50 ways politics has changed in the last 50 years

Written by:
April 19, 2019
Cecil Stoughton/White House Press Office // Wikimedia Commons

50 ways politics has changed in the last 50 years

In 1969, President Richard Nixon took office. Before the Watergate scandal ended with Nixon's resignation in 1974, his administration created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), championed the Clean Air Act, and supported affirmative action. He also advocated for employers to buy health insurance for workers and to help those who couldn't afford it, an idea Democrats opposed at the time. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, which extended health care to many but was opposed by many Republicans.

Since the days of Nixon, the political landscape has seen some changes. Now it's Republicans who oppose many environmental protections—President Donald Trump vowed to dismantle the EPA when he took office and announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement in 2018.

Civil rights laws have also come a long way in 50 years. Women have legal access to birth control—the Supreme Court extended that right to single women in 1972—and sexual discrimination and harassment are illegal in the workplace. In the summer of 1969, the LGBTQ rights movement made headlines with the Stonewall Riots. Though it took decades, same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states and lesbian, gay, and bisexual soldiers can openly serve in the military. The issue now at hand concerns another minority group: Trump banned transgender people from openly serving in the military.

The U.S. also advanced in space travel 50 years ago when Neil Armstrong took the first human steps on the moon, but NASA hasn't sent a person back since the early ‘70s. While they hope to return as soon as 2020, the national space program might turn to commercial companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX instead of the U.S. government for the next moon mission.

A lot of other things have changed in 50 years: There are far more women and minorities in Congress, multiple women are running for president, and many people get their news through social media instead of a newspaper. Using data from news reports, Stacker compiled a list of 50 ways politics has changed in the last five decades.

You may also like: History of political parties in America

1 / 50
U.S. Government // Wikimedia Commons

Republicans no longer support a strong EPA

In 1970, a year after Republican President Richard Nixon took office, his administration created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). President Donald Trump, who said too much environmental regulation hinders business and the economic development, vowed to dismantle the EPA “in almost every form” when he took office in 2017.

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Pax Ahimsa Gethen // Wikimedia Commons

Affirmative action loses support among Republicans

Nixon continued the racial equality efforts of the two Democratic presidents before him when he passed Executive Order 11478, which called for an end to racial discriminatory practices in hiring in the federal government. Affirmative action policies later extended to admission policies for post-high school education. In 2018, President Trump voted to end many of President Barack Obama's affirmative action measures for higher education. Many schools vowed to keep their race-based policies, with Harvard saying it would "continue to vigorously defend its right, and that of all colleges and universities, to consider race as one factor among many in college admissions.”

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Chuck Kennedy // Official White House Photo

LGB troops can serve in the military

During the Vietnam War, the military considered being gay a “mental defect,” which meant gay, lesbian, and bisexual people couldn't serve for medical reasons. Today, lesbian, gay, and bisexual troops can serve openly in all of the U.S. armed forces. The “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy was repealed in 2011.

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Ted Eytan // Wikimedia Commons

Transgender troops aren't allowed to serve openly

While gay, lesbian, and bisexual people no longer have to hide their sexual orientation in the military, transgender troops aren't allowed the same freedom. The Trump administration effectively banned transgender troops because a “history of gender dysphoria would disqualify applicants to the military.” That means individuals who identify as a gender different than the sex they were assigned at birth can't serve as that gender. The Democratic-led House passed a measure earlier this year opposing the restrictions.

5 / 50
Max Pixel

People get their news on Facebook

Since the modern internet didn't exist 50 years ago, the public looked to newspapers, radios, or television to get their political news. In 2018, about two-thirds of the population said they got their news from social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

6 / 50

People don't trust what they read

While people get a lot of their information from social media, most of them assume what they're reading is inaccurate. Republicans are even less trusting than Democrats and are more likely to report that the news confuses instead of informs them, according to the same Pew Research Center report.

7 / 50
Donald Trump // Wikimedia Commons

Politicians make announcements on social media

In 1969, politicians could reach the public by holding a news conference. In 2019, congressional members post official business on Instagram and Twitter. President Trump is well-known for tweeting about pretty much everything—from whom he hires and fires to policy announcements such as the ban on transgender soldiers in the military.

