American Conservatism is a broad system of political beliefs in the United States that is characterized by respect for American traditions, support for Judeo-Christian values, economic liberalism, anti-communism, advocacy of American exceptionalism, and a defense of Western culture from perceived threats posed by "creeping socialism", moral relativism, multiculturalism, and liberal internationalism. Liberty is a core value, with a particular emphasis on strengthening the free market, limiting the size and scope of government, and opposition to high taxes and government or labor union encroachment on the entrepreneur. American conservatives consider individual liberty, within the bounds of conformity to American values, as the fundamental trait of democracy, which contrasts with modern American liberals, who generally place a greater value on equality and social justice.
- Recent policies
- Social issues
- Colonial era
- American Revolution
- Abraham Lincoln
- Southern conservatism
- The Gilded Age
- Progressive era
- World War I
- Anti Communism
- Writers and intellectuals
- New Deal Era
- Great Depression
- Liberty League and the Old Right
- Conservative backlash against Roosevelt
- Conservative coalition forms
- Foreign policy
- Jefferson's image
- Korean War
- McCarthyism: 1950–54
- Russell Kirk
- William F. Buckley Jr. and the National Review
- Milton Friedman and libertarian economics
- John Birch Society
- Internal disagreements
- South and segregation
- George Wallace
- Goldwater in 1964
- Religious Right
- Conservatism in the South
- Think tanks and foundations
- Nixon, Ford and Carter
- 1970s recessions
- Stopping the Equal Rights Amendment
- Conservative ascent
- Since 1990
- George W. Bush
- Tea Party
- Admission to academe
- Relativism versus universal truths
- Ideology and political philosophy
- Social conservatism and tradition
- Fiscal conservatism and economic liberalism
- Electoral politics
- Kirk's principles of conservatism
- Talk radio and Fox News
- American exceptionalism
- Rossiter's giants
- Prominent figures and organizations
- Politicians and office holders
- Intellectuals, writers and activists
- Media: print, television, radio and online
- Media personalities, editors, radio hosts, columnists and bloggers
- Think tanks
- Political, social & economic organizations
- Businessmen, publishers
- Religious leaders, authors
American conservatism originated from classical liberalism of 18th and 19th centuries, which advocates civil liberties and political freedom with representative democracy under the rule of law and emphasizes economic freedom.
Historians argue that the conservative tradition has played a major role in American politics and culture since the 1790s. However they have stressed that an organized conservative movement has played a key role in politics only since the 1950s. The recent movement is based in the Republican Party, though some Democrats were also important figures early in the movement's history.
The history of American conservatism has been marked by tensions and competing ideologies. Fiscal conservatives and libertarians favor small government, low taxes, limited regulation, and free enterprise. Social conservatives see traditional social values as threatened by secularism; they tend to support voluntary school prayer and oppose abortion and same sex marriage. Some also want the teaching of intelligent design or creationism allowed, as the topics are currently judicially prohibited in public schools. The 21st century has seen an increasingly fervent conservative support for Second Amendment rights of private citizens to own firearms. Neoconservatives want to expand American ideals throughout the world. Paleoconservatives advocate restrictions on immigration, non-interventionist foreign policy, and stand in opposition to multiculturalism. Nationwide most factions, except some libertarians, support a unilateral foreign policy, and a strong military. The conservative movement of the 1950s attempted to bring together these divergent strands, stressing the need for unity to prevent the spread of "godless communism."
William F. Buckley Jr., in the first issue of his magazine National Review in 1955, explained the standards of his magazine and helped make explicit the beliefs of American conservatives:
Among our convictions: It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens' lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly. In this great social conflict of the era, we are, without reservations, on the libertarian side. The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order. We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.
President Ronald Reagan set the conservative standard in the 1980s; in the 2010s the Republican leaders typically claim fealty to it. For example, most of the Republican candidates in 2012 "claimed to be standardbearers of Reagan's ideological legacy." Reagan solidified conservative Republican strength with tax cuts, a greatly increased military budget, continued deregulation, a policy of rollback of Communism (rather than just containing it), and appeals to family values and conservative morality. The 1980s and beyond became known as the "Reagan Era." Typically, conservative politicians and spokesmen in the 21st century proclaim their devotion to Reagan's ideals and policies on most social, economic and foreign policy issues.
Other modern conservative beliefs include skepticism of the theory of man-made global warming and opposition to government action to combat it, which conservatives contend would do severe economic damage, and ultimately more harm than good even if one accepts the premise that human activity is contributing to climate change. They support a strong policy of law and order to control crime, including long jail terms for repeat offenders. Most conservatives support the death penalty for particularly egregious crimes. The "law and order" issue was a major factor weakening liberalism in the 1960s. From 2001 to 2008, Republican President George W. Bush stressed cutting taxes and minimizing regulation of industry and banking, while increasing regulation of education. Conservatives generally advocate the use of American military power to fight terrorists and promote democracy in the Middle East.
According to a 2014 poll, 38% of American voters identify as "conservative" or "very conservative," 34% as "moderate," 24% as "liberal" or "very liberal". These percentages were fairly constant from 1990 to 2009, when conservatism spiked in popularity briefly before reverting to the original trend while liberal views on social issues reached a new high. Although the study does show some distinction between the concentration of moderates and conservatives or liberals between the Republican and Democratic parties. Among Democrats, 44% are self-identified liberals, 19% as conservatives, and 36% as moderates. For Republicans 70% self-identified as conservative, 24% as moderate, and 5% as liberal.
Conservatism appears to be growing stronger at the state level. The trend is most pronounced among the "least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states."
Conservatives generally believe that government action is not the solution to such problems as poverty and inequality. Many believe that government programs that seek to provide services and opportunities for the poor actually encourage dependence and reduce self-reliance. Most conservatives oppose affirmative action policies, that is, policies in employment, education, and other areas that give special advantages to people who belong to groups that have been historically discriminated against. Conservatives believe that the government should not give special benefits to people on the basis of group identity and oppose it as "reverse discrimination".
Conservatives typically hold that the government should play a smaller role in regulating business and managing the economy. They typically oppose high tax rates and programs to redistribute income to assist the poor. Such efforts, they argue, do not properly reward people who have earned their money through hard work. However, conservatives usually place a strong emphasis on the role of private voluntary charitable organizations (especially faith-based charities) in helping the poor.
As conservatives value order and security, they favor a small but strong government role in law enforcement and national defense.
On social issues, many religious conservatives oppose changes in traditional moral standards regarding sexuality and gender roles. They oppose abortion, same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws against homosexuals. The libertarian faction tends to ignore these issues, instead focusing on fiscal and monetary policy. Business-oriented conservatives oppose the social conservatives if state laws limiting gay rights threaten to hurt business. The National Review reported in 2016 that, "as evangelical forces have become less unified...the influence of Right-leaning business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce has only grown." In the culture war of recent decades, multiculturalism has been a flashpoint, especially regarding the humanities curriculum. Historian Peter N. Stearns finds a polarization since the 1960s between conservatives, who believe that the humanities express eternal truths that should be taught, and those who think that the humanities curriculum should be tailored to demonstrate diversity. In campus battles, progressives demand "Cultural diversity" while conservatives denounce efforts to impose "political correctness" and stifle free speech.
