed to the economic conditions of Carter’s presidency, in which voters weren’t so much voting for Reagan as they were against Carter.  Likewise, the election of 1984 can be attributed to the satisfaction of voters with the fact that the economy rebounded.  Key factors used by voters to determine whether they should punish or reward its leaders are the inflation rate, the unemployment rate, the growth in personal disposable income, and personal perceptions of the current economic condition. 

Looking at the Republican gains in the perspective of selective realignment, dealignment, and economic voting, the changes are less impressive than a true critical realignment like the one in the 1930s.  Nonetheless, they helped to make the Republican party a bigger yet faster political vehicle for conservatives to ride to power.    

American Conservatism in the Bush Years

Chief Justice William Rehnquist administers the Presidential Oath of Office to George H. W. Bush. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

When Reagan left office, the conservative movement appeared to be entrenched but exhausted.   On the positive side, many of the achievements and assumptions of conservatism had integrated into the framework of American politics.  The consistent emphasis in the during the Reagan years on tax cuts and budget deficits had made liberal domestic agenda politically difficult.  Large military buildup had increased the baseline spending level (status quo) about which debates over increases or decreases in the status quo level of spending were based—raising the standards of acceptability and expectation.  Reagan’s federal court appointees put a long-term conservative stamp on Supreme Court decisions.  Overall, conservative views on most issues have gained legitimacy and acceptability. 

On the negative side, the forward momentum of the conservative movement was largely exhausted.  The Reagan years ended with neither a solid Republican nor conservative popular majority much better than it had been when it began.  The Republican nomination of George Bush, who was not very conservative, for the next president indicated that the Republican party was not committed to further advancement of the conservative movement, and it highlighted a shortage in effective conservative leaders. 

Looking at the condition of the various elements of conservatism previously discussed as the Bush presidency began, a clearer picture of the Right in aftermath of the Reagan era emerges.

At the conclusion of the Reagan era, the New Right seemed to be in dismay and disarray, and looked as if its days were numbered at the onset of the Bush years.  The situation reflected the fact that for the first time in 20 years the conservative movement lacked a leader.  Conservatives failed to unite around a successor in the Republican primaries of 1988, and thus, in the following years they were faced with less influence within the Republican party and in politics in general.  Dismay also arose from how they might assess the actual achievements of the Reagan administration.  His second term was mired in scandal and crisis with the Iran-Contra revelations portraying unflattering insider accounts of the Reagan White House.  In addition, the second term consisted of hardly any program or sense of direction.  Its main achievement was an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union, which contradicted every aspect of conservative ideology.  Also, during that term conservatives were electorally unsuccessful in other levels of government.  Moreover, important New Right organizations, faced with considerable financial problems in the late 1980s, were forced to scale back their activities. 

However, the most important reason for the disarray of the New Right was that it had failed to adjust its political style as the conservative movement ascended from the stance of the outsider.  The strategies used to originally jump start conservatism and propel it into the highest office were no longer useful once conservatism was in a governing position.  The conservative strategies adopted in the late 1970s that were ideal in the beginning involved mounting opposition and criticism against the “establishment.”  What conservatives in the late 1980s failed to realize was that these strategies turned into political liabilities after they had thoroughly infiltrated that establishment.  They failed to adopted a “governing” conservatism to follow their “opposition” conservatism.  The New Right was not ready to lead and it never had been; it was, however, as always ready to oppose. 

Jack Kemp / Wikimedia Commons

Two examples of the New Right’s inability to shed its outsider pose were especially disadvantageous:  First, their failure to support the very conservative Jack Kemp in the 1988 Republican primaries on the basis that he was not aggressive enough in attacking political enemies, and his message was too positive.  Second, the failure of the nomination of conservative Republican John Tower as secretary of defense in early 1989 was another instance, in which clinging to their opposition strategy backfired.  Here, a conservative activist lobbied against the nomination of one of his own because the nominee’s past was not up to certain moral standards.  The fact that a personal belief about morals was so readily translated into a divisible public attack reflects the outsider mentality. 

While the New Religious Right entered the Bush years as a still potent source of Republican votes, conservative activists, and institutional power, it also still functioned more like an evangelical-fundamentalist Right.  The antiabortion issue took center stage and replaced the anti-ERA movement as the primary focus in their political agenda.  Evangelists and fundamentalists gave Bush 81 percent of their votes— a higher amount than Reagan had received from them in the 1984 election.  However, the influence of the New Religious Right remained limited in its scope.  Financial trouble had dismantled many of the television preachers and programs the movement had previously used for advocating its ideas.    Thus, expansion of the New Religious Right appears to be limited, but it likely will remain a political force.

