There are ways that America as a whole has moved toward the Right and there are ways specifically that the Republican Party has pushed further right. While this arguably began shifting in the 1960s, the most significant movement has occurred since Reagan took office and “mainstreamed” a lot of ideology that had previously not been embraced by moderates. The shift was easily made during the Clinton years (he ran as a Conservative Democrat) when he sought to govern by consensus with a Republican-controlled Congress and began adopting Center-Right positions even as he was vilified as being an agent of the Left. Of note, Conservative Southern Democrats shifted overwhelmingly to the Republican Party around this time, while many moderate New-England Republicans switched to the Democratic Party. This made the Republican base predominantly Conservative, leaving fewer moderate voices in the party overall.
It was the continued pushing of the myth that Clinton represented the Left that allowed the public perception of the Center to move more and more to the Right, a similar strategy that was still used by the Tea Party during the Obama years. Shifting the goal posts, essentially, framed the moderates in government as representing a Left that they had little in common with.
As far as social Conservatism goes, the Republican Party (and much of America) has been moving Right in part as a backlash to the Civil Rights era. It is heavily represented in the so-called “2nd Amendment Rights” movement, which simply did not exist prior to the Reagan years. Ironically, it was the attempted assassination of Reagan that led to the first real attempts at gun reform through the Brady Bill, planting the seeds of this debate. Reagan and his administration were pro-gun control and would have found this current climate to be ludicrous. It was also in the Reagan years that we get the first real taste of the Right’s desire to weaken the separation of Church and State, bringing the White Evangelicals into politics in new ways. By the time we have G W Bush in office, there is serious talk about turning some government programs over to religious charities, and active weakening of rules to prevent the public funding of religious organizations. This is further exemplified in the weakening of women’s health provisions and roadblocks to healthcare.
While the general public has embraced issues like same-gender marriage, the Right has doubled down on attempts to prevent it. While the general public has shown growing opposition to the death penalty, the Right has increasingly promoted capital punishment. While the general public has pushed for more drug legalization and reduced penalties for use or possession, the Right has increasingly sought tougher penalties, increased prison time, and fewer barriers to arrest.
Among the more noticeable (and trackable) Conservative swings has been with regard to the “pro-life” movement. The uptick in support for this position has been dominantly from Republicans who have shifted to more conservative positions in the post-Reagan years. When Gallup has polled on this topic, there has been little to no shift in the responses from Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents during the same periods. Similarly, the decline in support of Republicans for stem-cell research reflects the religious influence of their (relatively new) brand of social conservatism. Again, there was no change during the same period amongst Democrats.
It is of interest to note that during this period there was also a rise in the number of active third-parties vying to compete with the Democrats and Republicans. Aside from the Green Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and one or two minor fringe options in various states, the vast majority of new parties were either moderate / Centrist, Center-Right, or Far-Right. The fiasco of the Reform Party, which later fractured into multiple parties struggling for power between the Center-Right faction and the Hard-Right faction. Much further to the Right, there was a surge of “patriot” parties rooted in nationalism and gun-rights, as well as a surge in Christian-based parties that sought to install morality-based government policies. Many of these groups were supported by White Supremacists, others consisted largely of survivalists — in short, lots of fringe parties were filled by people who would be considered to be on the fringe of society.
The Libertarian Party was one of the chief beneficiaries of this third-party movement, and Libertarianism, in general, had a big swell of support, especially among Conservatives. While often espousing a socially liberal agenda, the thrust of Libertarianism is actually fairly Right Wing. The Libertarian Koch Brothers, for example, actively worked to influence Republican policy and many in the Tea Party took a Libertarian approach to fiscal issues — breaking, however, when it came to “moral” social issues. In fact, many prominent Libertarians aligned with Republicans on “moral” positions because it allowed for more unity regarding gun laws.
Few areas show the shift Right in the Republican party as strongly as positions on immigration reform. The positions held by Reagan and by G H W Bush are considered extremely Liberal by today’s standards. They opposed border walls and encouraged pathways toward citizenship, much as moderate Democrats to now. Reagan agreed to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants. Even as late as 2007, G W Bush pushed for passage of McCain’s bill to create a path to citizenship for 20 million illegal immigrants. But at this time, a push from the Far Right in Congress derails the bill.
