Episode 41: Rise of Conservatism Hi, I’m John Green, this is CrashCourse
U.S. history and today we’re going to–Nixon?–we’re going to talk about the rise of conservatism.
So Alabama, where I went to high school, is a pretty conservative state and reliably sends
Republicans to Washington. Like, both of its Senators, Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby,
are Republicans. But did you know that Richard Shelby used to be a Democrat, just like basically
all of Alabama’s Senators since reconstruction? And this shift from Democrat to Republican
throughout the South is the result of the rise in conservative politics in the 1960s
and 1970s that we are going to talk about today. And along the way, we get to put Richard
Nixon’s head in a jar. Stan just informed me that we don’t actually
get to put Richard Nixon’s head in a jar. It’s just a Futurama joke. And now I’m
sad. So, you’ll remember from our last episode
that we learned that not everyone in the 1960s was a psychedelic rock-listening, war-protesting
hippie. In fact, there was a strong undercurrent of conservative thinking that ran throughout
the 1960s, even among young people. And one aspect of this was the rise of free
market ideology and libertarianism. Like, since the 1950s, a majority of Americans had
broadly agreed that “free enterprise” was a good thing and should be encouraged
both in the U.S. and abroad. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, and also in deep space
where no man has gone before? No, MFTP. You’re thinking of the Starship
Enterprise, not free enterprise. And anyway, Me From The Past, have you ever
seen a more aggressively communist television program than “The Neutral Zone” from Star
Trek: The Next Generation’s first season? I don’t think so.
intro Alright so, in the 1950s a growing number
of libertarians argued that unregulated capitalism and individual autonomy were the essence of
American freedom. And although they were staunchly anti-communist, their real target was the
regulatory state that had been created by the New Deal. You know, social security, and
not being allowed to, you know, choose how many pigs you kill, etc.
Other conservatives weren’t libertarians at all but moral conservatives who were okay
with the rules that enforced traditional notions of family and morality. Even if that seemed
like, you know, an oppressive government. For them virtue was the essence of America.
But both of these strands of conservatism were very hostile toward communism and also
to the idea of “big government.” And it’s worth noting that since World War
I, the size and scope of the federal government had increased dramatically.
And hostility toward the idea of “big government” remains the signal feature of contemporary
conservatism. Although very few people actually argue for shrinking the government. Because,
you know, that would be very unpopular. People like Medicare.
But it was faith in the free market that infused the ideology of the most vocal young conservatives
in the 1960s. They didn’t receive nearly as much press
as their liberal counterparts but these young conservatives played a pivotal role in reshaping
the Republican Party, especially in the election of 1964.
The 1964 presidential election was important in American history precisely because it was
so incredibly uncompetitive. I mean, Lyndon Johnson was carrying the torch
of a wildly popular American president who had been assassinated a few months before.
He was never going to lose. And indeed he didn’t. The republican candidate,
Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, was demolished by LBJ.
But the mere fact of Goldwater’s nomination was a huge conservative victory. I mean, he
beat out liberal Republican New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. And yes, there were liberal
Republicans. Goldwater demanded a harder line in the Cold
War, even suggesting that nuclear war might be an option in the fight against communism.
And he lambasted the New Deal liberal welfare state for destroying American initiative and
individual liberty. I mean, why bother working when you could just enjoy life on the dole?
I mean, unemployment insurance allowed anyone in America to become a hundredaire.
But it was his stance on the Cold War that doomed his candidacy. In his acceptance speech,
Goldwater famously declared, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
Which made it really easy for Johnson to paint Goldwater as an extremist.
In the famous “Daisy” advertisement, Johnson’s supporters countered Goldwater’s campaign
slogan of “in your heart, you know he’s right” with “but in your guts you know
he’s nuts.” So in the end, Goldwater received a paltry
27 million votes to Johnson’s 43 million, and Democrats racked up huge majorities in
both houses of Congress. This hides, however, the significance of the election. Five of
the six states that Goldwater carried were in the Deep South, which had been reliably
democratic, known as the “Solid South,” in fact.
Now, it’s too simple to say that race alone led to the shift from Democratic to the Republican
party in the South because Goldwater didn’t really talk much about race.
But the Democrats, especially under LBJ, became the party associated with defending civil
rights and ending segregation, and that definitely played a role in white southerners’ abandoning
the Democrats, as was demonstrated even more clearly in the 1968 election.
The election of 1968 was a real cluster-Calhoun, I mean, there were riots and there was also
the nomination of Hubert Humphrey, who was very unpopular with the anti-war movement,
and also was named Hubert Humphrey, and that’s just what happened with the Democrats.
