How the right waged a 100-year war to conquer America — and why it's winning

Supreme Court's recent decisions are not isolated: They're the culmination of a long right-wing assault on America

Published July 16, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

An abortion rights activist holds a sign at a protest in support of abortion access, March To Roe The Vote And Send A Message To Florida Politicians That Abortion Access Must Be Protected And Defended, on July 13, 2022 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (John Parra/Getty Images for MoveOn)
An abortion rights activist holds a sign at a protest in support of abortion access, March To Roe The Vote And Send A Message To Florida Politicians That Abortion Access Must Be Protected And Defended, on July 13, 2022 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (John Parra/Getty Images for MoveOn)

In two blockbuster decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court throttled the power of government to regulate pollution (West Virginia v. EPA) and expanded the power of government to regulate women's reproductive lives (Dobbs v. Jackson). There is no contradiction in these two decisions. They continue a hundred years of right-wing support for private enterprise and control over women's autonomy.

The American right has held together as a political movement through its core commitment to conserving what it views as traditional Christian values and private enterprise. American conservative politics is not about limited government, states' rights, individual freedom or free markets. These are all dispensable ideas that the right has adjusted and readjusted to protect core principles. Conservatives have built their own versions of big government and carved out innumerable exceptions to free markets for tariffs, business subsidies, friendly regulations and pro-business interventions abroad. They have backed individual choice and states' rights, for example, on racial issues, but not on alcohol and drug use, pornography, contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage. In defense of core objectives, conservatives shifted from being isolationists before Pearl Harbor to aggressive warriors against communism and terrorism. They have abandoned protectionism for free trade, public education for private school vouchers, and deficit control for "supply-side" tax cuts.

Control over women's allegedly dangerous sexuality and autonomy grounds the moral appeal of conservative politics. In this view, a morally-ordered society requires a morally-ordered family, with clear lines of divinely ordained masculine authority and the containment within it of women's erotic allure. Salacious, non-motherly displays of female bodies, sex education in schools, abortion rights, easy divorces and the tolerance of homosexuality and other forms of "deviance" undercut the reproduction and orderly progress of civilization. Feminist demands since the 1920s to upset manly and womanly distinctions and erode patriarchy, through the right's lens, de-feminizes women and feminizes men, opening the family and the nation to conquest (rape) and subversion (seduction). The history of failed civilizations, conservative physician Arabella Kenealy wrote in 1922, "shows one striking feature as having been common to most of these great decadences. In nearly every case, the dominance and [sexual] license of their women were conspicuous." 

Conservative politics has had an enduring appeal to Americans seeking the clarity and comfort of absolute moral codes, clear standards of right and wrong, swift and certain penalties for transgressors and established lines of authority in public and family life. Ultimately conservatives have engaged in a struggle for control over American public life against a liberal tradition they have seen as not just wrong on issues, but sinful, un-American and corrosive of the institutions and traditions that made the nation great. To achieve their ambitious aims, conservatives had to stay disciplined, mobilize their resources and wage total war against liberals, with unconditional surrender as the only acceptable result.

During the 1920s, conservatives pioneered their programs for enforcing their vision of traditional values and protecting private enterprise, which endure today. Efforts to uphold the traditional family and control the licentiousness of women emerged in the 1920s, not just through the prohibition of alcohol but in lesser-known campaigns against sexual "deviance," "smut" and drugs, and in defense of conservative motherhood. In 1925, British historian A.F. Pollard cited the U.S. as "the rising hope of stern and unbending Tories." American laws, he said, "were not so much a means of change as a method of putting on record moral aspirations, a liturgy rather than legislation; and the statutebook was less the fiat of the State than a book of common prayer." 

The erotically charged society of the 1920s led to fears that Americans, especially the young, were falling victim to deviant sexuality, such as oral sex and homosexuality, and to the scourge of venereal disease. After World War I, however, efforts to prevent venereal disease through education and the administration of chemical prophylaxis gave way to moral uplift and law enforcement. For moral reformers of the 1920s, preventative measures only encouraged prostitution and promiscuity.