Conservatives typically favor a "melting pot" model of assimilation into common English-speaking American culture, as opposed to a "salad bowl" approach that lends legitimacy to many different cultures (alternatively they desire other cultures to adopt American values and culture, rather than diluting or displacing the existing culture). In the 21st century, conservatives have warned on the dangers of tolerating radical Islamic elements, of the sort that they say are engaging in large-scale terrorism in Europe.
In the United States there has never been a national political party called the Conservative Party. All major American political parties support republicanism and the basic classical liberal ideals on which the country was founded in 1776, emphasizing liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the rule of law, the consent of the governed, opposition to aristocracy, and fear of corruption, coupled with equal rights—though at first only for free, white, Christian men, gradually these rights were extended to all adult citizens. Political divisions inside the United States often seemed minor or trivial to Europeans, where the divide between the Left and the Right led to violent polarization, starting with the French Revolution.
Historian Patrick Allitt expresses the difference between liberal and conservative in terms not of policy but of attitude:Certain continuities can be traced through American history. The conservative 'attitude' ... was one of trusting to the past, to long-established patterns of thought and conduct, and of assuming that novelties were more likely to be dangerous than advantageous.
No American party has advocated European ideals of "conservatism" such as a monarchy, an established church, or a hereditary aristocracy. American conservatism is best characterized as a reaction against utopian ideas of progress. Russell Kirk saw the American Revolution itself as "a conservative reaction, in the English political tradition, against royal innovation".
The conservatism that prevailed in the colonies before 1776 was of a very different character than the conservatism that emerged based on revolutionary principles. This old conservatism was founded on a landed elite and urban merchant class that was Loyalist during the Revolution. The largest and richest and most influential of the American colonies was Virginia, where conservatives were in full control of the colonial and local governments. At the local level, Church of England parishes handled many local affairs, and they in turn were controlled not by the minister, but rather by a closed circle of rich landowners who comprised the parish vestry. Ronald L. Heinemann emphasizes the ideological conservatism of Virginia, while noting there were also religious dissenters who were gaining strength by the 1760s:The tobacco planters and farmers of Virginia adhered to the concept of a hierarchical society that they or their ancestors had brought with them from England. Most held to the general idea of a Great Chain of Being: at the top were God and his heavenly host; next came kings...who were divinely sanctioned to rule, then a hereditary aristocracy who were followed in descending order by wealthy landed gentry, small, independent farmers, tenant farmers, servants....Aspirations to rise above one's station in life were considered a sin.
In actual practice, colonial Virginia never had a bishop to represent God nor a hereditary aristocracy with titles like 'duke' or 'baron'. However it did have a royal governor appointed by the king, as well as a powerful landed gentry. The status quo was strongly reinforced by what Jefferson called "feudal and unnatural distinctions" that were vital to the maintenance of aristocracy in Virginia. He targeted laws such as entail and primogeniture by which the oldest son inherited all the land. The entail laws made it perpetual: the one who inherited the land could not sell it, but had to bequeath it to his oldest son. As a result, increasingly large plantations, worked by white tenant farmers and by black slaves, gained in size and wealth and political power in the eastern ("Tidewater") tobacco areas. Maryland and South Carolina had similar hierarchical systems, as did New York and Pennsylvania. During the Revolutionary era, all such laws were repealed by the new states. The most fervent Loyalists left for Canada or Britain or other parts of the Empire. They introduced primogeniture in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1792, and it lasted until 1851. Such laws lasted in England until 1926.
The new American conservatism, unlike the old, was not based on landed estates or loyalty to the Crown or the established Church and thus differed from European conservatism. Donald T. Critchlow and Nancy MacLean point out its resemblance to European liberalism.
At the time of the American Revolution, the colonists under British rule lived under the freest government in the European world, but in their fierce determination to protect and preserve their historic rights, the founding fathers sought independence from Great Britain despite their relatively low level of taxation.
However, wealthy merchants involved in international trade, royal officials, and patronage holders typically enjoyed close ties across the British Empire; many of these men, dubbed "Loyalists" or Tories, opposed the American Revolution and remained loyal to the Crown throughout the war. In a sense, the Loyalists represented vestiges of European conservatism in the American Colonies; they tried to preserve the status quo of Empire in the face of revolutionary change. Their leaders were men of wealth and property who loved order, respected their betters, looked down on their inferiors, and feared "mobocracy" at home more than rule by a distant monarch. When it came to a choice between protecting their historic rights as Americans or remaining loyal to the King, they chose King and Empire. About 70,000 Loyalists left the new United States in the wake of the Revolutionary War; most fled to Canada where they are still known as United Empire Loyalists.
The patriots who fought in the Revolution did so in the name of preserving traditional rights of Englishmen—especially the right of "no taxation without representation"; they increasingly opposed attempts by Parliament to tax and control the fast-growing colonies. In 1773, when the British imposed heavy sanctions on the Massachusetts colony in the wake of the Boston Tea Party, self described patriots organized colony-by-colony resistance through organizations such as the Sons of Liberty. Fighting broke out in the spring of 1775, and all Thirteen Colonies entered into open rebellion against the crown. In July 1776, the Second Continental Congress declared independence from the United Kingdom and became the de facto national government espousing the principles of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. The patriots formed a consensus around the ideas of republicanism, whereby popular sovereignty was invested in a national legislature instead of a King.
In his book, Labaree (1948) identified the main characteristics of the Loyalists that contributed to their conservative opposition to independence. Loyalists were generally older than Patriots, better established in society, resisted innovation, believed resistance to the Crown—the legitimate government—was morally wrong, and were further alienated from the Patriot cause when it resorted to violent means of opposition, such as burning houses and tarring and feathering royal officials. Loyalists wanted to take a middle-of-the road position and were angry when forced by the Patriots to declare their opposition. They had a long-standing sentimental attachment to Britain (often with business and family ties) and were procrastinators who realized that while independence might be inevitable, they would rather postpone it for as long as possible. Many loyalists were also highly cautious and afraid of the potential anarchy or tyranny that could arise out of mob rule. Finally, Loyalists were pessimists who lacked the Patriots' confidence in the future of an independent United States.
The Patriots' victory established their revolutionary principles as core American political values adhered to by all parties in the newly formed United States. Modern American Conservatives often identify with the Patriots of the 1770s, a fact exemplified in 2009 by the Tea Party movement, named after the Tea Party of 1773. Its members often dress in costumes characteristic of the Founding Fathers.
The American Revolution proved highly disruptive to the old networks of conservative elites in the colonies. The departure of so many royal officials, rich merchants, and landed gentry destroyed the hierarchical networks that previously dominated politics and power in many of the colonies. In New York, for example, the departure of key members of the DeLancy, DePester Walton, and Cruger families undercut the interlocking families that largely owned and controlled the Hudson Valley. Likewise in Pennsylvania, the departure of the powerful Penn, Allen, Chew, and Shippen families destroyed the cohesion of the old upper class. New men became rich merchants, but they retained a spirit of republican equality that replaced the old elitism; the revolution prevented the rise of a truly powerful upper class in American society. One rich patriot in Boston noted in 1779 that "fellows who would have cleaned my shoes five years ago, have amassed fortunes and are riding in chariots." Four out of five Loyalists remained in America and were loyal to the new republic. For the most part, they avoided politics; certainly they never tried to form a revanchist movement seeking a return to the Empire. Loyalist Samuel Seabury, for example, abandoned politics but became the first Episcopalian bishop in the United States, rebuilding a church that appealed to families that still admired hierarchy, tradition, and historic liturgy, but had given up their allegiance to the king.
In the wake of the Revolution, the newly formed Federalist Party, dominated by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, used the presidency of George Washington to promote a strong nation capable of holding its own in world affairs, with a strong army and navy able to suppress internal revolts (such as the Whiskey Rebellion), and a national bank to support financial and business interests. Intellectually, Federalists, while devoted to liberty, held profoundly conservative views attuned to the American character. As Samuel Eliot Morison explained, they believed that liberty is inseparable from union, that men are essentially unequal, that vox populi [voice of the people] is seldom if ever vox Dei [the voice of God], and that sinister outside influences were busy undermining American integrity. Historian Patrick Allitt concludes that Federalists promoted many conservative positions, including the rule of law under the Constitution, republican government, peaceful change through elections, judicial supremacy, stable national finances, credible and active diplomacy, and protection of wealth.
The Federalists were dominated by businessmen and merchants in the major cities and were supportive of the modernizing, urbanizing, financial policies of Hamilton. These policies included the funding of the national debt and also assumption of state debts incurred during the Revolutionary War (thus allowing the states to lower their own taxes and still pay their debts), the incorporation of a national Bank of the United States, the support of manufactures and industrial development, and the use of a tariff to fund the Treasury. In foreign affairs the Federalists opposed the French Revolution. Under John Adams they fought the "Quasi War" (an undeclared naval war) with France in 1798–99 and built a strong army and navy. Ideologically, the controversy between Jeffersonian Republicans and Federalists stemmed from a difference of principle and style. In terms of style the Federalists distrusted the public, thought the elite should be in charge, and favored national power over state power. Republicans distrusted Britain, bankers, merchants, and did not want a powerful national government. The Federalists—notably Hamilton, were distrustful of "the people", the French, and the Republicans.
"Jeffersonian Republicans" / "Democratic-Republicans"
In the 1790s, Jeffersonian democracy arose in opposition to the Federalist Party, primarily as a response to the fear that Federalists' favoritism toward British monarchism threatened the new republic. The opposition party chose the name "Republican Party". Some historians refer to them as "Jeffersonian Republicans" while political scientists usually use the "Democratic-Republican Party," in order to distinguish them from the modern Republican Party. While "Jeffersonian Democracy" persisted as an element of the Democratic Party into the early 20th century, as exemplified by William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), and its themes continue to echo in the 21st century. Jeffersonians opposed the further strengthening federal government and the rise of an interventionist judiciary, a concern later shared by conservatives of the 20th century. The next four presidents were Democratic-Republicans.
During the 1800s and 1810s, the "Old Republicans," (not to be confused with the Republican Party, which did not yet exist) were led by John Randolph of Roanoke. They refused to form a coalition with the Federalists. Instead they set up a separate opposition led by James Madison, Albert Gallatin, James Monroe, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay. They nevertheless adopted Federalist principles by chartering the Second Bank of the United States, promoting internal improvements for transportation, raising tariffs to protect factories, and promoting a strong army and navy after the failures of the War of 1812.
By the 1830s, the Whig Party emerged as the national conservative party. Whigs supported the national bank, private business interests, and the modernization of the economy in opposition to Jacksonian democracy, which represented the interests of poor farmers and the urban working class, represented by the newly formed Democratic Party. They chose the name "Whig" because it had been used by patriots in the Revolution. Daniel Webster and other Whig leaders referred to their new political party as the "conservative party", and they called for a return to tradition, restraint, hierarchy, and moderation.
In the end, the nation synthesized the two positions, Federalist and Whig, adopting representative democracy and a strong nation state. By the end of the 1820s, American politics had generally adapted to a two-party system whereby rival parties stake their claims before the electorate, and the winner takes control of the government. As time went on, the Federalists lost appeal with the average voter and were generally not equal to the tasks of party organization; hence, they grew steadily weaker. After 1816 the Federalists had no national influence apart from John Marshall's Supreme Court. They retained some local support into the 1820s, but important leaders left their fading cause, including future presidents John Quincy Adams and James Buchanan, and future Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.
Abraham Lincoln was the first president elected by the newly formed Republican Party, and Lincoln has been an iconic figure for American politicians of both parties. According to historian Striner, "...it is vain to try to classify Lincoln as a clear-cut conservative or liberal, as some historians have tried. He was both, and his politics engendered a long-term tradition of centrism..." .
Historian David Hackett Fischer stresses Lincoln's conservative views. In the 1850s "Lincoln was a prosperous corporate lawyer, and a member of the conservative Whig party for many years." He promoted business interests, especially banks, canals, railroads, and factories. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln explicitly appealed to conservatives. In 1859, he explained what he meant by conservatism in terms of fealty to the original intent of the Founding Fathers:"The chief and real purpose of the Republican party is eminently conservative. It proposes nothing save and except to restore this government to its original tone in regard to this element of slavery, and there to maintain it, looking for no further change in reference to it than that which the original framers of the Government themselves expected and looked forward to."
Lincoln elaborated his position in his famous Cooper Union speech in New York in early 1860, arguing that the Founding Fathers expected slavery to die a natural death, not to spread. His point was that the Founding Fathers were anti-slavery and the notion that slavery was good was a radical innovation that violated American ideals. This speech solidified Lincoln's base in the Republican Party and helped assure his nomination.
During the war, Lincoln was the leader of the moderate Republicans who fought the Radical Republicans on the issues of dealing with slavery and re-integrating the South into the nation. He built the stronger coalition, holding together conservative and moderate Republicans, and War Democrats, against the Radicals who wanted to deny him renomination in 1864. When the war was ending Lincoln planned to reintegrate the white South into the union as soon as possible by offering generous peace terms, "with malice toward none, with charity toward all". But when Lincoln was assassinated, the Radicals gained the upper hand and imposed much harsher terms than those Lincoln had wished.
James Randall is one of many who see Lincoln as holding 19th century liberal positions, while at the same time emphasizing Lincoln's tolerance and moderation "in his preference for orderly progress, his distrust of dangerous agitation, and his reluctance toward ill digested schemes of reform." Randall concluded that Lincoln was "conservative in his complete avoidance of that type of so-called 'radicalism' which involved abuse of the South, hatred for the slaveholder, thirst for vengeance, partisan plotting, and ungenerous demands that Southern institutions be transformed overnight by outsiders." David Greenstone argues that Lincoln's thought was grounded in reform liberalism but notes his unionism and Whiggish politics had a deeply conservative side as well.
After the Civil War, "conservative" came to mean opposition to the Radical Republicans who wanted to grant full citizenship rights to freed slaves and take political power away from the ex-Confederates. Conservative White Southerners thought that the radical experiments by Northern reformers to empower the freed slaves violated the rights of white men and they often accused Carpetbaggers who tried to help freed slaves of corruption. The race-based conservatism in the American South differed from the business-based conservatism in the North in its strong support for white supremacy, and insistence on a second-class powerless status for blacks, regardless of the Constitution. Southern conservatives in the 1950s added anti-communism to their agenda, believing that the ideology was behind the civil rights movement and the push for integration.
There was also a liberal element in the South—in support of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt—but they rarely opposed Jim Crow. From 1877 to 1960, the "Solid South" voted for Democratic Party candidates in almost all national elections; Democrats had firm control of state and local government in all southern states. By the late 1930s conservative Southern Democrats in Congress joined with most Northern Republicans in an informal Conservative Coalition that usually proved decisive in stopping liberal domestic legislation until 1964. With the Southern strategy of the Republican party in the late 1960s, the white southern conservatives shifted their support from the Democratic party to the Republican party, forming a very dominant solid south block of social conservatives in the Republican party. However the Southerners generally were much more internationalist than the mostly isolationist Northern Republicans in the Coalition.
