Thesis: National conservative leaders capitalized on conservative grassroots movements that formed out of a response to the circumscribed political, legal, and rhetorical successes of national liberal leaders and the actions of grassroots liberal movements frustrated by the inherent limits of post-war compensatory human-rights liberalism.
Conservative leaders at the national level
o Prototypes: Goldwater and Wallace, who had demonstrated the potential strength of playing to white Americans’s fears of communism or of changes to the racial status quo. But note that they had both lost-failure at national level.
o Finding effective national appeal
- Nixon-“Tricky Dick”
- Master of PR and image control, beginning as early as 1952, when he had gone on television to defend himself from accusations of having taken inappropriate campaign contributions-the “Checkers” speech.
- Master political strategist
o Making sufficiently moderate gestures-environmental protection, for instance-while also appealing directly to the South: opposing an extension of the Voting Rights Act, nominating conservative judges to the Supreme Court; opposing busing
o Talking peace while increasing bombing in North Vietnam
o Getting Gov. George Wallace to run as a democratic candidate for the 1972 election, thereby dividing the Democratic party (even after Wallace was shot, divisions continued)
- Populist appeal: talking to the “silent majority” of Americans who, he argued, were tired of radicalism and protests and students and drugs and sex and rock ‘n roll-these were the real Americans. In effect, creating a dichotomy of two Americas, and inserting himself as the leader of the real America
- Problems, though; his secrecy and obsession with total control gets him in trouble with Watergate. Moreover, he upsets conservatives with his liberal policies.
- Historians of this school: Johnathan Schell, Rick Perlstein,
- Reagan, the Great Communicator
- Brinkley does a good job of highlighting Reagan’s political strengths: a charming personality, a way with words (first inaugural address: “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”; “I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers: Go ahead, make my day.”
- More importantly, had a well-financed and extremely well-run campaign organization. Also, made sure that he returned the favor to his supporters: by cutting taxes and regulations on businesses and the wealthy (maximum tax rate from 70% to 50%), and by increasing national and domestic security for white lower- and middle-class while also cutting social programs ($41 billion worth of welfare payments, food stamps, Medicaid, public housing) that were portrayed as overwhelmingly benefitting minorities while costing the middle class.
- The argument of Thomas and Mary Edsaall in their 1991 book, Chain Reaction.
o Other leaders, too
- Religious: Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jerry Falwell.
- Masters of modern media: use of television and radio, beginning with the broadcaster’s responsibilities to provide public broadcasting
- Masters of organization: mailing lists, political action groups (Falwell’s Moral Majority)
- Finding a philosophy: that what begins at the individual level-salvation-must lead to a group level of participation in seeking to save not just yourself, but the world as well, both because it affects you and because it’s the right thing to do. And the problem was the state, which had become too powerful a secular force while also robbing people of the free market’s ability to provide liberty of conscience.
- Small government thinkers/organizers: Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (free market = freedom) and his school of economics at the University of Chicago; William F. Buckley, who founded the conservative magazine National Review in 1955 and in 1960 sponsored the founding of “Young Americans for Freedom,” a student organization dedicated to the free market and anti-communism
- These thinkers and organizers provided both sufficient ideological coherency and leadership
- Scholars: Godfrey Hodgson; Michael Lienesch; Thomas Frank
o All of these explanations at some level appreciate that leaders need followers; that Nixon, Reagan, Falwell, and the rest did not create the New Right from nothing. Most historians recognize that the New Right’s supporters came out of the particular context of the 1960s and 1970s. Usually described as a mass backlash
- Racial backlash: in the South, continuing racism against any assertions of black power-in essence, that the South hadn’t given up on the Civil War. In the North, backlash against efforts to address structural inequality and segregation. Civil and political rights had been secured, but what about continuing black poverty? What about inequality in schools, though they were officially integrated? These problems had produced different responses by the federal government, such as busing programs and “affirmative action” against which whites reacted
- Radical backlash: enough with the student protests already! No more hippies, no more drugs, no more rock ‘n roll, no more disorder. Even more disturbing: race riots, such as those in 1965. Or other violence, like the Democratic National Convention of 1968
- Anti-government backlash. Environmental legislation, highway speed legislation, even Nixon’s price controls-all of it was too much. And all the liberals in power-so many government workers, so much of a liberal establishment and an entrenched liberal elite.
