What created the Reagan societal shift towards governmental mistrust?

First, I know governmental mistrust has always been in the background radiation of American society since its inception.

That said, I feel like I’m missing something in the timeline from the Great Depression to Reagan. I’m asking this very genuinely and very much want to know because I wasn’t alive during this time and wasn’t a part of the cultural zeitgeist of Reagan.

What I see from my vantage point is government work programs under FDR (likely) saved us and completely saved people’s lives across America. If that wasn’t enough, government GI programs in post-war America allowed for incredible opportunity for many Americans. Then the governmental programs from both LBJ and Nixon GREATLY expand civil rights in all aspects and create a system for environmental regulation so poison isn’t going straight into the waterways.

I want to emphasize that both sides that both Nixon and Johnson, on opposite sides ideologically (I’m talking in broad strokes here), expanded executive power to do this.

Then Ford and Carter come through…Carter struggles immensely with stagflation. Everyone hates his guts.

Then Reagan has this HUGE groundswell of popular support that continues to this day in many people. He rails against welfare queens. He jokes that, “The scariest sentence someone can hear is, ‘Hello I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”

So where’s the rift there? I know government mistrust has always existed in some way or another, but the jump from post-war society where GI help from the government to jobs to worker protection were very much in vogue…with that in mind, this an anti-government stance seemed to happen VERY quickly. Was it largely just an anti-Carter sentiment?

I guess my main question is how the charge of, “The government sucks, bureaucracy can’t run anything right,” isn’t answered by, “Yea, but they provide this protection, gave my dad a job, and gave me a college education.”

Remember that Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and Johnson’s “Great Society” initiatives didn’t have anything like unanimous support. A lot of the Johnson measures passed with pretty slim margins, for example.

Also, the 1970s was the period when a lot of modern anti-liberalism took shape institutionally. The Conservative Political Action Conference and the Heritage Foundation were started in 1973, and a lot of rightwing Christian organizations got together in the mid- to late '70s. Wealthy donors were nurturing laissez-faire and antigovernment sentiment on a lot of different fronts, but the building of it took time.

Well, a lot of the rhetoric has been shifted into the “unfalsifiable hypothetical” domain, largely thanks to support of the libertarian movement. Any benefit or protection the government provides is now routinely dismissed with the unsupported assertion that “the private sector would do it more efficiently and cheaply”. We’ve been fed a very hefty dose of market fundamentalism over the past few decades.

And the popular appeal of specific tangible benefits like jobs and education has been eroded partly due to resolute funding cuts for such benefits. There’s a reason that conservative legislatures typically cut funding for state universities, for instance. (Actually there are several reasons, but undermining the public belief that the government is supposed to serve the public and provide the public with useful opportunities and advantages is not the least of them.)

As this article notes:

Not really. It took a lot of time and effort, of which the current self-hamstringing anti-government Administration is just one of the natural consequences.

This is one of those things where"you had to be there." It wasn’t just one big thing, it was a lot of (substantial) things.

Vietnam was the most important event. The war seemed to just drag on, to the point where the U.S. rotated more than 3.4 million troops through southeast Asia, more than 2 million civilians drafted, and year after year of both peace initiatives and new offensives that changed nothing.

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the government knew all along that Vietnam was a failure, but lied to the public about it.

LBJ’s Great Society was widely viewed as ineffective and a huge waste of money. Nixon’s advisors actually recommended benign neglect as a better solution.

“Social experimentation” got blamed on the government. Ever hear of busing? That was the fault of the Supreme Court and all those radical liberals. Do you think it was just the South where Civil Rights was a hot button issue? In 1972 George Wallace won Democratic primaries in Maryland and Michigan. He might have won more, had he not been shot.

And all those urban riots. My wife recalls riding the bus to high school in Cleveland during the 1965 riots and having armed, uniformed soldiers on the bus with her.

1973 brought the first OPEC oil embargo, which quadrupled oil prices, never to come down to pre-crisis levels.

