The Fall Of The Liberal Consensus The Fall of the Liberal Consensus Looking at the United States in 1965, it would seem that the future of the liberal consensus was well entrenched. The anti-war movement was in full swing, civil rights were moving forward, and Johnson’s Great Society was working to alleviate the plight of the poor in America. Yet, by 1968 the liberal consensus had fallen apart, which led to the triumph of conservatism with the election of President Reagan in 1980. The question must be posed, how in the course of 15 years did liberal consensus fall apart and conservatism rise to the forefront? What were the decisive factors that caused the fracturing of what seemed to be such a powerful political force? In looking at the period from 1968 to the triumph of Reagan in 1980, America was shaken to the core by the Watergate scandal, the stalling of economic growth, gas shortages, and the Vietnam War. In an era that included the amount of turbulence that the 1970’s did, it is not difficult to imagine that conservatism come to power.
In this paper I will analyze how the liberal consensus went from one of its high points in 1965 to one of its lows in 1968. From there I will show how conservatism rose to power by the 1980 elections. In doing so, I will look at how factors within the American economy, civil rights issues, and political workings of the United States contributed to the fracturing of the liberal consensus and the rise of conservatism. In order to look at how the liberal consensus went from a high point in 1965 to a low in 1968, I think that it is first important to look at the state of the liberal consensus in 1965. Doing so will provide us with a starting point from which to measure the fracturing and also set up a framework from which we can analyze how and why the fracturing of the liberal consensus occurred. Looking at the 1960’s we can see that by 1965, much progress had been made toward the agenda of the liberal consensus.
During President Johnson’s term in office from 1964 to 1968, Johnson had declared a war on poverty. This is made evident when Johnson attempts to attack poverty at its roots. He states, Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them. The words of Johnson outline the premise of the liberal consensus, that given the opportunity individuals would work to The Great Society programs that were to enable the change, were for the most part enacted under Johnson during his term in office. This stems largely from his experience and power with Congress. In the context of the liberal consensus the civil rights movement had made some important strides during the 1960’s also.
The liberal consensus pushed for the integration of schools to allow for minorities to give themselves the education that they needed to participate equally in the job market. Moreover, the liberal consensus pushed for integration and the ideology that individuals if given equal opportunity would be able to solve the problems of discrimination through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The economy of the United States was the most important issue in solidifying the liberal consensus. From the 1950’s through the 1960’s the United States economy appeared as if it were on an endless track of prosperity. In the 1960’s the United States Gross National Product was up 31%.
Murray writes that, Economists believed that in Keynesian economics they had found the key to perpetual prosperity. The belief that the economy would continue to grow, fed the belief in the liberal consensus’ ideology that in allowing for free competition in the marketplace not only would economic problems be solved but also the problems of poverty and of civil rights. With the ideology of the liberal consensus firmly in place in 1965, how could such profound change occur in just three years that marked the fragmentation of the consensus? It was the development of four major issues that caused the fragmentation of the consensus: the Vietnam War, the decline of the economy, and dissatisfaction with the progress of civil rights. These three issues revealed major problems of the American populace toward the liberal consensus, weakening it to the point where it collapsed. The Vietnam War marked the beginning of the decline of the liberal consensus.
Rooted in the ideology of containment, the entrance of the United States in the war in Vietnam was an example of the liberal consensus’ belief that the United States was economically and militarily powerful enough to confront communism and prevent its spread. Hodgson writes, Here was a political leader (Johnson) in a position of apparently impregnable strength. He had to decide how to spend national resources that were growing at the rate of 5 per cent a year. With the increase of aggression in Vietnam, the ability to fund the war through the increase in government revenues due to Keynesian economics, and the belief that the United States was capable of easily winning the war in Vietnam, the liberal consensus optimistically increased U.S. participation in the war.
The plan for U.S. involvement in Vietnam that was put forth by General Westmoreland called for victory by 1967. However, the plan was overly optimistic. This is evidenced by the North Vietnamese’s Tet offensive in 1968. From here two major problems arise because of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War.
First the war diverted funds from the social programs that were intended to stop the problem of poverty in the United States. According to Hodgson, In the first year (1964), OEO’s budget had been $750 million. In the second year, Congress appropriated $1.5 million. The agency’s own five-year plan envisaged a massive, nationwide community-action strategy with programs in both urban slums and rural depressed areas and a total budget of $3.5 billion. In the new climate, the Administration asked for just half of that figure, or $1.75 billion, and Congress finally appropriated even less: $1.625 billion. The money that was intended to go to these social programs was diverted to the war in Vietnam.
According to Hodgson, In the whole of the fiscal year that had just ended, the fighting of the war in Southeast Asia had cost $100 million. In May, (of 1965) the Administration had asked for $700 million more. The August and January requests between them came to more than $14 billion. With the removal of funding for social programs that garnished support for the liberal consensus, fragmentation began. The second issue that stems from the Vietnam War is that it diverted attention from the problems of civil rights in the United States.
These are questions that were important in the minds of Americans. Hodgson writes, How is it’, John Doar was asked from the floor of at the orientation session in Ohio, that the government can protect the Vietnamese from the Viet Cong, and the same government will not accept the moral responsibility of protecting the people in Mississippi? This lack of attention fueled the fragmentation of the civil rights movement into more radical and aggressive forms. One of its most visible and important aspects of the fracturing of the civil rights movement took form in the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, otherwise known as the Black Panther Party. Stokely Carmichael marks the feelings of part of Ameri …