After losing the GOP Presidential nomination in 1968, Ronald Reagan swept to victory in 1980 with the help of right wing strategists who helped create a new coalition of economic and religious conservatives.
Remembering the New Right
Richard J. Meagher teaches political science at Marymount Manhattan College. His article “Tax Revolt as a Family Value: How the Christian Right is Becoming A Free Market Champion” appeared in the winter 2006 issue of Public Eye.
When the Washington Post ran an obituary for Paul Weyrich on its front page last December, the casual reader could be forgiven for not recognizing the name. But those who followed conservative politics inside Washington probably approved of the significant placement. Weyrich was the creator or co-creator of a dozen prominent conservative institutions over the past 35 years, and hosted weekly meetings over that span where conservative activists and government officials shared ideas and strategies with each other. While no single person is responsible for the striking success of conservative policies and politics since the 1970s, Weyrich probably comes closest to deserving that credit.
Weyrich was at the center of what in the Reagan era was called the “New Right.” This moniker, typically contrasted with the “Old Right” of Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater, is often misunderstood. Many journalists and scholars have misused the term to refer to conservatism in general, or included as part of it conservative leaders who are wholly unrelated.  But the “New Right” refers to a force that is both smaller and of greater scope than conservatism as a whole. Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, herself often placed under the New Right umbrella, called the phrase “a term of art for the Weyrich group,”  demarcating a handful of conservative operatives. But it also indicates something greater than just a group of individuals. The New Right not only helped bring conservatives to national power in the late 1970s, but changed the nature of the Republican Party and partisan politics in Washington for decades to follow.
Republican politics today, at least at the domestic level, centers on an alliance between free market economics and Christian cultural conservatism. It was the New Right that opened the door to the social issue activists and Christian evangelicals who now make up the Republican voter base. Just as significantly, these operatives harnessed the energy of the new wave of conservatism during the 1970s to propel the GOP back into national governing power. Without Reagan, of course, there was no Reagan Revolution; but it is hard to see how the revolution happened without Weyrich and his colleagues, either.
Today in the apparent age of Obama, conservative forces may seem headed back to the 1950s, a time when free market, small government standard bearers were marginalized except when hunting Communists. (Even GOP victories during that period were led by establishment moderates like Eisenhower, who basically accepted New Deal economic reforms such as Social Security, corporate regulation, and a stronger federal role in governance.) But the Republicans now seem determined to stick with the New Right playbook, no matter the cost. With Weyrich gone, and the rest of his colleagues also dead or marginalized, it is a good time to look back and see exactly what the New Right accomplished – and what their legacy might mean for today’s Republican politics.
What Was the New Right?
The “New Right” refers both to a movement and a group of like-minded conservative activists who came together in the 1970s and built an effective political force for the Republican Party out of existing networks. There were five key strategists: Weyrich, the institution-builder; Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail fundraising guru; Morton Blackwell, a Republican insider who worked for Viguerie; grassroots organizer Howard Phillips; and Terry Dolan, who headed the group’s political action committee. Almost all had cut their political teeth during Barry Goldwater’s presidential run of the previous decade. As Blackwell later recounted, “All of us had something to do with the Goldwater campaign. We weren’t high enough in the campaign to know each other, but our involvement with Goldwater credentialed us for each other.”  Blackwell had been a 1964 GOP delegate for Goldwater from his native Louisiana—in fact, the youngest delegate at the San Francisco convention—and later became executive director of the College Republicans. Youth organizations, in fact, were where many New Right figures learned the art of politics; Viguerie had gotten his start fundraising for the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a conservative youth group shepherded by William F. Buckley, Jr.  Viguerie later started raising money for conservative candidates for Congress.
In 1972, the key moment for the New Right happened when fellow YAF member Lee Edwards—later unofficial historian of the conservative movement—introduced Viguerie to Blackwell. Viguerie had already developed a reputation as a prodigious fundraiser, building a bedrock conservative mailing list from the federal election records of Goldwater donors.  As Blackwell noted later, “It was rumored that he had behind his desk a large faucet that he could turn on, and money would come out for whatever campaign he worked for.” But by the early 1970s, Viguerie’s agenda had broadened: he told Blackwell, “Morton, I want you to come help me build the conservative movement.” 