8 / 50
Elizabeth Warren // Wikimedia Commons

Multiple women are running for president

Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president, mounting a campaign in 1872—before women even had the right to vote. By the 1960s, two women—Margaret Chase Smith and Shirley Chisholm (Chisholm was the first black woman candidate) ran for president. In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a presidential primary and the nomination for a major party. While she lost the general election, Clinton won more than 48% of the popular vote. In 2019, a historic five women have announced their bid for president.

9 / 50
Saul Loeb/AFP // Getty Images

More women and minorities are in Congress

In 1969, there were only 10 women in the House of Representatives and a lone woman in the Senate. In 2019, voters elected 127 women to Congress, including 25 to the Senate. The gains came mostly from the Democratic Party, which sent 106 women to the legislature. Currently, 22% of the 116th Congress is also nonwhite. That includes representatives who are black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian/Pacific Islander.

10 / 50
OSCE Parliamentary Assembly // Wikimedia Commons

There are more campaign finance laws

50 years ago, there was no Federal Election Commission, the independent agency that enforces federal campaign finance laws and decides which national political parties to recognize. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA)—which later created the FEC—passed in 1971 to regulate money spent and donated to federal election campaigns.

11 / 50
Ted Eytan // flickr

Same-sex marriage is legal, and most people support it

In 1970, President Nixon said he was fine with interracial marriage—which the Supreme Court legalized only a few years earlier—but he could not support same-sex marriage. In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down the ban on same-sex marriage in all 50 states. In 2018, almost 70% of the public approved of same-sex marriage, according to a Gallup poll. 

12 / 50
Jeffrey Beall // Wikimedia Commons

More LGBTQ politicians are in office

In 2017, Virginia's Danica Roem became the first openly transgender person elected to the U.S. legislature. Voters elected more than 150 LGBTQ candidates to office in 2018. In Colorado, Jared Polis became the first openly gay governor. He followed in the footsteps of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, the first openly bisexual person to hold the position.

13 / 50
Voice of America // Wikimedia Commons

Democratic Party is more diverse

While minority voters have long identified more with the Democratic Party, that shift has only increased in past decades. Black, Hispanic, and Asian voters are much more likely to vote Democratic than Republican.

14 / 50
Drew Angerer // Getty Images

People without a college degree are more likely to vote Republican

In the 1960s, working-class voters without a college degree were more likely to vote for a Democrat. By 2012—four years after the first election of President Barack Obama—exit polls found white voters without a college degree were far more likely to vote Republican. In the 2016 election, 61% of non-college educated white voters cast a Republican ballot.

15 / 50
Cecil Stoughton/White House Press Office // Wikimedia Commons

Republican voters likely to be older, white, and male

During the 1960s, Southern white voters left the Democratic Party over the party's support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. White voters, especially men, are even more likely to vote Republican today, according to Pew Research Center. The country as a whole is also getting older, but Americans over 50 make up a large percentage of the Republican Party.

16 / 50
Gage Skidmore // Wikimedia Commons

The Green Party exists

There was no Green Party 50 years ago. The FEC officially recognized the environmentally focused party in 2001. Some say Ralph Nader tipped the election in Florida for Bush in 2000. Jill Stein may have done the same for Trump in 2016. Enough votes went to Stein in states like Wisconsin that it could have tilted the state toward Trump.

17 / 50
Gage Skidmore // flickr

The Libertarian Party wins millions of votes

The Libertarian Party wasn't around until 1971. In the 2012 presidential election, Gary Johnson got 1.2 million votes. He received more than 3 million in 2016.

18 / 50
Space X // Wikimedia Commons

Civilian companies are entering the space race

Neil Armstrong helped the U.S. win the “space race” against the Soviets when he stepped on the moon for the first time in 1969. Humans haven't been back since 1972. NASA now plans to bypass the U.S. government and work with commercial companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX to make a trip back by 2028.

