And now we begin an exploration of conservatism and why it is what it is today. For that, we need to look at the most pivotal point in modern American political history and its background.
It was March 31, 1968, towards the end of the bloody Vietnam war when a shocking announcement was made that called out and inadvertently declared the ending of American political unity. While the tensions in the months preceding the announcement were evident and the collapse of the American political system into liberal and conservative parties may have seemed inevitable, it was the presidency that had held the nation together.
… And in these times as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand.
There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight. And holding the trust that is mine, as President of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to the progress of the American people and the hope and the prospect of peace for all peoples.
So, I would ask all Americans, whatever their personal interests or concern, to guard against divisiveness and all its ugly consequences.
Fifty-two months and 10 days ago, in a moment of tragedy and trauma, the duties of this office fell upon me. I asked then for your help and God’s, that we might continue America on its course, binding up our wounds, healing our history, moving forward in new unity, to clear the American agenda and to keep the American commitment for all of our people.
United we have kept that commitment. United we have enlarged that commitment.
Through all time to come, I think America will be a stronger nation, a more just society, and a land of greater opportunity and fulfillment because of what we have all done together in these years of unparalleled achievement.
Our reward will come in the life of freedom, peace, and hope that our children will enjoy through ages ahead.
What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness, and politics among any of our people.
Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.
With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office–the Presidency of your country.
Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.
– President Lyndon B. Johnson
The Vietnam war had long waned, and for the peace-loving Democrat President Johnson, it was no more wanted by him that it was by anyone else in America. Despite the confidence in his speech, he could foresee no end to the war. Trusting in his advisors, especially Robert McNamara, he had deepened engagement with the Vietcong until the war had grown sickeningly worse and unpopular. Indecisive, he felt incapable of resolving the situation and decided it was time someone else took control.
His wartime decisions in office – finalized by his decision to not run again for presidency – dramatically affected both political parties and platforms for the next 60 years. To understand why, we need to go back in history a number of years.
In the late 1800s, average working Americans had struggled with the boom from the industrial revolution. The Democratic party – still seeking a solid foothold after their demise in the Civil War – championed labor unions. Even still, the world revolved around the big money of men like J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, and Carnegie. The selfishness of such rich men led to their exploitation of poorer Americans and foolish stock traders who bought into the lie of the economic benefits of “credit”. The stock market then collapsed October 29, 1929, and the effects rippled throughout America. With the Presidency more involved with the economy since the era of Teddy Roosevelt, the president became the prime suspect. The Republican incumbent – President Herbert Hoover – was blamed for the economic failures and subsequently voted out the next election.
It was a year of interest in new social and economic ideologies like socialism. The communism of Russia was seen as too powerful and scary and thus rejected by both the United States and western Europe. J. Edgar Hoover – the brother of the president – had led the FBI and arrested many communist supporters, so it was a bad time to be communist. However, a number of socially-minded individuals (certain personality types who now fall into the liberal category) loved the idea of socialism but didn’t want to be seen as radical communist. Given the failure of the laissez-faire capitalism of Republican economics, socialism seemed like the perfect middle ground between capitalism and communism.
Thus, Franklin Roosevelt took office and began implementing a “New Deal” that lasted the next 15 years. The concept would be echoed in his party’s successors’ campaigns, like Johnson’s “Great Society”. Entering at a time like Hitler when people were starving, Roosevelt gave them bread in the form of jobs (e.g. via the Works Projects Administration, or WPA) and was allowed to do all kinds of radical things in office that presidents now would be shamed and criticized for. Leading America through war only increased his popularity and that of the Democratic party.
It was the heyday of the Democratic party. Eisenhower stepped in only because, as a war hero, Americans saw him fit to stand up to the menacing Soviets after Truman – a man who did not want the presidency to begin with – failed to handle the situation with an iron hand. With the situation back in hand, the people of America re-embraced the socialism of the Democratic party under President Kennedy. The support of the country for Kennedy was readily evident when he died by a surprise gunshot from a dissenter and people around the country mourned for his loss. Power was thrust into the hand of Lyndon Johnson, a soft-spoken man with the same ideals.
Perhaps the key problem with Johnson was that, like Truman, he was chosen as a support man because he shared the Democrat’s vision or expanded on it. Thus, the Democrats saw no need to offer another candidate for president but instead relied on his incumbent status to win. But President Johnson wasn’t a leader, and consequently, his decisions fell into the hands of his advisors.
As a support man, President Johnson had envisioned implementing the “Great Society”, a socialist economic situation intended to help the poor. President Johnson was from Texas, and thus represented a middle-American man that perhaps endeared him to many people. But when he rejected the candidacy, the Democrats followed the political shift that would move them away from middle-Americans, and the party has never nominated a Texan candidate since.
The struggles of President Johnson in the Vietnam War had resulted in two groups: The peace-loving kids told to go fight the war and the so-called working-class or “silent majority” Americans. The “peace-loving” group favored the socialist policies, but they were not at the age at which they made much impact in voting. The struggling Republican party saw an opening and decided to side with the working-class Americans who would be more in favor of their economic policies. For a candidate, they deliberately promoted Richard Nixon – a contestant to President Kennedy and a sign to the American people that the Republican party was the ready alternative. But the primary platform was the ending of the war, which President Nixon readily fulfilled much to the loss of South Vietnam.
Having lost majority of popularity in the United States, the Democratic party was in shambles. To regroup, it began collecting any and all who were still interested in socialism. This included the hippies, the marginalized, and an increasing number of minorities. By the time the late ’70s had rolled around, the Democrats were finally able to return to the White House with a milk-toasty gentleman named Jimmy Carter, but even then they were gradually leaving behind anyone still stuck in the middle… including Ronald Reagan.
President Reagan could be seen as the last middle-of-the-road Democrat to be in office. Though under the Republican banner, his economics were globalist and his spending plans were irresponsible, especially in comparison to fiscal responsibility touted as necessary by President Johnson. The United States became a global market power, fueling none other than the communist enemy: China.
President Reagan turned the focus of the new Republican party constituency towards economics, and it has remained that way ever since due to the nature of the practically-minded people now occupying the Republican party.
The important thing is that, because of President Johnson leading to President Nixon, the Republican party became that of the majority, and the Democratic party became that of the opposition. War protesters and minorities saw the Republican party as representing the establishment, while the Republican party saw themselves as staying true to Americans of traditional values who have thence been labeled “conservative”.
Now that we know where they came from, it’s time to start dissecting their political platform.