- The basic idea is that these people are reactionary-that they were afraid of blacks, gays, feminists, and government, and they responded by voting for Nixon-although they were unsatisfied for a variety of reasons-and, finally and euphorically, for Reagan
- Scholars: Perlstein; Michael Kazin re: populist appeals of Nixon and Reagan; Hoftstadter (who goes after the fringe elements of anti-government paranoia)
o Grassroots organization and leadership
- Other scholars who argue that the masses are not so easily beguiled-that, in fact, Nixon, Reagan, and the rest mattered much less than grassroots organizations focused on local issues
- In Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Lisa McGirr looks at Orange County, California, as a case study for understanding the rise of the New Right. These people were not paranoid or fanatics; they had a certain vision of America which they sought to realize: a western tradition of independence, the conservative family values and religion they brought with them from the Midwest, and a search for stability and community that found its manifestations in local organizations: creating anti-communism summer schools, ejecting school board members as bordering on communism, joining massive churches, running for local offices on moral, free market, and anti-communism platforms
- Michael Lassiter looks at another part of the Sunbelt, this time in the suburbs of the South-Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis-and around the issuing of busing. White southerners did indeed react against busing, but not as racists; instead, they framed their opposition in their identity as taxpayers, homeowners, and schoolparents. For these suburbanites, the problem wasn’t racial integration-in fact, they were disgusted with the massive resistance offered by some white southerners, and Lassiter points out that the so-called Southern Strategy backfired when it was put to use, such as the mid-term elections of 1970-but rather what they saw as a violation of their rights as people who had fought for and realized the American dream. “the white families who joined the antibusing movement thought of the location of their homes and the proximity of quality public schools as nothing more and nothing less than the consumer rewards for their own willingness to work hard and make sacrifices for their children’s future.” These people formed organizations and committees like the Concerned Parents Association and held meetings and wrote letters in opposition to busing. And in the process, they framed the debate and brought the national parties’ attention to the power of the suburbs
- Here, the emphasis is on grassroots organizations and local issues-things that people actually felt and experience and that they wanted taken care of. Yes, they were upset about radicalism and the rest, but it didn’t turn them into sheep, it turned them into activists. Nixon and Reagan were actually disappointments, but they were the best the suburbs could get.
o But these groups and these leaders flourish within a particular context, as I’ve indicated. A context of the rising power of suburbs, of perceived radicalism and disorder, of racial upheaval, of government power. The question for some historians, then, is: what created those conditions? Ironically, the answer is often: liberals.
Liberal leaders-their successes and failures. After all, it was liberals who created the post-war order and who had control of the reigns into the 1970s (in addition to Democratic and liberal Republican presidents, Democrats held the Senate and House in the 18 sessions between 1945-1981). How had liberal policies create the context out of which the New Right would rise?
o Creating space: sunbelt and the suburbs
- Federal investment in the south and west, begun under FDR: investment in defense industries (like Liberty Ships, nuclear weapons facilities, aerospace industry, and NASA [Florida and Texas]). [see Bruce Schulman] These industries attracted educated whites from the Midwest and the North to the South-like the people Lisa McGirr talks about in southern California who worked at Douglas Aircraft based in Long Beach, CA
- Federal encouragement of suburbs. FHA loan guarantees had encouraged both home buyers and home builders, who increasingly relied on mass production techniques to build tract homes-cookie-cutter suburbs. You could even include appliances like refrigerators and washing machines in your loan, making the suburbs even more attractive: affluence on a down-payment plan. And federal development of hydropower (especially in the Pacific Northwest) and the dream of atomic energy made it cheap to run all that stuff. [Adam Rome]
o Creating middle class affluence
- Educational opportunities for soldiers through the GI Bill; further federal investment in universities, especially those programs with Cold War applications (direct: science; indirect: studies of societies/cultures)
- Social security, which gave one confidence for future, along with other forms of security net
o Creating law [Lucas Powe in The Warren Court and American Politics and James Patterson in Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and its Troubled Legacy]
- Civil Rights: Brown v. Board of Education; Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965; etc. These were masterpieces of legal leadership, often under the direction of national leaders (like MLK or Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund), shepherded through Congress by liberals (LBJ, in particular), and realized by judges, especially Earl Warren, Supreme Court justice from 1953-1969)
- Other liberal victories: rules, regulations, and limits on death penalty; decisions protecting access to birth control; decisions that slowly opened up laws against censorship
o Creating new ideological / rhetorical rules
- Social security, etc. was hands-off (as long as you didn’t try to take it too far)
- Made explicit racism illegal and politically untenable
- In short, successful manifestations of a particular brand of liberalism: consumption-oriented human rights liberalism
o Okay…so why do they lose?