But, lost in that picture was the Republican nominee, Richard Milhous Nixon, who was one
of the few candidates in American history to come back and win the presidency after
losing in a previous election. How’d he do it?
Well, it probably wasn’t his charm, but it might have been his patience. Nixon was
famous for his ability to sit and wait in poker games. It made him very successful during
his tour of duty in the South Pacific. In fact, he earned the nickname “Old Iron Butt.”
Plus, he was anti-communist, but didn’t talk a lot about nuking people. And the clincher
was probably that he was from California, which by the late 1960s was becoming the most
populous state in the nation. Nixon won the election, campaigning as the
candidate of the “silent majority” of Americans who weren’t anti-war protesters,
and who didn’t admire free love or the communal ideals of hippies.
And who were alarmed at the rights that the Supreme Court seemed to be expanding, especially
for criminals. This silent majority felt that the rights
revolution had gone too far. I mean, they were concerned about the breakdown in traditional
values and in law and order. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
Nixon also promised to be tough on crime, which was coded language to whites in the
south that he wouldn’t support civil rights protests. The equation of crime with African
Americans has a long and sordid history in the United States, and Nixon played it up
following a “Southern strategy” to further draw white Democrats who favored segregation
into the Republican ranks. Now, Nixon only won 43% of the vote, but if
you’ve paid attention to American history, you know that you ain’t gotta win a majority
to be the president. He was denied that majority primarily by Alabama
Governor George Wallace, who was running on a pro-segregation ticket and won 13% of the
vote. So 56% of American voters chose candidates
who were either explicitly or quietly against civil rights.
Conservatives who voted for Nixon hoping he would roll back the New Deal were disappointed.
I mean, in some ways the Nixon domestic agenda was just a continuation of LBJ’s Great Society.
This was partly because Congress was still in the hands of Democrats, but also Nixon
didn’t push for conservative programs and he didn’t veto new initiatives. Because
they were popular. And he liked to be popular. So in fact, a number of big government “liberal”
programs began under Nixon. I mean, the environmental movement achieved success with the enactment
of the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board
were created to make new regulations that would protect worker safety and make cars
safer. That’s not government getting out of our
lives, that’s government getting into our cars.
Now, Nixon did abolish the Office of Economic Opportunity, but he also indexed social security
benefits to inflation and he proposed the Family Assistance Plan that would guarantee
a minimum income for all Americans. And, the Nixon years saw some of the most
aggressive affirmative action in American history. LBJ had begun the process by requiring
recipients of federal contracts to have specific numbers of minority employees and timetables
for increasing those numbers. But Nixon expanded this with the Philadelphia
plan, which required federal construction projects to have minority employees. He ended
up attacking this plan after realising that it was wildly unpopular with trade unions,
which had very few black members, but he had proposed it.
And when Nixon had the opportunity to nominate a new Chief Justice to the Supreme Court after
Earl Warren retired in 1969, his choice, Warren Burger was supposed to be a supporter of small
government and conservative ideals, but, just like Nixon, he proved a disappointment in
that regard. Like, in Swan v. Charlotte-Mecklenbug Board
of Education, the court upheld a lower court ruling that required busing of students to
achieve integration in Charlotte’s schools. And then the Burger court made it easier for
minorities to sue for employment discrimination, especially with its ruling in Regents of the
University of California v. Bakke. This upheld affirmative action as a valid governmental
interest, although it did strike down the use of strict quotas in university admissions.
Now, many conservatives didn’t like these affirmative action decisions, but one case
above all others had a profound effect on American politics: Roe v. Wade.
Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to have an abortion in the first trimester
of a pregnancy as well as a more limited right as the pregnancy progressed. And that decision
galvanized first Catholics and then Evangelical Protestants.
And that ties in nicely with another strand in American conservatism that developed in
the 1960s and 1970s. Let’s go to the ThoughtBubble. Many Americans felt that traditional family
values were deteriorating and looked to conservative republican candidates to stop that slide.
They were particularly alarmed by the continuing success of the sexual revolution, as symbolized
by Roe v. Wade and the increasing availability of birth control.
Statistics tend to back up the claims that traditional family values were in decline
in the 1970s. Like, the number of divorces soared to over one million in 1975 exceeding
the number of first time marriages. The birthrate declined with women bearing 1.7 children during
their lifetimes by 1976, less than half the figure in 1957. Now, of course, many people
would argue that the decline of these traditional values allowed more freedom for women and
for a lot of terrible marriages to end, but that’s neither here nor there.
Some conservatives also complained about the passage in 1972 of Title IX, which banned
gender discrimination in higher education, but many more expressed concern about the
increasing number of women in the workforce. Like, by 1980 40% of women with young children
had been in the workforce, up from 20% in 1960.
