Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s

It is perhaps premature to pronounce American conservatism dead though well it should be. The conservative movement is, however, rather moribund, bereft of any new ideas on anything of consequence from health care to energy to climate change to the economy. What does conservatism stand for in 2008 that they didn't stand for it in 1980? Maybe I am missing something for all I hear is a tired catechism of "lower taxes,""limited government,""free markets,""balanced budgets,""family values," and a "strong military" which really means "empire" in their parlance.

But this conservative agenda has run its course even if a large swath of the American public still recite its ethos for by any objective measure, American conservatism has failed. Lower taxes brought us an ever widening social gulf such that a country like Uzbekistan has more equal distribution of income than the United States. Limited government is such a laughable part of the conservative creed for at no time in American history is government as large, as pervasive or as intrusive. Free markets brought us the collapse of global financial markets drunk on derivatives with estimated liabilities of over $50 trillion dollars. In pursuit of the Conservative dream, we have run up $9 trillion in debt since 1981. The only balanced budgets during this period came under a Democrat. Republican family values is a bizarre combination of rights for the unborn, the brain dead and nuclear families. The rest of us need not apply. And the conservative version of empire is nothing more than American exceptionalism and unilateralism that we can neither afford financially nor morally.

And as I survey the wreckage that lies before us, the question of how we got here is increasingly on my mind. In this vein, I have just read a remarkable edition of 14 essays titled Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s. Edited by historians Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer, the book is divided into two segments. The first eight essays explore the catalysts of the brand of American conservatism that would take power in 1981 while the last six essays looks closely at the policy battles during the Ford and Carter Administrations that so energized conservatives but also led many moderates to abandon the liberalism of the Democratic party.

Here's a brief review:

Often considered a lost decade, a pause between the liberal Sixties and Reagan's Eighties, the 1970s were indeed a watershed era when the forces of a conservative counter-revolution cohered. These years marked a significant moral and cultural turning point in which the conservative movement became the motive force driving politics for the ensuing three decades. Interpreting the movement as more than a backlash against the rampant liberalization of American culture, racial conflict, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, these provocative and innovative essays look below the surface, discovering the tectonic shifts that paved the way for Reagan's America. They reveal strains at the heart of the liberal coalition, resulting from struggles over jobs, taxes, and neighborhood reconstruction, while also investigating how the deindustrialization of northern cities, the rise of the suburbs, and the migration of people and capital to the Sunbelt helped conservatism gain momentum in the twentieth century. They demonstrate how the forces of the right coalesced in the 1970s and became, through the efforts of grassroots activists and political elites, a movement to reshape American values and policies. A penetrating and provocative portrait of a critical decade in American history, "Rightward Bound" illuminates the seeds of both the successes and the failures of the conservative revolution. It helps us understand how, despite conservatism's rise, persistent tensions remain today between its political power and the achievements of twentieth-century liberalism.

The 1970s to those of us who lived through it seems a forgettable time. From Kent State to Munich to ordeal of Watergate to the fall of South East Asia to gas lines to the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1970s are a study in near perpetual crisis. While the seeds of the conservative revolution were perhaps planted in the social conflicts of the 1960s, they seem to have germinated in the 1970s before bearing its bitter fruit in the 1980s and beyond.

Still I cannot help but wonder if this past decade as progressive liberalism toiled in a wilderness are we not now beginning to demonstrate the first shoots of growth? In this election and in the 2006 mid-term election, our grassroots organizations outperformed theirs. The ideas with any vitality are ours. And while President Obama may only prove a stepping stone, it seems clear that he will move the progressive agenda forward on various fronts from energy to health care to urban affairs. It's a start.

Tags: American Conservative Movement, history (all tags)

Comments

18 Comments

Re: Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative

In a recent article, Pat Buchannan states that the GOP's scrooginess with the Big 3 and American manufacturing in general are causing the "Reagan Democrats" to come home permanently...  Without them, the right has little chance to regain power or influence...

by LordMike 2008-12-17 07:00PM | 0 recs
Re: Big Three

Policies have consequences.  The policy of billions for banker and broker bonuses and nothing for manufacturing got another hit.

The second shoe dropped today with Chrysler following GM's lead and closing its plants for a month.  In their case, the plants will close on December 19 and most will re-open on January 19.  Some will be slated to re-open on January 26.  Merry Christmas parts suppliers, can Ford be far behind?

