The Reagan Revolution in 1980 ushered in conservatism as the nation’s dominant ideology. In 1964, Barry Goldwater, U.S. Senator from Arizona, lost in a landslide as a conservative Republican against a liberal Democrat. That election was the beginning of the end of liberalism as the United States’ dominant ideology. The 1964 election was a prelude to the Reagan Revolution of 1980. Goldwater won his home state and five Southern States, former members of the Confederacy. Conservatives would need more than the old Confederacy to win a presidential election. They would need a strong leader, a father figure. A large untapped minority, White Christians, needed a voice in politics as social issues were being controlled by the liberals in power. Reagan would be the answer for conservatism to become the nation’s dominant ideology. American cultural politics up to 1980 were defined by the liberals that had dominated the government since the 1960s. The American culture would shift dramatically to the right with the Reagan Revolution of 1980. The shift would be seen in the approach to governing and the shift would be given by voters in need of a voice, the Religious Right. Reagan’s success as a president with a Western conservative ideology would be emulated unsuccessfully and displaced with the presidency of George W. Bush’s Texas conservatism, as Christian Conservatism became the dominant and divisive ideology of the nation.
Reagan’s election in 1980 began a shift in the nation’s ideology. Liberalism was on its way out, and conservatism was on its way in. The two major party candidates for president in 1980 represented the differences in their use of presidential power. Outgoing president, Jimmy Carter, took on a more motherly approach to governing, whether in response to the Soviet Union or the dealing with the Iran hostage situation in 1979. Unlike Carter, Reagan took a father figure approach to governing, a strict father. Reagan would stand up to the Soviets and dismantle the Great Society, things conservatives would expect from their strict father.
Reagan’s strict father figure approach to governing is known as the “Strict Father Model” according to George Lakoff. Lakoff says that “life is difficult and that the world is fundamentally dangerous” (2002, 65). This quote defined the conservative approach to the world and the outlook that leaders like Reagan and Barry Goldwater took in governing under the model of a strict father. Lakoff used the idea or model of a household ran by a strict father and applied that to the political parties, namely the Republican Party, and their style of governing.
The strict father figure was what conservatives were looking for. Southern White Christians favored this style of governing over a more Nurturant approach, as shown by President Carter. The approval of the strict father model was reaffirmed in Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984. American cultural politics were now on a conservative path and this path would need to be maintained by successors to the Reagan Revolution.
The strict father figure model would be what Christian Conservatives looked for in their leader. George H. W. Bush was more of a moderate Republican than both his son and President Reagan. Bush served for eight years as vice president under Reagan. His election to a term as president is often called by some as Reagan’s third term. Bush was his own man and was not Reagan in numerous ways; in ideology or his communicative abilities. This is not to say that Bush was a Nurturant politician like Carter. Bush, the 41st, led a coalition of thirty nations during the Gulf War in 1991 and achieved heights not seen in presidential polling after a quick win in the Persian Gulf. The popularity shown in the polls would not last, for it would be the economic recession of the early 1990s and the popularity of third party candidate, Ross Perot, which contributed to Bush’s removal from office by the voters in 1992. Conservatives were without a voice, if only for a brief moment.
With the election of a Democrat in 1992, it did not signal the end of conservatism as the dominant ideology. Centrist Bill Clinton had to contend with a Republican led Congress two years into his first term. The “Contract with America” offered a conservative agenda as an alternative to the Clintons. Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, saw it his duty, as leader of the people’s house, to offer an agenda, a conservative agenda. This can be seen as an interlude in the Reagan Revolution, as the legislative branch was the only power of conservatives for the remainder of the 20th Century before George W. Bush.
Eventually the overreaching Republicans in the House realized they needed President Clinton’s help if they were to accomplish anything. Divided government, between a conservative dominated legislative branch and a centrist Democrat in the White House, would prove to be successful. For conservatives however, Gingrich was not working and Senator Bob Dole of Kansas was no match for the popular president in the election of 1996. However, conservative dominance over the branches of government was approaching.
Christian Conservatives needed another voice to lead their conservative agenda. They needed another strict father which they did not have in George H. W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, or Bob Dole. George W. Bush modeled himself after Ronald Reagan. Bush was no Reagan as much as he tried to portray himself that way.