Fundamentalism, especially on the part of Southern Baptists, was a powerful force in Southern conservative politics beginning in the late 1970s. However, they voted for Reagan in 1980 over a fellow Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter.
The Gilded Age
There was little nostalgia and backward looking in the dynamic North and West during the Gilded Age, the period in the U.S. history in the late 19th century, from the 1870s to about 1900. Business was expanding rapidly, with manufacturing, mining, railroads, and banking leading the way. There were millions of new farms in the prairie states. Immigration reached record levels. Progress was the watchword of the day. The wealth of the period is highlighted by American upper class opulence, but also by the rise of American philanthropy (referred to by Andrew Carnegie as the "Gospel of Wealth") that used private money to endow thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities.
Conservatives in the 20th Century, looking back at the Gilded Age, retroactively applied the word "conservative" to those who supported unrestrained Capitalism. For example, Oswald Garrison Villard, writing in 1939, characterized his former mentor Horace White (1834–1916) as "a great economic conservative; had he lived to see the days of the New Deal financing he would probably have cried out loud and promptly demised."
In this sense, the conservative element of the Democratic party was led by the Bourbon Democrats and their hero President Grover Cleveland, who fought against high tariffs and on behalf of the gold standard. In 1896, the Bourbons were overthrown inside the Democratic Party by William Jennings Bryan and the agrarians, who preached "Free Silver" and opposition to the power that banks and railroads had over the American farmer. The agrarians formed a coalition with the Populists and vehemently denounced the politics of big business, especially in the decisive 1896 election, won by Republican William McKinley, who was easily reelected over Bryan in 1900 as well.
Religious conservatives of this period sponsored a large and flourishing media network, especially based on magazines, many with close ties to the Protestant churches that were rapidly expanding due to the Third Great Awakening. Catholics had few magazines but opposed agrarianism in politics and established hundreds of schools and colleges to promote their conservative religious and social values.
Modern conservatives often point to William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), a leading public intellectual of the era, as one of their own, citing his articulate support for free markets, anti-imperialism, and the gold standard, and his opposition to what he saw as threats to the middle class from the rich plutocrats above or the agrarians and ignorant masses below.
The Gilded Age came to an end with the Panic of 1893 and the severe nationwide depression that lasted from 1893 to 1897.
The two parties re-aligned in the election of 1896, with the Republicans, led by William McKinley, becoming the party of business, sound money, and assertive foreign policy, while the Democratic Party, led by William Jennings Bryan, became the party of the worker, the small farmer, "Free Silver", Populists, and (in 1900) anti-imperialism. Bryan was also popular with religious fundamentalists and white supremacists.
As the 19th century drew to a close the United States became an imperial power, with overseas territories in Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and control over Cuba. Imperialism won out, as the election of 1900 ratified McKinley's policies and the U.S. possession of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and (temporarily) Cuba. Theodore Roosevelt promoted the military and naval advantages of the U.S., and echoed McKinley's theme that America had a duty to civilize and modernize the heathen. The supposed business, religious, and military advantages of having an empire proved illusory; by 1908 or so the most ardent imperialists, including Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Elihu Root turned their attention to building up an army and navy at home and to building the Panama Canal. They dropped the notion of additional expansion and agreed by 1920 that the Philippines should become independent.
In the early years of the 20th century, Republican spokesmen for big business in Congress included Speaker of the House Joe Cannon and Senate Republican Leader Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island. Aldrich introduced the Sixteenth Amendment, which allowed the federal government to collect an income tax; he also set in motion the design of the Federal Reserve System, which began in 1913. Pro-business conservatives supported many Progressive Era reforms, especially those opposed to corruption and inefficiency in government, and called for purification of politics. Conservative Senator John Sherman sponsored the nation's basic anti-trust law in 1890, and conservatives generally supported anti-trust in the name of opposing monopoly and opening up opportunities for small business. The Efficiency Movement attracted many Progressive Republicans, such as Nelson W. Aldrich and later President Herbert Hoover; with its pro-business, quasi-engineering approach to solve social and economic problems. The issues of prohibition and woman suffrage split the conservatives.
The "insurgents" were on the Left of the Republican Party. Led by Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, George W. Norris of Nebraska, and Hiram Johnson of California, they fought the conservatives in a series of bitter battles that split the GOP and allowed the Democratic Party to take control of Congress in 1910. Teddy Roosevelt, a hawk on foreign and military policy, moved increasingly to the Left on domestic issues regarding courts, unions, railroads, big business, labor unions and the welfare state. By 1910–11, Roosevelt had broken bitterly with Taft and the conservative wing of the GOP. In 1911–12 he took control of the insurgency, formed a third party, and ran an unsuccessful campaign for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912. His departure left the conservatives, led by President William Howard Taft, dominant in the Republican party until 1936. The split opened the way in 1912 for Democratic Woodrow Wilson to become president with only 42% of the vote.
World War I
The Great War broke out in 1914, with Wilson proclaiming neutrality. Former president Theodore Roosevelt denounced Wilson's foreign policy, charging, 'Had it not been for Wilson's pusillanimity, the war would have been over by the summer of 1916." Indeed, Roosevelt believed that Wilson's approach to foreign policy was fundamentally and objectively evil. Roosevelt abandoned the Progressive Party and campaigned energetically for Republican candidate Charles Hughes, but Wilson's policy of neutrality managed to provide him with a narrow victory in the 1916 election. The GOP, under conservative leadership, went on to regain Congress in 1918 and then the White House in 1920.
Republicans returned to dominance in 1920 with the election of President Warren G. Harding, who ran a campaign that pledged a return to normalcy. Tucker (2010) argues that the 1924 election marked the "high tide of American conservatism," as both major candidates campaigned for limited government, reduced taxes, and less regulation. The opposition was split between Progressive party candidate Robert La Follette who won 17% of the vote, and Democratic John W. Davis who took 29% which allowed Calvin Coolidge to easily win reelection. Under Coolidge (1923–29), the economy boomed and society stabilized; new policies focused on Americanizing immigrants already living in the United States and restricting the influx of new immigrants into the country.
During 1920s, religious fundamentalists like minister William Bell Riley and William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential nominee, led the battle against the theory of Darwinian Evolution. They considered it false and blasphemous and helped pass laws to make the teaching of evolution in public schools a state crime. The Scopes Trial of 1925 was a nationally publicized challenge to their efforts which largely discredited the movement.
Representative of the 1900–1930 era, was James M. Beck, a lawyer under Presidents Roosevelt, Harding and Coolidge, and a congressman from 1927–1933. He espoused conservative principles such as nationalism, individualism, constitutionalism, laissez-faire economics, property rights, and opposition to reform. Conservatives like Beck saw the need to regulate bad behavior in the corporate world with the intention of protecting corporate capitalism from radical forces, but they were alarmed by the anti-business and pro-union proposals of Roosevelt after 1905. They began to question the notion of a national authority beneficial to big capital, and instead emphasized legalism, concern for the Constitution, and reverence for the American past.