With regard to healthcare, the Republicans of the early 1990s offered the idea of an individual mandate for buying health insurance as a means of making single-payer healthcare possible. This was the Conservative position, with the Liberal position being that there should be no such requirements — there should simply be single-payer and no one should be forced to buy in to make it affordable. As the decades wore on, Democrats moved to the Right on this issue, adopting the need to have a mandate in order to finance the healthcare system. Conservatives, on the other hand, moved even further to the Right, rejecting the idea of single-payer outright. What should be noted to emphasize the Rightward shift with both parties is that the Affordable Care Act, which came about during a brief Democratic majority in Congress, is based almost entirely on a Republican bill from the Clinton era. By the time Obama took office, this was the position being embraced by moderate Democrats, but the Republican Party now considered it far too liberal.
Of course, both parties are currently less likely to vote across the aisle than they had been before. This trend, especially notable during the Obama years, has given the appearance of movement away from Center on the part of both parties, but the Right has pushed much harder for a narrower agenda, going so far as to stall out government over ideology rather than work across the aisle for centrist compromise.
Going back further in Republican history, you can see where Nixon, who based his Presidency on foreign policy, held fairly Liberal positions with regard to domestic policy. He was, after all, the founder of the EPA — an agency that Republicans have tried for years to gut. Now the Republican Party is all about cutting taxes and preventing immigration, removing regulations, opening up more mining and drilling, etc. Jimmy Carter actually cut more government spending than Reagan did — it was Reagan who most notably and disastrously set the trend for increasing deficits.
Driving much of the Conservative movement is the sad, unfortunate influence of Conservative talk radio (and television). While it was still often considered fringe in the 80s, by the 1990s it had really begun to take hold and mold public perception in ways that Liberal media never matched. People like Wally George in the early days came off as oddball parodies, but the likes of Rush Limbaugh wavered between loudmouth humorist and political pundit, often being taken seriously when they claimed to be joking (sometimes as a legal dodge). Now outright crackpots like Alex Jones and his Infowars spew conspiracy theories right and left in the service of a Far-Right agenda, while media outlets like Breitbart parrot and legitimize many of the same topics for consumers who rely on their own confirmation bias to validate the “news” they read or hear.
All of this has been part of a steady populist movement that has grown among Conservatives since Reagan. It should not be overlooked that this was the time when we had the rise of the Moral Majority, which was an attempt to win over Christian voters. And this is the real beginning of the “neo-liberal” movement, which continued under both Bush presidencies and under Clinton. Most interests of the Republican Party were designed to favor the wealthy, but in order to gain votes, Conservatives worked really hard to mobilize the Christian evangelicals. There had to be reasons to get them to vote for Republicans that would override the fact that policies increasingly favored the rich and would slowly erode the Middle Class.
Let’s look at a selection of Republican history:
Eisenhower brings the US the slogan “In God We Trust,” but also creates NASA, expands Social Security, and begins the desegregation process. He also is the last Republican President to balance the budget and is an outspoken critic of the Military-Industrial Complex. This is particularly notable since the Far-Right is very pro-Military spending.
Nixon was elected in large part based on his promise to end the Vietnam War. He also worked aggressively to open trade with China. But at home more liberal values flourished. In addition to the EPA, he helped give us OSHA and also endorsed legislation to require employers to provide health insurance to full-time workers. (Until, of course, Watergate.)
Ford endorsed taxing foreign oil, extended the Voting Rights Act (even mandating that ballots were bilingual in some districts) and agreed to bail out New York City to the tune of $2.3 billion.
The Republican Party was a center-right party until Reagan, when neoconservatism took over, specifically through the introduction of trickle-down economics. Also of note, he oversaw illegal arms sales and huge increases in military spending (including a failed space laser). From this point forward, deficits will be impossible to pay back. But even Reagan mandated an expansion of Social Security.