19 / 50
Gage Skidmore // Wikimedia Commons

Socialism is back in fashion

Sen. Bernie Sanders catapulted to popularity when he ran for president in 2016. Sanders lost the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton, but he put socialism back into the political conversation, something mostly supported by the counterculture of the ‘60s. Sanders, who supports universal health care and a $15 minimum wage, is running again in 2020.

20 / 50
Gage Skidmore // Wikimedia Commons

A political background is not necessary to become president

Some opponents of President Barack Obama—who was a senator for 12 years—said he didn't have enough experience in politics to lead the country. In 2016, Donald Trump became the first U.S. president elected without prior political or military experience.

21 / 50
Kremlin.ru // Wikimedia Commons

Cyber warfare can influence U.S. elections

U.S. intelligence concluded—and a Republican-led Senate panel agreed—that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election in favor of President Donald Trump. Before the 2018 midterm elections, Russian trolls took to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to spread disinformation targeted at American voters. Without a worldwide internet, this wouldn't have been possible five decades ago.

22 / 50

Republicans more likely to view Russia as friend or ally

The Cold War didn't end until 1989. President Donald Trump views Vladimir Putin favorably and is vocal about wanting a good relationship with the country. In 2018, 40% of Republicans and 25% of Democrats viewed Russia as an ally or friendly toward the U.S. The biggest change in opinion came from Republicans; only 22% felt the same way four years earlier. Overall, 31% of all Americans said U.S.-Russia relations were positive.

23 / 50
Tony Webster // Wikimedia Commons

More people want to legalize pot

Plenty of people smoked marijuana in the ‘60s, but the possibility of using the drug legally wouldn't become mainstream until much later. In 1969, 12.5% of Americans supported legal marijuana use. In 2018, that number hit 66%, with a majority of Republicans and Democrats supporting the idea. Recreational use is now legal in 10 states, while 22 states offer medical marijuana.

24 / 50
Daniel Dimauro // Wikimedia Commons

Transgender support is partisan

Transgender issues weren't mainstream 50 years ago. In 2016, about 1.4 million Americans identified as transgender. There are now transgender politicians representing their issues in office. A year after Danica Roem became the first openly transgender person in the U.S. legislature, Christine Hallquist won the Democratic primary for governor in Vermont. According to Pew Research Center, about 80% of Republicans don't think someone can be transgender, but that gender is determined by the sex assigned at birth. Democrats disagree; 67% think gender can differ from the male or female anatomy someone is born with.

25 / 50
Lorie Shaull // Wikimedia Commons

Republicans support gun rights instead of gun control

Americans own about three times as many firearms as they did in 1969—270 million today vs. 90 million then. While gun deaths have increased in recent years, Democrats and Republicans differ on how to handle the issue. Republicans were already resisting stricter gun laws in 1969, but over the past few decades, they shifted even more toward protecting gun ownership.

26 / 50
Pete Souza // Official White House Photo

Women have more rights

In 1969, marital assault wasn't illegal, and a woman's right to an abortion wasn't guaranteed by the Supreme Court. Women in the workplace now have more rights—and should be paid equally—and victims of domestic abuse are protected by the Violence Against Women Act, guaranteeing women the right to seek legal repercussions.

27 / 50

#MeToo movement furthers fight against sexual harassment

Sexual harassment wasn't illegal until 1986, when the Supreme Court ruled in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that it “was a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII.” The #MeToo movement pushed the needle even further when more than 200 men in high profile jobs lost their positions or influence because of inappropriate or illegal behavior toward their female employees.

28 / 50
Executive Office of the President of the United States // Wikimedia Commons

People with disabilities are protected from discrimination

The 1973 Rehabilitation Act addressed specific issues regarding disability discrimination, particularly in the federal workplace. The Americans With Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990 and was amended in 2008, extended discrimination protection to all workplaces, schools, transportation, and any space open to the public—like museums, libraries, or restaurants. The ride-share service Uber even offers wheelchair accessible service.