Conservative answers to venereal disease involved the restoration of the supposed moral integrity of society and the rigorous prosecution of prostitutes and other sex offenders. Congress failed to renew wartime appropriations for controlling venereal disease, and state censorship boards banned as obscene sex-education films and other forms of anti-venereal propaganda. In 1926, the federal government eliminated federal aid to the states to prevent venereal disease, while state appropriations for this purpose declined.

After World War I, the Catholic Church crusaded worldwide for moral renewal. In 1920, Pope Benedict XV warned that atrocities of war had led to "the diminution of conjugal fidelity and the diminution of respect for constituted authority. Licentious habits followed, even among young women." In 1930, his successor Pope Pius XI issued 12 rules designed to assure that "feminine garb be based on modesty and their ornament be a defense of virtue." Catholic authorities joined by evangelical white Protestants promoted in the 1920s the censorship of books, plays, movies and artwork that displayed obscenity, nudity, drinking, sex outside of wedlock, suggestive dancing, drug use, homosexuality, prostitution and love between people of different races. 

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In the 1920s, conservatives backed the closing of America's public drug treatment clinics and, as they did with venereal disease, adopted a moral and law enforcement approach to narcotics. Addicts had no recourse other than illegal sources of supply. For moral reformers, drug and alcohol use undermined the family and threatened the purity of American women. Even more than drink, however, enslavement to narcotics was understood to undercut discipline, self-mastery and the free will needed to follow a godly life. Richard P. Hobson, head of the International Narcotic Education Association, charged that civilization was "in the midst of a life and death struggle with the deadliest foe that has ever menaced its future." Narcotics threatened "the perpetuation of civilization, the destiny of the world, and the future of the human race." In 1929, Congress began the national war on drugs by establishing a Federal Bureau of Narcotics to enforce the drug laws. 

Conservative women drew on a maternalist ideology that affirmed inherent differences between the sexes and women's unique role in rearing children as healthy, moral and productive citizens. Conservative maternalists urged women of the New Era not to slip the bonds of men and custom but to reclaim their motherly responsibilities to rear courageous sons and domesticated daughters. They opposed reforms that confused sex roles, weakened families or substituted state paternalism for parental responsibility.

Conservative women warned against radicals who would rip children from the home and rear them in nurseries run by the state. The radicals would end sexual restraint and manly competition. They would feminize men and coerce women into "unnatural" masculine roles through forced work and conscription. Conservative women found dangerous sex-role reversals in women who embraced the unisex hedonism of the times: short skirts and bathing suits, bobbed hair, drinking, smoking, vigorous sports, necking and petting, and sensual music and dancing. Patriotic mothers would uphold family morals and shun the competitive male spheres of business, politics and war. Like women of Sparta, they would raise patriotic sons ready to risk their lives for the common defense. This view of women and their place in society was represented in such 1920s organizations as the Women's Auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the American Legion Auxiliary and the Daughters of 1812.

Women of the right mobilized against the first federal welfare measure, the Sheppard Towner Bill of 1921, which provided aid to the states for the health care of mothers and infants. They argued that the law would weaken families, undercut traditional values and advance paternalistic government. In the Sheppard-Towner fight, wrote editor Mary Kilbreth of the conservative publication Woman Patriot, "we have with us as allies the Constitution, and all the institutions on which … 'Western civilization is based.'"

The right's pro-business policies included the anti-government initiatives of deregulation and tax cuts. Yet they also turned to government for protective tariffs, support for foreign trade and investment, controls over strikes and labor organizing, and pro-business regulations. Our goal is "putting government behind rather than in business," Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover said in 1924. In 1926, under Hoover's guidance, the Republican Congress stabilized the struggling airline and railroad industries with the Air Commerce Act and the Railway Act. On the seas, Congress extended subsidies to shipbuilders and operators in the Merchant Marine Act of 1928. To impose order on the broadcast spectrum, Congress established a Federal Radio Commission in 1927 and let broadcasters keep or sell their existing frequencies and block competitors from sharing airtime. Republican presidents appointed pro-business jurists to regulatory agencies and the federal courts.

