The New Right

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Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 2001
American Decades
From: American Decades(Vol. 9: 1980-1989. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1420L

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Resurgence of Conservatism

Conservatism went into a temporary decline after Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide victory over conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in the presidential election of 1964 and the accompanying defeat of many conservative senators and House members, but a "New Right" emerged as a potent force in American politics during the late 1970s and early 1980s, reenergized by the increasing hostility of U.S.-Soviet relations in the late 1970s. Conservatism was also bolstered by a reaction to the social upheavals that accompanied the civil rights and antiwar movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The New Right pointed to the sexual revolution and the hippie drug culture as proof of the break-down in traditional social values. They decried the rapid expansion of government power that began in the mid 1960s, labeling federal initiatives such as busing for school desegregation, affirmative-action programs, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, sex education in the schools, and increasing environmental regulation as intrusions on individual freedoms. Furthermore, they blamed the decline of the U.S. economy throughout the 1970s on overspending for the Great Society social programs instituted by President Johnson in the 1960s.

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Newly elected President George Bush tapped former Texas senator John Tower to be his secretary of defense on 16 December 1988. A conservative Republican, Tower had served in the Senate from 1961 to 1985, and from 1981 to 1985 he had chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee. He had also been President Ronald Reagan's chief negotiator for the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in 1985-1986, and in 1987 he had chaired the special presidential commission that investigated the Iran-Contra affair. In 1986-1987 he had also been a consultant to four major defense contractors.

After Tower's nomination rumors of alcohol abuse and womanizing began to surface. At a 31 January Senate hearing Paul Weyrich, a longtime conservative activist with close ties to the religious right, questioned Tower's moral character and fitness for the appointment. Other critics questioned Tower's close ties to the defense industry and suggested that he might have conflict-of-interest problems if he had to make decisions regarding contracts with his former employers. Tower responded that he would avoid such conflicts by delegating any decisions about contracts with those companies.

In early February suggestions that Tower had leaked information about the START talks to interested defense contractors and questions about defense-industry campaign contributions made to Tower while he chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee resulted in an FBI probe. After President Bush excluded Democratic committee members when he briefed their Republican counter-parts on the results of the FBI investigation, the deliberations over Tower's nomination took a decidedly partisan turn. On 23 February the Armed Services Committee voted 11 to 9 along party lines against the nomination.

The Bush administration decided to stand by the Tower nomination and took the battle to the full Senate, where the debate became rancorous and increasingly partisan. On 9 March 1989 the Senate voted 47 to 53 against Tower with only three Democrats supporting him and only one Republican opposing him. It was the first rejection of a president's initial nomination for a cabinet post in history. Despite the fact that the earliest attacks on Tower had come from the religious right, his defeat was largely blamed on the Democrats.


"Tower Nomination Spurned By Senate," Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 45 (1989): 403-411.

The Old "New Right."

The term New Right is really a misnomer. Many of the leaders of the resurgent conservative movement had been part of conservative efforts in the 1960s. Howard Phillips, Patrick Buchanan, Richard Viguerie, and John Terry Dolan had been among the founding members of the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) in the 1960s. Along with other conservative activists of the 1980s—including Phyllis Schlafly, Robert Weyrich, and Phillip Crane—they had helped to secure the Republican nomination for Goldwater in 1964 and then worked in his presidential campaign. Moreover, the political message of the "New Right" was little different from that of the "Old Right" of the 1950s and 1960s. Both were militantly anticommunist. Both were libertarian in their approach to the relationship between the government and the economy; that is, they opposed taxation, government spending, and government social programs. Both emphasized traditional morality and maintenance of the community.

Supply-Side Economics

While conservatives have always favored cuts in programs and spending, as well as a balanced budget, they found these policies difficult to sell to the American people, many of whom considered the economic consequences to be painful. What the New Right brought to the traditional perspective was the theory of supply-side economics, which suggested that tax cuts would stimulate the economy sufficiently to offset the loss of tax revenues with increased federal income generated by economic growth. According to this theory, traditional conservative policies such as balancing the budget might be accomplished much less painfully than previously expected. Thus, supply-side economics made fiscal conservatism seem politically palatable to many voters.

Opposing "Secular" Values

The New Right placed much greater emphasis on moral and social issues than conservatives had in the 1960s. During the 1980s their emphasis on personal morality issues had political resonance with a public concerned with issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion. Conservatives charged that a liberal elite dominated government and threatened the authority and influence of parents by promoting "secular values" such as abortion, sex education, and distribution of birth control information (and condoms) in the schools.

The New Religious Right

The conservatives' new emphasis on social issues provided a powerful means to attract and politicize traditionally apolitical evangelical Christians, leading to the emergence of the new religious right. Demographically, evangelical Christians constituted a larger and larger portion of the American religious framework over the years between 1960 and 1980. In 1963, 23 percent of Americans identified themselves as "born-again" Christians. By 1978 that number had grown to 40 percent. By the end of the 1970s some 50 million Americans had links to evangelical religious organizations, constituting a large base with the potential to be mobilized in support of conservative positions in politics.

