Historical Sketch: American Conservatism and the New Right, 1960 – 2008

“National Review” magazine. Ideological flagship of the New Right.

Conservatism and Crisis

The Civil Rights, Women’s, anti-war, and social change movements of the 1960s and 1970s, spawned a conservative backlash that manifested itself in various ways.  From the pagers of National Review magazine, to the conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society, from the failed Goldwater campaign to the successful Reagan presidency, conservative forces regrouped and pushed forward.  Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s seemed to vindicate conservative desires to undo many of the liberal policies enacted over the past two decades.  In the 1990s, both the ostensibly liberal Democratic Party and the overtly conservative Republican Party shifted to the Right.  In the wake of the 911 attacks, the United States entered the new century with a mood of uncertainty and division.  (Zinn, 2015)

William F. Buckley. The New Right’s “public intellectual.”

The New Right

As the Civil Rights and anti-War movements of the 1960s developed, a counter-movement, generally referred to as “The New Right” began to emerge.  As early as 1960, under the sponsorship of conservative National Review magazine founder William F. Buckley, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) a conservative college students’ organization was established.  Less seeking of the limelight than their left-wing rivals in Students for a Democratic Society, the Radical Right YAF attracted more student members.  The YAF supported easing economic regulations on business, state’s rights, law and order, and a strong anti-communism.  The student conservatives of the YAF and those opposed to the seeming “leftward” shift in American life would soon find their champion in Barry Goldwater.  (Zinn, 2015)


The Goldwater Campaign

Barry Goldwater, a conservative Republican senator from Arizona, proposed undoing much of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies of the 1930s.  Goldwater advocated dismantling Social Security and welfare programs.  He opposed federal civil rights laws and sought to repeal them.  Goldwater became the champion of the New Right; and attracted hardline conservatives who felt that governmental interference in the economy and society was harmful and dangerous. However, his extreme conservative views, frightened more moderate Republicans who, instead, supported Goldwater’s Democratic rival in the 1964 elections, incumbent President Lyndon Johnson.

Barry Goldwater.


Goldwater’s more extreme pronouncements worked against him.  After he stated that NATO commanders should be able to employ nuclear weapons, a Democratic Party television campaign ad showed a child counting as she picked the petals off of a daisy.  The camera froze on the image of the child’s face, as the voiceover changed to a countdown to a nuclear detonation.  This ad, only broadcast once, not only sparked ferocious controversy, but has gone down as one of the most successful and innovative political ads of all time.  Its purpose, to portray Goldwater as a dangerous and rash extremist who would provoke a nuclear war, succeeded, and Goldwater lost to Johnson.  Goldwater’s own ad campaign worked against him as well, with many finding a hidden irony in his campaign slogan of “In your heart you know he’s right.”  (Zinn, 2015)

The Fringe

During the Civil Rights march from Selma, Alabama, in 1965, marchers saw a roadway billboard purporting to show Martin Luther King attending a “Communist Training School.”  The billboard, which in fact depicted King attending an activist workshop, had been placed by the John Birch Society.  Founded in 1958 by publisher Robert Welch, the John Birch Society specialized in conspiracy theories around supposed communist attempts to infiltrate the US and create a “One World Government.”  In the pages of its publication, American Opinion, the Society went so far as to condemn Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a hidden communist, and to claim that the fluoridation of drinking water was a communist plot.  Leading conservatives strove to distance themselves from the John Birch Society.  Even strong conservatives such as William F. Buckley and his National Review magazine condemned the Birchers as a disreputable fringe element.  (Zinn, 2015)

John Birch Society billboard attacking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

More disreputable still was the American Nazi Party founded in 1959 by former Navy pilot George Lincoln Rockwell. Although Rockwell himself was killed by a disgruntled former Party member in 1967, his Party would be the catalyst for the creation of numerous fascist and white supremacist organizations throughout the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and right up to the present day.  Another sign of the times, albeit more directly a violent reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, was a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.  Like the American Nazis, this third incarnation of the Klan would spawn a plethora of racist, white nationalist hate groups that still exist today.

