Thursday, December 14, 2006

Liberalism’s Fall, Conservatism’s Rise: Why liberalism ceased to be the nation’s dominant ideology?

1964 began the decade known as the 1960s. Events both social and political, the Beatles arrival at JFK airport and the Democratic victories in the Congressional elections both in 1964, began a decade of change. In the election of 1964, the American people overwhelmingly voted for President Lyndon Johnson and a liberal agenda. 1964 and onward would bring monumental change to the status quo and traditional values with Civil Rights legislation; the Great Society programs; Feminism; and gay rights. The 1960s’ Cultural Revolution, which came from liberalism, would be too much of a change for Americans by the end of the 1960s. Liberalism ceased being the nation’s dominant ideology with the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s, a response to the Cultural Revolution. Conservatives fearful of social changes in both values and legislation created a reactionary section of the Republican Party determined to end liberalism as the governing ideological force and return the nation to traditional conservative values.

The status quo and those in favor of traditional values would remain silent for some time. The alternative to the landslide victor of the 1964 Presidential Election was distant second place winner Barry Goldwater. Goldwater, the Republican candidate, received Electoral votes in his home state of Arizona and 5 former Confederate States, the former members of the Solid South. The Solid South, which voted Democrat since the Civil War, could not accept the changes that came with the Cultural Revolution. The Conservative candidate Barry Goldwater would not be a match for Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats with their liberal agenda. Johnson’s success was necessary so Civil Rights legislation and social programs under the Great Society banner could be passed. The reaction to Johnson’s successes and the changes brought by those successes in social values was rooted here and the reaction came to life in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963 elevated Lyndon Johnson to the Presidency. The American people elected Johnson to his own full term in 1964. In his own term, Johnson wanted to complete the work of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Johnson had his own legislative packed agenda titled the Great Society. The legislation which made up the Great Society was the most passed since the days of the Great Depression. Johnson’s liberal approach to governing, assist the citizens that needed assistance, the disenfranchised African-Americans and the single-mother were two examples that needed assistance. This liberal way of governing would be a reason the right would rise against the liberalism governing the nation.

The liberal way of governing followed a model put forth by author George Lakoff. In his book Moral Politics, Lakoff uses the concept of a family to model how a government functions in certain respects. The relationship of the parent or parents to their children is similar to that of the government to the citizens. The upbringing of a child by a parent is approached in two ways, both justified as moral in their own right according to Lakoff. One model has a parent who can be firm and another model showing a parent who is lenient with their child. The parent in one model allows questions, while the other model does not. A child cries, one parent will respond and one would let the child cry it out. The two models can be applied to the way our political parties in power govern.

Lakoff’s models suggest how certain ideologies would approach governing. The government can make decisions, no matter how popular or unpopular, in the favor or against the favor of its citizens. The government allows for dissent or the government denies dissent. The government helps its citizens or it allows the citizens to help themselves.

One of Lakoff’s models is known as the Nurturant Parent. This model can contain a single-parent or two-parents. Nurturant Parent Model can best be defined as “one of being cared for and cared about, having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from mutual interaction and care” (Lakoff 2002, 108). This model represents the parent who is lenient, allows questions, and responds to the child in tears. The models also apply to how governments interact with the citizens. The lenient approach would help bring liberalism to its end.

The ideology that fits the Nurturant Parent Model would be liberalism. Liberalism, usually associated with government sponsored programs, helps those in need of assistance. Government in the United States traditionally did not heavily involve itself in the lives of the citizens. This changed dramatically in the 1930s with Franklin Roosevelt’s legislative agenda containing many government sponsored programs to help the depressed nation. Liberalism of the 1960s would be the continuation of the New Deal, brought to the American people by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The liberal agenda of the Great Society would be a part of the liberalism that would be rejected in the 1980s.

The legislative agenda of the Great Society was the Nurturant Parent Model at work. The “caring for and caring about” (Lakoff 2002, 108) part of this model’s definition sums up the legislation found in the Great Society. Some examples of the Great Society are Medicaid and Medicare.

The Nurturant Parent Model wants their child to become self-dependent. This was not happening in the eyes of those that did not want a liberal government that created social programs of assistance. Those citizens on government programs were dependent on the government. They needed to be dependent on themselves. The other aspect of liberalism, the non-legislative aspect, the movements of women and gay rights was just as disturbing as the liberal social programs.

Feminists and Gay Right Activists were the other aspects to the liberalism of the 1960s. The movements by Feminists and Gay Rights Activists were another affront to the traditional values. These cultural changes occurring during the Cultural Revolution were too much for those that sought to maintain traditional values. The unification of Southern Whites and the Religious Right would give an electoral voice wanting and waiting to be heard.

Southern White Christians were citizens of the Southern region of the United States, the former Confederate States of America. Other regions would eventually join to make up the electoral base needed to win elections. The South had traditionally voted Democratic since the Civil War. The vow to never vote for the party of Abraham Lincoln was broken in the 1960s. Lincoln had destroyed the Southern White males way of living by ending their peculiar institution. In Reconstruction, Lincoln wanted “malice toward none and charity for all” and did not deserve the generational vow of not voting Republican. The Southern Whites were once again facing a major change in society.

The changes in society in the 1960s brought the loyalty of the Southern Whites to the Democratic Party into question. The Democrats were helping the African-Americans through Civil Rights legislation and programs of the Great Society. The Nurturant Parent Model was not working in the eyes of the Southern Whites. Those that were on government programs were too dependent instead of becoming more self-dependent. Another approach needed to be taken.

The Nurturant Parent Model, as a failure, could not be the only reason the Southern Whites abandoned the Democrats in the 1960s. Since the days of FDR, the Democrats have come to the aide of the African-Americans through social legislation under the banner of the New Deal. Fast forward thirty-plus years, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, President of the United States, had signed Civil Rights legislation. The Democratic Party was continuing to fight for the rights of African-Americans. All of that was plenty of reason to want to see an end to liberalism in the eyes of the Southern Whites.

