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The Presidency and Grassroots Conservatism

Recasting American Presidential History in the Classroom > The Presidency and Grassroots Conservatism

The Watergate scandal immediately hurt the Republican Party electorally. In 1974, Democrats picked up forty-nine seats in the House of Representatives and five seats in the Senate. Two years later, a little-known governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, won the presidency by making a promise to never lie to the American people. The “Watergate Babies” in Congress pushed to reform a political system that had given the president too much power and vowed to reassert the power of the legislative branch to prevent future abuses of authority by the executive branch. As president, Jimmy Carter faced a cynical electorate. Many Americans felt that Watergate was not just about Richard Nixon. Rather, they felt it exposed a federal government that had become too powerful in the lives of individuals. The New Deal and its Great Society successor had drastically expanded the authority of the federal government and the responsibility of the chief executive to provide solutions to public problems. Yet corruption, high taxes, and frequent bureaucratic overlap began to frustrate the American people, particularly during the 1970s when inflation began spiraling while wages remained stagnant.

Image source: History.com. Learn more about the 1973 gas crisis.

Ronald Reagan giving his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Detroit, Michigan. 7/17/80. Souce: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

But, as scholars have noted, this political and economic environment benefitted grassroots conservatives, who had been building a movement for the past two decades.1 Nixon’s resignation made people distrust government even more and helped to usher the conservative movement into a position of power. Modern conservatism, a political ideology famously articulated in Barry Goldwater’s manifesto The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), gained intellectual, financial, and political strength in the wake of Watergate. The crisis in the presidency became an opportunity for well-organized and well-funded conservatives to take over the Republican Party and win the presidency with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Though an effective spokesperson for the movement, Reagan’s ascension to the White House was a culmination of decades of organizing by many. Moreover, his presidency brought the challenge of governing to the man who famously declared government the problem, rather than the solution. This section allows students to examine the development of modern conservatism and how conservatives tackled the process of governance once in power.

Building a Conservative Movement   

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Over the past decade, political historians have examined the individuals, institutions, and networks that conservative activists built during the post-WWII period as an alternative to the dominant political and economic establishment.2 Throughout the Sunbelt and in suburban neighborhoods, businessmen, housewives, evangelicals, anticommunists, and libertarians began to organize in local and national politics. As historian Kim Phillips-Fein writes, it was both a diverse social and political movement, in which a “small group of committed activists and intellectuals ultimately managed to win a mass following and a great deal of influence in the Republican Party” by articulating messages of “anticommunism, a laissez-faire approach to economics, opposition to the civil rights movement and commitment to traditional sexual norms.”3 This section encourages students to consider the ideological and institutional organizations that grassroots conservatives built during the 1960s and 1970s to build a network of conservative activists that transformed the Republican Party and brought Ronald Reagan to the White House. 

Secondary Sources:

  • Meg Jacobs and Julian Zelizer. Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years 1981–1989. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010).

  • Darren Dochuck, “There Will Be Oil: Presidents, Wildcat Religion, and the Culture Wars of Pipeline Politics,” in Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency, eds. Brian Balogh and Bruce J. Schulman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 93–107.

  • Nicole Hemmer, “The Conservative War on Media has a Long History,” The Atlantic, January 17, 2014.

Primary Sources:

Discussion Questions:

  • How do conservative political, cultural, and economic beliefs become entwined in the debates about oil that Darren Dochuck examines, or media, as Nicole Hemmer explores?

  • What criticisms do conservatives offer of the political, cultural, and economic establishment? How do organizations like National Review, The Heritage Foundation, and the Conservative Political Action Committee channel these frustrations into an organized political movement?

  • How does Reagan integrate conservative ideology into his inaugural address?

Conservatives in Power

Though the 1980 election constituted a triumph of the New Right network in mobilizing millions of Americans to cast a vote for Ronald Reagan, the close race and the election of a Democratic Congress showed that Americans approached conservatism cautiously. As historians Meg Jacobs and Julian Zelizer note, “successful as a campaign platform in 1980 and 1984, and soaring as political rhetoric, Reagan’s antigovernment and anti-Communist ideology was hard to translate into a lasting shift to the right in American politics and policy in the popular mind-set.” 4  

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Since the New Deal, Congress had passed legislation that powerfully expanded the role of the federal government in providing social services for the American people, and these policies were deeply embedded in American society.  The Democratic-controlled Congress forced the Reagan administration to deploy alternative tools of governance to achieve conservative goals—especially using executive power and transforming the bureaucracy and the judicial system with conservative appointees.  But, as historian Robert Self argues, Reagan’s “cautious and pragmatic” approach to governance especially frustrated “movement conservatives,”—those activists whose defining issues revolved around “opposition to abortion, homosexuality, the Equal Rights Amendment, federal interference with public schools (on issues ranging from racial segregation to prayer), pornography, sex education, crime and welfare.”5

Discussion Activity

This section gives students an opportunity to examine the variety of strategies conservatives used to govern from the White House. Divide students into four groups and have them research different strategies of governance and prepare a presentation to the classroom that answers the following questions:

  • Why did the Reagan White House pursue this strategy?

