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Timeline of modern American conservatism

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ronald Reagan gives a televised address from the Oval Office outlining his plan for tax reductions in July 1981 (excerpt)

This timeline of modern American conservatism lists important events, developments and occurrences which have significantly affected conservatism in the United States. With the decline of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party after 1960, the movement is most closely associated with the Republican Party (GOP). Economic conservatives favor less government regulation, lower taxes and weaker labor unions while social conservatives focus on moral issues and neoconservatives focus on democracy worldwide. Conservatives generally distrust the United Nations and Europe and apart from the libertarian wing favor a strong military and give enthusiastic support to Israel.[1]

Although conservatism has much older roots in American history, the modern movement began to gel in the mid-1930s when intellectuals and politicians collaborated with businessmen to oppose the liberalism of the New Deal led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, newly energized labor unions and big city Democratic machines. After World War II, that coalition gained strength from new philosophers and writers who developed an intellectual rationale for conservatism.[2]

Richard Nixon's victory in the 1968 presidential election is often considered a realigning election in American politics. From 1932 to 1968, the Democratic Party was the majority party as during that time period the Democrats had won seven out of nine presidential elections and their agenda gravely affected that undertaken by the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, but the election of 1968 reversed the situation completely. The Vietnam War split the Democratic Party. White ethnics in the North and white Southerners felt the national Democratic Party had deserted them. The white South has voted Republican at the presidential level since the 1950s and at the state and local level since the 1990s.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan rejuvenated the conservative Republican ideology, with tax cuts, greatly increased defense spending, deregulation, a policy of rolling back communism, a greatly strengthened military and appeals to family values and conservative Judeo-Christian morality. His impact has led historians to call the 1980s the Reagan Era.[3] The Reagan model remains the conservative standard for social, economic and foreign policy issues. In recent years, social issues such as abortion, gun control and gay marriage have become important. Since 2009, the Tea Party movement has energized conservatives at the local level against the policies made by the presidency of Barack Obama, leading to Republican success in the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections, and the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump was elected president.

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  • The Rise of Conservatism: Crash Course US History #41
  • Modern American Conservative History
  • The History of American Conservatism
  • The History of Modern Conservatism.
  • Rise of Conservatism Simplified: Goldwater (1964) to Reagan (1989) & Beyond


