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Rebirth of conservatism

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Interviewer: Would you discuss the rebirth of conservatism in the fifties and its increasing power in the seventies and eighties?

Eric Foner: The 1950s is generally seen as a sort of moderate to moderately liberal decade, but in that decade the seeds were planted for the revival of conservatism, which really became more visible in the 1960s and later on in the 1970s, 1980s, and up to today. There were a certain number of writers who were very critical of what they considered the legacy of the New Deal—the large, powerful federal government intervening in the economy—and who felt that the United States was not pursuing the Cold War vigorously enough, not fighting communism vigorously enough. There were also the moral conservatives who felt that the United States was too materialistic and had lost its religious character. Many of them came together writing in the magazine National Review, edited by William Buckley, which was founded in the 1950s and although very small at that time did provide a forum for conservative ideas. But it was really in the sixties, as the society went through tremendous changes and tremendous turmoil, that a larger constituency began to develop for conservative ideas: businessmen who saw an opportunity to roll back the gains of labor unions and the economic regulations; many people who were frightened by turmoil in the streets; whites who were reacting against the gains of the civil rights movement. All of these became constituencies that the rising conservative movement would draw upon.

Reagan's reshaping of the national agenda

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Interviewer: You write that Ronald Reagan reshaped the national agenda more effectively than any president since FDR. How was Reagan able to do this?

Eric Foner: Reagan was sometimes called the "great communicator." Of course, he had been an actor, he had been a radio personality, in movies, etc. He had a very winning personal style and delivery, but more than that Reagan was a devoted conservative who (with the help of his speechwriters) very consciously drew on traditional American ideas in the service of conservatism. He reshaped the idea of liberty once again as it had been reshaped many times to identify it strongly with anticommunism, with limits on the power of federal government, and with getting the government out of people's lives, particularly their economic lives, reducing economic regulations and lowering taxes, and allowing a greater degree of free enterprise. And all of these things he promoted in the language of liberty and freedom; he was popular and he helped to redefine liberty along these lines.

Civil liberties intertwined with civil rights

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Interviewer: You write that "civil liberties had gained strength in the 1930s because of association with the rights of labor. In the 1950s and 1960s they became intertwined with civil rights." Would you explain that?

Eric Foner: Well, civil rights are not quite the same thing as civil liberties. Civil rights tend to refer to kinds of public rights, like the right to vote, the right to be treated fairly by the government. They're not sort of individual liberties that one has or gets. They're more in terms of groups of people who claim to be discriminated against. Civil liberties gets connected with civil rights because in the 1960s, in order to fight the civil rights movement, southern states began passing laws restricting the operations of these organizations, like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Congress of Martin Luther King. They would pass laws requiring these organizations to submit membership lists and that would open the door to persecution of people who were members. They began putting people on trial for criticizing public officials and things like that.

These were meant to suppress the civil rights movement. They weren't a wholesale attack on civil liberties, but they were meant to prevent these civil rights organizations from functioning, and the Supreme Court was forced to defend the right of these organizations to exist and to carry on their operations, and in doing so, again expand the definition of civil liberties. You can criticize a public official without fearing persecution. You can operate as an organization without the government knowing every member of your organization, and that, of course, applies to other groups, not just civil rights organizations.

The religious right in political life

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Interviewer: There’s been a lot of good recent work on the role of religion and the rise of the political right. How would you assess its importance amidst other factors?

Eric Foner: I think the religious right was very important in the general emergence of conservatism as the dominant force in American political life in the 1970s and 1980s. At the end of World War II conservatism was almost nonexistent or had become discredited. It was associated with Nazism and anti-Semitism. It seemed old and tired. There was what was called a "liberal consensus," although whether that is completely accurate may be open to question.

But by the 1960s and 70s a whole series of events propelled conservatism toward a revival. And the rise of this religious involvement in politics, conservatism in politics, was one, thought not the only one. The rise of the Sun Belt and the aerospace industry had nothing to do with the religious right but they provided a new source of funding for the conservatives. Also a backlash against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement really had little to do with religious conservatism but it helped to fuel right wing politics.

Nonetheless, the kind of reaction against what was seen as the excesses of the 1960s, which were voiced by conservative religious groups, certainly became an important part of the conservative coalition, which produced the election of Reagan and has pretty much remained dominant in the Republican Party ever since.