Meaning of "Conservative" and "Liberal" in the Sixties

I’m hoping to keep this GQ, but I recognize that may be difficult.

I’m just wondering which–if any–political groups and political views were given the labels, respectively, of “conservative” and “liberal” back in the 60’s. (Probably there can be relevant and interesting information about the 50’s and 70’s as well.)


Are you limiting this to the United States? – because there were (and still are) political parties with the names “Liberal” and “Conservative” in them, in the UK, Canada and Australia, to mention but a few.

Oops, I meant only to be referring to the U.S.



Conservative - the Barry Goldwater wing of the Republican party

Liberal - the McCarthy/McGovern wing of the Democratic party

I was in elementary school in the 60s, and they taught us that liberals supported change and conservatives supported the status quo. It seemed to fit at the time, but it certainly makes no sense now.

Liberal - the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party.

Conservative - Most Southern Democrats.

Note that Goldwaterites hated Nixon because he was liberal-to-moderate (yikes!). Nixon started the EPA, formed the welfare state that somehow previous presidents got the blame for, etc.

InvisibleWombat has the long-term historical meaning correct. It applied more-so during the 1960s.

Stances on individual issues swing back and forth all the time. Take isolationism vs. interventionism. Conservatives have swung back and forth on the issue at least a half dozen times since 1940. But for most the 1960s, both groups were interventionists up until the late 1960s when liberals became more isolationist. (But conservatives “caught up” with them by 1974.)

Aligning conservative/liberal exclusively with particular parties is a very recent “Big Lie.”

Sixties politics were so different than today’s that it’s difficult to do them justice unless you lived through them.

However, here’s an extremely oversimplified version of the way they were up through 1964.

All post WWII politics centered on your stance on Communism. As with today’s attitudes on the war on terrorism, those who believed that any and all measures not only could but must be taken against the Communist menace were conservatives and those who believed that preserving American values and civil rights were as important as our safety were liberals. Isolationism was a long-standing thread in conservative politics but had mostly been discredited by WWII and was thrown out after the Korean War.

Also as with today, other, mostly domestic, political issues confused the subject. Conservatives were strongly states rights, small government advocates. Liberals mostly believed that, following the model of the New Deal and the war planning boards, not just government intervention but government planning could solve major social problems.

These cut across party lines. There was a liberal - mostly but not entirely Northeastern - wing of the Republican Party and a conservative - mostly but not entirely southern - wing of the Democratic Party. Because of these wings, mainstream politics was indeed far more bipartisan than anything dreamed possible today. They could be no playing to the “base” when the base included people diametrically opposed to any proposition.

The 60s changed everything. People get tired of hearing this, I know. For some reason they keep blaming the baby boomers, though, which is ludicrous because almost every social change, including rock music, was led by people who were born before 1946. This is so obvious that it should go without saying - 18 year olds couldn’t even vote in 1964 so no baby boomers were involved in that election - but you hear a constant drumbeat of this nonsense.

No matter. The 60s changed everything. Especially politics. Barry Goldwater’s run in 1964 was the last campaign to directly reference the Cold War as a primary issue. Johnson was going to win in any case because of the Kennedy legacy but the public decisively rejected forceful anti-Communism as the dominant Republican issue in 1964. Because of that, younger conservative groups started working toward a new coalition of American values ideas to champion.

However, the Civil Rights movement along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed the social equation. The Solid South - so-called because mostly virulently racist Democrats used race as an instrument of control since Reconstruction - had been fighting Civil Rights for decades but the pictures of them doing so on television had finally brought the rest of the country to awareness of the ugliness and made a fight against them possible. (Never say anything nice about Hoover’s FBI, but he realistically had his agents ignore racial cases in the south because he knew he would get no, zero, cooperation from southern law enforcement or from his political bosses.)

Lyndon Johnson took on this fight and won. He broke the power of the southern Senators. (A few years later seniority rules in the Senate were changed to break them of their control of committees as well.) He knew what this would do to the Democratic Party - he said it would lose them the South for 25 years - and he only underestimated the reaction.

Then came Vietnam. To get it down to a sentence, let’s just say that the disillusionment of the effects of government power - brought to its logical end with Nixon and his crimes - radicalized the left, while the attacks on government and values radicalized the right.

One result was that the wings of the parties both collapsed: the liberal Republicans and the conservative Democrats no longer had constituencies because they no longer had any power and vice versa.

The other result was structural. Urban areas had long been more liberal than rural areas, but urban cores emptied out in the 50s and 60s as the suburban population exploded and the urban cores because heavily minority as a result. Suburban areas became mostly Republican in all areas of the country. But at the same time the movement toward the Sun Belt started, and the Sun Belt included all the states in which Republicans inherited, usually implicitly, the racial politics of the conservative whites. Almost overnight the Solid South was solidly Republican. Kevin Phillips, in The Emerging Republican Majority (1969) forecast this and coined the term Sun Belt.