The rights of African-Americans led Southern Whites to abandon one party for another. In the 1860s, Lincoln ended slavery in the territories in rebellion and the Republican Party tried to reconstruct the defeated South into the new order of society following the Civil War, both were reasons never to support the Republican Party since they fought for the rights of African-Americans. Once again, Southern Whites switched parties because the party fought for rights of the minority, the one’s without a voice, the African-Americans. In the 1960s, it was the Democratic Party’s support of Civil Rights legislation which ended their solid grip on the South.

The abandonment of the Democratic Party by the Southern Whites began the revolt against liberalism which would bring it to its end. The revolt began in the election of 1964 with five Southern Electoral votes going for Goldwater, the Republican Candidate. The Nurturant Parent Model did not work. Liberalism did not work for the country in their eyes. Citizens were becoming dependent on their government. Non-traditional values were becoming the norm. Southern Whites wanted a new approach to governing and soon so would many more Americans, including the Religious Right. However, Southern White Christians would need someone to lead them on this revolt against liberalism.

The mid-1970s ended the 1960s, which began in 1964. The country had finished their involvement in a foreign war falsely presented to the people of the United States. The president committed impeachable offenses. The social programs of the Great Society continued on. There were also Civil Rights legislation, Feminists, and Gay Rights Activists, just a few things to show a Cultural Revolution that came from the 1960s.

The Cultural Revolution was too much for some people. “Through the years of liberal social policies in the 1960s, a substantial share of the electorate showed itself deeply unhappy with the ongoing cultural revolution, though it could rarely make its voice heard in mainstream political debate” (Jenkins 2006, 75). The voice they would get would come from former Hollywood actor and Governor of the State of California, Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan’s defeat of President Jimmy Carter in 1980 not only began the 1980s but began the conservative response to 1960s liberalism, also known as the Reagan Revolution. President Johnson approached domestic policy, using Lakoff’s model, as the Nurturant Parent. President Reagan would be the counterpart model to the Nurturant Parent, the Strict Father.

The Strict Father model is an approach to both parenting and governing. In the Strict Father Model the household is run by the father and the mother upholds his authority. The children are similar to subordinates in the military, which must obey their superior’s authority. In this model there are no questions asked when asked to do something. The father in this model can reprimand their children as firm as he sees fit. Lakoff said this model takes the view “that life is difficult and that the world is fundamentally dangerous” (Lakoff 2002, 65). A strong father figure is there to guide and protect the family. Reagan filled this role for the Conservatives looking for the voice to opposing liberalism.

Reagan’s approach to governing followed the model of Strict Father. Despite a difference in age, Reagan exuded a strict father appearance compared to his predecessor Jimmy Carter, whose tenure in office was more feminine in administration of the government. By the end of Carter’s term the country needed “to adopt more aggressive and confrontational attitudes toward its enemies” (Jenkins 2006, 151). The adoption of these attitudes would come with the election of Reagan.

Reagan would dismantle the Great Society. The Great Society’s legislative agenda gave opportunities to citizens in need of some kind of help. The reliance of the government to support its citizens went against the grain of a conservative. According to Seymour Martin Lipset, author of American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, the creed of the United States are the basic values of liberty, egalitarianism, and individualism. According to Lipset, the American Ideology is all we have, since we Americans have no bloodline that binds us as a nation. It has always been the American way to work hard and keep your earnings. Americans of the late 20th Century were no different than those of earlier generations. This creed of Lipset’s can be seen as Reagan’s response to the social programs of the Great Society.

The values in the creed of the United States went against government programs’ attempt to help. Liberty defined as you own yourself and nobody owns you. The government does not own you, you can go out and work hard trying to make something for oneself. Egalitarianism means that no one is born into special privilege. If born into poverty, one can get out of it through hard work and should not continue every generation relying on the government for support. Finally, there is individualism, which is about there being one you, a unique individual. Government does not involve itself in the lives of the individual.

The social programs did not help the citizens of the United States, but instead created problems for the citizens. Reagan blamed the government for the social problems the United States faced in the 1960s. He wanted Americans to feel good about themselves again. His campaign ads said “it’s morning in America.” Reagan exuded an optimistic view of America and what it can achieve, especially with less government. The less government would come in the area of social programs. Big government would remain but in a different area of the federal government.

Where President Johnson was big on government spending for social programs, President Reagan matched him in military spending, the big government that Southern White Christians liked, a strong defense. Reagan’s defense military build-up against the Soviet Union was appealing to Americans who sought comfort in the Strict Father Model, the model which helped win the Cold War.

The Strict Father was the solution at the time to clean up the mess left by the Nurturant Parent. If 1964 was the beginning of liberalism’s end with the landslide reelection of Lyndon Johnson, then 1984, with the landslide reelection of Ronald Reagan, confirmed that liberalism was not the dominant ideology, rather conservatism was now the nation’s dominant ideology and that it was here to stay. The social changes brought by liberalism of the 1960s created the reactionary Southern White Christians which would see to liberalisms end with Reagan’s victory in 1980. Just as liberalism began a long march from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs through to Johnson’s Great Society programs, and the cultural changes that came with the 1960s; conservatism has reached the beginning of its end with the reelection of George W. Bush to a second term in 2004. The Reagan Revolution ended liberalism as the nation’s dominant ideology, only time will tell if Compassionate Conservatism is the end of conservatism as the nation’s dominant ideology.

Jenkins, Philip. 2006. Decade of Nightmares – The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Lakoff, George. 2002. Moral Politics – How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1996. American Exceptionalism – A Double-Edged Sword. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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