The New Conservative Coalition

Through a combination of right-wing think tanks, publications, special interest groups, direct mail initiatives, and talk radio programs, a political movement developed whose eventual champion and spokesman would be former actor and California Governor Ronald Reagan.  Reagan’s electoral victory in 1980 would be the result of a decade-long process of coalition building among varied and different conservative and right-wing groups.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, conservative views differed with respect to a number of policy questions.  To balance the budget or cut taxes; the active promotion of conservative values or libertarian minimalism; these were just a few of the issues that divided the conservative Right.  The conservative waters became even more muddied with the arrival, in the mid-1970s of a group of former liberals whose politics had shifted rightwards.  Calling themselves Neo-conservatives, and including ex-liberals such as Irving Kristol, this group tended to focus mostly on foreign policy.  Arguing that the nation had to overcome its post-Vietnam stagnation through aggressive foreign policy initiatives, the Neo-conservatives opposed traditional conservative isolationism and non-interventionism in favor of unilateral US imperialist action around the world.  (Zinn, 2015)

A number of Southern Democrats joined the new conservative coalition.  Still resentful over court-mandated desegregation, affirmative action programs, busing, and other government programs that seemed to favor minorities fueled the shift into the Republican Party.  Furthermore, some Northern whites, in the wake of economic deterioration and the loss of jobs and the evaporation of industries, responded to Republican calls that liberals had lost touch with working class Americans.  Together with the popularity of grassroots conservative movements in the South, the Sun Belt, and the Rust Belt, these would form the backbone of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s.  (Kendi, 2016)

Tax Revolt

Starting in the late 1970s, anger over increasing taxes led to open revolt.  Large businesses and industries had long advocated for reduced income and corporate taxes.   These were now joined by individuals demanding lower property taxes.  In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, a referendum, calling for a 75% reduction in property taxes.  Although hailed as a “tax revolt” by some, with inevitable comparisons to 1776, the passage of Proposition 13 resulted in severe cuts to public school funding.  A number of states enacted similar extreme tax reductions.  Some went even further, and anti-tax terrorist groups such as Posse Comitatus began to harass and even murder officials that they felt were responsible for government intrusion and high taxes.

The Religious Right

Jerry Falwell and minions.

The Religious Right, fundamentalist Christian groups that upheld “traditional values” and supported right-wing political position, began to join the Republican Party in large numbers.  Religious fundamentalists had traditionally scorned political involvement; but, many saw the issues of the 1960s and 1970s, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s and Gay Rights movements, the end of school prayer, and the Cold War, as directly affecting their religious values.  Always popular, in certain parts of the country, fundamentalist Christian radio programs, publishers, and televangelists such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Schuller, and Jim and Tammy Bakker, joined the new Conservative Coalition and brought their supporters with them.

By the beginning of the 1980s, religious conservatives were a major constituency in the Republican Party.  Jerry Falwell himself was the leader of the Moral Majority, a self-declared “pro-life, pro-family, pro-morality, and pro-American” organization.  Traditional American Protestantism had always been staunchly anti-Catholic.  However, the new Religious Right reached out to conservative Catholics around questions such as abortion, and gay rights.  (Zinn, 2015)


Ronald Reagan was the beneficiary of the new Conservative Coalition.  His two-term presidency enacted strongly pro-business legislation. Arguing that economic regulation hindered economic growth, Reagan pursued free market policies that had unforeseen negative consequences.  For example, after the deregulation of the savings and loan industry, large amounts of depositor’s monies were lost due to speculative investments. Reagan’s policies, which came to be known as Reaganism, were followed by his successor, George Herbert Bush.

