Timeline of modern American conservatism

President Reagan and his line chart titled "Your taxes" which shows rising taxes.
Ronald Reagan gives a televised address from the Oval Office, outlining his plan for tax reductions in July 1981 (excerpt)

This timeline of modern American conservatism lists important events, developments and occurrences which have significantly affected conservatism in the United States. With the decline of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party after 1960, the movement is most closely associated with the Republican Party (GOP). Economic conservatives favor less government regulation, lower taxes and weaker labor unions, while social conservatives focus on moral issues and neoconservatives focus on democracy worldwide. Conservatives generally distrust the United Nations (UN) and Europe and, apart from the libertarian wing, favor a strong military and give enthusiastic support to Israel.[1]

Although conservatism has much older roots in American history, the modern movement began to gel in the mid–1930s when intellectuals and politicians collaborated with businessmen to oppose the liberalism of the New Deal, led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), newly energized labor unions, and big city Democratic machines. After World War II that coalition gained strength from new philosophers and writers who developed an intellectual rationale for conservatism.[2]

Richard Nixon's victory in the 1968 presidential election is often considered a realigning election in American politics. From 1932 to 1968, the Democratic Party was obviously the majority party. During that time period, the Democrats had won seven out of nine presidential elections, and their agenda gravely affected that undertaken by the Republican Eisenhower administration. The election of 1968 reversed the situation completely. The Vietnam war split the Democratic Party. White ethnics in the North and white Southerners felt the national Democratic Party had deserted them. The white South has voted Republican at the presidential level since the mid-1960s, and at the state and local level since the 1990s.

In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan solidified conservative Republican strength with tax cuts, greatly increased defense spending, deregulation, a policy of rolling back communism (rather than just containing it), a greatly strengthened military, and appeals to family values and conservative Judeo-Christian morality. His impact has led historians to call the 1980s the "Reagan Era".[3] The Reagan model remains the conservative standard for social, economic and foreign policy issues. In recent years social issues such as abortion, gun control, and gay marriage have become important. Since 2009 the Tea Party Movement has energized conservatives at the local level against the policies made by the presidency of Barack Obama, leading to a Republican landslide in 2010 and again in 2014.

Chronology of events


As the nation plunges into its deepest depression ever, Republicans and conservatives fall into disfavor in 1930, 1932 and 1934, losing more and more of their seats. Liberals (mostly Democrats with a few Republicans and independents) come to power with the landslide 1932 election of liberal Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his first 100 days Roosevelt pushes through a series of dramatic economic programs known as the New Deal.[4]

The major metropolitan newspapers generally opposed the New Deal, as typified by William Randolph Hearst and his chain (Hearst had supported FDR in 1932 but parted ways in 1934.)[5] Robert R. McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune, compared the New Deal to communism. He was also an America First isolationist who strongly opposed entering World War II to rescue the British Empire. McCormick also railed against the League of Nations, the World Court, socialism and communism.[6]

Cartoon of a greedy FDR and diminutive Congress.
1937 cartoon by Joseph L. Parrish in the Chicago Tribunes warning FDR's executive branch reorganization plan is a power grab.
photograph of
Robert A. Taft


map shows GOP landslide in 1946
Party change of House seats in the 1946 GOP landslide
Cartoon book warning of Communist aggression
Warning against communism, 1947


After the war, businessmen opposed to New Deal liberalism read Hayek, fight labor unions, and fund politicized think tanks such as American Enterprise Institute (founded 1943). They promote statewide right-to-work campaigns.[38]

Russell Kirk
Barry Goldwater


Liberalism made major gains after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, as Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) pushed through his liberal Great Society as well as civil rights laws. An unexpected bonanza helped conservatism in the late 1960s as liberalism came under intense attack from the New Left, especially in academe. This new element, says liberal historian Michael Kazin, worked to "topple the corrupted liberal order."[60] For the New Left "liberal" became a nasty epithet. Liberal commentator E. J. Dionne finds that, "If liberal ideology began to crumble intellectually in the 1960s it did so in part because the New Left represented a highly articulate and able wrecking crew."[61]

"A Time for Choosing" Speech

In support of Goldwater in 1964, Reagan delivers the TV address, "A Time for Choosing." The speech made Reagan the leader of movement conservatism
Duration 29:33
Date October 27, 1964 (1964-10-27)
Location Los Angeles, CA, United States
Also known as "The Speech"
Type Televised campaign speech
Participants Ronald Reagan
Website Video clip, audio, transcript

Movement conservatism emerges as grassroots activists react to liberal and New Left agendas. It develops a structure that supports Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1976–80. By the late 1970s, local evangelical churches join the movement.[62][63] Liberalism faces a racial crisis nationwide. Within weeks of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights law, "long hot summers" begin, lasting until 1970, with the worst outbreaks coming in the summer of 1967. Nearly 400 racial disorders in 298 cities saw blacks attacking shopkeepers and police, and looting stores.[64] Meanwhile, the urban crime rates shoot up. Demands for "law and order" escalate and the backlash causes disillusionment among working class whites with the liberalism of the Democratic Party.[65]

