Modern Conservatism vs Modern Liberalism

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Despite the common narrative of a conservative ascendancy in the 1970s, the decade also saw continued radical activism and resistance to bring about great reform in American society. Although the 1970s saw a conservative ascendency in electoral politics, ultimately leading to the consequential election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the decade also saw expanded, intensified, and often successful protest efforts bred by broader action and the continued endeavor for civil rights and liberal objectives. Ultimately, the 1970s was encompassed by an active and tenacious liberal spirit, but also saw a rise in conservatism as a winning political power.

An understanding of late 20th century America substantially evolves around the two terms that dominate the current political discourse – the ideologies of liberalism and conservatism. Conservatism in the US is underpinned by the advocacy of Judeo-Christian ethics, anti-communism, individualism, American exceptionalism, and respect for American traditions. Although Democrats were once important figures in the early history of the conservative movement, as of the 1960s, conservatism is widely associated with and based on the Republican Party whilst the Democratic Party is considered liberal. Modern liberalism in the US consolidates both the ideas of civil liberty and equality with the endorsement of social justice and a mixed economy.

The 1970s saw an immense transformation of American economic and cultural life, dramatically reshaping the political landscape, even more so than the 1930s.1 Due to its unsettled and precarious nature, its larger significance has become apparent only in retrospect, its influence fully recognized only recently. Race relations, religion, family life, politics, and popular culture of the 1970s marked “the most significant watershed of modern US history, the beginning of our time.” 2 Many conventional portraits of the 1970s paints a picture of backlash, a simple conservative recoil from the perceived excesses of the 1960s. In reality, the 1970s comprised of more complicated political developments than the rise of the right as commonly argued; the collective picture of grassroots action, widespread protest, burgeoning radicalism, and growing federal government involvement in the lives of ordinary citizens must not be overlooked in order to understand the decade as a plethora of under-the-radar reform, much of it detached from the realm of electoral politics.3

The 1970s was preceded by a progressive era, as the 1960s widely dismissed conservatism as a winning political power. The literary critic Lionel Trilling even wrote bluntly in 1950 that “in the US at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition”4. The political movement of the American New Left, which also reflected a political inclination happening internationally, took on anarchist elements and looked to libertarian socialist traditions of American radicalism, typifying a continuation and revival of established leftist and liberal objectives. The student movements of the New Left were concerned with anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and violent and nonviolent activist orientations.5 As a result of multiple protests and the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s, the 1970s also saw the first notable decline in sex segregation in the US in a century, as activists in the Women’s Liberation movement helped bring about a fundamental realignment of gender roles in the US. Sixties radicalism also helped dismantle the disenfranchisement of Jim Crow and withdraw US troops from Vietnam. The counterculture of the 1960s changed the mindsets of how many Americans viewed the world and the society they lived in. This liberal sentiment continued into the 1970s and made extensive changes to American society, as the organizational and legislative triumphs of the 1960s rooted in liberal ideals established the foundation for progressive action in workplaces, prisons, welfare offices, and small communities in the 1970s.

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The 1970s did arguably see a considerable shift towards the right in politics as conservatives began developing their agenda, following a generation of “New Deal democratic hegemony”.6 While conservative activists and voters had been around since long before the 1970s, major organizational changes such as the mobilization of grassroots activism and reform of the Republican Party allowed for the flourishing of a conservative movement that is widely acknowledged during this decade. By the late seventies, the failed domestic and foreign policies of Democrat Jimmy Carter left Americans disgruntled and unsatisfied with their government and the actual or perceived liberal leadership since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and yearned to re-embrace American exceptionalism. The conservative movement of the 1970s culminated in the 1980 presidential election, as Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter. Historians have asserted that this election was a realigning election that marked the beginning of the “Reagan Revolution”, where the American public saw a return of conservative ideals with the leadership of President Reagan, which had lasting impacts in domestic and foreign US policy.

However, these conservative wins of the 1970s often recounted in historiography must not overshadow the persistent influence and growth of liberalist reformism. The internal conflicts over Vietnam and social issues such as race relations had fragmented the Democratic Party and diminished its clout as a representative of liberal values and an opposition to the Republican Party in the electoral race. Despite this, liberalism was far from an emasculated political force, and the emerging right of the 1970s faced consequential opposition and resistance from liberals. Historians may utilize one-dimensional narratives and often speak of the failures of president Jimmy Carter to justify an ultimate triumph of conservatism to define the 1970s7, however, this treatment of liberalism presents an incomplete argument, minimizing its influence to a marginal, fringe element that was out of touch with mainstream politics. In reality, liberalism had endured as an undefeated ideology throughout the seventies, as the antifeudal, egalitarian ideology of individual rights and freedoms manifested into the formative years of the decade.