In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent rise of the USSR, both major American political parties became strongly anti-Communist. Within the U.S., the far Left split and an American Communist Party emerged in the 1920s. Conservatives denounced Communist ideals as a subversion of American values and maintained relentless opposition to Communism even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; even now anti-Communism is present among conservatives. Conservatives were especially sensitive to the perception of Communist elements trying to change national policies and values in the U.S. government, the media, and academia. Conservatives enthusiastically supported anti-Communist agencies such as the FBI, were chief proponents of the Congressional investigations of the 1940s and 1950s, particularly those led by Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy, and were wary of ex-Communists who exposed the system, such as Whittaker Chambers.
Writers and intellectuals
A tension between mainstream academia and conservatism has been a factor for generations. Richard Hofstadter found that opposition to conservatism has been common among intellectuals since about 1890. Although conservatism built a presence among intellectuals in the late 19th century, historian George Nash wrote in 1996 that, "Despite its new-found status and competitiveness, intellectual conservatism remains a minority movement, especially in the academic community, and, more broadly, amongst the articulate and politically dynamic "new class".
There were, however, conservative intellectuals inside and out of mainstream academia, who, during early and mid-20th century, propagated conservative values and shaped the intellectual base of modern conservatism. Prominent among them were Irving Babbitt, Russell Kirk, Henry Adams, Richard M. Weaver, Whittaker Chambers etc. A classic conservative work of the period is Democracy and Leadership (1924) by Irving Babbitt.
Numerous literary figures developed a conservative sensibility and warned of threats to Western Civilization. In the 1900–1950 era Henry Adams, T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Donald Davidson, and others feared that heedless scientific innovation would unleash forces that would undermine traditional Western values and lead to the collapse of civilization. Instead they searched for a rationale for promoting traditional cultural values in the face of their fear of an onslaught by moral nihilism based on historical and scientific relativism.
Conservatism as an intellectual movement in the South after 1930 was represented by writers such as Flannery O'Connor and the Southern Agrarians. The focus was on traditionalism and hierarchy.
Numerous former Communist or Trotskyite writers repudiated the Left in the 1930s or 1940s and embraced conservatism, becoming contributors to National Review in the 1950s. They included Max Eastman (1883–1969), John Dos Passos (1896–1970), Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961), Will Herberg (1901–1977), and James Burnham (1905–1987).
Dozens of small circulation magazines aimed at intellectuals promoted the conservative cause in the 20th century.
Major newspapers in metropolitan centers with conservative editorial viewpoints have played an important part in the development of American conservatism. In the 1930–1960 era, the Hearst chain, and the McCormick family newspapers (especially the Chicago Tribune), and the Los Angeles Times championed most conservative causes, as did the Henry Luce magazines, Time and Fortune. In recent years, those media have lost their conservative edge.
By 1936, most publishers favored Republican Alf Landon over Democratic liberal Franklin Roosevelt. In the nation's 15 largest cities the newspapers that editorially endorsed Landon represented 70 percent of the circulation, while Roosevelt won 69% of the actual voters in those 15 cities. Roosevelt's secret was to open up a new channel of communication to his supporters, through radio. His Fireside Chats especially influenced young radio broadcaster Ronald Reagan, who was an enthusiastic New Dealer at that time. Newspaper publishers continue to favor conservative Republicans.
The Wall Street Journal has continuously been a major voice of conservatism since the 1930s, and remains so since its takeover by Rupert Murdoch in 2007. As editor of the editorial page, Vermont C. Royster (1958–1971), and Robert L. Bartley (1972–2000), were especially influential in providing a conservative interpretation of the news on a daily basis.
New Deal Era
During 1930s, the seeds of modern conservatism was born with the opposition towards the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Conservative (mostly Midwestern) Republicans and Southern Democrats united for the first time, and distinct characteristics of modern conservatism began to appear.
The Great Depression which followed the 1929 stock market collapse led to price deflation, massive unemployment, falling farm incomes, investment losses, bank failures, business bankruptcies and reduced government revenues. Herbert Hoover's protectionist economic policies failed to halt the depression, and in the 1932 presidential election, Democratic Franklin D. Roosevelt won a landslide victory.
Liberty League and the Old Right
Roosevelt's New Deal had considerable conservative support at the start, but by 1934 the conservatives started uniting in opposition to the president. The counterattack first came from conservative Democrats, led by presidential nominees John W. Davis (1924) and Al Smith (1928), who mobilized business men into the American Liberty League.
Opposition to the New Deal also came from the Old Right, a group of conservative free-market anti-interventionists, originally associated with Midwestern Republicans led by Hoover and, after 1938, by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio. Ex-President Hoover moved sharply to the Right after 1932, abandoning his earlier Progressivism. He became a leading opponent of FDR and the New Deal. Hoover became a senior statesman of "conservative republicanism" until his death in 1964, and made his research center the Hoover Institution a major think tank for the right. The Old Right accused Roosevelt of promoting socialism; some noted his upper class status and said he was a "traitor to his class". By 1935 the New Deal strongly supported labor unions, which grew rapidly in membership and power; they became the main target of conservatives.
Conservative backlash against Roosevelt
Buoyed by his landslide win in 1936, which decimated the GOP in Congress, Roosevelt in early 1937 astonished the nation by announcing his plan to add six more justices to the nine on the Supreme Court who had been overturning New Deal legislation. Vice President John Nance Garner worked with congressional allies to stop Roosevelt. Many of the men who broke with Roosevelt on the Court issue had been old Progressives such as Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who played a backstage role.
Roosevelt was defeated in the Court initiative and fought back by targeting his enemies in the 1938 Democratic primaries. The national economy was in a sharp recession, and widespread labor strikes were making unions highly controversial. Roosevelt failed as all but one Congressman resisted the "purge". Opposition to Roosevelt doubled among Southern Congressmen.
Conservative coalition forms
Senator Josiah Bailey (D-NC) released the "Conservative Manifesto" in December 1937 which marked the launching of the "Conservative coalition" between Republicans and Southern Democrats. The Republicans made nationwide gains in 1938. The Conservative Coalition generally controlled Congress until 1963; no major legislation passed which the Coalition opposed. Its most prominent leaders were Senator Robert A. Taft (R-OH) and Senator Richard Russell (D-GA).
According to James T. Patterson:By and large the congressional conservatives by 1939 agreed in opposing the spread of federal power and bureaucracy, in denouncing deficit spending, in criticizing industrial labor unions, and in excoriating most welfare programs. They sought to "conserve" an America which they believed to have existed before 1933.
The conservative coalition was not concerned with foreign policy, as most of the southern Democrats were internationalists, a position opposed by most Republicans. The key Republican conservative was Senator Taft. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in 1940, 1948, and 1952, and was an isolationist who opposed American membership in NATO (1949) and the fight against Communism in the Korean War (1950).
Many conservatives, especially in the Midwest, in 1939–41 favored isolationism and opposed American entry into World War II—and so did many liberals. (see America First Committee). Conservatives in the East and South were generally interventionist, as typified by Henry Stimson. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Dec. 1941 united all Americans behind the war effort, with conservatives in Congress taking the opportunity to close down many New Deal agencies, such as the bête noire WPA.
In the New Deal era of the 1930s, Jefferson's memory became contested ground. Franklin D. Roosevelt greatly admired Jefferson and had the Jefferson Memorial built to honor his hero. Even more dramatic, however, was the reaction of the conservatives, as typified by the American Liberty League (comprising mostly conservative Democrats who resembled the Bourbon Democrats of the 1870–1900 era), and the Republican Party. Conservative Republicans abandoned their Hamiltonian views because they led to enlarged national government. Their opposition to Roosevelt's New Deal was cast in explicitly Jeffersonian small-government terms, and Jefferson became a hero of the Right.