Blackwell introduced Viguerie to Terry Dolan, who was then active in the Young Republicans, and Paul Weyrich. While he had served as a staffer for prominent Senate Republicans, Weyrich also made a second career out of developing conservative counters to liberal institutions. For example, he helped launch the Heritage Foundation think tank in the early 1970s to provide a conservative counterpoint to the then-liberal Brookings Institution, and the conservative Republican Study Committee in Congress to offset a similar liberal caucusing organization on the Democratic side.
The New Right began to make themselves known during the early to mid-1970s. Weyrich began hosting official coalition meetings in 1973, and Viguerie held his own strategy sessions as well. Viguerie and Blackwell also restarted the national Conservative Political Action Conference that lay dormant after the Goldwater defeat, creating a more formal venue for conservatives to strategize and make political connections. The group’s efforts at building a national coalition brought them into contact with former Nixon administration official Howard Phillips, whose Conservative Caucus acted as a grassroots conduit from Washington to conservatives across the nation.
By 1977, a Newsweek article grouped the New Right crew in with Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly as forces that were stirring up grassroots conservative action. In the article, Weyrich noted that “Conservatives have been led by an intellectual movement but not a practical movement up to now.” He and other conservatives, he argued, were moving aggressively to correct that deficit.  Schlafly's talent, in part, was her ability to translate conservative ideas to grassroots activists and motivate them to achieve political goals. She mobilized women from outside of the Republican Party structure while brokering a peace with the stalwart conservative women loyalists she knew from her days as vice president of the National Federation of Republican Women. 
To supplement their networking and grassroots organizing, the New Right also issued a number of publications for both grassroots conservatives and Washington elites, including Viguerie’s New Right Report newsletter and Conservative Digest magazine, as well as Phillips’ voting guides and newsletters.
More importantly, the New Right began to seek out alliances with sympathetic Republicans. Some observers felt that the New Right intended from the beginning to form a conservative political organization outside of the two-party system.  Such an urge would have been understandable. Phillips, for example, had earned his conservative bona fides by resigning his post as head of Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity when the President failed to veto Democratic social programs. (In the 1990s, Phillips finally abandoned the GOP when he founded the U.S. Taxpayers, now Constitution, Party.) Still, the New Right had too many ties to the Republican Party to forsake their best chance to overturn liberal, New Deal programs. Weyrich and Blackwell were long-time Republican operatives, and the New Right used their connections to help GOP conservatives. For instance, Viguerie had assisted Jesse Helms in building the National Congressional Club, which distributed money to GOP candidates. Toward the end of the 1970s, Representative Phil Crane hosted weekly meetings of conservative activists, including New Right figures,  and Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt sponsored New Right-approved “pro-family” legislation in the House. 
The New Right’s ties to the GOP became manifest in 1978, when they threw all of their resources into defeating entrenched liberal Democrats in the mid-term Congressional elections. Dolan’s National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) money was fed by Viguerie’s direct mail operation. These funds combined with Viguerie’s and Phillips’ ability to communicate with grassroots conservative voters, as well as Weyrich’s and Blackwell’s organizing in Washington, to promote conservative GOP candidates. As a result, the 1978 elections brought 30 new Congressional representatives to Washington, many of them self-identified conservatives. (The new class included a former history professor from Georgia with the unlikely name of Newt Gingrich.) This conservative victory was further cemented two years later by the election of former California Governor Ronald Reagan, whom the New Right wholeheartedly supported as a fellow traveler.
By knocking the Democratic establishment on its ear, the New Right changed the tenor of politics in Washington, especially for long-suffering conservatives. Weyrich and his colleagues helped remind the right wing of something that seems obvious in retrospect, but was somewhat lost at the time. As Viguerie noted a few months before the 1978 election, Conservatives can win. Two generations of defeat conditioned many conservatives to accept defeat as inevitable.... But the nearly frantic liberal reaction to the New Right phenomenon has changed many conservatives’ expectations. Most New Right leaders have cheerful, optimistic attitudes.... They look for ways to win rather than excuses for losing. Your opposition isn’t superhuman. You can win. 