In the mid-1960s the GOP debates race and civil rights intensely. Republican liberals, led by Nelson Rockefeller, argue for a strong federal role because it was morally right and politically advantageous. Conservatives call for a more limited federal presence and discount the possibility of significant black voter support. Nixon avoids race issues in 1968.[66]

title screen
Highlights of the 1960 Republican convention in Chicago, Illinois. July 1960.
magazine cover
Cover of Modern Age, Fall 1960.
young girl picking flowers
The controversial "Daisy" Johnson TV commercial in 1964 attacks Goldwater foreign policy as inviting nuclear war[76]
Reagan speaks for Goldwater 1964
In support of Goldwater, Reagan delivers the address, "A Time for Choosing." The speech launches Reagan to national prominence.[78]
electoral map
Presidential Election, 1964. Goldwater only won his home state of Arizona and five states in the Deep South.
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue![81]
electoral map of the United States
1968 presidential election results. Red denotes states won by Nixon/Agnew, Blue denotes those won by Humphrey/Muskie. Purple denotes states won by Wallace/LeMay.


Historians Meg Jacobs and Julian Zelizer argue that the 1970s were characterized by "a vast shift toward social and political conservatism," as well as a sharp decline in the proportion of voters who identified with liberalism.[99] Neoconservatism emerges as liberals become disenchanted with Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society welfare programs. They increasingly focus on foreign policy, especially anti-communism, and support for Israel and for democracy in the Third World.[100]

While Nixon continues to antagonize and anger liberals, many of his programs upset conservatives. His foreign policy with Henry Kissinger focuses on détente with the USSR and China, and becomes a main target of conservatives. Nixon is uninterested in tax cuts or deregulation, but he does use executive orders and presidential authority to impose price and wage controls, expand the welfare state, require Affirmative Action, grow the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, and create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).[101]

line chart showing logarithmic increase
Number of CPAC attendees over time
photograph of two men
William Buckley (left) and Ronald Reagan were two of the most visible conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s; 1986 photo
picture of 1000s of people
Washington For Jesus, Washington D.C., 1980
Ronald Reagan at podium with dignartaries behind
First inaugural address of Ronald Reagan, 1981 (audio only)


The decade is marked by the rise of the Christian right and the Reagan Revolution.[129] A priority of Reagan's administration is the rollback of Soviet communism in Latin America, Africa and worldwide.[130] Reagan bases his economic policy, dubbed "Reaganomics", on supply-side economics.[131]

"Evil Empire"
Ronald Reagan delivers "Evil Empire" speech on March 8, 1983

"Tear down this wall"
Complete speech by Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987.



photograph of a man in judge robe
Clarence Thomas

Conservative think tanks 1990–97 mobilize to challenge the legitimacy of global warming as a social problem. They challenge the scientific evidence, argue that global warming will have benefits, and warn that proposed solutions would do more harm than good.[156]

"Read my lips: no new taxes"
George H.W. Bush speaking about taxes at the 1988 Republican National Convention

Legislation Result
Welfare reform Passed
Term limits for Congressmen Did not pass
Balanced budget amendment Did not pass
Increase rights of victims of crime Passed
Pro-family tax credits Passed
Decrease United States role in UN Did not pass
Capital gains tax cut Passed
Limit punitive damages on product liability Passed, but vetoed
photograph of building at street level
Fox News building on 48th Street, New York City


The terror attack on September 11, 2001 reorients the administration towards foreign policy and terrorism issues, providing an opportunity for neoconservatives to have a greater influence on foreign policy. The Bush Doctrine leads to long-term interventions in Afghanistan (2001 to present) and Iraq (2003–2011).[171]

On the domestic front Bush promises compassionate conservatism and works to improve education, address poverty nationwide, increase financial aid to poor countries and help alleviate AIDS in Africa.[172]

man at lectern in front of an American flag
At a joint session of Congress President Bush pledges to defend America's freedom against the fear of terrorism, a policy known as the Bush Doctrine. September 20, 2001. (audio only)
photograph of woman at lectern
Sarah Palin addresses the 2008 Republican National Convention
photograph of a throng of people holding signs
YES on 8 rally in Fresno, California
photograph of thousands of people some holding American flags
Taxpayer March on Washington, 2009


Numerous historians after 1990 re-examined the role of conservatism in recent American history, according it much greater importance than before.[193] One school of thought rejects the older consensus that liberalism was the dominant ethos. Instead it argues conservatism dominated American politics since the 1920s, with the brief exceptions of the New Deal era (1933–36) and the Great Society (1963–66).[194] However Historian Julian Zelizer argues that "liberalism survived the rise of conservatism."[195]

electoral map of the United States
2010 House election results. Dark blue denotes Democratic hold, Blue denotes Democratic gain, Dark red denotes Republican hold, Red denotes Republican gain.

See also




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