Bush wanted it to be “morning in America” during his presidency. Bush emulated Reagan in numerous ways. Reagan faced the threat of the Cold War. By the time of Reagan’s Administration, the Cold War had been going on for thirty-five years. Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union; the Evil Empire. Bush came into office during a time of peace and prosperity. The terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania altered our time of peace and into a time of terror, according to the Bush Administration. After a successful war in Afghanistan, thought to be victorious at the time, a follow-up to the September 11th attacks, Bush created the Axis of Evil in his 2002 State of the Union Address. In the address he labeled Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as members of an Axis of Evil; a term sounding as if it was plucked from a high school term-list for World War II. Now he, just like Reagan, had an evil opposition that the good United States would face.
Lakoff’s model of a strict father also used the approach of labeling things good vs. evil. This came from the idea of the strict father having “moral strength.” According to Lakoff, “Moral Strength is what the strict father must have if he is to support, protect, and guide his family” (2002, 74). Just as a father needs moral strength to guide his family, a president needs it to guide his country as well. The Religious Right certainly saw things in the light of good vs. evil. They expected their leader, George W. Bush, to explain things in this manner to them. They expected him to have Moral Strength. He never once wavered from the perception of having Moral Strength.
Bush faced the new War on Terrorism, much like Reagan faced the end of the Cold War. Good and evil labels were handed out establishing the United States as good and all opposition as evil. Lakoff explains the Moral Strength metaphor’s use of good and evil:
“The metaphor of Moral Strength sees the world in terms of a war of good against the forces of evil, which must be fought ruthlessly. Ruthless behavior in the name of the good fight is thus seen as justified. Moreover, the metaphor entails that one cannot respect the views of one’s adversary: evil does not deserve respect, it deserves to be attacked!”
Bush followed the Moral Strength metaphor. An example of his use of it occurred recently when the President of Iran wanted to debate President Bush, the Administration did not feel that the evil Iran deserved the respect of a response to such a call.
As mentioned above, the Religious Right saw the world in terms of good vs. evil. The Religious Right was the other element to the success of the conservative movement which came from the Reagan Revolution. With the help of the Religious Right, the politics of American culture were being defined. A strict father with moral strength would set the country back on the right path after its deviation down the path of liberalism. The Religious Right and Southern White Conservatives would merge and become Southern White Christians.
The Southern Whites and Religious Right united in force in 1980 to help create the Reagan Revolution. The revolution was their voice being heard and liberalism of the past was to end. The two groups would form a powerful electorate that would shape the politics of culture for the next three decades.
Southern Whites were constituents of the region of the United States known as the South. The South is the former Confederate States of America, the states that rebelled from the Union in the 1860s. The Confederates fought and lost the Civil War, from 1861-1865.
After the Civil War, the Southern Whites never voted Republican, the party of Abraham Lincoln. This pledge to not vote Republican would last almost one hundred years. Lincoln put an end to slavery, a way of life in the South, creating the staunch opposition to the Republican Party by Southern Whites. It would be the Democratic Party’s embracement of the Civil Rights movement which would end the relationship between Southern Whites and the Democratic Party.
The party name had changed, but the Southern White ideology of conservatism remained. In 1964, five of the former Confederate States voted with Arizona to give Republican Barry Goldwater his only electoral votes in the landslide election.
In American Theocracy, Kevin Phillips talked about the importance of the Civil War to Southern culture. He cited the editor of The Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, where Samuel Hill explained the South’s response to their “polarized sectional memories” of antebellum, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Hill said that the South’s response “is singular in American history, religious and otherwise, and is seen quite clearly in its religious life. A region became a culture, constructively and defensively, and creatively and reactively” (Phillips 2006, 138). This culture of the South fell into Lakoff’s strict father model. They want a leader that follows the strict father model.
Reagan governed the country exuding a strict father presence, but with superb communication skills, especially through humor, which could deflate the notion that a conservative was too radical to lead the country. George W. Bush would take the strict father approach to governing just as Reagan had. Once again though, there is a difference between Reagan and Bush in their use of the strict father approach. Reagan had the threat of the Soviet Union and showed the United States stood up to evil in the world. Bush did not stop at standing up to the evil that faced the United States, he would unilaterally invade a country he thought posed a threat. The Southern Whites could not elect either Bush or Reagan without help from others in the electorate.