Viguerie, never one to play down his own role, often hinted that he and his colleagues deserved credit for the Reagan victory. He wrote in 1981 that “America is basically a conservative country. The potential for conservative revolt has always been there, under the most favorable conditions. But those conditions have to be made. That's where the New Right [came] in.”  Still, while his claims might be overblown, it is clear in hindsight that the New Right—at the very least—helped make the “Reagan Revolution” possible.
But beyond their contributions to GOP electoral victories in 1978 and 1980, two other key accomplishments of the crew changed the nature of the Republican Party, and American politics, even more dramatically. Nixon had heartily mobilized racial grievances of White Americans for the GOP; since Reagan, conservative politics has also built on appeals to social issues like abortion and gay rights. It was the New Right who put these social issues on the GOP agenda, and it was they who brought the chief targets of these policies—the Religious Right—into the Republican coalition, thus ushering in almost thirty years of conservative dominance over American politics.
Another way the New Right differed from their Old Right predecessors was in their recognition of the power and importance of grassroots voters and issues. As Lee Edwards later recalled, “there was a populist element—a very strong element—that was not present in the traditional conservatives. The New Right was much more consciously populist.”  But the New Right was only taking advantage of a national trend, again inspired by the 1960s Left, of grassroots action. A host of “single-issue” groups, only some of which identified as conservative, rose up across the country to address a number of issues, from taxes to abortion. The Democratic Party’s growing identification with the liberal social movements of the era made it hard for them to be responsive to many of these issues, but successive Republican administrations were not much help, either. The New Right harnessed this part of the “populist revolt” after Nixon and Ford ignored the needs of grassroots anti-tax and other single issue conservatives. 
Weyrich and his colleagues organized a diverse array of interests into a conservative coalition during the 1970s. For example, foreign policy issues were very much on conservatives’ minds in the middle of the decade: these included the Panama Canal treaties, opposition to which Viguerie had helped organize, and the fight against global communism. In a recent interview, Phillips recalled that the Canal, the SALT arms accord, and the development of a nuclear missile defense system (the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” program that Reagan eventually funded) were major concerns of the New Right during the period.  This foreign policy component helped the New Right forge alliances with neoconservative intellectuals who eventually developed Reagan’s hard-line anticommunism into a coherent foreign policy. 
Still, foreign policy was not the chief concern of the New Right. Instead, Weyrich and his colleagues aggressively sought to add so-called “social” issues to the Republican agenda, hoping to bind related “pro-family” and socially motivated voters to the Party. The social component of the New Right was so prominent that Virginia Armstrong, later head of the CourtWatch program for Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, actually defined the group in terms of their social conservatism in 1981. The New Right coalition, she wrote, was “a loose, voluntary coalition of groups... united in their objective of reasserting traditional Judeo-Christian principles as the underpinning of American government and politics.”  Writing for the journal of the Christian Legal Society, Armstrong recognized the importance of economic and foreign policy issues to the group, but argued that moral issues were the most prominent in the 1980 election, in part because of the New Right’s efforts. Weyrich in particular recognized that an expanded agenda that included such issues would not only mobilize new groups, but could help the Republican Party retain support while the economy it was managing was mired in a severe recession. 
The New Right’s socially conservative bent was reinforced by Reagan’s seeming reluctance to act on social issues at the beginning of his Presidency. Just a few months after Reagan took office, Viguerie publicly warned that conservatives would not back Reagan in a battle over tax cuts for the wealthy that would supposedly promote economic growth—not because they disagreed with the President’s “supply side” tax plan, but because they had other priorities.  It appeared to Viguerie that their chief concerns—abortion, opposition to gay rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, abstinence education, and other family issues—were starting to be pushed from the GOP agenda. The New Right saw themselves as spokesmen for pro-family groups in Washington, and accordingly tried to hold the GOP’s feet to the fire.
