1978: Born at the (New) Right Time*

About a month ago, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Kenneth Baer (former Gore speech-writer) about the relevance of 1978, “the beginnings of the world we live in today.”  It was also the beginning of my world, as I was born in 1978.  (Sidenote digression: yes, I just turned thirty, and no, I’m not quite comfortable with that yet.)  And though Baer’s observations about the year’s importance for cell phones, the internet, and in vitro fertilization are amusing, I’m more interested in what the article says about politics in 1978 and the origins of the New Right.  And wouldn’t you know it, I just happen to be reading about the New Right for my prelims:

David Harry Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History
Godfrey Hodgson, The World Turned Right Side Up
Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics
Michael Lienesch, Redeeming America: Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right
Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

By “New Right” we’re talking about that ascendant conservative movement that got Goldwater the nomination, Nixon and Reagan the presidency, Newt his “Contract with America,” evangelicals their spot in the national limelight, and a welter of anti-government sentiment and initiatives.  A diverse movement:  white supremacists who hated black people, suburban parents who hated integration-through-busing, Christian moralists who were disgusted with obscenity and abortion, Sunbelters who disliked taxes (though they loved the lives made possible by federal spending on transportation infrastructure and the defense industry), anti-Communists who feared Nixon’s trip to China as much as they feared Soviet missiles, and “regular folk” who were appalled by the rising tide of vocal assertions by blacks, women, and homosexuals.  Baer suggests that it all came together in 1978, with anti-tax actions (California’s Proposition 13), anti-gay rights initiatives throughout the country (and the murder of San Francisco’s mayor and gay city supervisor), and backtracking from affirmative action (Bakke decision).  I buy it; 1978 is a good culmination year.

Origins, of course, are a whole other matter, as are explanations–the two being intimately connected (what else would you expect a historian to say?).  Historians point in a lot of different directions for origins/explanations of the New Right.  Bennett sees a long tradition of fear–not paranoia, ala Hofstadter, but three stages of actual fear of actual problems for certain groups: immigrant pressures; communist ideas; secularism/concentrated liberal political power/anti-Americanism.  Hodgson provides an intellectual history of the New Right, outlining its conservative/authoritarian, anti-communism, and libertarian elements, and arguing that the New Right rose on the back of problems pinned on liberalism: violent racial encounters, affirmative action, the disgrace of Vietnam, stagflation, and America’s standing in the face of communism.  This confrontation took place in “Nixonland,” a country divided between a diverse group of people, often radical, who saw themselves as liberators and defenders of justice and peace; and those who rejected condescending liberalism and saw themselves as an increasingly persecuted “silent majority,” embracing family values, hard work, law and order, and Richard Nixon.  The Edsalls flesh out the issues of this Nixonland and trace their evolution into ReaganWorld, with race, taxes, rights, and Democratic Party reform transforming the presidential electorate from a bottom-up coalition of economic interests supporting Democrats to a top-down coalition of values interests supporting Republicans.  Lienesch analyzes the ideology of some evangelical and fundamentalist leaders, showing how their hopes to save souls and the world have been pinned to conservative Republican politics.  McGirr gives us a case study of Orange County’s evolution, where affluent residents, motivated by a particular vision of family values, economic development, and freedom, helped propel the New Right from a grassroots movement focused on local issues to the national stage.  Whew.

Here’s what I think.  The New Right wasn’t filled with a bunch of freaked-out, angry, paranoid crackers; in that, I agree with McGirr, Hodgson, Bennett, and anyone else who takes seriously the complaints of those who voted for Nixon and Reagan.  I don’t agree with the complaints of the New Right, but it’s stupid to be as dismissive as Hofstadter/Bell/Lipset.  As the Edsalls show, the Democratic Party really had dropped the electoral ball–while not the ethical one–when it focused so much attention on and party power in the hands of historically under-represented groups (blacks, women, homosexuals).  The Party’s actions simultaneously (a) failed to address the real problems facing these groups–particularly blacks, who by 1965 had figured out that the Dems weren’t going far enough, so they got more vocal and active (I shy from “violent”); and (b) pissed off enough whites to make them open to voting Republican.  Add to that a hairy international situation–Vietnam, oil embargoes, stagflation, globalizing economy–that Democrats couldn’t solve, and you’ve got people not only open to reconsidering their party affiliation, but actively seeking an alternative.  And that’s where the New Right steps in, selling a diverse (and contradictory) ideology that’s broad enough to bring in libertarians and evangelicals, all under the roof of blaming liberals for the country’s problems.  Nixon was good at seizing this moment, as Perlstein shows; Reagan was a master, riding and controlling the tide of discontent.

This was the historical moment into which I was born.  It was also the historical moment in which my parents developed their own political consciousness, they being in their mid-20s.  During that time, the mid-to-late 1970s, they came to grips with a world that seemed to have a lot of problems.  Those problems could be tied to liberals–hey, they were the ones in charge, right?–and conservatives were selling an ideology that oversimplified the problems (“Democrats want to bus your children into downtown Detroit!”) and provided oversimplified, yet satisfying solutions (“It’s not your fault.  Let’s let people figure out on their own–government is the problem!”).  That, I think, helps explain my parents, the rise of the New Right, and the importance of 1978.  Beyond it being my birth year, which, let’s admit, is pretty awesome on its own.

* With apologies to Paul Simon.