Episode 41: Rise of Conservatism Hi, I’m John Green, this is CrashCourse U.S. history and today we’re going to--Nixon?--we’re going to talk about the rise of conservatism. So Alabama, where I went to high school, is a pretty conservative state and reliably sends Republicans to Washington. Like, both of its Senators, Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby, are Republicans. But did you know that Richard Shelby used to be a Democrat, just like basically all of Alabama’s Senators since reconstruction? And this shift from Democrat to Republican throughout the South is the result of the rise in conservative politics in the 1960s and 1970s that we are going to talk about today. And along the way, we get to put Richard Nixon’s head in a jar. Stan just informed me that we don’t actually get to put Richard Nixon’s head in a jar. It’s just a Futurama joke. And now I’m sad. So, you’ll remember from our last episode that we learned that not everyone in the 1960s was a psychedelic rock-listening, war-protesting hippie. In fact, there was a strong undercurrent of conservative thinking that ran throughout the 1960s, even among young people. And one aspect of this was the rise of free market ideology and libertarianism. Like, since the 1950s, a majority of Americans had broadly agreed that “free enterprise” was a good thing and should be encouraged both in the U.S. and abroad. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, and also in deep space where no man has gone before? No, MFTP. You’re thinking of the Starship Enterprise, not free enterprise. And anyway, Me From The Past, have you ever seen a more aggressively communist television program than “The Neutral Zone” from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first season? I don’t think so. intro Alright so, in the 1950s a growing number of libertarians argued that unregulated capitalism and individual autonomy were the essence of American freedom. And although they were staunchly anti-communist, their real target was the regulatory state that had been created by the New Deal. You know, social security, and not being allowed to, you know, choose how many pigs you kill, etc. Other conservatives weren’t libertarians at all but moral conservatives who were okay with the rules that enforced traditional notions of family and morality. Even if that seemed like, you know, an oppressive government. For them virtue was the essence of America. But both of these strands of conservatism were very hostile toward communism and also to the idea of “big government.” And it’s worth noting that since World War I, the size and scope of the federal government had increased dramatically. And hostility toward the idea of “big government” remains the signal feature of contemporary conservatism. Although very few people actually argue for shrinking the government. Because, you know, that would be very unpopular. People like Medicare. But it was faith in the free market that infused the ideology of the most vocal young conservatives in the 1960s. They didn’t receive nearly as much press as their liberal counterparts but these young conservatives played a pivotal role in reshaping the Republican Party, especially in the election of 1964. The 1964 presidential election was important in American history precisely because it was so incredibly uncompetitive. I mean, Lyndon Johnson was carrying the torch of a wildly popular American president who had been assassinated a few months before. He was never going to lose. And indeed he didn’t. The republican candidate, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, was demolished by LBJ. But the mere fact of Goldwater’s nomination was a huge conservative victory. I mean, he beat out liberal Republican New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. And yes, there were liberal Republicans. Goldwater demanded a harder line in the Cold War, even suggesting that nuclear war might be an option in the fight against communism. And he lambasted the New Deal liberal welfare state for destroying American initiative and individual liberty. I mean, why bother working when you could just enjoy life on the dole? I mean, unemployment insurance allowed anyone in America to become a hundredaire. But it was his stance on the Cold War that doomed his candidacy. In his acceptance speech, Goldwater famously declared, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Which made it really easy for Johnson to paint Goldwater as an extremist. In the famous “Daisy” advertisement, Johnson’s supporters countered Goldwater’s campaign slogan of “in your heart, you know he’s right” with “but in your guts you know he’s nuts.” So in the end, Goldwater received a paltry 27 million votes to Johnson’s 43 million, and Democrats racked up huge majorities in both houses of Congress. This hides, however, the significance of the election. Five of the six states that Goldwater carried were in the Deep South, which had been reliably democratic, known as the “Solid South,” in fact. Now, it’s too simple to say that race alone led to the shift from Democratic to the Republican party in the South because Goldwater didn’t really talk much about race. But the Democrats, especially under LBJ, became the party associated with defending civil rights and ending segregation, and that definitely played a role in white southerners’ abandoning the Democrats, as was demonstrated even more clearly in the 1968 election. The election of 1968 was a real cluster-Calhoun, I mean, there were riots and there was also the nomination of Hubert Humphrey, who was very unpopular with the anti-war movement, and also was named Hubert Humphrey, and that’s just what happened with the Democrats. But, lost in that picture was the Republican nominee, Richard Milhous Nixon, who was one of the few candidates in American history to come back and win the presidency after losing in a previous election. How’d he do it? Well, it probably wasn’t his charm, but it might have been his patience. Nixon was famous for his ability to sit and wait in poker games. It made him very successful during his tour of duty in the South Pacific. In fact, he earned the nickname “Old Iron Butt.” Plus, he was anti-communist, but didn’t talk a lot about nuking people. And the clincher was probably that he was from California, which by the late 1960s was becoming the most populous state in the nation. Nixon won the election, campaigning as the candidate of the “silent majority” of Americans who weren’t anti-war protesters, and who didn’t admire free love or the communal ideals of hippies. And who were alarmed at the rights that the Supreme Court seemed to be expanding, especially for criminals. This silent majority felt that the rights revolution had gone too far. I mean, they were concerned about the breakdown in traditional values and in law and order. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. Nixon also promised to be tough on crime, which was coded language to whites in the south that he wouldn’t support civil rights protests. The equation of crime with African Americans has a long and sordid history in the United States, and Nixon played it up following a “Southern strategy” to further draw white Democrats who favored segregation into the Republican ranks. Now, Nixon only won 43% of the vote, but if you’ve paid attention to American history, you know that you ain’t gotta win a majority to be the president. He was denied that majority primarily by Alabama Governor George Wallace, who was running on a pro-segregation ticket and won 13% of the vote. So 56% of American voters chose candidates who were either explicitly or quietly against civil rights. Conservatives who voted for Nixon hoping he would roll back the New Deal were disappointed. I mean, in some ways the Nixon domestic agenda was just a continuation of LBJ’s Great Society. This was partly because Congress was still in the hands of Democrats, but also Nixon didn’t push for conservative programs and he didn’t veto new initiatives. Because they were popular. And he liked to be popular. So in fact, a number of big government “liberal” programs began under Nixon. I mean, the environmental movement achieved success with the enactment of the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were created to make new regulations that would protect worker safety and make cars safer. That’s not government getting out of our lives, that’s government getting into our cars. Now, Nixon did abolish the Office of Economic Opportunity, but he also indexed social security benefits to inflation and he proposed the Family Assistance Plan that would guarantee a minimum income for all Americans. And, the Nixon years saw some of the most aggressive affirmative action in American history. LBJ had begun the process by requiring recipients of federal contracts to have specific numbers of minority employees and timetables for increasing those numbers. But Nixon expanded this with the Philadelphia plan, which required federal construction projects to have minority employees. He ended up attacking this plan after realising that it was wildly unpopular with trade unions, which had very few black members, but he had proposed it. And when Nixon had the opportunity to nominate a new Chief Justice to the Supreme Court after Earl Warren retired in 1969, his choice, Warren Burger was supposed to be a supporter of small government and conservative ideals, but, just like Nixon, he proved a disappointment in that regard. Like, in Swan v. Charlotte-Mecklenbug Board of Education, the court upheld a lower court ruling that required busing of students to achieve integration in Charlotte’s schools. And then the Burger court made it easier for minorities to sue for employment discrimination, especially with its ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. This upheld affirmative action as a valid governmental interest, although it did strike down the use of strict quotas in university admissions. Now, many conservatives didn’t like these affirmative action decisions, but one case above all others had a profound effect on American politics: Roe v. Wade. Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to have an abortion in the first trimester of a pregnancy as well as a more limited right as the pregnancy progressed. And that decision galvanized first Catholics and then Evangelical Protestants. And that ties in nicely with another strand in American conservatism that developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Let’s go to the ThoughtBubble. Many Americans felt that traditional family values were deteriorating and looked to conservative republican candidates to stop that slide. They were particularly alarmed by the continuing success of the sexual revolution, as symbolized by Roe v. Wade and the increasing availability of birth control. Statistics tend to back up the claims that traditional family values were in decline in the 1970s. Like, the number of divorces soared to over one million in 1975 exceeding the number of first time marriages. The birthrate declined with women bearing 1.7 children during their lifetimes by 1976, less than half the figure in 1957. Now, of course, many people would argue that the decline of these traditional values allowed more freedom for women and for a lot of terrible marriages to end, but that’s neither here nor there. Some conservatives also complained about the passage in 1972 of Title IX, which banned gender discrimination in higher education, but many more expressed concern about the increasing number of women in the workforce. Like, by 1980 40% of women with young children had been in the workforce, up from 20% in 1960. The backlash against increased opportunity for women is most obviously seen in the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1974, although it passed Congress easily in 1972. Opponents of the ERA, which rather innocuously declared that equality of rights under the law could not be abridged on account of sex, argued that the ERA would let men off the hook for providing for their wives and children, and that working women would lead to the further breakdown of the family. Again, all the ERA stated was that women and men would have equal rights under the laws of the United States. But, anyway, some anti-ERA supporters, like Phyllis Schlafly claimed that free enterprise was the greatest liberator of women because the purchase of new labor saving devices would offer them genuine freedom in their traditional roles of wife and mother. Essentially, the vacuum cleaner shall make you free. And those arguments were persuasive to enough people that the ERA was not ratified in the required ¾ of the United States. Thanks, ThoughtBubble. Sorry if I let my personal feelings get in the way on that one. Anyway, Nixon didn’t have much to do with the continuing sexual revolution; it would have continued without him because, you know, skoodilypooping is popular. But, he was successfully reelected in 1972, partly because his opponent was the democratic Barry Goldwater, George McGovern. McGovern only carried one state and it wasn’t even his home state. It was Massachusetts. Of course. But even though they couldn’t possibly lose, Nixon’s campaign decided to cheat. In June of 1972, people from Nixon’s campaign broke into McGovern’s campaign office, possibly to plant bugs. No, Stan, not those kinds of bugs. Yes. Those. Now, we don’t know if Nixon actually knew about the activities of the former employees of the amazingly acronym-ed CREEP, that is the Committee for the Reelection of the President. But this break in at the Watergate hotel eventually led to Nixon being the first and so far only American president to resign. What we do know is this: Nixon was really paranoid about his opponents, even the ones who appealed to 12% of American voters, especially after Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971. So, he drew up an enemies list and created a special investigative unit called the plumbers whose job was to fix toilets. No, it was to stop leaks. That makes more sense. I’m sorry, Stan, it’s just by then the toilets in the White House were over 100 years old, I figured they might need some fixing, but apparently no. Leaking. Nixon also taped all of the conversations in the Oval Office and these tapes caused a minor constitutional crisis. So, during the congressional investigation of Watergate, it became known that these tapes existed, so the special prosecutor demanded copies. Nixon refused, claiming executive privilege, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in U.S. v. Nixon that he had to turn them over. And this is important because it means that the president is not above the law. So, what ultimately doomed Nixon was not the break in itself, but the revelations that he covered it up by authorizing hush money payments to keep the burglars silent and also instructing the FBI not to investigate the crime. In August of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that articles of impeachment be drawn up against Nixon for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. But the real crime, ultimately, was abuse of power, and there’s really no question about whether he was guilty of that. So, Nixon resigned. Aw man, I was thinking I was going to get away without a Mystery Document today. The rules here are simple. I guess the author of the Mystery Document, and lately I’m never wrong. Alright. Today I am an inquisitor. I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” Aw. I’m going to get shocked today. Is it Sam Ervin? Aw dang it! Gah! Apparently it was African American congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordan. Stan, that is much too hard. I think you were getting tired of me not being shocked, Stan, because it’s pretty strange to end an episode on conservatism with a quote from Barbara Jordan, whose election to Congress has to be seen as a huge victory for liberalism. But I guess it is symbolic of the very things that many conservatives found unsettling in the 1970s, including political and economic success for African Americans and women, and the legislation that helped the marginalized. I know that sounds very judgmental, but on the other hand, the federal government had become a huge part of every American’s life, maybe too huge. And certainly conservatives weren’t wrong when they said that the founding fathers of the U.S. would hardly recognize the nation that we had become by the 1970s. In fact, Watergate was followed by a Senate investigation by the Church Committee, which revealed that Nixon was hardly the first president to abuse his power. The government had spied on Americans throughout the Cold War and tried to disrupt the Civil Rights movement. And the Church Commission, Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam all of these things revealed a government that truly was out of control and this undermined a fundamental liberal belief that government is a good institution that is supposed to solve problems and promote freedom. And for many Conservatives these scandals sent a clear signal that government couldn’t promote freedom and couldn’t solve problems and that the liberal government of the New Deal and the Great Society had to be stopped. Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next week. Woah! Crash Course is made with the help of all of these nice people and it exists because of...your support on Subbable is a voluntary subscription service that allows you to support stuff you like monthly for the price of your choosing, so if you value Crash Course U.S. History and you want this kind of stuff to continue to exist so we can make educational content free, forever, for everyone, please check out Subbable. And I am slowly spinning, I’m slowly spinning, I’m slowly spinning. Thank you again for your support. I’m coming back around. I can do this. And as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.

