, Research Paper
The Fall of the Liberal Consensus
Looking at the United States in 1965, it would seem that the future of the liberal consensus was well entrenched. The anti-war movement was in full swing, civil rights were moving forward, and Johnson’s Great Society was working to alleviate the plight of the poor in America. Yet, by 1968 the liberal consensus had fallen apart, which led to the triumph of conservatism with the election of President Reagan in 1980. The question must be posed, how in the course of 15 years did liberal consensus fall apart and conservatism rise to the forefront? What were the decisive factors that caused the fracturing of what seemed to be such a powerful political force? In looking at the period from 1968 to the triumph of Reagan in 1980, America was shaken to the core by the Watergate scandal, the stalling of economic growth, gas shortages, and the Vietnam War. In an era that included the amount of turbulence that the 1970’s did, it is not difficult to imagine that conservatism come to power. In this paper I will analyze how the liberal consensus went from one of its high points in 1965 to one of its lows in 1968. From there I will show how conservatism rose to power by the 1980 elections. In doing so, I will look at how factors within the American economy, civil rights issues, and political workings of the United States contributed to the fracturing of the liberal consensus and the rise of conservatism.
In order to look at how the liberal consensus went from a high point in 1965 to a low in 1968, I think that it is first important to look at the state of the liberal consensus in 1965. Doing so will provide us with a starting point from which to measure the fracturing and also set up a framework from which we can analyze how and why the fracturing of the liberal consensus occurred. Looking at the 1960’s we can see that by 1965, much progress had been made toward the agenda of the liberal consensus. During President Johnson’s term in office from 1964 to 1968, Johnson had declared a war on poverty. This is made evident when Johnson attempts to attack poverty at its roots. He states,
Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them.
The words of Johnson outline the premise of the liberal consensus, that given the opportunity individuals would work to The “Great Society” programs that were to enable the change, were for the most part enacted under Johnson during his term in office. This stems largely from his experience and power with Congress.
In the context of the liberal consensus the civil rights movement had made some important strides during the 1960’s also. The liberal consensus pushed for the integration of schools to allow for minorities to give themselves the education that they needed to participate equally in the job market. Moreover, the liberal consensus pushed for integration and the ideology that individuals if given equal opportunity would be able to solve the problems of discrimination through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The economy of the United States was the most important issue in solidifying the liberal consensus. From the 1950’s through the 1960’s the United States economy appeared as if it were on an endless track of prosperity. In the 1960’s the United States Gross National Product was up 31%. Murray writes that, “Economists believed that in Keynesian economics they had found the key to perpetual prosperity.” The belief that the economy would continue to grow, fed the belief in the liberal consensus’ ideology that in allowing for free competition in the marketplace not only would economic problems be solved but also the problems of poverty and of civil rights.
With the ideology of the liberal consensus firmly in place in 1965, how could such profound change occur in just three years that marked the fragmentation of the consensus? It was the development of four major issues that caused the fragmentation of the consensus: the Vietnam War, the decline of the economy, and dissatisfaction with the progress of civil rights. These three issues revealed major problems of the American populace toward the liberal consensus, weakening it to the point where it collapsed.
The Vietnam War marked the beginning of the decline of the liberal consensus. Rooted in the ideology of containment, the entrance of the United States in the war in Vietnam was an example of the liberal consensus’ belief that the United States was economically and militarily powerful enough to confront communism and prevent its spread. Hodgson writes,
Here was a political leader (Johnson) in a position of apparently impregnable strength. He had to decide how to spend national resources that were growing at the rate of 5 per cent a year.
With the increase of aggression in Vietnam, the ability to fund the war through the increase in government revenues due to Keynesian economics, and the belief that the United States was capable of easily winning the war in Vietnam, the liberal consensus optimistically increased U.S. participation in the war. The plan for U.S. involvement in Vietnam that was put forth by General Westmoreland called for victory by 1967. However, the plan was overly optimistic. This is evidenced by the North Vietnamese’s Tet offensive in 1968.
From here two major problems arise because of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. First the war diverted funds from the social programs that were intended to stop the problem of poverty in the United States. According to Hodgson,
In the first year (1964), OEO’s budget had been $750 million. In the second year, Congress appropriated $1.5 million. The agency’s own five-year plan envisaged a massive, nationwide community-action strategy with programs in both urban slums and rural depressed areas and a total budget of $3.5 billion. In the new climate, the Administration asked for just half of that figure, or $1.75 billion, and Congress finally appropriated even less: $1.625 billion.
The money that was intended to go to these social programs was diverted to the war in Vietnam. According to Hodgson, “In the whole of the fiscal year that had just ended, the fighting of the war in Southeast Asia had cost $100 million. In May, (of 1965) the Administration had asked for $700 million more. The August and January requests between them came to more than $14 billion.”
With the removal of funding for social programs that garnished support for the liberal consensus, fragmentation began.
The second issue that stems from the Vietnam War is that it diverted attention from the problems of civil rights in the United States. These are questions that were important in the minds of Americans. Hodgson writes, “?How is it’, John Doar was asked from the floor of at the orientation session in Ohio, ?that the government can protect the Vietnamese from the Viet Cong, and the same government will not accept the moral responsibility of protecting the people in Mississippi?” This lack of attention fueled the fragmentation of the civil rights movement into more radical and aggressive forms. One of its most visible and important aspects of the fracturing of the civil rights movement took form in the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, otherwise known as the Black Panther Party. Stokely Carmichael marks the feelings of part of America in reaction to the rise of fragmented civil rights groups such as the Black Panthers when he writes, “as for white America, perhaps it can stop crying out against ?black supremacy,’ ?black nationalism,’ ?racism in reverse,’ and begin facing reality.”