"This is the way the world will end, not with abang but a whimper." (TS Elliot)

by David Kowalski 2008-12-17 11:29PM | 0 recs
Re: Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative

"Reagan Deamocrats" were always more  myth than fact. Futher the conservatve maoveent was always essentially predicated upon a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, The pullout of Vietnam ,the Roe v. Wade ruling, busing ,and the perception of the lose of white hegemony in the sixties. There is a factoid that I just learned of that I think is salient. In 1980, 90% of the people who voted in the presidential election were white. In 1992, 76% were. In 2008, 64%. And that number will more than likely continue to drop. Obviously, these numbers say a great deal about where we have come from, and where were going. Look for Republican/conservatives to be less a less influential if they continue to adhere to a racist, socially regressive ideology.

by onlinesavant 2008-12-18 05:35AM | 0 recs
I agree

The GOP is in danger of becoming a regional party. Its exit from New England is largely complete. The West Coast is all but gone. It is on the retreat in the Mid-Atlantic states. The failure to deliver for the American worker is likely to cost the industrial Mid-West or what's left of it.

by Charles Lemos 2008-12-17 07:03PM | 0 recs
Re: I agree

Basically right on but California, with 19 GOP House members is a major GOP power base.  The inland part of the Pacific is all GOP and eastern WA, eastern OR and eastern Cal produce 23 Republican House members.

OTOH, look at these numbers:

Northeast- 2004, 35 House members, 8 Senators; 2008, 17 House members, 4 Senators with Gregg and Specter up for re-election in 2010 and highly endangered.

Midwest (Great Lakes division of OH,IN,IL,WI,MN, and MI)- 2004, 45 House members, 5 Senators; 2008, 32 House members 1 Senator (assuming Coleman loses th recount as projected).

And the GOP is not doing well in CO,NM, AZ, and even NV and ID.  Lost a Senate seat in MT while we are at it.

Of course, even in the south the Republicans have lost serious ground in VA (on e Senate seat, three House seats), and NC ((1 Senate seat, 2 House seats) and lost 3 House seats in Florida, one in MS, one in TX, one in KY.

by David Kowalski 2008-12-17 11:42PM | 0 recs
Woah! Hold your horses there a minute!

You're missing an important point. The Democrats on the west coast reside in the cities, not in the rural areas.  This is why electoral college voting by congressional district is so detrimental to the Democratic Party.  They will probably still loose but not nearly by the same margin as a popular vote.

Rural areas, by and large are still overwhelmingly Republican, almost as a mater of faith and have a disproportionate share of the vote.  

This means, a progressive candidate that is marginal in the cities, can very well loose with rural areas voting overwhelmingly Republican. (Example: Calif. Prop 8)

Unfortunately, it will take us many years to change that mind set, over a generation it has become ingrained in the mindset of the rural voter, Who's first issues are Taxes, Guns, & God. (Question: What was the Rural mindset during the Great Depression & the fifties?)

Until we start to win over the rural areas (Obama was only a first step, of many needed), and change the mindset of the rural voter to Democratic priorities, then we will risk loosing to a minor re-tooling of the base Republican Message.

I think you are overly optimistic and too quick to dismiss the Republicans as a regional party; they are a national party, solid in the rural areas, waiting for any fracturing of the Democratic Party over issues to re-emerge.  They have disproportionate representation in their favor. They still have a unified message that they have fallen back to, although now sounding tired & trite, will not be with a few years of special interest groups taking the forefront in the Democratic Party.

They. Scare. Me.

by NvDem 2008-12-18 06:17AM | 0 recs
Re: Woah! Hold your horses there a minute!


First of all, maybe we don't mind Republicans getting stuck with a base that stays stuck in support of unelectable positions.

Secondly, they penny wise/pound foolishly expanded their base among old people and sacrificed their chances among the young during the past 10 to 15 years.

Thirdly, almost all rural areas are net losing people to the urban/suburban areas.  We used to have a wide range of splits nationwide.  Right now we have almost everywhere maturing/converging to patterns of 10% rural population, 70% major urban area, and 20% secondary urban area.  And that last one is the politically crucial one.

Nevada is actually a fairly good example.  70% of the population is in Clark County and around Pahrump, 20% in Reno/Carson/Tahoe, and 10% everywhere else (Tonopah, Winnemucca, the reservations, the military bases, ranching townlets).