This led to today’s political world. Aligning conservative/liberal with the two political parties is not a “Big Lie” but an exact description of the reality of the past quarter century. Each side has majorities in specific areas and reflect this in Congress, and each side has roughly 40% of the population with the other 20% deciding all Presidential elections. Bipartisanship is almost nonexistent because neither party has opposing wings to placate. The center is mostly apolitical and sways with current issues so it can be moved by appeals to special interests and negative imagery. It’s the worst political atmosphere of my lifetime and I say this having lived through Vietnam and Nixon.

Only a major cultural shift will change the political associations, but that’s GD territory, even if I don’t have the faintest idea of what this shift might be.

Excellent post Exapno!

golf clap

Bear in mind that conservatism has always at its core been about preserving tradition. Liberalism is simply a willingness to challenge that.

In the 60s, liberals reffered to the institutions which preserved traditions–and the traditions which preserved the institutions–collectively as “The Establishment”. This includes the government–epecially the military and law enforcement–as well as the church, school, big business, and one’s parents.

It’s also important to point out that there was a significant dichotomy between liberalism, which wanted to work for reforms within the system, and radicalism, which wanted to overthrow the system and start over. In the light of this, it’s improper to equate liberalism with “the far left” because moderation is part of the definition of liberalism.

And this is different from today…how? Just change one word. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

I made one possibly pointless nitpick, Exapno, but don’t get me wrong, your overall post was very well done.

As a curious footnote to the conservative “states’ rights” trope, the recent controversies over medicinal marijuana have put the states’ rights bong on the other foot. Now the conservative forces in the federal government and the DEA are cracking down on the rights of states to legalize medicinal marijuana. Is it ironic… or just a normal political issue alignment shift?

I have a related puzzlement about “conservative/liberal” or “right/left” terms at the end of the 1980s and early '90s, when Communism was collapsing in so many countries at once.

The Soviet hard-liners who were for the Communist system were called “conservatives.” Way there, political journalists. How soon you have forgotten that “conservative” used to mean anti-Communist. Now you’ve flipped it 180. If they keep doing this, how will anyone know what the heck anyone else is talking about? The meanings of words are a social compact. We trust one another, or at least we trust journalists, to use words in their commonly understood meanings, so as not to confuse us.

Since I say explicitly that it’s the same, I don’t think it’s different at all.

How are you reading it otherwise?

I am so sorry, my eyes must have skimmed too fast, seeing the part where you said it was different, missing where you said it was the same. I gotta slow down reading and posting here, rushing too much.

No problem.

We simulposted before, so I missed your next post.

The usage of conservative in that sense is the same one that InvisibleWombat gave: conservatives support the status quo. This is a more general terminology that isn’t peculiar to individual situations. The stances of conservatives and liberals in various countries may have little consistency and may not correspond to the way the terms are used locally, but everyone understands that forces against progressive change are conservatives.

State’s rights is a more complicated terminology. Historically in the U.S. it became bound up with the protection of slavery and then Jim Crow laws. It also was used for state prohibition before national prohibition was passed. IOW, it tended to be a shorthand euphemism for restricting rights. The Populist and Progressive movement passed any number of state laws increasing rights that were only much later taken up nationally - minimum wages, child labor, working conditions - but didn’t do this under the banner of state’s rights.

Today’s terminology fits these broad categories. Prohibiting gay marriage (restricting rights) is justified by calling it state’s rights, but medical marijuana or doctor-assisted suicide advocates seldom use the term, because they are adding rights over the federally protected minimum.

Neither is confusing in the context of history, but context is always lacking in today’s political battles.

Actually, the issue is confused. There’s a major break within the Republican party over libertarian/states’ rights and other conservatives on this very thing. A lot of conservatives (in all sense of the world) despise mind-altering drugs, even down to alchohol. The current administration opposes it, and even more tolerant ones will, until such time as Congress changes its collective mind.

Such are the dangers of a Big Tent party. But it works as well as any other idea.

I’m not sure how this fits in/ overlaps, but one of the threads of the 60’s that seems to get lost in the conversations is the one that emphasized the importance of the individual. And I connect it with many of the various political liberal imperatives, although, as I say, I can’t quite find the glue. There was a good deal of anti-authoritarianism. Don’t trust anyone over 30. Question Authority. Think for yourself. Be an individual. Don’t go along with the crowd. The idea that things had always been done a certain way didn’t necessarily mean that they had to continue the same way. This, I suppose, means a break with conservatism in the sense that conservatism means conserving tradition. In any case, I remember a powerful surge of individual spirit suffusing much of the social resistance and rhetoric of the day, and I clearly associate it with the left.