Reagan often spoke about cutting taxes and welfare.  However, health care, housing, education, and environmental agencies and services often bore the brunt of government cuts.  Reagan was popular among rightists, then and now, and has been praised for his vigorous resumption of confrontational, anti-communist Cold War initiatives.  He lowered taxes for the wealthy, and appointed conservative Supreme Court justices, such as Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice.  However, many of the issues of key concern to cultural conservatives, such as abortion, affirmative action, and school prayer, remained unchanged.  (Kendi, 2016)

A “Liberal” Realignment

After the one-term interregnum of George Herbert Bush, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, won the Presidency in 1993.  Clinton strove to move the Democratic Party rightwards, towards the center, through an emphasis on free trade policies.  However, some of his failed social policies, such as health care reform, convinced his conservative Republican opponents that he was an unreconstituted “Great Society” liberal in the vein of Lyndon Johnson.    By 1994, Newt Gingrich, a congressman from Georgia, had emerged as the spokesman for the New Right.  Gingrich called for an end to welfare state polices, and, in his Contract with America, argued in favor of deregulation, term limits, and an amendment to the US Constitution which would directly mandate the maintenance of a balanced budget.  Clinton responded by undercutting much of Gingrich’s support with his own welfare reform program.  Clinton united with Republicans and conservative Democrats in cutting and revamping welfare programs.  Many of the New Deal-era programs, which were held to be the foundation of modern Liberalism, suffered as a consequence.  (Zinn, 2015)

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

George Walker Bush and 9/11

Succeeding Clinton as the 43rd President of the United States, George Walker Bush stated that his polices would turn away from the strong anti-government stance championed by New Rightists such as Gingrich.  Instead, Bush offered what was termed “compassionate conservatism,” an attempt to replace government social programs by reliance, instead, on private charities and faith-based organizations to take up the mantle.  Bush favored religious institutions to provide social and community-based programs that would supplant government institutions.  As a result, the federal government funded churches that provided homeless shelters and food relief for the poor, educational services, and counseling to drug addicts.  Although not all saw it as such, in many ways this was an affirmation of the program of the Religious Right, as it gave churches control over the implementation of social policy

Bush’s economic policies provided for tax cuts and the deregulation financial institutions and markets.  that he had proposed during the campaign.  With the support of conservative Republicans, Bush cut taxes 15 percent%.  However, many of these tax cuts went to the wealthy and to business which, Bush argued, would stimulate the economy.  However, what was not clear to many at the time was that an overinflated housing market was sustaining the economy.  This falsely-inflated housing market would collapse in 2008, leading the country into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 members of the Islamist organization, al-Qaeda, boarded four different commercial airliners.  Shortly after takeoff, they all seized control of their respective planes, killing the pilots, and at 8:46 am, flew the first plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York.  Shortly afterwards, a second plane hit the South Tower. The third plane crashed into the Pentagon, while the fourth hijacked plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field, supposedly after the passengers onboard had rebelled against the hijackers and prevent them from reaching their intended target, the US Capitol Building.  (Zinn, 2015)

The 9/11 attacks shocked the nation in the same way as the attack on Pearl Harbor did in 1941.  Only, this time, the attack was not initiated by a hostile foreign power; but, rather, by a hostile religio-political ideology, Fundamentalist Islamism, that had been nurtured and encouraged by US imperialist policy due to its anti-communist/anti-Soviet stance.  Only a decade after America’s ostensible victory in the Cold War, a new and more elusive “enemy” now fed the propaganda machine.  Beyond the initial shock, the 9/11 Attacks fueled ferocious debate as to whether the conservative or liberal political vision was either to blame or provided the only hope for a national recovery.  The events of 9/11 were the direct cause of two wars, the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq.  Neither of these two wars have ended.

Protest against President George W. Bush’s policies.

In 2008, the first African-American, Barack Obama, was elected President of the United States. Obama inherited two wars, a deteriorating world situation, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and a nation that seemed increasingly and irredeemably polarized.  And this was just the beginning. (Kendi, 2016)

The attempt by the New Right and the Conservative Coalition to reverse some of the changes that were brought about in the 1960s and 1970s was a mixed success.  Although the political pendulum seemed to swing rightwards in the Reagan era, the end of century saw economic collapse, disarray on the international scene, disunity and polarization within the US ruling class, and a rising level of opposition, class-consciouness, and protest among working class and oppressed and marginalized sectors of society.


Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the Beginning. New York: Nation Books.

Zinn, H. (2015). A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins.


Categories: Government, History, Imperialism, Reactionary Watch, U.S. News, United States History, Workers Struggle

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