Reagan's Rise

Gerard de Groot argues that exploitation of silent majority fears about 60s student protest is the key to understanding Ronald Reagan's rise to prominence in Californian politics.

The 1966 California gubernatorial race was supposed to be about big government, welfare and high taxation. But, after a few weeks of campaigning, the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan told his handlers:

Look, I don't care if I'm in the mountains, the desert, the biggest cities of the state, the first question is: What are you going to do about Berkeley?' – and each time the question itself ... get(s) applause.

By 'Berkeley' Reagan meant student unrest. The 'campus war' allowed Reagan to highlight the populist themes of his campaign: morality, law and order, strong leadership and traditional values. By skilfully manipulating this issue, Reagan won comfortably in 1966 and was re-elected in 1970. The campus confrontation brought enormous benefits: it embarrassed California liberals, it deflected attention from less successful areas of administration and it allowed the governor to gain nation- wide recognition as the common man's hero.

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