Arizona has over 60% of its population in Maricopa County, 20% in Tucson and Nogales, and 10% to 20% in all the rest (Yuma, Flagstaff, Kingman, Prescott, etc).

You can see a pretty similar pattern north of the Potomac, along the West Coast, and around the Great Lakes.  If you lower the bar on what to call urban, a lot of the Plains states and Midwest are looking similar.  The South is also starting to move that way; you have to go to Mississippi and Alabama to find the pattern and trend breaking down.  Of course, young people in those places are basically moving to Georgia, Florida, and Texas, which are trending to the 70/20/10 form.

I wouldn't be so concerned about GG&G.  Gun laws have been a curiosity in that every big legal or judicial setback for restrictions has led to another big ideological voter bloc decide that the gun rights people and the fanatics have gotten enough.  So every big defeat for gun control leads to the 'pro-gun' side losing votes.  Since Heller I don't think you can get centrists to support more deregulations; polling seems to back that up.  It's Pyrrhic victories.  One or two more victories like that and it's all over.

God and Gays are fairly detailed subjects.  Let's just say that overall trends are good, but there will predictably be a growing conservative religious refugee phenomenon in a couple of years.  Probably mostly headed to rural areas.  Probably more to the rural South than anywhere else.  Most urban areas will, perhaps after a phase of religious enthusiasm, continue to dereligionize and conservative religious people will shun and move away from them mostly.

If I may speculate, the biggest target area for white conservative religious refugees is starting to look like Oklahoma City and Oklahoma.  Idaho is a favorite in the West, so is South Carolina on the East Coast. Idaho is a favorite in the West, so is South Carolina on the East Coast. They are becoming afaict distinctly uncomfortable in Colorado, Texas(!), Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.  I suspect Nevada and Arizona as well.  I'm almost anticipating some amusement when some group decides to move into Utah from, say, the Central Valley of California, onto Mormon turf....

And then there is taxes. Well, that looks straightforward but it isn't, because rural areas and small towns are in fact subsidized from the cities.  (Federally, San Francisco fully subsizes the Central Valley iirc and Southern California de facto subsidizes the whole interior West between the Sierras and the Rockies and then some.)  The whole rural lower taxes thing is to some extent an admission of poverty and a variety of insistence on being subsidized in return for good behavior.

by killjoy 2008-12-18 07:18AM | 0 recs
Careful here

I was pretty young in 1992, but I am pretty sure people were calling the Conservative movement over with election of Bill Clinton that year.  They could not have been more wrong then, as Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 and Conservatives pretty much dominated the political dialouge for the next twelve years as we saw deregulation of the financial industry that caused the current crises, welfare reform, and attempts to pretty much get rid of Social Security.  I hope this doesnt happen again in two years.  

by Kent 2008-12-17 07:18PM | 0 recs
Re: Careful here

Different time, different place...

Anyone who thought that conservatism was dead when Bill Clinton got elected is a fool...

Clinton didn't get a majority of the vote...

Clinton had no clue about Washington and how to run it, his transition was horrible and the first few months were a disaster...

Rush Limbaugh was reaching his height, and there was nothing on the left to counter it...

The whole Perot thing was simmering very hard, and the right stole an capitalized from that anger...

The country was not facing a crisis... In fact, with the cold war essentially over, the time was ripe for the country to start attacking itself...

Very different situation... very different...

by LordMike 2008-12-17 07:25PM | 0 recs
Re: Stop Making Post Titles Too Long to Re!!

I don't know, Obama seems pretty damn wedded to the right so far except that he seems to get that the human race is finished in the next 150 years unless we make huge changes in the next 20.

by MNPundit 2008-12-17 07:29PM | 0 recs
Conservatism not dead by a long shot

Yeah.  Anyone who pronounces conservatism dead is smoking something.  They are down but far from out, and it would be very unwise to dismiss them.  Some of them make the "10 million republicans stayed home" - I don't believe that, but I do buy 3-4 million, which would have still been an Obama win, but much closer.  

I was at the bookstore today.  Look at what authors are on the bestseller lists - Bill O'Reilly, Glen Beck, etc...  Ann Coulter has a book coming out next month that I'm sure will be in the top 5.  

If anything, just think about this: Sarah Palin was on the ticket and they still got 46%.  Unbelievable.  