Not all single-issue groups were happy to be incorporated in this fashion. A 1981 Time article suggested that some prolife groups, for instance, were troubled by their association with the New Right. Roman Catholic groups particularly were uneasy with the new alliance; while opposing abortion, they opposed many other New Right positions, for instance on the economy.  Thea Rossi Barron, a lobbyist with the Catholic National Right to Life Coalition, left the organization in the late 1970s after it joined the New Right in trying to block the Equal Rights Amendment. The prolife movement needed both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, to achieve its goals, Barron argued.  Still other groups, however, were happy to join up, at least for a time; although she later expressed regrets over the move, Judie Brown’s (also largely Roman Catholic) American Life League was a staunch ally of Weyrich throughout the 1980s. 
Besides incorporating single-issue groups into the Republican coalition, the other key innovation of the New Right was its targeting of Christian evangelicals, who had been relatively quiescent since the Scopes trial early in the 20th century. Still, there had been signs of a political awakening among evangelicals as early as the 1950s, and the New Right again was able to take advantage of existing political trends. In the postwar decades, the political ties of preachers such as Billy Graham helped remind evangelicals of the world of politics, while Graham’s friend Richard Nixon made early efforts to court White evangelicals, recognizing their importance to his Southern Strategy of wooing Democrats to the GOP.  The social causes that spurred the New Right’s issue groups also pulled in evangelicals as they became more open to political action. Abortion originally was almost the sole concern of Catholic groups until the anti-abortion book and video production of theologian Francis Schaefer and future Surgeon General C. Everett Koop helped bring the issue to evangelicals in the late 1970s. 
Another key moment was the Carter administration’s effort to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory admission policy (an effort eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983). The Internal Revenue Service also pursued Goldsboro Christian School, which was founded in 1963 with the idea that the mixing of races violated God’s plan. These battles helped trigger a revolt among White Southern evangelicals who maintained separate religious schools that were functionally exclusionary even when technically open to all races.  Equally importantly, evangelicals were enraged by feminism and its allies in government, as a number of battles over school textbooks, sex education, and the ERA convinced evangelical women and men that feminists were out to dramatically restructure the American family order. 
Still, despite all this political commotion, evangelicals were not well organized politically, and nowhere near a solid conservative voting bloc. Many had supported Carter in 1976 due to his avowed evangelical faith and identification as “born again.” The New Right, however, hoped to claim evangelicals for its own. Weyrich had been eyeing them as a significant new Republican constituency, and for years had tried to convince Southern preachers of the importance of political action. In 1977 Howard Phillips and Weyrich associate Ed McAteer, a former toothpaste salesman-turned-conservative activist, traveled around the country visiting Christian leaders and preachers, attempting to recruit them to the conservative cause. 
But by far the most famous meeting occurred in 1979, when Weyrich led a New Right delegation, including Phillips, McAteer, and another Weyrich associate and preacher, Bob Billings, to the Virginia coast to recruit a well-known Baptist minister to the New Right. Morton Blackwell later described the genesis of the meeting:
We looked at the national politically and theologically conservative leaders, and there were a few of them, and we identified the one most likely to take the lead. We settled on Jerry Falwell. Paul and others went down there. And of course you know the story, that Paul said, “We think there’s a moral majority out there,” and Falwell said, “I like that name.” Paul asked, “What name?” And Falwell said, “‘Moral Majority’ – that’s the name we’ll use.” 
The rest is history: the Moral Majority, McAteer’s own group, the Religious Roundtable, and other religious associations helped deliver the evangelical vote to Reagan and the GOP. Racially inflected social conservatism became a major component of the Republican coalition, propelling conservative Presidential and Congressional candidates to victory in subsequent decades, and ensuring a sharp right turn in American policymaking. The New Right electoral strategy—paying attention to single issues, especially social ones—became standard operating procedure for the GOP.
Aftermath and Legacy
One of the reasons why the New Right is so poorly understood today is that the cofounders fell into obscurity shortly after the Reagan victory. By the end of the 1980s, the leadership group had gone their separate ways; no longer a factor in Republican Party politics, they were eclipsed by their creation, the Religious Right. Their decline was partially a result of individual idiosyncrasies. None of these characteristics were more ironic than Terry Dolan’s, as revealed when he died of AIDS in 1986; the fundraiser and PAC organizer who had played a direct role in bringing antigay issues onto the Republican agenda was himself a closeted homosexual. Less dramatic, but no less final, was Howard Phillips’ eventual break with the Republican Party. Phillips later referred to the early 1980s as “the first of Bush’s three terms” due to the prominent role of moderates like James Baker in the early Reagan administration,  and used his Taxpayers Party to make his own failed bid for the Presidency in 1996. 
