When the bottom dropped out of the economy during the Great Depression, Americans voted Franklin Delano Roosevelt into office and threw their weight behind the Democrats’ New Deal policies regulating business, protecting workers and promoting basic social welfare. Most Republicans recognised the dangers of an unregulated economy and abandoned their pro-business stance of the 1920s. When the Republican president Dwight Eisenhower took office in 1953, he extended the New Deal with a series of policies he called the Middle Way. In the 1950s, business regulations, workers’ organisations, social welfare legislation and civil rights decisions placed the nation on a path to increasing prosperity. Americans rallied around the consensus shared by both parties that the government must play an active role in regulating the economy and promoting social welfare.
But big businessmen loathed business regulation and the taxes necessary to fund social welfare programmes. They carped that the liberal consensus was socialism. In 1951, William F Buckley Jr, an oilman’s son fresh out of Yale, suggested that the only way to combat the New Deal’s popularity was to fight the Enlightenment “superstition” that the honest examination of arguments based on factual evidence would advance society. The fact that Americans had chosen the socialism and secularism of the liberal consensus showed that people could not be trusted to choose wisely. Free market capitalism and Christianity must be accepted as the only starting points of political and economic policy: they were as immutable as the Ten Commandments.
Three years later, Buckley joined forces with his brother-in-law, L Brent Bozell, to portray a nation under siege by “liberals”, the vast majority of Americans who believed in the bipartisan liberal consensus. Buckley and Bozell vowed to destroy liberalism and create a new “orthodoxy” of strict Christianity and individualism. Despite the radical nature of a plan to overturn a proved and popular system of government, they called their movement conservatism. The following year, in his new magazine, National Review, Buckley vowed to tell the “violated businessman’s side of the story”. The government must do nothing, he maintained, but protect lives, liberty and property. Movement conservatives’ plan to destroy New Deal policies gained little traction until the supreme court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional enabled them to harness racism to their cause. When Eisenhower mobilised the taxpayer-funded 101st Airborne to Little Rock Central High School in 1957, movement conservatives howled that government protection of black rights amounted to a redistribution of wealth from hard-working white men to lazy black people.
In 1970, Time magazine made Nixon’s “Middle Americans” their “Man and Woman of the Year”. They loved America and Christianity and hated the taxes that gave their money to “angry minorities”, liberals, and women who demanded equal rights.