Chronology of events


As the nation plunges into its deepest depression ever, Republicans and conservatives fall into disfavor in 1930, 1932 and 1934, losing more and more of their seats. Liberals (mostly Democrats with a few Republicans and independents) come to power with the landslide 1932 election of liberal Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his first 100 days Roosevelt pushes through a series of dramatic economic programs known as the New Deal.[4]

The major metropolitan newspapers generally opposed the New Deal, as typified by William Randolph Hearst and his chain (Hearst had supported Roosevelt in 1932, but he parted ways in 1934.[5] Robert R. McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune, compared the New Deal to communism. He was also an America First isolationist who strongly opposed entering World War II to rescue the British Empire. McCormick also railed against the League of Nations, the World Court, and socialism.[6]

1937 cartoon by Joseph L. Parrish in the Chicago Tribune warning Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive branch reorganization plan is a power grab
  • President Roosevelt calls his opponents "conservatives" as a term of abuse, they reply that they are "true liberals".[11]
  • Most publishers favor Republican moderate Alf Landon for president. In the nation's 15 largest cities the newspapers that editorially endorsed Landon represented 70% of the circulation, while Roosevelt won 69% of the actual voters.[12]
  • Roosevelt carries 46 of the 48 states and liberals gain in both the House and the Senate, thanks to newly energized labor unions, city machines, and the WPA.[13] Since 1928 the GOP has lost 178 House seats, 40 Senate seats, and 19 governorships; it retains a mere 89 seats in the House and 16 in the Senate.[14]
Robert A. Taft
  • As Republican senator from Ohio (1939–53), Robert A. Taft leads the conservative opposition to liberal policies (apart from public housing and aid to education, which he supported). Taft opposed most of the New Deal, entry into World War II, NATO, and sending troops to the Korean War. He was not so much an "isolationist" as a staunch opponent of the ever-expanding powers of the White House. The growth of this power, Taft feared, would lead to dictatorship or at least spoil American democracy, republicanism and civil virtue.[22]