The modern conservative political movement, combining elements from both traditional conservatism and libertarianism, emerged following World War II, but had its immediate political roots in reaction to the New Deal. Those two branches of conservatism allied the post World War I anti-communism thought. They defended a system in which the state should have a limited role to play in individual affairs. Their conceptions of conservatism, though differing slightly from one another, shared an inclination towards the elevation of a universal moral code within society. In the early 1950s, Dr. Russell Kirk defined the boundaries and resting grounds of conservatism. In his book, "The Conservative Mind", Dr. Kirk wrote six "truisms" that became major concepts for conservatism philosophy. Another important name in the domain of U.S conservatism is James Burnham. Mr. Burnham, philosopher in training but remembered for his political life, unsettled some foundations of conservatism when he, fervent opponent of liberalism, took position in favor of the Conscription.
In another book called Rebels All, the authors sought to define the main goals of Post-War conservatism in the United States. They wrote: "isn't conservatism supposed to be about maintaining standards, upholding civility, and frowning on rebellion?" In addition, looking back at how it has evolved from after World War II to modern times, it seems undeniable that conservatism holds the capacity to defend diverging beliefs such as free-market libertarianism, religious traditionalism while valuing the aggressively suggested by the anti-communist mind. Modern Conservatism, a highly complex concept, finds its roots in the works of post-World War II thinkers and philosophers whose differing opinions about how to promote similar goals reflect the subjectivity of this political inclination.
In 1946, conservative Republicans took control of Congress and opened investigations into communist infiltration of the federal government under Roosevelt. Congressman Richard Nixon accused Alger Hiss, a senior State Department official, of being a Soviet spy. Based on the testimony of Whittaker Chambers, an ex-Communist who became a leading anti-Communist and hero to conservatives, Hiss was convicted of perjury.
President Harry Truman (1945–53) adopted a containment strategy against Joseph Stalin's Communist expansion in Europe. Truman's major policy initiatives were through the Truman Doctrine (1947), the Marshall Plan (1948) and NATO (1949). Truman's Cold War policies had the support of most conservatives except for the remaining isolationists. The far left (comprising Communist Party members and fellow travelers) wanted to continue détente with Russia, and followed FDR's vice president Henry Wallace in a quixotic crusade in 1948 that failed to win broad support and, indeed, largely destroyed the far left in the Democratic party. Truman was reelected but his vaunted "Fair Deal" went nowhere, as the Conservative Coalition set the domestic agenda in Congress. The Coalition did not play a role in foreign affairs.
In 1947, the Conservative Coalition in Congress passed the Taft–Hartley Act, balancing the rights of management and unions, and delegitimizing Communist union leaders. However, the major job of rooting out communists from labor unions and the Democratic party was undertaken by liberals, such as Walter Reuther of the autoworkers union and Ronald Reagan of the Screen Actors Guild (Reagan was a Democrat at that time).
One typical mid-century conservative Republican in Congress was Noah M. Mason (1882–1965), who represented a rural downstate district in Illinois from 1937 to 1962. Less flamboyant and less well known than his colleague Everett McKinley Dirksen, he ardently supported states' rights in order to minimize the federal role, for he feared federal regulation of business. He distrusted Roosevelt, and gave many speeches against high federal spending. He called out New Dealers, such as Eveline M. Burns, Henry A. Wallace, Adolph A. Berle, Jr., and Paul A. Porter, as socialists, and suggested their policies resembled fascism. He fought communism as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (1938–43), and in 1950 he championed Joe McCarthy's exposes.
In 1950, Lionel Trilling wrote that conservatives had lost the battle of ideas: "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation." He likewise wrote: "But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."
When the communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 Truman adopted a rollback strategy, planning to free the entire country by force. Truman decided not to obtain Congressional approval for his war—he relied on UN approval—which left the Republicans free to attack his war policies. Taft said Truman's decision was "a complete usurpation by the president." Truman's reliance on the UN reinforced conservative distrust of that body. With the Allies on the verge of victory, the Chinese communists entered the war and drove the Allies back with terrific fighting in sub-zero weather. Truman reversed positions, dropped the rollback policy, and fired the conservative hero General Douglas MacArthur (who wanted rollback), and settled for containment. Truman's acceptance of the status quo at a cost of 37,000 Americans killed and undermined Truman's base of support. Truman did poorly in the early 1952 primaries and was forced to drop his reelection bid. The Democratic Party nominated a liberal intellectual with no ties to Roosevelt or Truman, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II.
When anxiety over Communism in Korea and China reached a fever pitch, an otherwise obscure Senator, Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, launched extremely high-visibility investigations into the alleged network of communist spies in the government. Irish Catholics (including Buckley and the Kennedy Family) were intensely anti-communist and supported McCarthy (a fellow Irish Catholic). Paterfamilias Joseph Kennedy (1888–1969), a leading conservative Democrat, was an ardent supporter of McCarthy, and got his son Robert F. Kennedy a job with McCarthy. McCarthy's careless tactics, however, allowed his opponents to effectively counterattack. McCarthy talked of "twenty years of treason" (i.e. since Roosevelt's election in 1932). In 1953 he started talking of "21 years of treason" and launched a major attack on the Army for promoting a communist dentist in the medical corps; this was too much for Eisenhower, who encouraged Republicans to censure McCarthy formally in 1954. The Senator's power collapsed overnight. Senator John F. Kennedy did not vote for censure.
Arthur Herman states, "McCarthy was always a more important figure to American liberals than to conservatives", because he defined the liberal target, and made liberals look like innocent victims. However, in recent years conservatives have not so much defended McCarthy's rough tactics as argued, chiefly based on espionage work done under the Venona project, that communist spies were really present in the government, and some of the Left at the time were indeed covering up those communist networks.
Examining postwar conservative intellectual history, Kim Phillips-Fein writes:The most influential synthesis of the subject remains George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Tradition since 1945.... He argued that postwar conservatism brought together three powerful and partially contradictory intellectual currents that previously had largely been independent of each other: libertarianism, traditionalism, and anticommunism. Each particular strain of thought had predecessors earlier in the twentieth (and even nineteenth) centuries, but they were joined in their distinctive postwar formulation through the leadership of William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review. The fusion of these different, competing, and not easily reconciled schools of thought led to the creation, Nash argued, of a coherent modern Right."
As shown by General Dwight D. Eisenhower's defeat of Senator Robert A. Taft for the GOP nomination in 1952, isolationism had weakened the Old Right. Eisenhower then won the 1952 election by crusading against what he called Truman's failures: "Korea, Communism and Corruption." Eisenhower quickly ended the Korean War, which most conservatives by then opposed; and adopted a conservative fiscal policy while cooperating with Taft, who became the Senate Majority Leader. As President, Eisenhower promoted "Modern Republicanism," involving limited government, balanced budgets, and curbing government spending. Although taking a firm anti-Communist position, he and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles didn't push for rollback and continued the Truman administration's policy of containment. He cut defense spending by shifting the national strategy from reliance on expensive army divisions to cheap nuclear weapons. Though he made efforts to eliminate expensive supports for farm prices, he was ultimately unsuccessful, but he met success in reducing the role of the federal government by returning offshore oil reserves to the states. Eisenhower kept the regulatory and welfare policies of the New Deal, with the Republicans taking credit for the expansion of Social Security. He also sought to minimize conflict among economic and racial groups in the quest for social harmony, peace and prosperity. He was reelected by a landslide in 1956.