Then there was Watergate, which pretty much led to Carter’s election. Carter’s presidency was fouled by the Iranian hostage-taking and the second oil crisis, which doubled oil prices (which remember, had already quadrupled just six years earlier.)

And then Reagan came along with a message that Big Government was the problem and that if we could undo Big Government, everything would fix itself.

By long-term historical standards, Reagan was only semi-conservative. You have to go all the way back to Coolidge to find a real, truly-solid conservative in the White House.

There you go again…

Reagan did have certain liberal, even progressive, credentials, such as no-fault divorce, but he helped usher in the Conservative Movement, and used the Southern Strategy and the hysteria surrounding the end of tax-exempt status for segregation academies to do it. A President must be judged by the totality of his record, including the company he keeps and the fruit his party bore while he was its leader.

Oh, and under Fordney-McCumber, Coolidge raised tariffs, and salted people into the government who also favored high tariffs. His support for racial equality was socially progressive for its time, and wouldn’t make him friends among supporters of the current administration, either.

Isn’t that a libertarian position too?

Libertarians would be more about moving government out of marriage entirely.

The 1960s and 1970s were very traumatic for America. After the great success of WW2 and the economic progress of the 1950s, government tried to take on poverty and failed miserably. The Supreme Court gave criminals a whole bunch of new rights and crime exploded, the murder rate doubled in the 60s and doubled again in the 70s. Riots broke out in major cities.
After beating the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany in the 40s the US was unable to beat tiny Vietnam.
Economists had thought that high inflation and high unemployment at the same time was impossible and the 70s disproved that. Ford tried to fight high inflation with buttons.
The Pentagon papers showed how awful Johnson was and Watergate showed how awful Nixon was.
The government was spending money like never before and seemed to have no answers for the problems facing the country. When Iran took hostages the government seemed inept and impotent. Reagan’s message resonated with people because it matched what was going on in the country and offered hope and solutions. Luckily for us it worked,

That has its roots since at least Nixon, not Reagan. I was just watching a video about this, how “the villains” of Hollywood shifted to American institutions during the 70s, only to shift back to Russia/drug dealers (war on drugs), etc. in the Reagan years.

But yeah, government trust REALLY took a hit after Nixon. And conservatives haven’t trusted big government for some time. It is quite apparent through a reading of the federalist papers that the founders never envisioned the federal government getting as big and intrusive as it is now.

The late 60s to 70s was a good time to be antigovernment. Vietnam and Pentagon Papers. Unseemly government shit unearthed. Watergate may have topped it off.

Carter: solid deregulator. Even the older folks around here talk about how they “used to be libertarian” then turned pro-violence.

Reagan adopted antigovernment rhetoric. Hell may have believed it. Made America swoon for state once again. Lavishly spends money on all sorts of gambits, especially military equipment. Equipment stocked up, then “He’ll let’s use it”. Sowed seeds for 9/11.

The last vestiges of solid antigovernment sentiment stamped out in the 90s by associating the movement with right-wing terrorists and racism. Curiously, Bush elected in opposition to nation-“building” Wilsonians like Gore and Clinton.

Chickens come home to roost.

All is lost for many years.

  1. Fed-created crisis and leviathan. Public inches towards peace. Peace candidate promises goodies in addition to permanent war. Public accepts.

  2. Obama haters adopt anti state rhetoric. Just not the peace part.

  3. 2008 rerun minus crisis (extra boring). Obama’s second term: glorious inactivity (besides permanent war).

  4. Obama haters back, shedding all that fiscal stuff. Trump UFO crash-lands on state. Half of America that is supposed to hate state, now loves. Half that is supposed to love, now hates…Trump. Just Trump, not state. Still loves state. permanent war in backround

A crucial element was no-true-Scotsman definition of “Big Government” so that it describes the parts that annoy you and/or help other people at your presumed expense while excluding the parts that help you (“Get the government’s hands off my Medicare!”).