While we now have an understanding of how the fragmentation of the liberal consensus occurred, we still need to look at how this fragmentation gave rise to the conservatism, culminating in the election of Reagan in 1980. In order to do this we must look at how the events of the 1970’s give shape and understanding to the turn from the liberal consensus to conservatism. To do this it is important to look at three specific issues that arose during the 1970’s: the downturn of the American economy, the Watergate scandal, and the rise of materialism.
The downturn of the American economy is probably the most important issue in the rise of conservatism by the 1980 election. From 1969 to 1980 the United States went through three major economic recessions. The effect of this on the rise of conservatism stems from two primary issues: unemployment and the failure of the government to provide economic growth. Unemployment had a large effect on the psyche of the American populace. Hodgson writes that in the 1970’s,
Inflation had taken hold. Recession threatened. The balance-of-payments deficit was horrendous. The United States was becoming ominously dependent on foreign oil and raw materials and on foreign markets. And these objective problems bred new attitudes. For the first time since the thirties, people were no longer sure that corporate business was beneficent. For a generation, it had provided jobs. Now unemployment was beginning to rise Rates of actual unemployment remained fairly low until the energy crisis bit hard in 1973-74. But the unemployment rate, which measures the number of people out of work on a given day seriously underestimates the number of workers with reason to fear for their jobs.
The fact that unemployment was up and that individuals were in fear for their jobs created a backlash against the actions that the liberal consensus took to stem the problems of civil rights and the reaction that had in part caused the fragmentation of the liberal consensus. The backlash is explained by the combination of the Civil Rights Act and the revolutionary views and actions of splinter minority groups. Segments of the American population looked at the Civil Rights Act as giving minorities preference in the hiring process. Combine this with the belief that revolutionary minority groups were viewed as pushing for “black supremacy” and the field is set up for a conservative victory in 1980. This stems from the rhetoric of conservatives. Reagan is pushing for the reduction of the role of government in the public sphere. This includes areas such as civil rights.
Secondly, stemming from the recessions and inflation of the 1970’s there was a distrust of the government, because of the failure of the economy to grow. Conservatives capitalize on this in the 1980 elections. Reagan, in a speech as a presidential candidate, states,
In my administration there should and will be a thorough and systematic review of the thousands of Federal regulations that affect the economy. Along with spending control, tax reform and deregulation, a sound stable and predictable monetary policy is essential to restoring economic health.
Each of these policies is intended to make the economy run smoother and to cause growth in the economy.
The Watergate scandal of the Nixon presidency also plays a major role in rise of conservatism by the 1980 elections. Following the fragmentation of the liberal consensus, Nixon was faced with many opponents to his proposed policies toward Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights, and the environment. With the break in of the Democratic National Headquarters, Nixon was trying to make sure that he was able to breakup any rebuilding of a consensus by the Democratic party of these currently splintered groups, in order to ensure his election. The Watergate scandal had a major effect on the American populace. Namely it created a distrust of big government. This distrust of excessive government power was capitalized on by conservatives. Reagan states, “We must first recognize that the problem with the U.S. economy is swollen, inefficient government, needless regulation, too much taxation, too much printing press money.” This statement shows an inherent distrust of the government’s misuse of power, power which is being abused through too much taxation, regulation, irresponsible monetary controls.
Finally, we can see how the rise of materialism fed the rise of conservatism. President Carter states, “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” The fracturing of the liberal consensus helped to feed the fracturing of “strong families and close-knit communities.” The revolution of ideals and values that caused the fracturing of the liberal consensus necessitated the rejection of traditional values such as strong families and close-knit communities. Because the Carter administration was in power when the crisis of the American spirit became apparent and important in the minds of the American populace, the blame for the situation landed at their feet. This fed into the hands of the conservatives who traditionally valued the importance of the family, hard work, and community as answers to problems in American society. In a writing that extols conservative values, this becomes evident when it states, “The only dependable route from poverty is always work, family, and faith.”
When looking at how the fracturing of the liberal consensus allowed for conservative triumph in 1980, I think that a few major issues can be seen. First, there is little difference in what both the liberal consensus and conservatives see as key issues. Both the liberal consensus and conservatives see the economy as the most important issue in gaining power. However, each side had a different opinion on what was the best way to cause economic growth. While the liberal consensus focused on government control to make the economy run smoothly, conservatives saw deregulation and the removal of as much government control as possible from the economy as key in making it grow. The high costs of the Vietnam War coupled with the economic crises of the 1970’s caused the American populace to look for a new form of economic policy to create economic growth. The conservatives provided this in the 1980 election.
Of secondary importance the civil rights issue played an important role in bringing about the triumph of conservatism. The fractionalization of the Civil Rights Movement, caused a large portion of the American populace to fear continued expansion of civil rights in the direction of splinter groups such as the Black Panthers. Furthermore portions of the American populace saw the development of civil rights as a threat to their jobs, which in a time of recession created an opening for the conservatives to jump on.
And finally, the issue of distrust of government due to the failures of the liberal consensus to stimulate economic growth and the Watergate scandal played into the hands of the conservatives who preached the reduction of government presence in almost all aspects of Americans’ lives. This must have been a strong motivating factor in many “Reagan Democrats” who sided with conservatives in the 1980 election.