In which John Green teaches you about the rise of the conservative movement in United States politics. So, the sixties are often remembered for the liberal changes that the decade brought to America, but lest you forget, Richard Nixon was elected to the presidency during the sixties.
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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.
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