The seventies saw a range of extraordinary organizations around issues varying from health and reproduction to corporate responsibility to home-schooling and girls’ sports teams, along with the recognition that these issues were legitimate subjects for public debate in order for the government to ensure individuals the necessary autonomy to pursue personal development. These causes, such as feminism and gay rights, garnered massive political support in formal political channels and at the grassroots, transforming everyday interpersonal interactions in society. Additionally, the proliferation of activism was evident in the expansion of the sixties civil rights movement into new arenas that grew beyond the 1960s’ struggle for public integration and voting rights. The 1970s African American struggle for civil rights not only raised new issues and scored important new advances, but also welcomed into its ranks other previously marginal individuals in the movement, such as welfare mothers and African American feminists, allowing them to gain stature and political voice as they made concrete legislative gains. The struggle for gay liberation also continued into the 1970s, based around challenging organizations in order to protest the model that defined homosexuality as a ‘sickness’, fight for social services to homosexuals, and help foster a vibrant gay cultural life in many of America’s major cities.8 After the Stonewall Riot of June 1969, by July, activists in New York had formed the Gay Liberation Front, whilst other groups began to emerge in cities and campuses across the nation. By just 1973, there were more than 800 gay organizations, compared to 50 existing in 1969.9 During the 1970s, the gay rights movement achieved a number of important victories, including new allies in other organizations who offered their support, the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychological Association’s list of mental disorders in 1973, and the Civil Service Commission’s removal of their blanket ban on employing homosexuals in 1975. By 1976, 17 states had also abolished their laws prohibiting sodomy.10 As such, the movement culture of the 1960s flourished after 1970, as activists of diverse causes embraced the tactics of the freedom struggles and counterculture from the decade preceding them. Activism took on an even more progressive and liberal form as direct-action protests and guerrilla theatre became the characteristic mode of action for the civil rights, women’s liberation, and gay rights movements. There was not only a continuation of 1960s activism but also standardization of direct-action techniques as a legitimate part of politics; activists used protest styles such as marches and sit-ins from the 1960s to advance new causes across the political spectrum in the 1970s.11 1970s protestors also further developed the central ideological constructs of 1960s social movements including participatory democracy, authenticity, and the idea that the personal is political 12, highlighting the enduring and expanding liberal spirit of the time. Liberalism was far from being in decline, as the seventies became the zenith for grassroots activism.

Collectively, these events paint a compelling picture of political ferment in the 1970s, consisting of progressive social movements, empowered minority groups, and conservative accommodations to the government. In order to reconcile this revision of the decade with the conservative ascendency in electoral politics, it is noteworthy to realize that the grassroots struggle for racial justice and sexual equality have exerted a far more intensive impact than that of the liberal political economy of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.13 These impulses towards minority representation and affirmative action have proven more resilient to conservative challenges than the New Deal’s essential economic factors, as organized labor experienced a catastrophic decline, the value of minimum wage had eroded, the tax code became regressive, and the privatization of public services became commonplace.14 However, this divergence also testifies to some extent to the remarkable potency of the social movements and their moral dedication, as many business groups and opponents of civil rights and feminism embraced affirmative action by the 1980s. Ultimately, it is evident that the emerging New Right competed with steady opposition from grassroots radicals, and operated in a political landscape permanently altered by the tactics, ideas, and experiences of the Great Society, the counterculture, and activists.

There are inevitable complications in conceptualizing and organizing historical developments by decade, though historians try their best to force order and coherence through periodization.15 The 1970s upheld liberalism as a compelling intellectual force but also gave way to a potent and influential conservative evolution that assisted in inaugurating the consequential presidency of Ronald Reagan, as the social contract of mutual dependence and government oversight that emerged during the New Deal became replaced by a return of traditional principles in the likes of individualism and unrestrained economic acquisition. The seventies were not simply an interval between the two dominating narratives of the flamboyantly revolutionary and liberal sixties and the conservative boom of the eighties, but a complex combination of the two ideologies which converged into its own unique and unprecedented period of time, spiraling into a divergent array of movements, both liberal and conservative.


  1. D’Emilio, John. 1940-1970. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States. Chicago.
  2. Hall, Simon. 2008. 'Protest Movements in the 1970s: The Long 1960s.' Journal of Contemporary History 43, no. 4: 655-72.
  3. Keys, Barbara. 2014. 'THE BIRTH OF A NEW ERA: TEACHING THE 1970s.' Australasian Journal of American Studies 33, no. 1: 120-31.
  4. Keys, Barbara, Jack Davies, And Elliott Bannan. 2014. 'THE POST-TRAUMATIC DECADE: NEW HISTORIES OF THE 1970s.' Australasian Journal of American Studies 33, no. 1: 1-17.
  5. Lynd, Staughton. 1969. 'The New Left.' The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 382: 64-72.
  6. Mills, Charles W. 2008. 'Racial Liberalism.' PMLA 123, no. 5: 1380-397. New York: Modern Language Association.
  7. Petracca, Mark P. 1990. 'Politics beyond The End of Liberalism.' PS: Political Science and Politics 23, no. 4: 566-69. doi:10.2307/419892.
  8. Phillips-Fein, Kim. 2008. The Great Utopia: How American Business Fought the New Deal Order. New York.
  9. Schulman, Bruce J. 2008. 'Comment: The Empire Strikes Back — Conservative Responses to Progressive Social Movements in the 1970s.' Journal of Contemporary History 43, no. 4: 695-700.
  10. Shulman, Bruce. J. 2001. The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. New York.
  11. Trilling, Lionel. 1950. “Preface.” In The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. New York: Viking Press.
  12. Zelizer, Julian E. 'Rethinking The History Of American Conservatism.' Reviews in American History 38, no. 2 (2010): 367-92.
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