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Leading conservative politicians often felt the need to defend the political right from charges of insensitivity given its recent history of opposing civil rights and inclination for Cold War saber rattling. The defense of conservatism against charges of callousness was a constant theme from Barry Goldwater’s 1960 manifesto Conscience of a Conservative to George W. Bush’s call for “compassionate conservatism” forty years later. For millions of Evangelicals and social conservatives, a more compassionate form of political conservatism seemed the ideal alternative to the previous two decades of political leadership. Although the Reagan administration spoke the same language of social conservatives, some believe that he failed to represent their values and ideas when it came to legislation or world affairs. Others believe that he failed to rise above the troubled legacy of racial insensitivity at home and continued the short-sighted policies abroad that had plagued his predecessors. At the same time, Reagan was also one of the finest communicators, and it was this skill that led to his greatest achievement—facilitating a peaceful resolution to the end of the Cold War.
The real credit for ending the Cold War, however, lies with those around the globe whose actions influenced the Reagan administration and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to work toward rapprochement by starting democratic revolutions. While there are many examples of improved communication and willingness to work toward peace, the two leaders generally followed the tradition of détente. Reagan and Soviet leaders sought to create a safer and more stable Cold War rather than risk the possibility of war or revolution. The end of the Cold War is better understood from a bottom-up approach, exploring the dozens of nonviolent revolutions. Rather than focusing exclusively on the speeches of world leaders, the Cold War must also be understood by exploring the way that ordinary people supported movements, and the failure of violence and intimidation to extinguish their desire for a more democratic society in nations.
If the political leaders of the 1980s later claim that they envisioned and orchestrated a peaceful end to the Cold War, their public speeches and personal correspondence demonstrate otherwise. More importantly, the historical record demonstrates that the fall of Communism was the result of grassroots efforts by an increasingly well-educated global public who exercised unprecedented agency in shaping the history of their nations. In short, attributing the multitude of largely peaceful democratic revolutions that began in the late 1980s to the US president or Soviet Premier suffers from the same analytical shortsightedness as those who maintain that Lincoln freed the slaves. Such assertions ignore the deeper historical context of the era and discount the agency of the people of Eastern Europe and their leaders. It also discredits the importance of US allies such as Britain and its conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as well as global leaders such as Pope John Paul II whose opposition to Communism inspired many around the globe.
Reagan’s successor George H. W. Bush was less of an ideologue and was willing to sacrifice political expediency to confront the ballooning federal deficit he inherited. He also skillfully assembled an unlikely coalition of Western and Islamic nations in one of the most successful military operations in world history. The election of a Democratic president in 1992 was only a partial repudiation of the conservatism of the White House during the past twelve years; a desire for change, but certainly not a mandate for a return to the more liberal orientation of decades past. The nation approved the laws that had removed the most obvious barriers against women and minorities but most Americans believed that no further actions were necessary to insure equality. If conservatism was on the decline by 1992, it was not because liberals were in the ascendency. In fact, the term “liberal” remained a derisive label. By the time of the 1992 election, so many Americans were self-identified “moderates” that it was difficult to remember exactly what conservatives and liberals stood for. In such a political environment, the candidate who created the first and most convincing brand image as a moderate would surely prevail. In 1992, that candidate was Bill Clinton.