Conservatism and the rise of Ronald Reagan

For many Americans, the economic, social and political trends of the previous two decades -- ranging from crime and racial polarization in many urban centers, to the economic downturn and inflation of the Carter years -- engendered a mood of disillusionment. It also strengthened a renewed suspicion of government and its ability to deal effectively with the country's deep-rooted social and political problems.

Conservatives, long out of power at the national level, were well positioned to exploit this new mood. It was a time when many Americans were receptive to their message of limited government, strong national defense and the protection of traditional values against what were seen as the encroachments of a permissive and often chaotic modern society.

This conservative upsurge had many sources. A large group of fundamentalist Christians, who regard the Bible as the direct and inerrant word of God, were particularly concerned about an increase in crime and sexual immorality. One of the most politically effective groups in the early 1980s, called the Moral Majority, was led by a Baptist minister, Jerry Falwell. Another, led by Pat Robertson, built an organization called the Christian Coalition which by the 1990s was a potent force in the Republican Party. Like many such groups, they wanted to return religion to a central place in American life. Television evangelists like Falwell and Robertson developed huge followings.

Another galvanizing issue for conservatives was one of the most divisive and emotional issues of the time: abortion. Opposition to the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which upheld a woman's right to an abortion in the early months of pregnancy, brought together a wide array of organizations and individuals. They included, but were not limited to, large numbers of Catholics, political conservatives and religious fundamentalists, most of whom regarded abortion under virtually any circumstances as tantamount to murder. They were prepared to organize in support of politicians who agreed with their position -- and against those who disagreed with it. Pro-choice and antiabortion demonstrations became a fixture of the political landscape.

Within the Republican Party, the right wing grew dominant once again. The right had briefly seized control of the Republican Party in 1964 with its presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, then faded from the spotlight. By 1980, however, with the use of modern fund-raising techniques, the right overtook the moderate wing of the party. Drawing on the intellectual firepower of such conservatives as economist Milton Friedman, journalists William F. Buckley and George Will, and research institutions like the Heritage Foundation, the New Right played a significant role in defining the issues of the 1980s.

Like other conservatives, or the "Old Right," the New Right favored strict limits on government intervention in the economy. But the New Right was willing to use state power to encourage its view of family values, restrict homosexual behavior and censor pornography. In general, the New Right also favored tough measures against crime, strong national defense, a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in public schools, opposition to abortion and defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment for women.

The figure who drew all these disparate strands together was Ronald Reagan. Reagan, born in Illinois, achieved stardom as an actor in Hollywood movies and television before turning to politics. He first achieved political prominence with a nationwide televised speech in 1964 in support of Barry Goldwater. In 1966 Reagan won the governorship of California, owing to a wave of voter reaction against the student rebellion at the University of California-Berkeley, and served until 1975. He narrowly missed winning the Republican nomination for president in 1976 before succeeding in 1980 and going on to win the presidency from Jimmy Carter. Reagan won overwhelming reelection in 1984 against Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale.

President Reagan's unflagging optimism and his ability to celebrate the achievements and aspirations of the American people persisted throughout his two terms in office. He was a figure of reassurance and stability for many Americans. Despite his propensity for misstatements, Reagan was known as the "Great Communicator," primarily for his mastery of television. For many, he recalled the prosperity and relative social tranquility of the 1950s -- an era dominated by another genial public personality who evoked widespread affection, President Dwight Eisenhower.

Reagan believed that government intruded too deeply into American life. He wanted to cut programs he contended the country did not need by eliminating "waste, fraud and abuse." Throughout his tenure, Reagan also pursued a program of deregulation more thoroughgoing than that begun by Jimmy Carter. Reagan sought to eliminate regulations affecting the consumer, the workplace and the environment that he argued were inefficient, expensive and impeded economic growth.