Political Televangelism

Throughout the first six decades of the twentieth century the evangelical churches had stressed the separation of church and state and labeled the political order as corrupt. In the 1970s they reverted to the nineteenth-century view that the church should provide leadership in infusing the political realm with Christian values. Longtime right-wing activists Howard Phillips and Robert Weyrich turned to the televangelists and to the pastors of so-called super-churches (individual churches with more than twenty thousand members) for help in recruiting and training the new religious right. Helped by a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule that allowed broadcasting stations to count paid religious broadcasts as part of their public service programming, televangelists reached millions of people. By the 1980s they had almost a monopoly on religious airtime. The most political of these televangelists were Rev. Jerry Falwell with his Old Time Gospel Hour and Rev. Marion G. "Pat" Robertson with his 700 Club. Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network was the fifth largest cable network.

Grassroots Activism

Under the tutelage of Weyrich and Phillips, Falwell founded the Moral Majority; Robertson started the Christian Voice; and another televangelist, James Robison, established the Religious Roundtable as organizations designed to provide a political outlet for evangelical Christianity. In contrast to the politically conservative religious leaders of the 1960s, the new religious right used its television access and mailing lists of donors to found and finance grassroots political organizations that mobilized a new cadre of highly dedicated voters.

RAVCO and the Computerized Mailing List

The use of computerized mailing lists to raise funds and mobilize support for specific conservative causes was perfected by Richard Viguerie. The computer allowed him to tailor appeals to different subgroups on a mailing list and thus to generate the maximum desired response to a mailing. Viguerie built his company, RAVCO, into a multimillion-dollar business that generated millions of dollars and mobilized substantial support for conservative groups and causes.

Corporate Conservatism

Another factor in the emergence of the New Right was the development during the 1970s of a conscious and organized corporate conservatism. While corporate America had long been fiscally conservative, big business had been supporting think tanks and research organizations across the political spectrum. Moreover, corporate contributions to politicians had been primarily pragmatic rather than ideological, tending to support incumbents regardless of their party affiliation.

The Business Roundtable

A strong voice for deregulation and fiscal conservatism during the 1980s was the Business Roundtable, founded in 1972-1973. Especially effective in the political arena, the Roundtable organized the chief executives of large corporations to lobby congressmen and senators directly rather than relying solely on paid lobbyists. The group established task forces that generated research reports and publicity on economic-policy positions, and it also developed and promoted pro-Big Business teaching materials for use by elementary-and secondary-school teachers.

Business PACs

During the 1970s a change in the campaign-finance laws limited the size of individual donations to particular campaigns but did not place such limitations on the political action committees (PACs). The result was a dramatic increase in the number of business PACs. In the early 1970s labor PACs were more numerous than business PACs, but by the early 1980s business PACs outnumbered labor PACs by 2 to 1. Business PACs such as the Business Roundtable helped to coordinate the flow of money to business-oriented PACs, which increasingly applied a conservative litmus test for the candidates to whom they gave their money.

Conservative Think Tanks

By the 1980s corporate donors were shifting away from liberal and moderate think tanks to support more conservative ones. When beer maker Joseph Coors helped to found the Heritage Foundation in 1973, it was worth a few hundred thousand dollars; by 1983 it was operating with a budget of $10.6 million. The American Enterprise Institute, which had promoted conservative ideas since the 1940s, had its budget grow from $0.9 million in 1970 to $10.6 million in 1983. The Hoover Institute, a conservative think tank at Stanford University, almost had to close its doors in the 1960s, but by 1983 it was operating with an annual budget of $8.4 million. Foundations such as the John M. Olin Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation poured financial support into conservative academic research, especially the projects of supply-side economists. All these efforts helped to push conservative ideas into the mainstream political debate, as they provided a steady flow of policy papers. Many of the top appointees of the Reagan administration came from conservative think tanks.

The Eclipse of the New Right

A potent force in Ronald Reagan's victory in the 1980 presidential election and an important source of ideas and conservative personnel for his administration, the New Right was nonetheless in disarray by the end of the 1980s. In its later years—with the Iran-Contra scandal and an investigation into questionable ethical practices of Attorney General Edwin Meese, among the most ideologically conservative of Reagan's appointees—the Reagan administration was troubled. Republicans had lost control of the Senate in 1986. Many of the leading New Right groups were in debt, and Viguerie's company was in financial difficulty. The Reagan administration's failure to win congressional confirmation for Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987 and congressional rejection of President George Bush's appointment of conservative former senator John Tower as secretary of defense in 1989 were evidence of a loss of power on the New Right.

The East-West Thaw

The demise of communism and the freeing of eastern Europe in the late 1980s made the militant anticommunism of the New Right seem anachronistic. They were left with their economic agenda and with their emphasis on those social issues that had a particular resonance with the religious right. The continuing organizational strength of the new religious right was evident in Pat Robertson's ability to mobilize evangelical Christians on his behalf as he challenged George Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Yet his failure to take control of the Republican Party machinery in several key states illustrated his inability to mobilize a substantial following outside his core group of supporters. In 1989 Robertson helped to found the Christian Coalition to articulate concerns of the religious right in the political arena and to mobilize supporters for political campaigns. They continued to be a potent force in Republican politics into the 1990s.


David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988);

William H. Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II, second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991);

Jerome L. Himmelstein, To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468303072