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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.
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.
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.
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.
President Roosevelt calls his opponents "conservatives" as a term of abuse, they reply that they are "true liberals".
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.
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. 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.
Roosevelt's plan to pack the Supreme Court alienates conservative Democrats; most newspapers which supported FDR in 1936 oppose the plan, with many warning it was a prelude to dictatorship.
Conservative Republicans (nearly all from the North) and conservative Democrats (most from the South), form the Conservative Coalition and block most new liberal proposals until the 1960s.
Opponents of conservatism weaken sharply. FDR's allies in the AFL and CIO battle each other; his court-packing plan is rejected; his attempt to purge the conservatives from the Democratic Party fails and strengthens them; the sharp recession of 1937–1938 discredits his argument that New Deal policies would lead to full recovery.
The Republicans make major gains in the House and Senate in the 1938 elections.
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.
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).
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."
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.
November 5: Republicans score landslide victories in the House and Senate in off-year elections and set about enacting a conservative agenda in the 80th Congress.
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.
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."
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.
Political philosopher Francis Wilson in The Case for Conservatism (1951) defines conservatism as "a philosophy of social evolution, in which certain lasting values are defended within the framework of the tension of political conflict. And when given values are at stake the conservative can even become a revolutionary."
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.
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.
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."
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." 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."
"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
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. Led by Goldwater, conservatives vow to organize at the grass roots and take control of the GOP.
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.
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.
May: Texas elects Senator John Tower; he is the first Republican from the former Confederacy ever to win popular election and begins the growth of the GOP in that state.
Buckley and the National Review launch denunciations of the John Birch Society; Goldwater agrees; the attack limits its influence to the conspiracy-minded.
The controversial "Daisy" Johnson TV commercial in 1964 attacks Goldwater foreign policy as inviting nuclear war
January: Governor of Alabama, Democrat George Wallace, electrifies the white South by proclaiming "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" Wallace's angry populist rhetoric appeals to the poor farmers and workers who comprise a major part of the New Deal Coalition. He does well in Democratic primaries in the industrial North as well as the rural South. He exploits distrust of government, racial fear, anti-communism and a yearning for "traditional" American values.
In support of Goldwater, Reagan delivers the address, "A Time for Choosing", which speech launches Reagan to national prominence
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."
April: Socialist Norman Thomas appears on the premiere episode of Firing Line with host William F. Buckley. The program remains on the air for 33 years and is the longest running television program with the same host.
New Left students hold highly publicized rallies chanting, "Hey– Hey– LBJ– How many kids did you kill today?". Their confrontational rhetoric and efforts to disrupt the draft alienates millions of voters who move to the right.
Liberalism collapses politically as the Democratic Party splits into five factions over issues of Vietnam, race and attacks from New Left.Richard Nixon is elected president over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace (American Independent Party), emphasizing the need for law and order. 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." Beinart observes that "with the country divided against itself, contempt for Hubert Humphrey was the one thing on which left and right could agree."
Young Americans for Freedom splits into competing, irreconcilable factions. The libertarians, influenced by Ayn Rand, split from the traditionalists and form the Society for Individual Liberty.
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.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.
Richard Nixon wins a landslide reelection, carrying 49 states against anti-war liberal George McGovern. Suspicious of Democratic trickery, Nixon sends agents to bug the Democratic National Headquarters, then covers up his tracks when they are caught in the Watergate scandal.
Robert L. Bartley (1937–2003) becomes editor of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal; he retires in 2002 after writing and supervising tens of thousands of editorials taking a conservative position on economic and political issues. He is called "the most influential editorial writer" of his day.
Traditional conservative Jesse Helms of North Carolina takes his Senate seat; he retires in 2002. As long-time chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he demands a staunchly anti-communist foreign policy that would reward America's friends abroad, and punish its enemies. His relations with the State Department are often acrimonious, and he blocks numerous presidential appointees. His National Congressional Club uses state-of-the-art direct mail operation to raise millions for conservative candidates and for Helms' own sharply contested reelections.
August: Conservatives, led by Goldwater, desert Nixon when the "smoking gun" is discovered that proves Nixon covered up the crimes of the Watergate scandal. Nixon resigns in disgrace, but his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stays on in the moderately conservative administration of Gerald R. Ford.
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.
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.
June: California unleashes a tax revolt, with Proposition 13 to limit property taxes, promoted by Howard Jarvis (1903–1986), a long-time activist. The movement was backed by the United Organizations of Taxpayers, the Los Angeles Apartment Owners Association and realtors' associations. Preconditions included steadily rising property taxes, "stagflation" and growing anger at government waste. California's tax revolt was followed by 30 other states.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. The Sandinistas are forced to hold fair elections in 1990, which they lose by 41%–55%.
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" and calls for a "crusade for freedom."
September: Associate Justice William Rehnquist is confirmed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Reagan chooses Rehnquist in a deliberate effort to move the Court to the right, knowing he has the conservative constitutional agenda firmly in mind.
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."
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%.
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.
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.
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.
September: The Contract with America is released on the steps of the Capitol. 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.
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).
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.
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)
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%.
