Modern history

Conclusion: The Conservative Legacy

The defeat of George Bush in 1992 did not signal the end of the conservative political consensus of the previous twenty years. The Nixon-Reagan-Bush era had succeeded in dismantling most of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and what it did not disassemble these Republican administrations starved by underfunding. President Reagan managed to reorient the political discourse in the country by turning liberalism into an outmoded idea and a pejorative label. The conservatism that Reagan had rallied behind in the unsuccessful Goldwater campaign of 1964 now provided the political instrument with which Republicans defeated Democrats. The Democratic presidential administration of Jimmy Carter acknowledged the conservative notions of limited government and a deregulated market economy while embracing key conservative social values, such as faith in God and prayer. Both Carter and Bill Clinton, who won in 1992, departed from conservatives on some key issues concerning the economy, race, and gender, but neither of them portrayed himself as the heir of the liberal ideals promoted by Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson.

The movement toward conservatism had been slow and sporadic. Nixon’s pragmatic course and his downfall following the Watergate scandal stalled the march toward greater conservatism, and indeed his expediency angered many conservatives to his political right. Reagan represented the triumph of the New Right and transformed the politics of resentment toward the excesses of the 1960s into the politics of revivalism, convincing many that traditional values once again might guide the nation. In constructing this winning coalition, Reagan tapped into the political awakening of the Christian Right, led by evangelicals and Catholics.

The conservative political ascendancy, however, did not stifle dissent. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, Democrats controlled Congress and tried to restrain conservative presidents. The Supreme Court shifted in a more conservative direction, but the Court did not reject the precedents established by the Warren Court. Conservative justices limited controversial decisions on affirmative action and abortion but did not overturn their constitutional foundations. Civil rights reformers, feminists, environmentalists, and antinuclear activists continued to press their concerns and achieve victories.

The New Right bestowed a mixed legacy. Although the Reagan administration reduced inflation and revived economic growth, it burdened the country with unsupportable budget deficits that damaged economic growth and international trade. Tax and spending cuts further enriched the wealthy but hurt the poor and the middle class. Fiscal and monetary policies encouraged widespread speculation on Wall Street and increased the power of giant corporations over political and economic life. Americans learned about the dangers to the environment, took some measures to correct them, but generally refused to alter their lifestyles. African Americans and women broke through barriers that denied them equal access to education and politics, but they confronted white male opposition to further progress.

Yet ordinary people of all backgrounds still made a difference. Allan Bakke was not a conservative ideologue, but his desire to go to medical school helped reshape affirmative action and stimulate a controversy that lasted far beyond his graduation from medical school. Anita Hill rode the conservative wave that brought Reagan to power. However, when she was subjected to sexual harassment, she broke ranks with conservatives and testified against the nomination of Clarence Thomas. Her assertions failed to derail his appointment to the Supreme Court, but her testimony encouraged more women to challenge sexual harassment.

Conservative successes on the home front did not take place in a vacuum. The rise of conservatism coincided with political shifts taking place in the United Kingdom and West Germany. Moreover, conservatives came to power amid major changes occurring in foreign affairs, most notably the proliferation and then the cessation of the Cold War.

Chapter Review


Identify and explain the significance of each term below.

New Right (p. 704)

Vietnamization (p. 704)

Pentagon Papers (p. 705)

War Powers Act (p. 705)

Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) (p. 706)

Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) (p. 706)

affirmative action (p. 707)

Watergate (p. 708)

Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) (p. 713)

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (p. 714)

neoconservatives (p. 718)

Reaganomics (p. 719)

acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) (p. 722)


Answer the focus questions from each section of the chapter.

1. Who made up the New Right coalition that brought Nixon to power? How did Nixon appeal to the New Right?

2. How did Nixon's pragmatism shape both his foreign and domestic policies?

3. What issues and trends shaped the presidency of Jimmy Carter?

4. How and why did the social and cultural developments of the 1960s continue to create conflict and controversy in the 1970s?

5. What was reaganomics, and what were its most important long-term consequences?

6. How did conservative ideas shape the social, cultural, and political landscape of the 1980s and 1990s?



• Nixon orders invasion of Cambodia

• Four students shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State University

• Congress repeals Gulf of Tonkin Resolution


• Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created

• New York Times and Washington Post publish the Pentagon Papers


• Nixon visits China

• U.S. and Soviet Union sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I)

• Watergate break-in


• Endangered Species Act passed

• Congress passes the War Powers Act

• U.S. supports Israel in Yom Kippur War

• U.S. agrees to withdraw from Vietnam


• OPEC oil embargo against the United States creates gas shortages


• Nixon resigns


• North Vietnam defeats South Vietnam


• Department of Energy created


• Proposition 13 passed in California

• Allan Bakke wins his affirmative action case


• Divorce rate peaks at 23 divorces per 1,000 married couples

• Moral Majority founded

• Three Mile Island nuclear accident


• Reagan fires striking air traffic controllers

• Reagan survives assassination attempt


• Ratification period expires for Equal Rights Amendment


• Senate confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas

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