  • How effective was this strategy?

  • What criticism did it incur? What praises did it incur?

  • What does this illuminate about the challenge of governance that conservatives faced? 

Suggested Readings

  • Robert O. Self, “The Reagan Devolution: Movement Conservatives and the Right’s Days of Rage, 1988–1994,” in Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency, eds. Brian Balogh and Bruce J. Schulman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 75–92.

  • Primary sources in Meg Jacobs and Julian Zelizer. Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years 1981–1989. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010).

Group 1: The Legislative Battle for Tax Cuts

On August 13, 1981, Ronald Reagan signed the 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act at his California ranch.

President Ronald Reagan Signs the 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act and Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act at Rancho Del Cielo in California. Source: Ronald Reagan Library, through presidentialcollections.org.

This legislation was the product of compromises and negotiations with Democratic leaders who controlled Congress. Using the following documents, identify the strategies that Reagan used to push this legislation through Congress.

Group 2: Social Issues and the Judicial Battle

Reagan relied on social conservatives to win the 1980 election, but as president, he frustrated these conservatives with his lukewarm action in support of the Human Rights Amendments introduced in Congress. Reagan, however, did attempt to influence the judiciary with his appointment of socially conservative judges who ascribed to a conservative political ideology.  These appointees significantly impacted judicial approaches toward abortion and criminal sentences for drug crimes. Using the following sources, identify the strategies Reagan used to influence the federal judiciary and the implications of this strategy.

Group 3: Foreign Policy and Executive Authority

Reagan campaigned on the slogan, “peace through strength” during the 1980 election. His concern about cutting budgets and reducing the role of government did not apply to foreign policy, however.  As president, Reagan focused time and money on building up the military and expanding the national security state at home and abroad. Using the following sources, examine how President Reagan waged the Cold War in public and behind the scenes with his advisors and the debate about nuclear freeze that shapes public demonstrations about his foreign policy.

Group 4: Remaking the Federal Bureaucracy

As Meg Jacobs and Julian Zelizer note, Congressional stalemate made White House conservatives rethink how to achieve their legislative agenda, and, as a result, they pushed for the “buildup of executive power.” By staffing the federal bureaucracy with conservatives, Reagan’s administration hoped to “exert greater influence in how government functioned and push policy to the right.”6 In policy decisions formulated by the Federal Communications Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission, this strategy worked to rescind the regulatory power of these agencies and promote a “free market” approach to governance. Using the following sources, have students examine how White House appointees promoted deregulatory policies.

  • “Report of the Working Group of the Task Force on Telecommunications Policy.”  Folder- Telecommunications Policy- Working Group, Box 9, Wendell W. Gunn Files, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

  • Discussion of Telecommunications with Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Mark Fowler. February 26, 1982.

  • Document 22 in Conservatives in Power, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, “Completing the Reagan Revolution,” July 8, 1986.

Research Activity: The Reagan Legacy

Robert Self argues that “the art of politics, and perhaps especially the art of presidential politics, lies in the continual recalibration of public memory.”7 In the final days of his presidency, C-SPAN aired the series, “The Reagan Legacy,” which brought journalists, politicians, and scholars into a conversation with television viewers about the changes Ronald Reagan brought to the White House. The series featured thirty episodes, each of which explored a different aspect of Reagan’s legacy. Have each student examine one episode and the particular legacy the participants believed Ronald Reagan would leave.

http://www.c-span.org/search/?sponsorid[]=4022

Since his presidency, every four-year election cycle has involved Republican presidential hopefuls positioning themselves as “the recognized inheritors of his forthright conservatism.” Using the C-SPAN Video Library, find an example of how contenders for the Republican presidential nomination used the Reagan legacy for political gain.

  • How does this compare to the legacy discussed in the 1988 Reagan Legacy series?

  • How has the public memory of Ronald Reagan been “recalibrated” during the 2016 presidential election?

Footnotes
  1. Bruce Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics.(Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002).

  2. The historiography of modern conservatism is captured thoroughly in a recent roundtable discussion in the Journal of American History. “Conservatism: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History Vol. 98, No. 3, (2011), 723–743.

  3. Kim Phillips-Fein, “Conservatism: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History Vol. 98, No. 3, (2011), 727.

  4. Meg Jacobs and Julian Zelizer. Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years 1981–1989. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010), 2.

  5. Robert O. Self, “The Reagan Devolution: Movement Conservatives and the Right’s Days of Rage, 1988–1994,” in eds. Brian Balogh and Bruce J. Schulman, Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 75.

  6. Zelizer and Jacobs, Conservatives in Power,  38.

  7. Robert O. Self, “The Reagan Devolution: Movement Conservatives and the Right’s Days of Rage, 1988–1994,” in eds. Brian Balogh and Bruce J. Schulman, Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 75.

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