Meanwhile, defense spending, border control, and the war on drugs become bigger issues.
George H W Bush raised taxes and bailed out the Savings and Loan industry. He also backed legislation forcing businesses and public accommodations to make themselves accessible to disabled people.
G W Bush backed legislation requiring schools to meet certain testing standards, expanded Medicare and supported a $700 billion bailout of the banking industry. He also bailed out Chrysler and General Motors. While G W Bush was comparatively Liberal against current Republicans, he was clearly part of the Rightward shift overall. He pushed for weakened separation of Church and State, and he issued executive orders that undermined environmental protections in favor of corporate interests.
When Obama took office, in spite of being a predominantly Centrist President, the Republican Party galvanized to oppose any progress he might make, regardless of whether it involved positions that the Republicans had supported. This gives rise to the Tea Party movement, based largely on opposing foreclosure relief, tax increases, health reform and immigration. In 2012, Mitt Romney shifts his own positions dramatically to the Right in order to secure the Party’s nomination — as has been the case elections since Reagan, candidates strive to prove who is the most Conservative in order to win the primaries.
Since Obama took office, Far-Right positions on the deficit have become prominent, along with the issues of abortion and the Second Amendment. The Republican establishment also begins an increasingly silly war on science and education, chiefly by trying to undermine NASA, public education, and promoting the idea that climate change is not really happening. By 2015, there are almost no moderate Republicans left in the Tea Party / Freedom Caucus controlled Congress.
Now that Trump is in office, it is like the Republicans have been unleashed. Public backlash is the only thing tempering policy. Attempts have been made to push agendas that benefit major Republican supporters or pander to their political base, some very successfully, with extra efforts made to remove environmental protections, remove banking regulations, decrease taxes, decrease access to women’s healthcare, gut the Affordable Care Act, and prevent immigration. Trump, while not a traditional Republican, benefits from and pushes for very Conservative fiscal positions; more importantly, however, he encourages a Far-Right agenda in the sense of promoting Fascist and Authoritarian policies. (Fascism is a right-wing nationalist ideology or movement with an authoritarian and hierarchical structure that is fundamentally opposed to democracy and liberalism. Such principles are routinely promoted in Trump’s speeches and the content of his executive orders.)
In 2015, a paper was published called “The Polarization of the Congressional Parties.” It detailed, among other things, the percentage of members of the House of Representatives who were moderate, vs. those who held Far-Right of Far-Left ideological positions based in an analysis of voting records from 1879 to 2014. What it shows very clearly and somewhat indisputably, is that both parties had approximately the same number of Centrist members throughout the bulk of this history. However, in the early 1980s, there begins a very distinct divergence. The percentage of moderate Democrats stays relatively consistent: about 90 percent of the Democrats in the House are considered moderate or centrist. But the Republican Party begins a steep shift toward hard Conservatism. By 2014, only about 10 percent of Republican members of the House could be identified as moderate or centrist, with about 90 percent being identified as non-centrist. The Senate has a similar trajectory over the same period, but with much less extreme percentages. Interestingly, the Democrats had an increase in centrist members until after the Tea Party took control during the Obama years, and only then did the Senate begin to show a slight increase in non-centrist Democrats (albeit still a far smaller percentage than on the Republican side).
What we are left with, what the data seems to show, is that Congressional Republicans are now markedly more Conservative than they had been in the past and that there was a steady increase in this trend since Reagan took office. This may not speak directly to all Republican voters, and it does not speak directly to the nation as a whole, but it does speak directly to Republican leadership and the Republican Party as an organization. Since the Reagan presidency, the Republican Party has moved steadily to the Right. As a result, our nation has been moved politically to the Right as well, even if specific issues like Same-Gender Marriage may have swung to the Left. While voting Democrats tend to lean slightly more to the Left, the Democratic politicians in office still tend to be more moderate overall. This creates something of an imbalance between the dominant parties, with far less compromise on the Right. It could be that in the backlash of the Trump presidency we will see a move toward more moderate representation among Congressional Republicans, but it is too early to tell how that will play into the post-Reagan trend.