- One answer: political errors (Perlstein, Edsalls, Thomas Frank,
- Alienating constituents: Overextended liberal programs to protect and serve more and more under-privileged minorities, and doing so by taxing and putting continual pressure on the middle- and lower- white class. Isolated themselves from public opinion by depending on special interests and PACs in Washington and the power of incumbency. Democratic party reform in 1972-in a response to the problems of 1968-that had the effect of including new delegates from new interests (abortion, gay rights, etc.) that were divisive, limited the former power of organized labor and political machines, and had the appearance of favoring minorities at the expense of whites.
- Folly of anti-communism and Vietnamese
o Plays into the hands of conservatives-liberals always tainted with Red
o Discredits liberals from the left-Vietnam could be hung around their neck
o Results in enormous budget problems, further exacerbated by Nixon, which Jimmy Carter inherits as stagflation, against which he is unable to find a solution-Reagan stands to benefit
- Another answer: limits of liberal success (Katznelson and Brinkley)
- Racist functions of early liberal programs-that though not explicitly racist, many of those things that the New Deal offered (social security, suburban homes, GI Bill, VA home loans) were effectively limited or not available to African Americans or other minorities. (Katznelson–“in New York and the northern New Jersey suburbs, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill supported home purchases by non-whites.”) While the effects of discrimination were obvious, the causes of discrimination itself were not, because the GI Bill (and to a lesser extent other programs like Social Security) was color-blind. Explicit racial discrimination played no immediately obvious role in the unequal distribution of benefits from New Deal and Fair Deal programs, and so white, middle-class suburbanites could say-and truly believe-that they had risen not because of race, but because of merit.
- When Democratic Party leaders did eventually address race, they addressed it outside of their earlier class analysis, regarding the problems as essentially separate (hence, civil/political rights, but not economic rights). Moreover, by separating those problems, they basically took race out of the discussion when they successfully attacked its civil and political manifestations. Whites could say that race was no longer a problem because the laws had been changed
- Basically: in their focus on trying to control a consumption-oriented human-rights liberalism, liberal leaders created a party of interests that sometimes directly conflicted but nearly always spoke different languages: of class-neutral race, of race-neutral class.
Liberal grassroots-the success and misdirection
o Like conservative leaders, liberal leaders came from somewhere-from the grassroots. They had been intimately involved in those national victories
- Civil rights: MFDP, lunch counter sit-ins, deep roots of African-American community and organization
- Environmental movement
- Women’s movement
- Student movement
o Liberal backlash–That is: frustration with the limits of liberal successes, with its inability to address structural issues
- Persistence of racism, sexism, other forms of discrimination, hierarchy (at university); environmental degradation
- Frustration takes a few forms
- Riots and violence (Watts in 196)
- Extra-political direct action (Black Panthers in 1966; Earth First! in 1979)
- Struggling to address the deeper roots of inequality and injustice, and wracked by internal problems, movements develop cultural responses. Drawing inward-focusing on consciousness-raising and culture appreciation. From Civil Rights -> Black Nationalism -> Blackness (Van De Burg); from Women’s Rights -> Second Wave Feminism focusing on freeing ones’ self from male oppression (Echols)
- This is what usually gets labeled the “radicalism” or “liberationism” of the late 1960s and into the 1970s-and it’s against this grassroots movement, argue historians like Rick Perlstein, that conservative grassroots movements react, pushing the New Right forward.