In the remaining Reagan years corporate conservatism remained an important political force, but its aggressiveness, partisanship, and in some ways unity waned.  While economic issues in the mid-1970s unified big business, the economic issues in Reagan’s second term split it.  Disagreements among corporations and industries injured the Business Roundtable, divided corporate lobbyists, and pitted policy planning groups against one another.  In addition, in the electoral aspect, big business was less coordinated in their efforts to elect conservative Republican challengers to House and Senate seats.  The tendency of business to support incumbents returned as the norm, and corporate PACs started to give less money to challengers, conservatives, Republicans, and close races.  Last minute surges of corporate money to close races halted in late-1980s.  One factor for the reversal of big business electoral strategies was the fact that Democrats began to effectively fight for more business money by taking more pro-business stances and stressing to big business that without Democratic cooperation, Republicans cannot help business interests.  By reverting to their incumbent strategy big business was not becoming more neutral, they still favored Republicans over Democrats.  They gave the least amount of money to Democrat challengers—they avoided investing in new additions of Democrats and liberals. However, even though corporate conservatism had been diluted slightly, the networks of organizations important to its ideas and policies continued to be supported by business money.   Corporate conservatism, thus, persisted into the 1990s, but its activism tends to be more episodic and less enthusiastic than it had been. 

The Republican party left the Reagan years with the gains it had accumulated during the rise of the Right largely in tact.  Democrats’ edge in party identification was much smaller, Republicans had confiscated the reputation of the party of prosperity and continued to enjoy the benefit of economic doubt, most importantly, Republicans maintained its financial, organizational, and technological superiority.  On the other hand, the fact that Bush’s coattails in the 1988 election were shorter than any winning candidate’s had ever been demonstrated an overall volatility in party identification in either party.  Republicans saw that the white evangelicals and while southerners had held strong into the 1990s.   Traditional divisions along class and religion lines remained for the most part in tact. 

The implications of the 1988 elections for conservatism are debatable.  On the one hand, one can argue that Bush’s win was not ideologically significant, because of economic voting and the fact that some of Bush’s positions were not ideologically consistent with conservatives or Republicans and therefore those who voted for him weren’t necessarily condoning conservatism.  On the other hand, one can argue that those elections sent out a clear conservative or anti-liberal message. >From this view, Bush turned his 17 point disadvantage in the polls into a 5 point lead by effectively labeling Dukakis a liberal and attaching to it derogatory connotations to that label.  Democrats were only successful in races for lower offices, because they are not as much about ideology and issues, and more about personal images, incumbency, and constituency services, than the presidential race.  This claim implies that Republicans do better in elections that are ideological and issue oriented.  Both points of view have an element of truth to them.  The actual implications of the 1988 election are really mixed.  Conservatives have won an important battle, but they are losing the war.  They have succeeded in turning the name “liberal” into a derogatory political label that hurts anyone it becomes attached to.  They have, however, failed to push public opinion on most issues to the Right. 

Conservative voters are more consistent in their support of conservative public figures, than liberals are of theirs.  Conservatives have won an important symbolic victory, but it has proven to be limited.  Republican negative rhetoric and the failure of liberals to promote a positive meaning for their position have contributed to “Liberal” being a less appealing label than “conservative.” However, how Americans feel about ideological labels, often has nothing to do with how they think about the specific issues.  Conservatives have actually not had much impact on the broad trends in public thinking about most major policy areas.   Therefore, the electorate success Republicans achieve over Democrats has more to do with their ability to promote images about each party, than with increased support for their issues.  For example, conservatives used many propaganda tactics to muster support for their hard-core military position.  With their anticommunist rhetoric conservatives tried to invoke hatred by labeling the Soviet Union as “evil,” and tried to invoke fear by claiming that the fate of humanity resides on the American ability to win the cold war.  While such this approach has sometimes had great appeal, it has failed to budge public support for more than the quickest and cheapest assertions of American power in the world.  Another example of the inability of conservatism to change public opinion points out that in spite of the potent appeal of conservative rhetoric about the decline of traditional family values and the rise of a unreligious and unmoral culture, it did not lead to public support for the conservative social agenda.  Similarly, 15 years of conservative antiabortion activity failed to move public opinion about the issue more than a few percentage points.  It appears that Americans don’t want their morals to be defined and legislated by government, and seem to seek a more careful balance of personal freedom and social constraint than offered by the Right.  Yet another example goes straight to the heart of conservatism.  The image of limited government presented by conservatives has had appeal, especially when talking about cutting taxes.  Nonetheless, despite 8 years of Reagan and conservative rhetoric, a substantial majority of Americans believe government has broad responsibilities for providing certain levels of social welfare.  Most Americans oppose cutbacks in government spending in most social programs.  While many voters may have been swayed by rhetoric, the support is usually only on the surface—in practice, most Americans expect an activist government.  Over the years, Republicans and conservatives have gradually been forced to adjust their policies accordingly.

In conclusion, Americans are symbolically conservative, but substantively liberal.  Basically, conservatives have failed to alter the political tendencies of Americans, even though they have won important symbolic battles; and Liberals are usually more in step with these political tendencies, even though they have failed to articulate an effective political vision.

Excerpt from To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism (University of California Press, 1989), published under fair use for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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