In the election of 1980, in which one out of every four voters settled on a candidate during the last week of the election, Ronald Reagan scored a landslide victory, outpolling Carter in the electoral college 489 to 49. Unlike Richard Nixon's landslide victory in 1972, Reagan's thumping of Jimmy Carter seemed to signal a sea change in American politics, a major shift from a liberal to a conservative majority. Whereas the Republicans made virtually no gains in Congress in 1972, they gained twelve seats in the Senate four years later (defeating such liberal Democratic heavyweights as Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, George McGovern of North Dakota, and Frank Church of Idaho) and thirty-three places in the House of Representatives. In fact, Reagan's victory coincided with and was in part made possible by the continuing growth and political activism of the New Right.
Neoconservatism was a blend of both old and new. It encompassed traditional positions such as anticommunism, opposition to government intervention and bureaucracy, and support for free enterprise and a balanced budget. At the same time, the New Right included Americans, many of them working-class Democrats, who were outraged at social issues that they believed attacked and undermined conventional morality, the nuclear family, and religious faith. Thus did they mobilize in anger over school busing, bans on prayer in public schools, the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, the extension of the First Amendment to cover pornography, the ongoing campaign to have Congress pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and the extension of antidiscrimination laws to cover homosexuals. Demographic patterns continued to favor the Republicans. The 1980 census indicated a shift of seventeen seats in the House of Representatives from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West. The so-called Sun Belt was relatively white, relatively nonunion, and over-whelmingly conservative on fiscal matters and many social issues.
But, in fact, a closer look at the election statistics for 1980 reveals that massive voter apathy had as much to do with Reagan's election and GOP successes in Congress as the "conservative revolution." Reagan was elected by 28 percent of the voting population. In 1980 the largest voting bloc (47 percent) was comprised of those who did not vote. Between the 1960s and 1970s, the number of people believing that the government was run for the wealthy and influential few grew from 28 percent to 65 percent. Those who were convinced that the people governing them were basically intelligent and competent fell from 69 percent to 29 percent. Ironically, the disaffected middle and upper classes continued to vote Republican or switched parties, while the disaffected working classes and poor stopped voting, making their view that the government was controlled by a wealthy and powerful elite a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Reagan's view of Soviet communism seemed frozen in the mid-1950s. The Kremlin, Reagan was convinced, was at the head of a worldwide conspiracy to export totalitarianism to all parts of the world. For the new president, as for members of the Moral Majority, Soviet communism represented all the negative forces abroad in the world: atheism, state socialism, and immorality. Likewise, anticommunism was a crucial component of the struggle to resurrect the hallowed principles of liberty, free enterprise, patriotism, and family values. To overcome the Soviet Union's alleged "margin of superiority," the administration committed to a series of new weapons systems including the MX missile system, the B-1 bomber, and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a network of lasers and particle beams projected from ground stations and satellites in space. These "death rays" would allegedly destroy incoming enemy missiles before they entered the earth's atmosphere. Shamelessly invoking the domino theory and the image of a monolithic communist threat, the Reagan administration began funneling massive amounts of arms and money to the government of El Salvador in its battle against leftist guerrillas and to the contras, right-wing rebels battling the Marxist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
Congress took issue not so much with the aims of the Reagan administration's foreign policy but with its methods. Concerned over charges of U.S. intervention into Nicaraguan internal affairs and stories of atrocities committed by the contras, in 1982 Congress passed the Boland Amendment, sponsored by Representative Edward P. Boland of Massachusetts, limiting Central Intelligence Agency aid to the contras to $24 million and stipulating that none of the funds be used to overthrow the Sandinistas. Reagan, who shared Nixon and Kissinger's views on executive control of foreign policy, directed his subordinates to circumvent the law. The Pentagon began donating "surplus" equipment to the contras while CIA agents trained the rebels in assassination techniques and coordinated attacks on transportation and port facilities. In 1984, an angry Congress passed an updated version of the Boland Amendment that barred the CIA or any other agency involved in intelligence activities from aiding the contras. Meanwhile, a bloody life-and-death struggle between Iran and Iraq had erupted in 1980. Iraq, ruled by the secular military strongman Saddam Hussein, and Iran, controlled by a group of extreme Islamic clerics headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, were age-old rivals. This new chapter in their ongoing struggle was the product of an intense competition for regional leadership and control of petroleum resources, refining facilities, and strategic ports. The State Department feared both and attempted to keep either from winning a decisive victory. From 1981 to 1986, the Reagan administration secretly funneled aid to Iran but from 1987 on tilted toward Iraq. The second Boland Amendment only strengthened the White House's determination to aid the "freedom fighters" in Nicaragua. With Reagan's approval, a team of National Security Council and CIA officials began raising money from abroad from anticommunist governments and from wealthy conservatives at home. In 1985 the president approved a scheme whereby the United States would secretly sell large numbers of antitank missiles to Iran with the proceeds going to aid the contras in Nicaragua. Revelations concerning the deal touched off a year of congressional investigations, administration stonewalling, document shredding, and lying. It became clear that Reagan had been fully informed throughout the Iran-Contra deal; Congress settled for indicting several of his lieutenants. That body was unwilling to press the matter further for fear of incurring the public's wrath at its bringing down a second president in a decade.
The making of American foreign policy in the 1980s and into the next decade was not characterized either by conspicuous bipartisan strife or by conspicuous bipartisanship. Both parties wanted to stem the tide of communism in Latin America, to prevent the Soviet Union from profiting from the Arab-Israeli crisis, and to maintain superiority in nuclear weapons. Democrats tended to be less supportive of large defense budgets and more critical of authoritarian regimes that used anticommunism to elicit aid and support from the U.S. government than Republicans. Democrats tended to be less confrontational toward the Soviet Union and Communist China than Republicans and more willing to countenance peaceful coexistence. There were notable exceptions, however; Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington, for example, was a liberal on domestic issues and a hard-line cold warrior. Reagan's campaign to prevent the spread of Marxism-Leninism in the developing world and his determination to spend the Soviet Union into oblivion garnered less support among Democrats than Republicans. Both parties, of course, rejoiced in the end of the Cold War.