  • Medical missionary Walter Judd (1898–1994) enters Congress (1943–63) and defines the conservative position on China as all-out support for the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and opposition to the Communists under Mao. Judd redoubled his support after the Nationalists in 1949 fled to Formosa (Taiwan).[23]
  • The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is founded in Washington "to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism—limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate."[24]
Party change of House seats in 1946 showcasing GOP landslide
  • March: Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian-born British economist, publishes The Road to Serfdom, which is widely read in America and Britain. He warns that well-intentioned government intervention in the economy is a slippery slope that will lead to tight government controls over people's lives, just as medieval serfdom had done.[25]
  • The weekly magazine Human Events is founded by Frank Hanighen and Felix Morley with a significant contribution from ex-New Dealer Henry Regnery.[26][27] Ronald Reagan later says that the magazine "helped me stop being a liberal Democrat."[28]
Cartoon book warning of Communist aggression
Warning against communism, 1947
  • June: Congress passes the Taft-Hartley Act, designed by conservatives to create what they consider a proper balance between the rights of management and the rights of labor. Unions call it a slave labor law; Truman vetoes it and both houses override the veto.[33]


After the war, businessmen opposed to New Deal liberalism read Hayek, fight labor unions, and fund politicized think tanks such as American Enterprise Institute (founded 1943). They promote statewide right-to-work campaigns.[38]

  • The intellectual reputation of conservatism reaches a low ebb; Lionel Trilling observes that "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition" and dismisses conservatism as a series of "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."[39]
  • February: Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy gives a speech saying, "While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205." The speech marks the beginning of McCarthy's anti-communist pursuits.[40]
Russell Kirk
  • President Eisenhower works closely with Senator Taft, the new GOP majority leader, on domestic issues; they differ on foreign policy.[47]
Barry Goldwater
  • Vermont C. Royster (1914–1996) becomes editor of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal (1958 to 1971). He wins two Pulitzer Prizes for his conservative interpretation of economic and political news.[52]
  • Conservatives try economic populism to appeal to blue collar workers forced to join labor unions. The GOP pushes "right-to-work" laws in California and elsewhere, but the unions counter-organize for the Democrats. Conservatives try again in 2011.[53][54]
  • November: In a deep economic recession the Democrats score a landslide victory, defeating many old-guard conservative Republicans. The new Congress has large Democratic majorities: 282 Democrats to 154 GOP in the House, 64 to 34 in the Senate. Nevertheless, the new Congress fails to pass any major liberal legislation as most committee chairs are Southern Democrats who support the Conservative Coalition.[55] Two Republicans score upsets in the face of the landslide—liberal Nelson Rockefeller as Governor of New York,[56] and Barry Goldwater as Senator from Arizona;[57] both become presidential prospects.
  • December: Businessman Robert W. Welch, Jr. (1899–1985) and twelve others found the John Birch Society, an anti-communist advocacy group with chapters across the country. Welch uses an elaborate control system that enables him to keep a very tight rein on each chapter. Its major activities are circulating petitions and supporting the local police. It becomes a favorite target of attack from the left and is disowned by many of the prominent conservatives of the day.[58]
  • As late as 1959 William Buckley complains that conservatives were "bound together for the most part by negative response to liberalism," and that, philosophically, "there [is] no commonly-acknowledged conservative position."[59]


Liberalism made major gains after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, as Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) pushed through his liberal Great Society as well as civil rights laws. An unexpected bonanza helped conservatism in the late 1960s as liberalism came under intense attack from the New Left, especially in academe. This new element, says liberal historian Michael Kazin, worked to "topple the corrupted liberal order."[60] For the New Left "liberal" became a nasty epithet. Liberal commentator E. J. Dionne finds that, "If liberal ideology began to crumble intellectually in the 1960s it did so in part because the New Left represented a highly articulate and able wrecking crew."[61]

"A Time for Choosing" Speech
In support of Goldwater in 1964, Reagan delivers the TV address "A Time for Choosing", a speech which made Reagan the leader of movement conservatism
DateOctober 27, 1964 (1964-10-27)
LocationLos Angeles, CA, United States
Also known as"The Speech"
TypeTelevised campaign speech
ParticipantsRonald Reagan
WebsiteVideo clip, audio, transcript