While Republicans in Washington were making small reversals of the New Deal, the most critical opposition to liberalism came from conservative intellectuals. Russell Kirk (1918–1994) claimed that both classical and modern liberalism placed too much emphasis on economic issues and failed to address man's spiritual nature, and called for a plan of action for a conservative political movement. He claimed that conservative leaders should appeal to farmers, small towns, the churches, and others, following the example of the British Conservative Party.
Kirk adamantly opposed libertarian ideas, which he saw as a threat to true conservatism. In Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries Kirk wrote that the only thing libertarians and conservatives have in common is a detestation of collectivism. "What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever have.".
William F. Buckley Jr. and the National Review
The most effective organizer and proponent of conservative ideas was William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925–2008), the founder of National Review in 1955 and a highly visible writer and media personality. Though before, there had been numerous small right-wing circulation magazines, the National Review was able to gain national attention and shaped the conservative movement due to strong editing and a strong stable of regular contributors. Erudite, witty and tireless, Buckley inspired a new enthusiasm for the movement. Behind the scenes the magazine was handled by publisher William A. Rusher Geoffrey Kabaservice asserts, "in many ways it was Rusher, not Buckley who was the founding father of the conservative movement as it currently exists. We have Rusher, not Buckley, to thank for the populist, operationally sophisticated, and occasionally extremist elements that characterize the contemporary movement."
Buckley and Rusher assembled an eclectic group of writers: traditionalists, Catholic intellectuals, libertarians and ex-Communists. They included: Russell Kirk, James Burnham, Frank Meyer, Willmoore Kendall, L. Brent Bozell, and Whittaker Chambers In the magazine's founding statement Buckley wrote:
The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. It is not that of course; if National Review is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no other is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
Milton Friedman and libertarian economics
Austrian economist F. A. Hayek (1899–1992) in 1944 galvanized opponents of the New Deal by arguing that the left in Britain was leading that nation down the "road to serfdom".
More influential was the Chicago school of economics, led by Milton Friedman (1912–2006) and George J. Stigler (1911–1991), who advocated neoclassical and monetarist public policy. The Chicago School provided a vigorous criticism of regulation, on the grounds that it led to control of the regulations by the regulated industries themselves. Since 1974, government regulation of industry and banking has greatly decreased. The School attacked Keynesian economics, then the dominant theory of economics, which Friedman claimed was based on unsound models. The "stagflation" of the 1970s (combining high inflation and high unemployment) was impossible according to Keynesian models, but was predicted by Friedman, giving his approach credibility among the experts.
By the late 1960s, Ebenstein argues, Friedman was "the most prominent conservative public intellectual at least in the United States and probably in the world." Friedman advocated for greater reliance on the marketplace in lectures, weekly columns, books, and on television. According to Friedman, Americans should be "Free to Choose". He convinced many conservatives that the practice of military drafting was inefficient and unfair; consequently, Nixon ended it in 1973. Nine Chicago School economists won the Nobel prize for economics. Their views about deregulation and fiscal policy became widely accepted, following the crisis in the 1970s. However, Friedman's "monetarism" did not fare as well, with current monetary practice targeting inflation, not the money supply. As an academic economist, Ben Bernanke developed Friedman's argument that the banking crises of the early 1930s deepened and prolonged the depression. As Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Bernanke's energetic reaction to the great financial crisis of 2008 was based in part on Friedman's warnings about the Fed's inactions after 1929.
John Birch Society
Robert W. Welch Jr. (1900–1985) founded the John Birch Society as an authoritarian top-down force to combat Communism. It had tens of thousands of members and distributed books, pamphlets and the magazine American Opinion. It was so tightly controlled by Welch that its effectiveness was strictly limited, as it mostly focused on calls to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren, as well as supporting local police. It became a major lightning rod for liberal attacks. In 1962, Buckley won the support of Goldwater and other leading conservatives for an attack on Welch. He denounced Welch and the John Birch Society in National Review, as "far removed from common sense" and urged the GOP to purge itself of Welch's influence.
The main disagreement between Kirk, who would become described as a traditionalist conservative, and the libertarians was whether tradition and virtue or liberty should be their primary concern. Frank Meyer tried to resolve the dispute with "fusionism": America could not conserve its traditions without economic freedom. He also noted that they were united in opposition to "big government" and made anti-communism the glue that would unite them. The term "conservative" was used to describe the views of National Review supporters, despite initial protests from the libertarians, because the term "liberal" had become associated with "New Deal" supporters. They were also later known as the "New Right", as opposed to the New Left.
South and segregation
Despite the popular perception that conservatism is limited to Republicans, during the era of segregation before 1965 many Southern Democrats were also conservative, especially about social and racial issues. Southern Democrats were a key part of a Conservative Coalition that largely blocked liberal labor legislation in Congress from 1937 to 1963, though they tended to be liberal and vote with the rest of the Democratic Party on other economic issues. Southern Democrats fended off the more conservative Republican Party (GOP) by arguing that only they could defend segregation because the Republican Party nationally was committed to integration. That argument collapsed when Congress banned segregation in 1964. This provided an opportunity for Republicans to appeal to conservative Southerners on the basis that the GOP was the more conservative party on a wide range of social and economic issues, as well as being hawkish on foreign policy when the antiwar forces gained strength in the Democratic party. Southern white conservatives moved from the Democratic Party to the GOP at the presidential level in the 1960s, and at the state and local level after 1990.
Democratic George Wallace, the newly elected governor of Alabama, in January 1963 electrified the white South by crying out for "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!". He later stood in the schoolhouse door in a failed attempt to stop federal officials from desegregating the University of Alabama. Wallace communicated traditional conservatism in a populist, anti-elitist and "earthy" language that resonated with rural and working class voters who long had been part of the New Deal Coalition. He was able to exploit anticommunism, yearnings for "traditional" American values and dislike of civil rights agitators, anti-war protesters and sexual exhibitionists. The Wallace movement did help break away a major element of the New Deal coalition—less educated, powerless low income whites—which decades later made its way into the GOP in the South. He helped pave the way for the conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s. However, Wallace did not receive support from Goldwater, Buckley or any mainstream conservative. He did get support from the John Birch Society and the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade. Wallace's populist base of poor white farmers, echoed earlier racist demagogues such as Tom Watson of Georgia. As governor of Alabama (and, when he had his wife elected, as husband of the governor) Wallace combined his reactionary position on civil rights with relatively liberal programs, such as support for women. Despite this support for state-level government welfare, Wallace did not believe in government intervention in free enterprise and private property. He accused liberals of using the federal government to interfere in "everybody's private business" and as a conservative believed in "freedom for business and labor".
Goldwater in 1964
Conservatives united behind the 1964 presidential campaign of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (1919–1998), though his campaign was ultimately unsuccessful. Goldwater published The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), a bestselling book that explained modern conservative theory. Goldwater was significantly weakened by his unpopular views regarding social security, income tax, and the war in Vietnam. In Tennessee, he suggested selling the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was a favorite for conservatives in its region. He voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, thereby winning the support of Southern segregationists. Support for the campaign came from numerous grassroots activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and the newly formed Young Americans for Freedom, sponsored by Buckley to mobilize conservatives. Buckley himself tried to win the 1965 mayoral election of New York, but failed.