Thanks for the extended post, Exapno.

Do I understand correctly that it is fair to boil out a short answer to my original question from your post as follows:

‘In the sixties, in general, “conservative” was applied to views that centered on protection from external threat and on the importance of "states’ rights,"* while “liberal” was applied to views that centered on protection of civil liberties and the legitimacy and importance of gov’t programs implemented at a level larger than that of the single state?’

*Where I’d like to see the domain of issues that go under the rubric “states’ rights” more clearly delineated.

Also, do you know some good reading directly relevant to the question I ask in my OP?

Finally, the immediate practical interest I have on this question involves discussions I find myself in from time to time, wherein it is postulated that we know the Democrats of the south in the sixties to have been racists, bigots, separationists, or whatever, and that this therefore is part of my heritage as a Liberal and I should own up to it. I’m looking for a set of facts about the application of labels in the sixties for the purpose of evaluating this claim. Comments on this are welcome. Was it considered, at the time, a “liberal value” to believe blacks should be kept separate from whites, and/or that blacks are in some way inferior to whites, or whatever? Did those who held to these beliefs call themselves liberals or conservatives? Did others call these people liberals or conservatives? Or were those labels not considered relevant to this set of issues at the time?



Democrat =/= Liberal

I think most people today would consider the type of Southern Democrat you’re describing to be pretty conservative.

Generally speaking the terms liberal and conservative just weren’t used that much back then except when pertaining to Communism. Nobody thought the southern Democrats’ stance on racial politics was a liberal quality. If somebody is saying that today, they are trolling.

That the South was Democratic was no more than a holdover from the pre-war south.

Calling one party liberal and the other conservative makes little to no sense historically. The Democrats in the North were virtually an entirely separate party from those in the South. Northern Democrats tended to be urban immigrant ethnics controlled by the political machines. In some ways they were more liberal, in that they called for workers’ rights and limits to discrimination, but they were socially conservative in many ways.

The Republicans were liberal in their stance against the racist south but were always the party of business and money, which are inherently conservative.

Yet it was Teddy Roosevelt-style Republicanism that took up the liberal positions of the Progressives, at least in part, but worked with an extremely conservative Republican Congress. But the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan can also be considered liberal at that point in trying to battle business dominated interests but conservative in that they were fighting the new industrialized capitalism.

Was Woodrow Wilson a liberal Democrat who kept the Progressive positions that the Republicans abandoned after Roosevelt or was he a southern racist whose administration did more to harm civil rights than all but a few others? He was both. Blacks, remember, were almost 100% Republicans in those days. Does that make them conservative or liberal?

You cannot talk about the parties and political wings as they stand today while going back farther than the 1920s. That was a conservative period nationally but highly liberal in urban areas, which were then at their height. Roosevelt’s response to the Depression followed and led the cultural change that moved almost all outsiders, the poor, and Blacks into the Democratic ranks. Unions finally were allowed to operate freely and with manufacturing America also at its height, they gained unprecedented and short-lived power, and mostly allied themselves with the Democrats. (Earlier they had gone for splinter parties like the Progressives, Socialists, and Communists.)

The only major change since then is the explosion of the middle classes and the relative shrinking of the poor, with the concomitant movement of the upwardly mobile into the Republican camp. Republicans have always been the business/money party and with more people - a larger percentage, too, whether you believe it or not - better off than ever in history, the tendency toward Republican voting is obvious.

No matter that the economists insist that the economy is doing fine, the uncertainties of the future globalization - one of the top five major swings in all American history - will change the current alignments but in unpredictable ways.

The current liberal/conservative split is a recent and transient phenomenon. It is a blip in the historic record. That’s all that anyone can say about it.

I’ll try to see if I can come up with some titles that speak directly to this.

But Map, wouldn’t you now say that at least the Republican party is conservative in general for the most part? And wouldn’t you say that for the most part, people who call themselves conservative politically, either in terms of foreign, domestic, economic or social policy will align themselves with the Republican party? I don’t know how to understand the people who call themselves moderate Democrats, because their politics appear to be defined by traditional conservative politics. The piece this weekend in the New York Times Magazine profiling Mark Warner gave me pause. It called him a Democrat, of course, but he justified many of his positions not in terms of a social ethic, but in terms of business, profits, and international economic competitiveness. The association with big business and large scale economic forces, I believe, are today connections that are most closely allied with Republicans and conservatives. I think he is a Republican, too. I do not know what liberal means today in terms of political parties.