The Viet Nam War killed the trust of the public in the ability of the federal government to be straight with them about perceived needs and threats. The willingness of the 50s to accept that Communism was a huge threat and needed massive governmental taxation for defense and infrastructure programs eroded as money started being diverted to social programs that weren’t popular. But the public rejection of federal government really took off as a result of the war and the attempts of successive administrations to cover up the truth of what was going on in SE Asia. Nixon’s impeachment was just the cherry on the sundae.

I have nothing to add here because I also wasn’t alive through most of the Reagan revolution, but am following the comments with a lot of interest. I was always fascinated by this time in US history.

If anyone is interested in checking out a really good history podcast, the Road to Now’s most recent episode dealt with this exact subject. They describe how the various crises in the 70s basically set the political paradigms for the next generation, which Reagan benefited from. Worth a listen.

Simple: The government started helping black people.

That’s actually not far from what I was thinking. Liberals may have ramped up their distrust of the government because of the lies perpetuated to keep the Vietnam War going but your average, everyday blue collar white American really felt betrayed when the government stepped in to guarantee equal rights for minorities. The people who were coming of age during that time are still with us, on both sides of the political fence, and the ones on the conservative side of it have seen nothing else since than the federal government continuing to side with the people who were very “different.” That era was really the grandfather of today’s in that aspect.

The civil rights movement of the 60s was also accompanied by large increases in crime, especially black crime, riots, drug use, illegitimacy, busing, etc. The poverty rate reached its lowest point under Nixon, and then trended upward during the 70s, along with stagflation and the misery index. Nixon was a crook, Ford pardoned him and tried to beat inflation with campaign buttons, and Carter was an ineffectual bumbler who wrung his hands in the face of the Iranians and botched a rescue attempt. The Soviets were cracking down on Poland and invading Afghanistan, and all Carter could do was talk about accommodating them.

Then along came Reagan, who was an optimist. The hostages came home the very day he became President, he said we could win the Cold War, and that we could beat stagflation and the misery index. And it happened. The Soviets were peeing themselves at the thought of Star Wars, the Stinger missiles drove them out of Afghanistan, and the economy took off like a skyrocket. Missiles coming out of Europe. 16 million new jobs. Interest rates slashed. Computers, yuppies, all of it.

Was he perfect? Of course not. Was he better than Nixon or Ford or Carter? Fuck yes.


And in response, he sold them weapons and gave the money to terrorists. Win win!

This is the biggest reason.

Mostly this, but I think there is more. Especially by the 1980s almost everyone had conceded and agreed with civil rights and with a social safety net.

But damn, they just kept pushing. It is not enough that the black kid gets to go to the school in his district, but they have to bus my kid all the way across town to go to a majority black school to make up for racial discrimination that happened before he was born.

It was not enough to have a welfare system to help people through temporary bumps in the road. We are making it a way of life for large classes of people.

We have the most powerful military the world has ever seen, but Carter, Ford, and Nixon kept bumblefucking everything up and made us look silly. Vietnam? We beat Germany AND Japan at the same time 40 years prior, but we can’t beat North Vietnam? We can’t get helicopters that don’t crash in the desert?

Reagan came along and said that it was okay to be pissed off about these things. It was okay to be mad that your kids had to ride three hours on a bus each day: that didn’t mean you hated blacks. It was okay to bitch about people suckling off the system: it did not mean that you did not agree with charity to the poor. And yes, the U.S. of A. was indeed going to start kicking ass again on the international stage.

This is why Democrats lose many elections that they should win. They were correct on civil rights and taking care of the poor and elderly. They may likely prove to be right on gay marriage and abortion. But they don’t stop once they’ve won. You get legal gay marriage and then immediately start pushing for transgender bathroom access. You get legal abortion and then want to make it to where a minor can have it on demand with no input from her fit parents.

A regular guy is sitting there thinking that gay marriage might not be so bad, but then you keep hammering on him. A guy like Reagan (or Trump) tells you that it is not you that is fucked up, it is them. That gets votes.