Support for profit-seeking enterprise may contradict the right's emphasis on moral probity. However, conservatives linked private enterprise to stable, traditional families that nurtured the virtues of thrift, sobriety, self-reliance, honor and diligence. Even as Americans evolved from savers and craftsmen to producers and consumers, conservatives sustained the linkage between family virtue and enterprise. "The whole fabric of Business rests upon these moral forces," wrote journalist Edward Bok in 1926. Cultural warfare, in turn, gave the right a mass base and a passion that economic conservatism lacks. By uniting traditional Christian values and enterprise, conservatives claim to have protected Americans' pocketbooks and saved their souls. 

Cultural and business conservatism converged forcefully again when the right regrouped in the 1970s. Conservatives then put a positive spin on their cultural prohibitionism. They weren't just against sinners and feminists; they were the "pro-family" and "pro-life" champions of wholesome "family values." Still, defense of the family meant battling the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, pornography, gay rights and gun control. Phyllis Schlafly, the prime mover of the pro-family agenda, described "the family as the basic unit of society, with certain rights and responsibilities, including the right to insist that the schools permit voluntary prayer and teach the 'fourth 'R' (right and wrong) according to the precepts of the Holy Scriptures." At a well-attended "Pro-Family Rally" that upstaged the feminist 1977 "International Year of the Woman" gathering in Houston, she warned that feminists were "going to drive the homemaker out of the home. … They want to relieve mothers of the menial task of taking care of their babies. They want to put them in the coal mines and have them digging ditches." The ERA would "only benefit homosexuals. … The American women do not want ERA, abortion, lesbian rights, and they do not want childcare in the hands of government." 

In 1971, corporate lawyer Lewis Powell issued a call to arms by conservatives shortly before his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. The "Powell Memo" guided the rebuilding of business conservatism and the presidency of Ronald Reagan. He warned that new regulations that cut across industry to limit pollution, control energy production, advance minority and consumer rights and protect worker health and safety threatened the survival of private enterprise. Powell insisted that conservatives, aided by the financial might of business, should not have "the slightest hesitation to press vigorously in all political arenas for support of the enterprise system. Nor should there be reluctance to penalize politically those who oppose it." Conservatives must aggressively capture the centers of power that shaped policy and public opinion: the political parties, the academy, the media, the courts and popular culture.

Consistent with the reformulation of cultural issues, conservatives in the 1970s put a positive spin on their pro-business policies, labeling them "supply-side economics." Entrepreneurs would create a new era of American abundance if they were free to innovate without penalty or control. They would produce enough goods and services to cure inflation, accelerate government revenue growth and reduce the deficit. Supply-side advocates promised that their bonanza to business would flow down — or "trickle down," as critics charged — to the lower strata because employment and wages would boom.

After his transformation election in 1980, President Ronald Reagan turned the supply-side dream into reality. His conservative economic policies rested on reducing tax liabilities for corporations and the wealthy, relieving businesses of civil rights, environmental, and economic regulations, cutting social spending and curbing the power of labor unions. It was a blueprint that the right would follow through today.

The history of the modern American conservative movement demonstrates that the Dobbs and EPA decisions are not aberrations. In fact, they realize priorities that the right has pursued since the 1920s. The only change is a right-wing grip on the Supreme Court that is unprecedented in modern American history. The court will likely extend its curtailment of air pollution regulation to water pollution in the upcoming case of Sackett v. EPA. And despite surface disagreement from other justices, it is also likely to follow Justice Clarence Thomas' call for reconsidering the rights to contraception, private sexual encounters and same-sex marriage. Given the right's quest for absolute power, it would not be surprising if the court then grants state legislatures — controlled by Republicans in key swing states — exclusive control over federal elections.

By Allan J. Lichtman

Allan J. Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington, and the author of "White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement."

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