""lower taxes," "limited government," "free markets," "balanced budgets," "family values," and a "strong military""  --- This mantra is still extremely powerful and I don't see any reason to believe it won't remain that way.  

by redguard57 2008-12-17 08:05PM | 0 recs
Re: Conservatism not dead by a long shot

I don't think that any conservatives stayed home... in fact, I think that they got better turnout than expected...

No, they aren't out, just yet...  but, they are certainly flailing around...  and their tried and true tactics that they've used with success for 20 years are backfiring on them big time...

...and it's not just me who think so.... Newt Gingrich, the originator of the smear campaign, is repudiating it... he knows the public just doesn't want that anymore!

by LordMike 2008-12-17 08:17PM | 0 recs
Re: Conservatism not dead by a long shot

It is odd that something so bankrupt remains so powerful.

by Charles Lemos 2008-12-17 08:47PM | 0 recs
Re: Newton's laws

A body in motion tends to stay in motion.

A body at rest tends to stay at rest.

Even dead and dying political movements tend to hang around.  It took the Federalists 20 years to die off and they were pretty much consigned quickly to the role of a regional political party.
(New England with one brief foray to the mid Atlantic in a single Presidential election).

That doesn't mean that conservatism is dead.  Or the Republicans. But the current race-baiting, homophobic, anti-tax, pro-military contractor, anti-abortiuon shtick isn't working.

It was nearly 50 years from the end of Hoover to the beginning of Reagan with stops at Goldwater and tries by Reagan in 1968 and 1976 along the way.  And reagan in 1980 was a very near thing as far as the nominating process went.  Without the blow hard "I paid for this microphone " who knows.

by David Kowalski 2008-12-17 11:52PM | 0 recs
Re: Newton's laws


The hardcore Republican base is relatively old, locked in Cold Warriors and Culture Warriors.  They can't change their views or their irrelevance/obsolescence, and they are going to die still believing in the views they hold.  Thing is, they are quite generational as demographic contingents and beginning to die out that way.

The Religious Right leadership dying (Jerry Falwell and E. James Kennedy in the last year), with James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and  Charles Colson all closing in on 80 is fairly indicative.  The old Nixon/Reagan crew (Bush Sr, Schulz, Weinberger, Poindexter, Cheney, the Wolfowitz/Perle neocons) and the likes of Giuliani are also definitely in their 60s to 70s.  Those are the people we actually voted out of power the past two elections.

Our job or duty is perhaps more to keep a close eye on their cynical successors and future leadership class: people like Ken Blackwell, Rick Santorum, Adam Putnam, Mike Rogers, Tony Perkins, Bobby Jindal, John Thune.

On our side there is also some trouble of sorts, though generational dieout is likewise wiping out the remaining Old Democrats of the South and Midwest.  As voter demographics and as class of politicians.  Frankly, what worries me most is the many conservative Southern blacks the Obama campaign mobilized.  Massive demographic mobilization tends to work for an election or two and then in a sense backfires.

There are real reasons people chose not to vote previously, which is that they had passive resistance to the agenda of the Party that nominally represents their group.  The Christian mobilization of the 2004 Bush campaign has led to the Religious Left arising as cover for those voters activated then who since would rather vote Democratic.  Likewise, I suspect there will be an arising of some set of black politicians at the margins to form a cover for the newly activated black voters mostly in the South who will want to vote Republican.

by killjoy 2008-12-18 07:47AM | 0 recs
Re: Conservatism not dead by a long shot

The reason that books by O'reilly, Beck, Coulter et al, are in the "top five" in at their release is because they are bought by conservative think tanks and foundations in bulk for distributorship, and to specifically get them into the "top five". Like much of the regressive movement, things are very rarely what they are presented to be be, and just a little cursory digging reveals a truth that does not weigh in the ideology or it's adherants favor.

by onlinesavant 2008-12-18 05:41AM | 0 recs
Re: Rightward Bound:

"It is perhaps premature to pronounce American conservatism dead though well it should be."

What will continue to keep them around is American ignorance, apathy, provincialism, and bigotry.  Those will always be with us.

by Bob H 2008-12-18 03:22AM | 0 recs
Yes, and Wealth and Power

Yes, and that they own Fox News and most of the rest of mainstream media, and they have the support of rich bankers and industrialists, and the military-industrial complex, and the prison-industrial complex

by RandomNonviolence 2008-12-18 04:57AM | 0 recs

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