The backlash against increased opportunity for women is most obviously seen in the defeat
of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1974, although it passed Congress easily in 1972. Opponents
of the ERA, which rather innocuously declared that equality of rights under the law could
not be abridged on account of sex, argued that the ERA would let men off the hook for
providing for their wives and children, and that working women would lead to the further
breakdown of the family. Again, all the ERA stated was that women and men would have equal
rights under the laws of the United States. But, anyway, some anti-ERA supporters, like
Phyllis Schlafly claimed that free enterprise was the greatest liberator of women because
the purchase of new labor saving devices would offer them genuine freedom in their traditional
roles of wife and mother. Essentially, the vacuum cleaner shall make you free. And those
arguments were persuasive to enough people that the ERA was not ratified in the required
¾ of the United States. Thanks, ThoughtBubble. Sorry if I let my personal
feelings get in the way on that one. Anyway, Nixon didn’t have much to do with the continuing
sexual revolution; it would have continued without him because, you know, skoodilypooping
is popular. But, he was successfully reelected in 1972,
partly because his opponent was the democratic Barry Goldwater, George McGovern.
McGovern only carried one state and it wasn’t even his home state. It was Massachusetts.
Of course. But even though they couldn’t possibly lose,
Nixon’s campaign decided to cheat. In June of 1972, people from Nixon’s campaign broke
into McGovern’s campaign office, possibly to plant bugs. No, Stan, not those kinds of
bugs. Yes. Those. Now, we don’t know if Nixon actually knew
about the activities of the former employees of the amazingly acronym-ed CREEP, that is
the Committee for the Reelection of the President. But this break in at the Watergate hotel eventually
led to Nixon being the first and so far only American president to resign.
What we do know is this: Nixon was really paranoid about his opponents, even the ones
who appealed to 12% of American voters, especially after Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon
Papers to the New York Times in 1971. So, he drew up an enemies list and created
a special investigative unit called the plumbers whose job was to fix toilets. No, it was to
stop leaks. That makes more sense. I’m sorry, Stan, it’s just by then the
toilets in the White House were over 100 years old, I figured they might need some fixing,
but apparently no. Leaking. Nixon also taped all of the conversations
in the Oval Office and these tapes caused a minor constitutional crisis.
So, during the congressional investigation of Watergate, it became known that these tapes
existed, so the special prosecutor demanded copies.
Nixon refused, claiming executive privilege, and the case went all the way to the Supreme
Court, which ruled in U.S. v. Nixon that he had to turn them over. And this is important
because it means that the president is not above the law.
So, what ultimately doomed Nixon was not the break in itself, but the revelations that
he covered it up by authorizing hush money payments to keep the burglars silent and also
instructing the FBI not to investigate the crime.
In August of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that articles of impeachment be
drawn up against Nixon for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. But the real crime,
ultimately, was abuse of power, and there’s really no question about whether he was guilty
of that. So, Nixon resigned. Aw man, I was thinking I was going to get
away without a Mystery Document today. The rules here are simple.
I guess the author of the Mystery Document, and lately I’m never wrong.
Alright. Today I am an inquisitor. I believe hyperbole
would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith
in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and
be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
Aw. I’m going to get shocked today. Is it Sam Ervin? Aw dang it! Gah!
Apparently it was African American congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordan. Stan, that is
much too hard. I think you were getting tired of me not being
shocked, Stan, because it’s pretty strange to end an episode on conservatism with a quote
from Barbara Jordan, whose election to Congress has to be seen as a huge victory for liberalism.
But I guess it is symbolic of the very things that many conservatives found unsettling in
the 1970s, including political and economic success for African Americans and women, and
the legislation that helped the marginalized. I know that sounds very judgmental, but on
the other hand, the federal government had become a huge part of every American’s life,
maybe too huge. And certainly conservatives weren’t wrong
when they said that the founding fathers of the U.S. would hardly recognize the nation
that we had become by the 1970s. In fact, Watergate was followed by a Senate
investigation by the Church Committee, which revealed that Nixon was hardly the first president
to abuse his power. The government had spied on Americans throughout
the Cold War and tried to disrupt the Civil Rights movement. And the Church Commission,
Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam all of these things revealed a government that
truly was out of control and this undermined a fundamental liberal belief that government
is a good institution that is supposed to solve problems and promote freedom.
And for many Conservatives these scandals sent a clear signal that government couldn’t
promote freedom and couldn’t solve problems and that the liberal government of the New
Deal and the Great Society had to be stopped. Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next week.
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