The Rise of White Conservatism and Death of Big Government

One of the most fascinating things to me in American history is the shift in American politics between 1960 and 1980. In 1960, JFK was elected President and won north of 90% of Catholic Americans, while winning the bulk of the white southern vote. In 1980, Reagan carried both of those groups with relative ease. To read most opinions on why this happened, you get a myriad of excuses- Vietnam, Carter, the sexual revolution, Watergate, etc. All feel like they leave a bit to be explained though. How did we get from LBJ obliterating Goldwater to Reagan and Bush’s landslides of the 80’s?

I think one can find the roots of change in LBJ’s Presidency. While it is true that LBJ passed a bunch of broadly popular programs- a tax cut, the Clean Air Act, and of course, Medicare- LBJ also oversaw an era of major social programs that changed racial politics in America. Most famously he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also ended a 40 year period of extremely restrictive immigration law. He launched a war on poverty, brought unprecedented equity to education funding (for that time), and of course addressed health care for the poor. The fruits of Johnson’s Presidency were not all centered in white suburbia, and that was a fairly new concept at the time.

While much is made of LBJ’s 1964 landslide in American politics, the 1966 midterms should receive at least as much academic attention. It marked the beginning of Republican gains among white blue collar workers, particularly in the South. That trend lead to Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” and 1968 and 1972 electoral victories. In fact, I found this passage from Wikipedia about the 1966 Elections to be particularly illuminating:

“The Republican Party had risked sliding into irrelevance after the disastrous 1964 elections, and the GOP’s victory in this election invigorated the party, strengthening the conservative coalition. The GOP made inroads into the South and among blue collar workers, foreshadowing Nixon’s Southern strategy and the rise of Reagan Democrats, respectively. Among the newly elected Republicans were future presidents Ronald Reagan (who soon became the leader of the right-wing of the Republican Party) as Governor of California and George H. W. Bush as a representative from Texas, and future vice president Spiro Agnew as Governor of Maryland. The election also helped establish former vice president Richard Nixon (who campaigned heavily for Republicans) as a front-runner for the 1968 Republican nomination. President Johnson was mostly unable to pass major expansions to the Great Society in the 90th Congress.[2]

1966 became the beginning of a political trend that catapulted the GOP to political dominance from 1968 to literally today. It produced their next generation of national leaders. It produced the demographic trends that eventually lead to Reagan’s blowouts, and the wave election of 1994, which since the GOP has held the House for 20 of 28 years. In fact, after 1968, the Democratic Party has only held unified control of the White House and both houses of Congress for 10 years out of 54. The 1966 Election marked the end of LBJ’s agenda and power- by 1968 a Democratic Senate refused to hear his Supreme Court pick, and neither house had any interest in his agenda. The Democratic Party never really regained his agenda ever since.

By 1980, Reagan was explicitly making “states rights” speeches in rural southern towns where some of the worst violence of the Civil Rights era had taken place. Less explicitly though, his message was very “us vs. them”- “we” don’t need the big government our grandparents needed when they got off the boat at Ellis Island. He argued rather persuasively that big government was not only no longer helpful, but in his inaugural address in 1981 he literally called it the enemy. His anti-government push had continued on the trends of 1966, as he ripped white southerners away from Carter, and continued to pull northern Catholics away from Democrats as well. He told them they didn’t need big government anymore. They clearly believed it.

This message clearly has worked well beyond Reagan’s Washington. In 1994, Gingrich used it in his “Contract with America” to take power from Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party. In 2000, while George W. Bush did envision some activism from his “Compassionate Conservatism,” the center piece of his economic package remained tax cuts and deregulation. The 2010 “Tea Party” Republican revolution that swept John Boehner and later Paul Ryan to power centered on an attack on the supposed “socialism” of Barack Obama’s early successes. Indeed, the rise of Trumpism and the 2022 GOP strategy against President Biden have largely centered around “us vs. them” rhetoric and an attack on government tax and spend policies under the Democrats. Polling suggests it’s working right now.

It would be foolish to cast this entire argument in racial terms, particularly in light of Democratic declines in polling among black men, Latinos, and even Asians. The post-Reagan Democratic Party has largely centered competency, justice, and equality, more so than big tax, big government solutions. In many ways the debate that started in 1966 has basically ended. Americans, increasingly regardless of race, don’t really want to pay more taxes for a government program that they don’t think benefits them. This has played out in a politically lethal way for Democrats during policy fights over Build Back Better and Obamacare in recent years. Even so, there are those on the left who insist the pathway back to political dominance for Democrats is to propose bigger, more bold leftist programs, like some European governments have popularly enacted. They mistakenly believe that Americans not voting for Democrats want that.

What these critics miss is that the “small government” message has largely worked against Democrats. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden largely have won by standing out from public perceptions of the party. While many inside the party believe that Democrats would simply win more if more people voted, and feel vindicated by record 2020 turnout for Biden’s victory, they can’t quite explain the down ballot losses Democrats took in the same election, or Trump’s 2016 victory in a record turnout election. People miss that most non-voting population members don’t believe government really works for them either, hence their lack of interest. Frankly, they’re fertile ground for conservatism in an age of anti-government rhetoric and conspiracy theories.

Democrats aren’t going to win sustained power by proposing “free stuff” and big, bold legislative action. That’s been true for over 50 years. It’s true now. Too much libertarian ideology is baked into people. Smaller, more directly impactful victories on matters of tangible significance will go so much further than large ideological war.

So now, about those insulin prices…

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