Ronald Reagan campaigned under the promise of a return to traditional moral, social and political values when he ran for President of the United States in 1980. These values, which ultimately were successful in helping Reagan secure the presidency, were also the core fundamentals of the “Conservative Coalition”. This coalition was formed as the result of transitions in American society during the 1960s and 1970s that conservative policy makers sought to reverse. President Ronald Reagan, in many ways, served as the spokesperson of the Conservative Coalition after his election and was successful in implementing several of their underlying values into American society during the 1980s.
The counterculture movement of the 1960s led to a generally casual view on sex, drugs and self-expression in American society. This new outlook on sexual expression became known as the “Sexual Revolution” (Textbook 783). For many people, this new sense of sexual freedom showed an uncivilized lack of respect of the American social norms. Another significant piece of the counterculture movement was the more common use of drugs in America. The “baby boomers” were young adults during Vietnam and their growing use and experimentation with drugs was a result of the more relaxed American society. Many conservatives believed that counterculture members lacked self-control and wanted immediate gratification. Psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim stated that, “as young adults, they did not have the ability for delayed gratification. According to some conservative commentators, the counterculture had abandoned rational thought in the favor of the senses and uninhibited self-expression.” (Textbook 785) Increased American drug use became a major political and social stand for Ronald Reagan during his presidency. With the help of First Lady Nancy Reagan’s famous slogan of “Just Say No”, President Reagan preached that the American society needed to return to its core values of family and decency.
Several of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s actions during the 1960s aided the Conservative Coalition foundation. Johnson was suddenly thrust into the presidency following President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. One of his significant political platforms was the creation of a “Great Society”. The goals of the Great Society programs included ending poverty and racial injustice, creating a higher standard of living, creating equal opportunities and promoting a richer quality of life. However, these program concepts suffered due to the Vietnam conflict. The need to fund the growing war efforts in Vietnam caused the nation’s economy to falter. An inflation rate of 2% through most of the 1960s nearly tripled to 5.5% by 1969 (Textbook page 741). Additionally, President Johnson was forced to ask Congress for a tax increase to fund the war. The Congressional conservatives agreed to the tax increase, but only in exchange for a $6.00 billion cut in funding to President Johnson’s social programs. The fact that these Democratic social reforms were never truly allowed to take root helped to support the Conservative Coalition’s goals.
Another significant issue in America during these years was The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), passed in 1972. The ERA stated that all would be protected equally and men and women would both enjoy the same rights. For many, this seemed to be yet another win for both the women’s movement and minority groups. However, many conservative political organizations and religious groups, along with many anti-feminist groups, believed that the passing of the ERA would lead to a “parade of horribles” (Textbook 779). Many conservatives feared that the ERA would allow women to be drafted, end laws protecting homemakers, end a husband’s responsibility to provide for his family and allow for same-sex marriages. In response to the passing of the ERA, conservatives created the “Pro-Family” movement, which became more commonly known as the “New Right”. This movement focused on social, cultural and moral problems that it believed existed in America due to the social changes in the 1960s and 1970s. This new conservative movement, along with the women’s movement, debated issues such as whether the government should pay for daycare and other family issues.
The most significant fight between supporters of the New Right and proponents of the ERA was the court case of Roe vs. Wade. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that women have the individual right to make their own medical decisions. This included the right to have an abortion if they were within the first three months of pregnancy. This provided women a privacy right under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment that stated, “Nobody shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law” (PPAF, 2019). Roe vs. Wade wasn’t the beginning of abortion in America; rather, it allowed people to access abortion legally and prevented people from dying in unsafe, illegal abortions. Roe vs. Wade deeply divided American citizens and directly contradicted all the Conservative Coalition goals of family and the right to life. President Reagan strongly believed in the core beliefs of the coalition, including opposing Roe vs. Wade, and campaigned on this belief. Those citizens that disapproved of the Supreme Court’s decision largely voted for Ronald Reagan. Generally, pro-life supporters were Republicans and the proponents of Roe vs. Wade were commonly Democrats, even today. This landmark case still stands 40 years later and continues to divide Americans.
Ronald Reagan’s personal beliefs and campaign platform matched up with those of the Conservative Coalition. In the end, the combination of social and political events of the 1960s and 1970s gave the conservative movement the momentum needed to win the 1980 presidential election. On the political front, the coalition was able to suppress President Johnson’s proposed social changes with funding cuts in the late-1960s. Socially, the coalition broadly appealed to those Americans that disapproved of the changes in society brought on by the counterculture’s open views on sex and drugs, as well as those that were scared of the possible moral changes that the ERA and Roe vs. Wade would bring. The conservative standards that many Americans still held true, combined with Ronald Reagan’s likeable personality, ultimately led to the New Right successfully winning the 1980 presidential election.