Movement conservatism emerges as grassroots activists react to liberal and New Left agendas. It develops a structure that supports Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1976–80. By the late 1970s, local evangelical churches join the movement.[62][63] Liberalism faces a racial crisis nationwide. Within weeks of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights law, "long hot summers" begin, lasting until 1970, with the worst outbreaks coming in the summer of 1967. Nearly 400 racial disorders in 298 cities saw blacks attacking shopkeepers and police, and looting stores.[64] Meanwhile, the urban crime rates shoot up. Demands for "law and order" escalate and the backlash causes disillusionment among working class whites with the liberalism of the Democratic Party.[65]

In the mid-1960s the GOP debates race and civil rights intensely. Republican liberals, led by Nelson Rockefeller, argue for a strong federal role because it was morally right and politically advantageous. Conservatives call for a more limited federal presence and discount the possibility of significant black voter support. Nixon avoids race issues in 1968.[66]

Highlights of the 1960 Republican convention in Chicago, Illinois
Cover of Modern Age
  • Conservatives are angered when GOP presidential nominee Richard Nixon strikes a deal with liberal leader Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon agrees to put all 14 of Rockefeller's demands in the party platform, including promises that the executive branch be totally reorganized and that Rockefeller's liberal policies on economic growth, medical care for the aged and civil rights be included.[67] Led by Goldwater, conservatives vow to organize at the grass roots and take control of the GOP.[68]
  • Barry Goldwater publishes The Conscience of a Conservative. The book helps the Arizona Senator reignite the conservative movement which rallies behind the charismatic Arizona Senator.[69]
  • Fall: Frank S. Meyer's article, "Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism", is published in Modern Age, argues that traditional conservatism and libertarianism share a common philosophical heritage. The concept comes to be known as "fusionism" and unites the two strands of thought.[70]
  • September: William F. Buckley, Jr., forms a youth group called the Young Americans for Freedom; it helps Goldwater win the 1964 nomination but is otherwise ineffective and collapses in internal bickering.[71]
  • November: Nixon loses a close election to liberal Democrat John F. Kennedy.[72]
  • Buckley and the National Review launch denunciations of the John Birch Society; Goldwater agrees; the attack limits its influence to the conspiracy-minded.[75]
The controversial "Daisy" Johnson TV commercial in 1964 attacks Goldwater foreign policy as inviting nuclear war[76]
In support of Goldwater, Reagan delivers the address, "A Time for Choosing", which speech launches Reagan to national prominence[78]
In the 1964 presidential election, Goldwater only won his home state of Arizona and five states in the Deep South
  • Jul: George Wallace gives a speech condemning the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that it would threaten individual liberty, free enterprise and private property rights and that "The liberal left-wingers have passed it. Now let them employ some pinknik social engineers in Washington, D.C., to figure out what to do with it."[80]
  • July: Goldwater defeats liberal Republicans Rockefeller to win the GOP presidential nomination and launch a conservative crusade.
  • July: Under attack as an "extremist," Goldwater lashes back in his speech accepting the GOP nomination:

    I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue![81]

  • November: In the presidential election, Goldwater is defeated in a landslide, and many GOP congressmen are defeated with him.[82]
  • December: The American Conservative Union, the oldest conservative lobbying organization in the United States, is founded by William F. Buckley, Jr.[83]
1968 presidential election results in which red denotes states won by Nixon/Agnew, blue denotes those won by Humphrey/Muskie and orange denotes states won by Wallace/LeMay
  • Liberalism collapses politically as the Democratic Party splits into five factions over issues of Vietnam, race and attacks from New Left.[92] Richard Nixon is elected president over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace (American Independent Party), emphasizing the need for law and order.[93] The New Left denounced Humphrey as a war criminal, Nixon attacked him as the New Left's enabler—a man with "a personal attitude of indulgence and permissiveness toward the lawless."[94] Beinart observes that "with the country divided against itself, contempt for Hubert Humphrey was the one thing on which left and right could agree."[95]


Historians Meg Jacobs and Julian Zelizer argue that the 1970s were characterized by "a vast shift toward social and political conservatism," as well as a sharp decline in the proportion of voters who identified with liberalism.[99] Neoconservatism emerges as liberals become disenchanted with Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society welfare programs. They increasingly focus on foreign policy, especially anti-communism, and support for Israel and for democracy in the Third World.[100]