The help would come from the Religious Right. The Religious Right was made up of evangelicals. One of the evangelic leaders, Jerry Falwell, felt that the country was on a “downward spiral” (Micklethwait and Wooldridge 2004, 84). This downward spiral was coming from the liberalism that had dominated the country prior to 1980. The evangelicals had voted for their last Democrat in 1976. That Democrat, Jimmy Carter, was a true Christian without any followers.
Reagan would become the voice that Christians sought in politics. “For the Right, the Reagan era was the first time that one of their own was in the White House, a sensation that they did not have again until George W. Bush’s administration” (Micklethwait and Wooldridge 2004, 92). Reagan’s strict father approach to governing to turning back the liberalism of the 1960s was approved of by the Religious Right. The difference between Reagan and Bush, in regards to the Religious Right, was that Reagan tolerated the Religious Right where as Bush embraced them.
Evangelical leaders formed the Moral Majority. The Moral Majority became the political arm for Christians. “The Moral Majority rapidly emerged as a hard-line Christian voice on domestic issues like abortion, school prayer, women’s rights and gay rights” (Micklethwait and Wooldridge 2004, 85). Their issues would become those of the Southern Whites. The Religious Right and Southern Whites would combine electoral forces to become the Southern White Christians. The Christian conservative ideology would remain the nation’s dominant ideology over the next three decades.
The dominance would begin with the Reagan Revolution. “Christian nationalism, like most militant ideologies, can exist only in opposition to something” (Goldberg 2006, 69). This Christian nationalism, the ideology of the country, was an opposition of the liberal programs like the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s.
Bush’s “mandate” came from the political capital in the form of votes from the Southern White Christians. Bush emulated his conservative mentor, but took things too far. Bush’s embrace of the Southern White Christians and taking the strict father approach almost literally has contributed to the cultural divide of the nation. Phillips quotes political commentator Bill Schneider “the great civil rights war of the 1960s, a cultural civil war” (Phillips 2006, 140). The cultural civil war is played out in elections. The Reagan Revolution was the first and big blow to liberalism from the Southern White Christians. The compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush would continue Reagan’s strict father approach as well as defend traditional values cherished by Southern White Christians. However the dominance of conservatism as the nation’s ideology would continue to divide the nation.
The Texas conservatism brought to Washington by Bush would not help a nation divided on cultural values. Bush’s Texan conservatism would combine the elements of Reagan’s Western conservatism like the strict father approach, but would contain a strong Southern White Christian base with an agenda to return traditional values to American life. The neo-conservatives would be another aspect of the Texas conservatism brought to Washington in 2001 by Bush. Another aspect of the Bush Administration’s Texas conservatism would be the “go-it-alone” mentality when it came to war, like the invasion of another country.
The “go-it-alone” mentality went along with Lakoff’s notion of Moral Strength which is part of the strict father model. The Moral Strength and strict father model are examples of conservative thought, which goes with the Southern White Christian ideology.
The ideology that came in with the Reagan Revolution to turn back liberalism could be in its last throes beginning with the reelection of Bush in 2004. Bush hoped to emulate his conservative predecessor, he was however futile in his attempt. Bush was not Reagan. Reagan was supported by the Christian Conservatives. Reagan tolerated the Religious Right. Bush embraced the Religious Right. Reagan stood up to the Soviet Unions and prevented the remaining years of the Cold War from turning into a Hot War. Bush invaded a country with support from Great Britain, Spain, and Poland; the Coalition of the Willing. Bush was not a Western conservative. He was a Texan with a “go-it-alone” mentality of the Lone Star State and coupled with the Southern White Christians whose ideology was dominant in American culture, he sought to make the country right with his form of conservatism. His embrace of the Southern White Christian created the image of god anointed politician which contributed to the division of culture in the country. The 2004 election could be seen as the beginning of the epilogue in the Reagan Revolution, the story of conservatism as the nation’s dominant ideology.
Goldberg, Michelle. 2006. Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.
Lakoff, George. 2002. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
Micklethwait, John, and Adrian Wooldridge. 2004. The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America. The Penguin Press: New York.
Phillips, Kevin. 2006. American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed money in the 21st Century. Viking.