29 / 50
Senate Democrats // Wikimedia Commons

Most Americans want the government to pay for health care

About 70% of Americans want the federal government to pay for health care, a view that was supported mainly by Democrats 50 years ago. Now, 85% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans support the idea. “Medicare is a very popular program, so the idea of expanding it to everyone is popular as well," says Larry Levitt, senior vice president for health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

30 / 50
Pete Souza // Official White House Photo

Birth control is legal, but there's a fight over who pays

Only married women could legally get birth control in 1969. It took until 1972—when the issue went to the Supreme Court—for the pregnancy-preventing option to extend to single women. When President Barack Obama passed the Affordable Care Act, the law required that Medicaid and employer-provided health insurance cover the full cost of FDA-approved birth control. In 2019, President Donald Trump rolled back some of these rules, allowing employers to deny coverage based on religious and moral grounds.

31 / 50
New York WIC

Breastfeeding is legal in all 50 states

It took until 2018 for the country to legalize public breastfeeding in all 50 states; Idaho and Utah were the last holdouts. Under the Affordable Care Act, workplaces now have to provide nursing mothers with a place to dispense milk until their child turns 1.

32 / 50
Gage Skidmore // Wikimedia Commons

Politicians have less military experience

At least 70% of lawmakers in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s served in the military, according to the Pew Research Center. In 1973, the draft ended, decreasing the percentage of Americans in the military overall. Currently, less than 20% of Congress has military experience and only 7% of the general population does.

33 / 50
Kit // Wikimedia Commons

Members of Congress more likely to have a college degree

In the late ‘60s, about three-fourths of Congress had a bachelor's degree or higher. Currently, the entire Senate and 96% of the House of Representatives are college-educated, according to the Pew Research Center. That is a much higher rate than the population at large. In 2017, only about a third of the general public said they attained more than a high school education.

34 / 50
Yoichi Okamoto // Wikimedia Commons

The country has more Hispanic immigrants

In 1965, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, removing quotas that limited the number of immigrants that could come from certain countries. At the time, only 4% of the population was Hispanic and less than 1% was Asian. Most immigrants were European.

35 / 50
Architect of the Capitol // Wikimedia Commons

Congress is more partisan

In 1969, Congress members were more diverse in their ideology: some Democrats were more conservative than some Republicans, and vice versa. Since the '90s, ideology and political party affiliation has strongly influenced how Congress members vote.

36 / 50
Alex Wong // Getty Images

Elected officials are getting younger

At 29, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest person ever elected to Congress. South Bend, Ind., elected a 29-year-old Mayor Pete Buttigieg, now 37. Buttigieg is expected to run in the 2020 election for president. If he won, he would be the youngest president in history.

37 / 50
Shelly Prevost // Wikimedia Commons

Politicians are also getting older

In 1969, Nixon was 55 when he took office. At 70 years old, President Donald Trump became the oldest newly elected U.S. president. Sen. Bernie Sanders, 77, is making a second run for president.

38 / 50
Mount Rainier National Park // Wikimedia Commons

Government shutdowns are longer

Starting in 1976, the government has enacted a shutdown or funding gap 21 times. In 2019, Trump said he was “glad to shutdown the government” over a funding request—$5 billion for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It lasted for 31 days, the longest in history.

39 / 50
Hartmann // Wikimedia Commons

Campaign finance laws benefit the wealthy

Campaign finance laws came about in the 1970s, after the Watergate scandal uncovered the corruption of the Nixon administration. The original intent of the Federal Election Campaign Act was to lessen the influence of those who could donate a lot of money—like corporations or the very rich. Since then, the laws shifted in a way that benefits wealthy donors who can contribute large amounts of unregulated money, particularly through super political action committee (PACs) that can financially support a candidate as long as they don't collaborate directly with the campaign.

40 / 50
Fred Schilling/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States // Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court is more conservative

Chief Justice Earl Warren retired from the Supreme Court in 1969. His court ruled under a liberal majority and championed civil rights, including ending segregation. For decades after, the court remained moderate or center-right, upholding the Affordable Care Act and legalizing same-sex marriage. The current court is much more conservative; it voted against public unions and upheld Trump's travel ban on Muslim countries.