But the seeds of the New Right’s decline may have had a more structural origin. Without liberals in government to attack and defeat, what was the point of the New Right? As Lee Edwards later observed, They were more a political movement than a philosophical movement. Their goal was to elect conservatives to the House and Senate. They did that in 1978, and then again in 1980. They knocked off 10 or 12 prominent liberal Senators. You elect Reagan in 1980. You’ve achieved your goals: now what’s your raison d’etre? So they become a critic. 
Indeed, Richard Viguerie has become one of the Republican Party’s most vocal critics on the Right. In response to a 2006 Viguerie op-ed critical of then-President Bush, conservative columnist Bob Novak carped that “Reagan had been president only seven days when Viguerie compared him to Jimmy Carter, based on his Cabinet selections.”  Novak should have done some more research; according to the Washington Post, Viguerie and Dolan were complaining even earlier – barely two weeks after Reagan’s election.  Viguerie actually foresaw his problematic relationship with the GOP even before the 1980 election. In a Washington Post article from October of that year, he warned that conservatives would likely be stronger if Carter won the election: “The New Right couldn’t get together when someone whom we perceived to be one of ours—like Nixon or Ford—was in office.” 
Some twenty-five years after Reagan’s victory, Weyrich took a less belligerent approach to the fading of the New Right, seeing it as a necessary outgrowth of political success. “It is axiomatic,” he noted, “that when an administration comes into power, it is going to absorb many of the people who brought it to power.”  He may have been thinking here of Morton Blackwell, who joined the Reagan Administration as a liaison to conservative groups like the New Right’s Conservative Caucus and Moral Majority. And even as this particular New Right grouping fell by the wayside, Blackwell and especially Weyrich remained plugged in to conservative and Republican networks, and new groups carried the work forward creating grassroots pressure in the GOP. Weyrich created still more conservative organizations, including the semi-secretive umbrella group, the Council on National Policy, which Blackwell headed for most of the 1990s. As of this writing, Blackwell continues to run the Leadership Institute, a Washington-based training program for conservative student activists and political operatives. And Weyrich’s weekly coalition meetings of various activists were almost mandatory for Washington conservatives up until his death last year.  Similar leaders may yet emerge.
While the New Right’s Moral Majority was relatively short-lived, lasting only until 1989, it soon gave way to Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, today’s Family Research Council, and other Christian political groups, as well as the GOP’s decades-long habit of at least paying lip service to social conservatism (while mostly advancing their economic agenda). And the alliance has even paid some dividends on social policy issues; social conservatives may be unhappy about progress on overturning Roe v. Wade, but they have the “partial birth” ban, the Hyde Amendment, and restrictions on international family planning (although the “global gag rule” has been repealed under Democratic administrations, including Obama’s). Plus evangelical and other groups have brought onto their own agenda some of the economic issues dear to Republicans, including tax cuts and social security reform.  Before the New Right brought social issues into Republican politics, traditionalists were much more wary of trying to seize governmental power. By arguing for political action on issues like abortion, school prayer, and creationism, the New Right helped make activist traditionalism a reality. The New Right’s influence helped mold the GOP in other ways. The influx of Christian conservatives helped drive moderates out of the party; prochoice feminists, for example, were still part of the GOP’s “big tent” during the 1990s, but were eventually pushed out or silenced. 
The Christian Right is now firmly entrenched in the GOP coalition, and we have the New Right to thank. The recent emergence of socially conservative Sarah Palin as one of the faces of the GOP suggests that the influence of the New Right constituency within the Party is only growing. Even as prospects for electoral success seem uncertain at best, the New Right’s hold on GOP politics seems secure. The danger for Republicans is that with the New Right leaders gone or marginalized, no one may be left to remind the GOP that more is needed than simply anger and issues; instead, strategy and political savvy will carry the day. Are a new generation of leaders—a “new New Right”—ready to take the lead? So far, no one has stepped forward, but only time will tell.
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