The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 28, 2014

REFERENCE DESK
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New Right
Raymond Wolters - 06/15/11

The “New Right” is a name that has been given to three discrete occurrences. In the 1950s the term was used to identify the band of conservatives who broke from the old right of the years before World War II and gathered around William F. Buckley, Jr. and his magazine, National Review. In the 1980s the term was applied to a pro-Reagan coalition of libertarian economic conservatives (who formed the traditional core of the Republican Party) and social conservatives (many of whom had been lifelong Democrats). Later, the term was also applied more specifically to people who took a stand for traditional values and against moral decay and the decline of the family.

The Old Right of the 1930s had opposed both the New Deal and intervention in foreign wars. The new right of the 1950s, however, supported a policy of anticommunism abroad even as it also favored a comparatively unregulated form of free enterprise at home. By accepting the need for a big government to oppose communism, the New Right drifted away from policies that had been central to the Old Right. The New Right also had a distinctive style, with the National Review evincing a brash assertiveness that some older conservatives considered sophomoric. And the New Right set limits by condemning both anti-Semitism and the John Birch Society.

Within the New Right, there was an important division. On one side were the classic libertarian individualists who insisted that people should enjoy the maximum amount of personal freedom with little government intervention. On the other were traditionalists who believed in a transcendent moral order and emphasized the importance of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Yet Buckley and the National Review managed to patch over the difference and to persuade libertarians and traditionalists to join together in opposition to communism.

This coalition remained a minority group until the 1970s, when a new New Right emerged. This new new right was made up of social conservatives, many of whom had been Democrats in the past. Some resented high taxes after having only recently achieved middle-class status. Others took exception to the reverse racial preferences that had come to characterize the liberal left. Still others were disaffected from their traditional Democratic moorings because of concern about crime, divorce, pornography, and other changes in the culture.

Ronald Reagan recognized the opportunity to build a Republican majority. In a 1977 speech to the American Conservative Union, he explained that he wanted to maintain the support of the Republican base by continuing to favor lower taxes and less government regulation of business. But he also wanted to use “the so-called social issues—law and order, abortion, busing, [and] quota systems” to appeal to millions of other Americans “who may never have thought of joining our party before.” His goal was “to combine the two major segments of contemporary American conservatism into one politically effective whole.” This was the new New Right of the 1980s.

Yet electoral victories were of little use against social policies that resulted from changing mores and from new judicial interpretations. Consequently, social conservatives were disappointed even after Reagan triumphed at the polls. For them conservatism had been a three-pronged attack against too many government regulations at home, against communism abroad, and against the counterculture. But Reagan achieved only two of the goals. Business was deregulated and the Soviet Union disintegrated, but abortion, promiscuity, pornography, and trashy music seemed even more prevalent after Reagan’s presidency. Consequently, at the turn of the twenty-first century, many social conservatives were engaged in a new “culture war.”

Further Reading
  • Hodgson, Godfrey. The World Turned Right Side Up: A History of the Conservative Ascendancy in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • Judis, John. William F. Buckley Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
  • Phillips, Kevin. The Emerging Republican Majority. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969.
  • Rusher, William A. The Rise of the Right. New York: William Morrow, 1984.
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