41 / 50
Hillary for America/Cover My Timeline // Wikimedia Commons

Internet helps politicians target voters

In 2016, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump advertised through social media. Politicians will likely continue to reach voters online because it's much cheaper than TV or radio; there is no Federal Election Commission regulation, and there is no limit on airtime. Algorithms from companies like Facebook can even send targeted ads, reaching specific voters more precisely.

42 / 50

Politicians have to approve ads

In 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act included a “Stand By Your Ad” provision to make campaign ads more transparent. That's why political messages show a politician saying their name followed by the phrase like “I approve this message” at the end.

43 / 50
Lightfoot for Chicago // Wikimedia Commons

Republicans don't support guaranteed minimum income

Nixon championed a guaranteed minimum income for the working poor. He said, “We establish minimum national standards because we are united. We encourage local supplements because we are a federation of states. And we care for the unfortunate because this is America." In 2018, 65% of Democrats supported the idea of a “universal basic income” (for those who lost their jobs due to technology), but only 28% of Republicans did, according to Gallup. 

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Fibonacci Blue // Wikimedia Commons

Americans want unions, but Republicans vote against them

While the majority of the population wants unions to stick around, according to Pew, the number of workers represented by them has declined substantially over the last 50 years. While Nixon supported unions, most current Republicans don't.

45 / 50
Barry Kronenfeld // Wikimedia Commons

Politicians don't like the electoral college, but for different reasons

In 1969, the House of Representatives voted to replace the electoral college, urging that the popular vote should elect the president. Back then, Republicans and Democrats both argued against the system while today Democrats—who won the popular vote, but not the presidency in 2000 and 2016—are the most vocal about getting rid of it. The arguments for using the popular vote were different decades ago. Democrats and Republicans argued that the system made it easier for a third party to sway the election and that it discriminated against small states, a view opposite to what people say today.

46 / 50
Daderot // Wikimedia Commons

The public is losing confidence in the Supreme Court

Support for the Supreme Court peaked in the ‘80s, according to Gallup, when a majority of the public had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the justices. That number dropped to 37% in 2018, a rate lower than it was in 1975.

47 / 50
Voice of America // Wikimedia Commons

Hispanics are largest group of eligible minority voters

In 2020, Pew data shows Hispanics will make up 13% of eligible voters, making them the largest racial minority group in the electorate. About 32 million Hispanics will get a chance to vote for the next president, about 2 million more than in the black population. Two decades ago, only 7% of the electorate was Hispanic. Before 1972, the federal government didn't even take the Latino or Hispanic population into account in their Current Population Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics

48 / 50
Yoichi Okamoto // Wikimedia Commons

More black voters get the chance to cast their ballot

The Voting Rights Act turned 50 in 2015. While some states still impose restrictions on voting that negatively affect minorities, black voters cast their ballot at a far higher rate than they did five decades ago. In the 1950s, only 20% of the black population made it to the polls. Now black and white people vote at about the same rate. Though, 4.4 million black voters who helped elect President Barack Obama did not cast their ballot in the 2016 presidential election, according to exit polling data from Edison Media Research via the Roper Center. 

49 / 50
Joyce N. Boghosian // Official White House Photo

Confirming Supreme Court nominees more divisive

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Congress regularly confirmed—sometimes unanimously—Supreme Court nominees, no matter which party appointed the justice. Confirmations now fall along party lines. In 2016, President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland, but the Republican-led Congress refused to consider any Obama appointment. Congress approved Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the second appointment from President Donald Trump—with a vote of 50 to 48 in 2018.

50 / 50

Partisanship causing hate, anxiety

After the election of President Donald Trump, the American Psychological Association said therapists noticed that more of their patients complained about “politically-induced anxiety.” In 2019, a report by political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason called “Lethal Mass Partisanship” revealed that a little over 42% of people agreed with a statement that said members of a different political party “are not just worse for politics—they are downright evil.” Around 20% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans also think the U.S. “would be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died.”

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