The Ascension of Conservativism in the 1980s
While there were political and social reasons for the shift to conservatism in the early 1980s, the main reasons were economic in nature.
In politics, the Democratic President, who ran in 1976 on a platform of change, and was elected in the aftermath of a stagnant economy, and political cynicism stemming from the Watergate scandal proved to be ineffective. The Republicans, in 1980, offered a candidate who was charismatic, optimistic, and politically “clean”. This politician was Ronald Reagan. (Conservatism, n.d.) He argued a hard-line foreign policy that was very well received in the middle of the Iran Hostage crisis. Additionally, Reagan’s vow to decrease the role of the government, particularly in the area of fiscal regulation was also quite popular. (Conservatism, n.d.) Reagan’s persona cast the Republicans as the “happy warriors” optimistically vowing to bring the lost prestige and dominance of America back to the world stage. (Conservatism, n.d.)
Social conservatism underwent a revival in the early 1980s, as well. Televangelism became a multi-million dollar industry. (Conservatism, n.d.) Personalities like Orel Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Jim Baker characterized the general “malaise” in the United States as a judgment from god. (Conservatism, n.d.) The sudden and shocking appearance of the AIDS virus on the medical scene appeared to some to be an indictment of sexual promiscuity and homosexuality. (Conservatism, n.d.) The prevalence of crack-cocaine and other illicit drugs created an impression of lawlessness that helped bolster the image of a nation that had lost its moral path. (Conservatism, n.d.) The conservative movement embraced these themes as a core part of their platform, pledging to return the nation to a moral paragon, and conjuring images of the “city on the hill”. (Conservatism, n.d.)
Economically, Reagan and the conservatives offered an alternative to the “tax and spend” Democratic fiscal policy. (Conservatism, n.d.) He proffered a concept of “trickle-down” or supply-side economics that promoted economic stimulation by offering tax relief and deregulation to encourage large corporations to expand. (Conservatism, n.d.) Given the failure of the Carter administration to address the ills of the economy, new ideas were well-received by the public. (Conservatism, n.d.) Reagan ran on the simple, but effective slogan, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” (Conservatism, n.d.) The Carter administration’s focus on regulation to promote alternate energy use, conservation and environmental protection had failed to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and significantly ease the fuel crisis driven by OPEC’s embargo. (Conservatism, n.d.) These policies became the backbone of the success of the so-called “Reagan Revolution” of 1980, and paved the way for conservative political dominance over the next decade.
“Conservatism and the Rise of Ronald Reagan,” (n.d.) Retrieved November 29th, 2008 from U.S. Department of State Country History website: