From The Mason Historiographiki
Background of Topic
Root Causes of Backlash
The term "backlash" refers to the efforts of middle-class men and women to counteract the increasing secularization and liberalism of American society who forged a conservative revival that transformed conservatism from a marginal force preoccupied with communism in the early 1960's into a national political movement by the end of the decade. In the process the movement developed from a combination of fringe groups with radical agendas, such as the John Birch Society, which were ridiculed and marginalized, into a dominant faction of the Republican party nationally. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 marked the culmination of conservative efforts to transform the political landscape of America.
The dominance of liberalism in government reached its apex with the Johnson administration, which fused New Deal politics and policies into an array of Great Society programs. Liberals believed that the New Deal was a set of programs designed to provide economic stimulus and alleviate poverty for disadvantaged groups. Conservatives believed that the New Deal, and its Great Society offspring, undermined individual responsibility and encouraged dependency, which would in turn put the stability of America and its traditional values at risk. The Civil Rights movement exacerbated conservative fears that government intervention in favor of certain groups in the cause of social justice would only increase social volatility and threaten the hard-earned status of self-reliant individuals. As Lisa McGirr argues in her book,Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, "The increasingly volatile race issue also helped to tear the liberal coalition apart. While in 1963, televisions across the nation had flashed pictures of white police officers clubbing black and white civil rights marchers in the South, in the summer of 1965, the nation's television screens carried images of enraged black youths in Watts looting businesses and neighborhoods in flames. Rising African-American militancy led to a growing white blacklash and calls for law and order and cries against rising criminality often served as a coded language that played to white surburban fears of the black masses of the inner cities." (pp. 203-04)
In Behind the Backlash, Durr argues that with these social, political, and urban changes of the middle twentieth century, the white middle class felt isolated and were ready for change. After the break down of New Deal coalitions, the working class “Reagan Democrats” embraced the comparative conservatism of Richard Nixon.
Additionally, conservatives were concerned about permissiveness and morally relativist values in schools and argued for a more fundamental values-oriented program. It was the religious right’s ability to organize and compromise that brought this agenda to the fore (Second Coming). Conservatives also opposed communism and regarded the United Nations as a subversive organization. As is clear in Before the Storm, communism was indeed the primary issue of which Barry Goldwater, a recognized and respected voice of the conservative backlash, campaigned leading to and during the during the 1964 election. The protests against the Vietnam War added fuel to the conservative fire. Lisa McGirr says, "As the late 1960's witnessed antiwar protests, a flourishing counterculture, and riots in the nation's inner cities,the conservative critique of liberalism resonated with an increasing number of Americans." (p. 217)
While much focus has been placed on the conservative movement as a reactionary force against social issues of the 1960s, two authors push back the temporal boundaries of our understanding of the origins of the political movement. Kim Phillips-Fein links the backlash of elite businessmen to New Deal politics in the formation of intellectual arguments against government intervention, labor unions, and social welfare in her work Invisible Hands. The formation of the Mont Pelerin Society, American Enterprise Association, and Foundation for Economic Education provided elite organizations funded by corporate sponsors. These think tank groups were designed to educate businessmen, provide research to high level organizations and officials, and disseminate free enterprise education programs to workers and schools and laid the intellectual and financial networks for later grassroots organizations to imitate and promote educational programs and study groups. Historian Bethany Moreton traces the roots of conservatism in Ozark Country to Populist ideals that found strong ideological partnership with fundamental Christianity in To Serve God and Wal-Mart. By linking together traditional Populist critiques of big government with a Christian understanding of service economy, Moreton argues the Wal-Mart business model promoted conservative family values while trumpeting the cause of free enterprise, both in the heartland of America and as a bulwark against anti-capitalist forces in emerging democracies in Latin America and Asia through Sam Walton's education scholarships and business partnership programs with local colleges. By marketing the American way of free enterprise to developing nations, Walton reframed the older anti-communist platforms that drew together conservatives in McGirr's Suburban Warriors to create a campaign for promoting American capitalism through educational opportunities for a prospective management cohort eager to establish free market businesses in their countries.
Philosophy of Movement
Many issues lay at the heart of the conservative backlash, some of them connected to the Catholic Church. For example, concern for family values and the autonomy of the family were important factors in the movement. The growth of the abortion movement in the 1960's threatened the stability and security that the family offered. The struggle over abortion began within the medical profession over its desire to regulate who should be allowed to receive an abortion. As abortions began to be used as a form of birth control, conservatives saw this as an attack on traditional family values. A California law passed in the 1960's brought the issue to the attention of the nation.
Kristin Luker’s Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood provides information about the connection between the pro-choice movement and the women’s movement. The new claim which entered the debate around 1967 involved abortion as a woman’s right which is central and essential to their right to equality (92). Among the issues raised in the abortion debate are the cost of medical care and the subsequent debate regarding who should be eligible to benefit from these expensive resources. This debate which surfaced in the years following the Roe v. Wade decision, centers on bioethical issues such as brain death (6).
The phenomenon of large numbers of women entering into the workforce was viewed as another threat to the family. Women appeared to be interested in becoming self-sufficient on their own rather than achieving success through attachment to the family. As women became more educated and joined the workforce, they began to question traditional authority. and became politically active.
Thirty years following the rise of the modern women's movement, people of all religious backgrounds still struggle with feminism's legacy. In God Gave us the Right: Conservative Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and Orthodox Jewish Women Grapple with Feminism (1999), Christel J. Manning looks into the lives of conservative women in these three faiths. She finds mixed reviews about how feminism has influenced the lives of women today. Irrespective of their faith, many of the women shy away from the feminist label. And most agree that people who adhere to feminism are disdainful toward women who stay at home and choose to raise a family. On the flip side, a majority of the women support equal treatment/pay for females at work, even as they fully endorse male headship in church/synagogue worship services.
In terms of legislation, in Conservatives in an Age of Change: The Nixon and Ford Administrations, A. James Reichley examines how conservative ideology affected the policies of Nixon and Ford. Among the issues Reichley examines is foreign policy, civil rights, and economic policy. As Mason argues in Richard Nixon and the Quest for a New Majority, Nixon found the “silent majority” through promoting patriotism in the face of rising criticism of the war in Vietnam. Nixon was, in many ways, relying on the same basic American principles—law and order, military service, patriotism, and the right to bear arms—that were central to the Young Americans for Freedom in The Other Side of the Sixties. More broadly, Barry Goldwater represented the conservative belief in limited government; that civil rights legislation, for example, was an overextension of government involvement (Before the Storm).
Members of Movement
The conservative backlash involved a number of distinct groups located in the various regions of the United States, which had some common traits:
1. Most conservative families were from the middle class and were predominately white;
2. Most conservatives had worked their way into the middle class and believed they had earned what they had achieved;
3. Most conservatives objected to what they saw as high taxes and were frustrated by the fact that this money was being used to benefit groups that had not earned it;
4. For many conservatives Religion played a major role in membership in the conservative movement;
5. Conservatives saw the political process as the proper path to achieving thier platform;
6. Conservatives began many of the programs that they took on as grassroots movements;
7. Women played an important role in the movement. According to Rebecca Klatch, two groups of women need to be considered as being members of the conservative backlash: Social Conservative women and Laissez-Faire Conservative women, each of which attack the left from a different perspective.
Kenneth Durr's book Behind the Backlash, outlines the progress of the White Working-class during the Post WWII period. Durr's central argument, that working class whites moved steadily to the right in an attempt to protect their lifestyle in urban Baltimore, even as their traditional party shifted to the right, does musch to explain Republican victories in the 1970's.
Durr's “study focuses on two types of political expression: electoral politics and community protest” (4). A major focus of this study involves the racial tension which existed during the 1950s and the resulting community protests. In 1954, mothers picketed at local schools in protest of the city's newly adopted policy of desegregation. In the southern segregationist society which existed in Baltimore during the 1950s, these mothers were protesting to protect their children not only from desegregation but also from the specter of communism.
The sturggles over residency rights in Atlanta between black and white communities are the subject of Kevin M. Kruse's White Flight. Kruse presents a fesh perspective by tyring to illustrate the motivation's of white urban residents as they resisted black families moving into traditionally white neighborhoods. Kruse's work also includes an analysis of white re-trenchment in suburbs and the impact of federal authority in de-segregation of public facilities.
One of the most notable figures of the backlash was Richard Nixon. In Nixonland Rick Perlstein chronicles the rise of Nixon. Nixon was born to a relatively poor family and he grew up resenting those who were born into privilege. From his early years in school he was organizing against elites. As a young Congressman he made a name for himself as a vicious anti-communist. Though his politics was still being formulated, he was emerging as a strong conservative voice within the Republican Party. This is exactly why Eisenhower tapped Nixon to be his Vice President.
Nixon learned quickly that the path to power was through sympathetic and emotional connection with the voter. Eggheads like Adlai Stevenson could speak well and come up with great ideas, but it was the candidate that could appeal to the voter on a cultural and moral plane that won out. Nixon therefore sought to fashion himself a normal guy with conservative American values. He portrayed liberals as un-American and out of touch.
Though he lost the presidential election in 1960 and then the gubernatorial election in California, Nixon could not stay out of the game for long. He watched as Barry Goldwater energized the conservative wing of the Republican Party and kept a close eye on the rising star Ronald Regan. Nixon reemerged in 1966 as the champion of the Silent Majority—those Americans who fought hard for their living and who disliked Johnson’s Great Society.
Nixon’s greatest achievement was winning over the working class. Unions that had been the base of the Democratic Party for years found Nixon’s pro-America rhetoric attractive. Nixon effectively characterized liberals as spendthrifts and elitists. They had no care for the common (white) voter. Those hippies and civil rights activists were all the same—un-American radicals who were probably backed by communists.
Though Nixon’s paranoia and reckless disregard for certain laws would later bring him down, he managed to ride the conservative backlash into the White House. Along the way he oversaw a massive realignment in American politics and changed how campaigns were run.
Consequences of Movement
While the consequences of the conservative backlash movement varied from region to region, certain elements of the movement were common to all areas. For example, the characteristics of those involved in the movement tended to be consistent throughout the nation. Most members of this movement viewed the family as the center of their universe. Liberal policies and programs that were viewed as attacks on the family institution by the New Left are regarded as the major unifying factor of the conservative movement in the United States.
Politically, the conservative backlash revealed a change in ideology concerning the proper role of government. From Barry Goldwater who believed the government functioned to fight communism and leave everyone else alone to the working class and religious right, the view of government changed to one of interference. To realize these changes more concretely, the religious right learned the power of coalitions as did the white working class. These individuals went one step further to build ethnic coalitions as a political front on the local level, driven by the notion that they must be strong locally since government would not make changes for them.
More generally, the conservative backlash was one example of a cyclical process in which elites responded to the social conditions of their time with the belief that they could advance an agenda—from professional organization methods in the Progressive to government social programs in the New Deal—to change the nature of their country and government.
List of Readings
- John Andrew. The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics.
- D.T. Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade.
- Michael W. Flamm. Law And Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, And The Crisis Of Liberalism in the 1960s.
- Rebecca Klatch. Women of the New Right, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.
- Kevin M. Kruse. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton University Press, 2005.
- Michael Lienesch. Redeeming America: Piety & Politics in the New Christian Right,Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
- Lisa McGirr. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Kristin Luker. Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
- Kristin Luker. When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex--And Sex Education--Since the Sixties. W. W. Norton, 2006.
- Lassiter, Matthew. The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South. W. W. Norton, 2006. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2006. 387 pages. $35.00.
- Robert Mason. Richard Nixon and the Quest for a New Majority.
- Yanek Mieczkowski. Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2005.
- Rick Perlstein. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.
- Brennan, Mary C. Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
- Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox. Second Coming: The New Christian Right in Virginia Politics.
- Bethany Moreton. To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise.
- Kim Phillips-Fein. Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan.
- Kenneth Durr. Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 2003.
- Ronald P Formisano. Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press) 1991.
- Jonathan Rieder. Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), 1985.
Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies