It seems to me the United States has generally become more liberal (by the modern American definition) over time. It has more civil rights, taxation, welfare, secularism, and government programs now than it did 50 years ago.

For example, racial segregation was still legal up until 1964. Religious affiliation has decreased by 11% since the early 1970s, and those with no religious identification have become the second largest category of religious identity.

And it was more liberal at that time than 50 years before that. And before that. And before that. All the way up until the founding of the country.

Have there been any periods of time 20 years or longer where the US has become more conservative? (That is, "less liberal" as liberal is described above.) When were they? What policies were enacted? Were those policies reversed?

  • 2
    I'd definitely look to the Reagen Era (a little shorter than 20 years), the Eisenhower Era, and the Gilded Age (Reconstruction to the Progressive Era) Feb 22, 2013 at 11:34
  • 2
    @AffableGeek - arguably, Reagan era wasn't quite the bastion of conservatist times nearly as much as either liberals or conservatives like to imagine, both fiscally and socially :) Tax raises, government growth, illegal alien amnesty, zero presidential action on abortion.
    – user4012
    Feb 22, 2013 at 14:02
  • @Chad I was under the impression that civil rights, taxation, welfare, and the other things I listed were liberal policies. I'll see if I can find a link to back that up.
    – Eva
    Feb 22, 2013 at 19:30
  • 1
    Prohibition would be an example of a conservative period.
    – user1530
    Apr 16, 2013 at 20:48
  • 1
    @Eva, still going to have the same problems. For example, what is the liberal position on economic freedom? Liberals are for people keeping more of their money, and are against higher taxes, welfare, and probably "government programs." The OP question states that those specific positions are liberal. So is the conservative position supposed to be the opposite of the liberals position on economic freedom, or specifically against the positions stated above?
    – user1873
    Apr 24, 2013 at 14:40

3 Answers 3


Well, first off you are going to have difficulty with the term conservative, since it isn't well defined.

Conservatism (Latin: conservare, "to retain") is a political and social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions. A person who follows the philosophies of conservatism is referred to as a traditionalist or conservative. [...] The term, historically associated with right-wing politics, has since been used to describe a wide range of views. There is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative, because the meaning of conservatism depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time.

So, maybe you just meant, "Whatever the Republican Party believed at the time." If so, there have been several periods of time of sustained "conservatism."

For starters, the Republican Party was formed from the defunct Whig party (possibly the original conservatives), to oppose the Southern Democrats who wished to continue the social institution of slavery. I guess this begs the question, who were the conservatives?

Founded by anti-slavery activists in 1854, it dominated politics nationally for most of the period from 1860 to 1932. There have been 18 Republican presidents, the first being Abraham Lincoln, serving from 1861-1865

Founded in the Northern states in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, modernizers, ex-Whigs and ex-Free Soilers, the Republican Party quickly became the principal opposition to the dominant Southern Democratic Party [...] The Northern Republicans saw the expansion of slavery as a great evil. The first public meeting where the name "Republican" was suggested for a new anti-slavery party

The Republican Party dominance lasted until the repeal of Prohibition. Both Democrats and Republicans helped pass Prohibition, which was a major cause of the Progressive Movement, but the wet Democrats repealed it. The other major Progressive cause was Woman's Suffrage, that the Republicans heavily supported.

On May 21, 1919, it was passed, 304 to 89, (Republicans 200-19 for, Democrats 102-69 for, Union Labor 1-0 for, Prohibitionist 1-0 for),[70] 42 votes more than necessary being obtained. On June 4, 1919, it was brought the Senate, and after a long discussion it was passed, with 56 ayes and 25 nays (Republicans 36-8 for, Democrats 20-17 for)

Once again, you have a question of who the conservatives are? The Progressives that wanted the radical change in voting, and who wanted moral and economic control of all Americans to bring about the great social revolution?

Progressivism was, to a great extent, the culmination of the pietist Protestant political impulse, the urge to regulate every aspect of American life, economic and moral – even the most intimate and crucial aspects of family life. But it was also a curious alliance of a technocratic drive for government regulation, the supposed expression of "value-free science," and the pietist religious impulse to save America – and the world – by state coercion.

Pietists and "progressives" united to control the material and sexual choices of the rest of the American people, their drinking habits, and their recreational preferences. Their values, the very nurture and education of their children, were to be determined by their betters. The spiritual, biological, political, intellectual, and moral elite would govern, through state power, the character and quality of American family life

Then you have the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which lead the Republicans into dominating the south after the Jim Crow Democrats were unable to block Republican efforts to bring equality to blacks in the south.

The Original House version:
    Democratic Party: 152–96   (61–39%)
    Republican Party: 138–34   (80–20%)
Cloture in the Senate:
    Democratic Party: 44–23   (66–34%)
    Republican Party: 27–6   (82–18%)
The Senate version:
    Democratic Party: 46–21   (69–31%)
    Republican Party: 27–6   (82–18%)
The Senate version, voted on by the House:
    Democratic Party: 153–91   (63–37%)
    Republican Party: 136–35   (80–20%)

So, who are the conservatives?

Without knowing what you mean by conservatives, it is difficult to determine how long conservatism was sustained.

  • 2
    Good analysis and historical support Apr 17, 2013 at 2:56
  • Wow! That was very thorough. I knew the Republican Party were the real liberals before the 1970s, but I didn't know all that. Since you mention Republican dominance ending at the repeal of Prohibition does that mean the 1930s through 1960s were a more conservative time?
    – Eva
    Apr 25, 2013 at 23:20

There was a 20-25 year period of "greater" conservatism before the Civil War that may well have led to the Civil War.

In 1828-1832, President Andrew Jackson waged, and won a war against "big" (nationwide) banks. https://sites.google.com/site/thebankwarapush/jackson-vs-biddle

In 1837, a bunch of small banks collapsed, paving the way for "big" banks to gain traction. This led to the funding of large enterprises such as railroads (and much later) to the rise of megabanks headed by the likes of JP Morgan. (His namesake bank is now considered "too big to fail.")

In th 1850s, it looked like slavery was going to spread NORTH. The "Missouri Compromise of 1820 was that there would be no more new slave states north of 36 30' north latitude (the southern boundary of Missouri). Stephen Douglas' "Kansas-Nebraska" Act threatened to allow slavery in Kansas, north of that line. In 1857, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was strengthened by a Supreme Court ruling that Dred Scot, a slave bought in the South and taken to the North were still a slave, who had to be returned to his master. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dred_Scott

It took the Civil War to eliminate the increasing "tolerance" of slavery. The changes in banking policies after 1837 were NEVER reversed.

  • If you can, it would be helpful to have some references. There's a lot of detail here.
    – JNK
    Apr 16, 2013 at 17:58
  • @JNK: I've added a couple links.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 16, 2013 at 18:50
  • 1. How are banking policies related to conservatism (modern or 1800s)? 2. What does Dred Scott and slavery have to do with conservatism? (see user1873's answer for details on that)
    – user4012
    Apr 17, 2013 at 16:22
  • @TomAu - if OP defined "conservatism" as desire to eat brains of infants, would you work with that definition too?
    – user4012
    Apr 21, 2013 at 1:54
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    DVK: In 1860, the Republican party was the LEFT party and the Democrats were the "conservative" party. Post Jackson, there was a trend in favor of "conservative" (by the OP's defintion), Democrats. The "liberal" Republican party reversed a 20-30 year trend in 1860.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 21, 2013 at 20:08

Here is a graph of the US's congress since the country was created. This uses the DW-NOMINATE scale, which is, in theory, unbiased. The only time it swung far to right was during the Civil War, and the only time it swung far to the left was during the Great Depression. Otherwise, it's been more or less even between the two sides.

  • Cool! I've never heard of the DW-NOMINATE before. Ironically, the Civil War produced very liberal policies (for the time) despite the extreme swing to the right. Curious why that is, but that would be a whole 'nother question.
    – Eva
    May 1, 2013 at 1:27
  • This is exactly the right source for answering this question, and I'm kicking myself for not using it. (DWNominate is widely known to statisticians, and is often use by, say, Nate Silver). May 1, 2013 at 16:55

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