While Nixon continues to antagonize and anger liberals, many of his programs upset conservatives. His foreign policy with Henry Kissinger focuses on détente with the USSR and China, and becomes a main target of conservatives. Nixon is uninterested in tax cuts or deregulation, but he does use executive orders and presidential authority to impose price and wage controls, expand the welfare state, require Affirmative Action, grow the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, and create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).[101]

Number of Conservative Political Action Conference attendees over time
William F. Buckley Jr. (left) and Ronald Reagan. two of the most visible conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s
  • Commentary, a monthly Jewish magazine on politics, foreign policy, society and cultural issues that began as a liberal voice in the 1940s moves sharply to the right in the 1970s under editor Norman Podhoretz. It becomes an influential voice for Israel, anti-communism and neoconservatism by 1976, and supports Reagan in the 1980s.[116]
  • George H. Nash publishes The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, arguing that Buckley's National Review fused together the traditional, libertarian and anti-Communist traditions to forge a conservative intellectual movement.[117]
  • In reaction against liberal and presidential support for the UN's International Women's Year, conservative women meet in Houston to coordinate their grass roots work. Led by Phyllis Schlafly, they block passage of the ERA and work to nominate Ronald Reagan as the Republican candidate for president.[124]
  • Beverly LaHaye and eight other women found Concerned Women for America (CWA) to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. It later expands its scope to address socially conservative issues.[125] CWA has been described as "a key player in conservative evangelical politics" and according to CWA it is the largest women's organization in the United States.[126]
  • February: Irving Kristol is featured on the cover of Esquire under the caption, "the godfather of the most powerful new political force in America – neoconservatism."[127]
  • June: Jerry Falwell founds Moral Majority, marking the reentry of Fundamentalists into partisan politics.[128]
Washington for Jesus, 1980


The decade is marked by the rise of the Christian right and the Reagan Revolution.[129] A priority of Reagan's administration is the rollback of Soviet communism in Latin America, Africa and worldwide.[130] Reagan bases his economic policy, dubbed "Reaganomics", on supply-side economics.[131]

  • Reagan promotes "supply side economics", arguing that tax cuts will stimulate the economy, which suffers high unemployment and high inflation (called "stagflation").[135]
  • Reagan forms a coalition in Congress with conservative Democrats and passes his major tax cuts and increases in defense spending. He fails to cut welfare spending.[136]
  • The Cold War heats up as Reagan pursues a rollback strategy in Latin America and Africa. He supports the anti-Communist "Contra" rebels who attempt to overthrow the pro-Communist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.[137] Liberal Democrats in Congress try to block his moves and undercut the Contras, leading to a series of battles in the halls of Congress in which Reagan (mostly) prevails.[138] The Sandinistas are forced to hold fair elections in 1990, which they lose by 41%–55%.[139]
  • June: President Reagan tells the British Parliament that "the march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history"[140] and calls for a "crusade for freedom."[141]
  • September: Associate Justice William Rehnquist is confirmed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.[145] Reagan chooses Rehnquist in a deliberate effort to move the Court to the right, knowing he has the conservative constitutional agenda firmly in mind.[146]
  • Replacing Rehnquist as Associate Justice, Antonin Scalia is confirmed by the Senate 90–0. He has been called "the creative, brilliant, and outspoken intellectual leader of the Court's conservative majority."[147]
  • October: Congress enacts the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the second of the "Reagan Tax Cuts". The act simplifies the tax code, reduces the marginal income tax rate on the wealthiest Americans from 50% to 28%, and increases the marginal tax rate on the lowest-earning taxpayers from 10% to 15%.[148]
  • November: the Iran Contra scandal draws national attention and threatened to derail Reagan's progress. Working with the CIA Reagan had authorized National Security Council officials to engage in a complicated sale of missiles to Iran with the goal of funding the Contras fighting Nicaragua. Blame increasingly centered on the key operative, Oliver North. However, in week-long dramatic testimony North emerges a conservative hero. North is convicted on minor counts but the conviction is reversed on appeal because he did not receive a fair trial. Reagan's reputation survives and he leaves office more popular than he began.[149]
  • November: the Berlin Wall falls as the satellite states free themselves from Soviet control. West Germany absorbs East Germany in 1990, and in late 1991 Communism collapses in Russia as the red flag is lowered for the last time. Reagan becomes a hero in Eastern Europe.[155]


Clarence Thomas

Conservative think tanks 1990–97 mobilize to challenge the legitimacy of global warming as a social problem. They challenge the scientific evidence, argue that global warming will have benefits, and warn that proposed solutions would do more harm than good.[156]