Numerous historians after 1990 re-examined the role of conservatism in recent American history, according it much greater importance than before. 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). However Historian Julian Zelizer argues that "liberalism survived the rise of conservatism."
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.
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 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%. Republicans gain 63 seats in the House of Representatives and six seats in the U.S. Senate.
A central concern for conservatives in the 2012 GOP primaries was whether front-runner Mitt Romney is conservative enough. Numerous other challengers on the right rose and fell, notably Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann. Romney moved sharply to the right and chose deficit hawk Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate. Obama, however, successfully mobilized his base and won reelection, as Democrats made small gains in the House and Senate.
November: Republicans win majorities in both houses of Congress, and flip several governorships in the 2014 midterm elections.
^Geoffrey Matthews, "Robert A. Taft, the Constitution and American Foreign Policy, 1939–53," Journal of Contemporary History, July 1982, Vol. 17 Issue 3, pp. 507–522
^Lee Edwards (1990). Missionary for Freedom: The Life and Times of Walter Judd. Paragon House. p. 210.
^Murray L. Weidenbaum (2009). The competition of ideas: the world of the Washington think tanks. Transaction Publishers. p. 23.
^F. A. Hayek (1944; 2nd ed. 2010). The Road to Serfdom. University of Chicago Press. 2nd ed. by Bruce Caldwell with prepublication reports on Hayek's manuscript, and forewords to earlier editions by John Chamberlain, Milton Friedman, and Hayek himself.
^John B. Judis (1990). William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives. Simon & Schuster. pp. 121–124, 152.
^James T. Kloppenberg, "Review: In Retrospect: Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America," Reviews in American History Vol. 29, No. 3 (Sept 2001), pp. 460–478 in JSTORArchived 2023-01-18 at the Wayback Machine
^Kim Phillips-Fein, "'As Great an Issue as Slavery or Abolition': Economic Populism, the Conservative Movement, and the Right-to-Work Campaigns of 1958," Journal of Policy History, (Oct 2011), 23:4 pp. 491–512 online
^Nelson Lichtenstein and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, eds. (2012). The American Right and U.S. Labor: Politics, Ideology and Imagination. University of Pennsylvania Press. ch. 1.
^Congress and the Nation: 1945–1964 (1965). Congressional Quarterly. pp. 28–34.
^Benjamin Balint (2010). Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right. PublicAffairs. passim.
^Burns, Jennifer (2004). "In Retrospect: George Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945". Reviews in American History. 32 (3): 447–462. doi:10.1353/rah.2004.0053. S2CID26303899.
^Spruill, Marjorie J. (2008). "Gender and America's Right Turn". In Schulman, Bruce J.; Zelizer, Julian E. (eds.). Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s. Harvard University Press. pp. 71–89. ISBN978-0674027572.
^Aaron M. McCright and Riley E. Dunlap, "Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement's Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy," Social Problems, Aug 2003, Vol. 50 Issue 3, pp. 348–373 in JSTORArchived 2023-01-18 at the Wayback Machine
^Dan Thomas, Craig McCoy and Allan McBride, "Deconstructing the Political Spectacle: Sex, Race, and Subjectivity in Public Response to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill "Sexual Harassment" Hearings," American Journal of Political Science Vol. 37, No. 3 (Aug., 1993), pp. 699–720 in JSTOR
^Joel D. Aberbach and Gillian Peele (2011). Crisis of Conservatism?: The Republican Party, the Conservative Movement and American Politics After Bush. Oxford University Press. p. 31.
^Richard A. Posner (2001). Breaking the Deadlock: The 2000 Election, the Constitution, and the Courts. Princeton University Press. passim.
^Wattenberg, Martin P. (2004). "Elections: Tax Cut Versus Lockbox: Did the Voters Grasp the Tradeoff in 2000?". Presidential Studies Quarterly. 34 (4): 838–848. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2004.00227.x.
^Aberbach, Joel D.; Peele, Gillian (2011). Crisis of conservatism?: the Republican Party, the conservative movement and American politics after Bush. Oxford University Press. p. 205. ISBN978-0199764013.
^Adam L. Fuller (2011). Taking the Fight to the Enemy: Neoconservatism and the Age of Ideology. Lexington Books. p. 264.
^Dorothy E. McBride (2008). Abortion in the United States: a reference handbook. ABC-CLIO. p. 185.
^John C. Green, Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox (2006). The Values Campaign?: The Christian Right and the 2004 Elections. Georgetown University Press. ch. 1.
^Labor historians Jefferson Cowie, and Nick Salvatore, "The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History," International Labor & Working-Class History, (2008) 74:3–32, argue the New Deal was a short-term response to depression and did not mark a permanent commitment to a welfare state because America has always been too individualistic and too hostile to labor unions
^Zelizer, Julian E. (2010). "Reflections: Rethinking the History of American Conservatism". Reviews in American History. 38 (2): 367–392, quote p. 380. doi:10.1353/rah.0.0217. S2CID144740051.
Congressional Quarterly. Congress and the Nation: 1945–1964 (1965); Congress and the Nation: 1965–1968 (1969); with new volumes every four years, 1973, 1977... etc. Highly detailed nonpartisan timelines of political activity in Washington.