  • September: The Contract with America is released on the steps of the Capitol.[159] Designed by GOP House Whip Newt Gingrich, it had the effect of "nationalizing" the off-year election, as most Republican candidates endorsed it and used it as a template to promote a conservative agenda in economic policy. The Contract avoided divisive social issues.[160]
  • November: in the Republican Revolution, Republicans take control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. The Democrats lose 52 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate, giving the GOP margins of 230 to 204 and 53 to 47.[161]
Legislation Result
Welfare reform Passed (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996)
Term limits for Congressmen Did not pass (U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton)
Balanced budget amendment Did not pass
Increase rights of victims of crime Passed (Taking Back Our Streets Act)
Pro-family tax credits Passed (American Dream Restoration Act)
Decrease United States role in the United Nations Did not pass
Capital gains tax cut Passed (Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act)
Limit punitive damages on product liability Passed, but vetoed (Product Liability Fairness Act)
Fox News building on 48th Street


The terror attack on September 11, 2001, reorients the administration towards foreign policy and terrorism issues, providing an opportunity for neoconservatives to have a greater influence on foreign policy. The Bush Doctrine leads to long-term interventions in Afghanistan (2001-2021) and Iraq (2003–2011).[170]

On the domestic front Bush promises compassionate conservatism and works to improve education, address poverty nationwide, increase financial aid to poor countries and help alleviate AIDS in Africa.[171]

At a joint session of Congress, President Bush pledges to defend America's freedom against the fear of terrorism, a policy known as the Bush Doctrine, September 20, 2001 (audio only)
  • June: President Bush signed his 10-year tax cut into law; in 2000 he had promised to return the federal budget surplus through an across-the-board reduction in federal income taxes.[173]
  • September: 9-11 terrorists attacks redefine the conservative role in foreign policy.[174]
Sarah Palin addresses the 2008 Republican National Convention
photograph of a throng of people holding signs
Yes on 8 rally in Fresno, California
  • August: Little-known Alaska Governor Sarah Palin becomes the first woman on a national GOP ticket as nominee for Vice President.[184]
  • November: Democrat Barack Obama defeated Republican John McCain by 53% to 46%. Barack Obama was elected and officially inaugurated as president of the United States of America on January 20, 2009. He was re-elected president in November 2012 and was sworn in for a second term on January 20, 2013. The national exit poll shows self-identified conservatives comprise 34% of the voters and support McCain 78% to 20%. Liberals comprise 22% of the voters and support Obama 89% to 10%. Moderates comprise 44% of the voters and support Obama 60% to 39%.[185]
Taxpayer March on Washington
  • November: Proposition 8 which prescribes that marriage is between a man and a woman in California is passed with 52.2% of the vote.[186]


Numerous historians after 1990 re-examined the role of conservatism in recent American history, according it much greater importance than before.[192] One school of thought rejects the older consensus that liberalism was the dominant ethos. Instead it argues conservatism dominated American politics since the 1920s, with the brief exceptions of the New Deal era (1933–36) and the Great Society (1963–66).[193] However Historian Julian Zelizer argues that "liberalism survived the rise of conservatism."[194]

  • Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC holds that the free speech clause of the First Amendment applies to political speech during elections, making spending limits unconstitutional in certain cases. The Court majority upheld the libertarian approach to free speech, while the dissenters took an egalitarian approach.[195]
2010 House election results:dark blue denotes Democratic hold, blue denotes Democratic gain, dark red denotes Republican hold and red denotes Republican gain
  • November: in the largest GOP gain since 1938, 2010 became one of the most important elections in conservative history[196] as GOP candidates make major gains in midterm elections across the country for Congress, governorships and state legislatures. Conservative voters (self-identified) comprise 42% of the voters and support GOP House candidates 84% to 13%. Liberals comprise 20% of the voters and support Democrats 90% to 8%. Moderates comprise 38% of the voters and support the GOP 55% to 42%.[197] Republicans gain 63 seats in the House of Representatives and six seats in the U.S. Senate.
  • November: Republicans win majorities in both houses of Congress, and flip several governorships in the 2014 midterm elections.


  • April: Neil Gorsuch, nominated by Donald Trump, is confirmed as associate justice to the Supreme Court.


  • October: Brett Kavanaugh, nominated by Donald Trump, is confirmed as associate justice to the Supreme Court.





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