Despite Goldwater's defeat conservatives were rapidly organizing at the local, state, and national levels. They were most successful in suburban California, where they worked hard in 1966 for their new hero Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), who was elected governor for two terms.
Reagan increasingly dominated the conservative movement, especially in his failed 1976 quest for the Republican presidential nomination and his successful run in 1980.
By the 1950s, many conservatives emphasized the Judeo-Christian roots of their values. Goldwater noted that conservatives "believed the communist projection of man as a producing, consuming animal to be used and discarded was antithetical to all the Judeo-Christian understandings which are the foundations upon which the Republic stands." Ronald Reagan frequently emphasized Judeo-Christian values as necessary ingredients in the fight against communism. Belief in the superiority of Western Judeo-Christian traditions led conservatives to downplay the aspirations of Third World and to denigrate the value of foreign aid. Since the 1990s, the term "Judeo-Christian" has been primarily used by conservatives.
Evangelicals had been politicized in the 1920s, battling to impose prohibition and to stop the teaching of evolution in the schools (as in the Scopes Trial of 1925), but had largely been politically quiet since the 1930s. The emergence of the "religious right" as a political force and part of the conservative coalition dates from the 1970s and was a response to secularization and Supreme Court rulings on school prayer and abortion. According to Wilcox and Robinson, "The Christian Right is an attempt to restore Judeo-Christian values to a country that is in deep moral decline.... [They] believe that society suffers from the lack of a firm basis of Judeo-Christian values and they seek to write laws that embody those values". Especially important was the hostile reaction to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, which brought together Catholics (who had long opposed abortion) and evangelical Protestants (who were new to the issue).
Noting the anger of Catholic bishops at losing state funding because of the Catholic opposition to gay adoptive parents, along with other social issues, the New York Times reported in late 2011 that:The idea that religious Americans are now the victims of government-backed persecution is now a frequent theme not just for Catholic bishops, but also for Republican presidential candidates and conservative evangelicals.
The 1970s saw the movement of many prominent liberal intellectuals to the right, many of them from New York City Jewish roots and well-established academic reputations, who had become disillusioned with liberalism.
Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss were founders of the movement. The magazines Commentary and Public Interest were their key outlets, as well as op-ed articles for major newspapers and position papers for think tanks. Activists around Democratic senator Henry Jackson became deeply involved as well. Prominent spokesmen include Gertrude Himmelfarb, Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, Norman Podhoretz, Richard Pipes, David Horowitz, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, Robert Kagan, Elliott Abrams and Ben Wattenberg. Meanwhile, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was highly sympathetic but remained a Democrat. Some of Strauss' influential neoconservative disciples included Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, Paul Wolfowitz (who became Deputy Secretary of Defense), Alan Keyes (who became Assistant Secretary of State), William Bennett (who became Secretary of Education), Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, political philosopher Allan Bloom, writer John Podhoretz, college president John Agresto, political scientist Harry V. Jaffa and novelist Saul Bellow.
Neoconservatives generally support pro-business policies. Some went on to high policy-making or advisory positions in the Reagan, Bush I and Bush II administrations.
Conservatism in the South
The growth of conservatism within the Republican Party attracted white conservative Southern Democrats in presidential elections. A few big names switched to the GOP, including South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond in 1964 and Texas Governor John Connally in 1973. Starting in 1968, in the South the GOP dominated most presidential elections (1976 was the lone exception), but not until the 1990s did the GOP become dominant in state and local politics in the region. Through the Southern strategy, Republicans built their strength among Southern Baptists and other religious Fundamentalists, white social conservatives, middle-class suburbs, some migrants from the North, and Cubans in Florida. Meanwhile, starting in 1964, African American voters in the South began to show overwhelming support for the Democratic Party at both the presidential and local levels. They elected a number of congressmen and mayors. In 1990 there were still many moderate white Democrats holding office in the South, but when they retired they were typically replaced by much more conservative Republicans or by liberal blacks. In the 21st century, political scientists point to the strong base of social conservatism in the South. The evangelical Protestants, comprising the "Religious Right", have since the 1980s strongly influenced the vote in Republican primaries, for "it is primarily in the South where the evangelical core of the GOP is strongest."
Think tanks and foundations
In 1971 Lewis F. Powell Jr. urged conservatives to retake command of public discourse through a concerted media outreach campaign. In Powell's view, this would involve monitoring "national television networks…; induc[ing] more 'publishing' by independent scholars who do believe in the [free enterprise] system"; publishing in "magazines and periodicals—ranging from the popular magazines to the more intellectual ones"; issuing "books, paperbacks, and pamphlets"; and dedicating advertising dollars to "a sustained, major effort to inform and enlighten the American people." Conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation brought in intellectuals for shorter or longer periods, financed research, and disseminated the products through conferences, publications, and systematic media campaigns. They typically focused on projects with immediate policy implications.
Aware that the Brookings Institution had played an influential role for decades in promoting liberal ideas, the Heritage Foundation was designed as a counterpart on the right. Meanwhile, older conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute grew rapidly as a result of major increases in conservative philanthropy. Both think tanks became more oriented to the news media, more aggressively ideological, and more focused on rapid-response production and shorter publications. At the same time, they generally eschewed long-term research in favor of projects with immediate policy implications and produced synthetic materials rather than long-term research.
In the following decades, conservative policies once considered outside the political mainstream—such as abolishing welfare, privatizing Social Security, deregulating banking, embracing preemptive war, and teaching creationism in schools—were taken seriously and sometimes passed into law due in part to the work of the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and various smaller tanks.
Complaining that mainstream academia was hostile to conservatives, several foundations became especially active in funding conservative policy research, notably the Adolph Coors Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Koch family foundations, the Scaife Foundations, and (until it closed in 2005), the John M. Olin Foundation. Typically, they have emphasized the need for market-based solutions to national problems. The foundations often invested in conservative student publications and organizations, such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and legal foundations such as the Federalist Society.
Policy entrepreneurs such as William Baroody, Edwin Feulner and Paul Weyrich started to entrench conservatism in public research institutions. Their aim was to rival the liberal regime for the control of the sources of power. The appearance of think tanks changed the history of conservatism and left an enormous imprint on the Republican right in subsequent years.
Nixon, Ford and Carter
The Republican administrations of President Richard Nixon (1969–74) and Gerald Ford (1974–77) were characterized by their emphasis on détente and on economic intervention through wage and price controls. Ford angered conservatives by continuing Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State and pushing his policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Conservatives finally found a new champion in Ronald Reagan, whose 8 years as governor of California had just ended in 1976, and supported his campaign for the Republican nomination. Ford narrowly won renomination but lost the White House. Following major gains by Democratic liberals in the 1974 midterm election, Jimmy Carter was elected as President. Carter proved too liberal for his fellow Southern Baptists, (as they voted for him in 1976 but not 1980), too conservative for the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and many considered his foreign policy a failure. Carter realized there was a strong national sense of malaise, as inflation skyrocketed, interest rates soared, the economy stagnated, and prolonged humiliation resulted when Islamic militants in Tehran kept American diplomats hostage for 444 days in 1979–81.
During the recessions of the 1970s, inflation and unemployment rates soared simultaneously and budget deficits began to raise concerns among many Americans. In the early 1970s, America was still a moderately progressive country, as citizens supported social programs and voted down efforts to cut taxes. But by the end of the decade, a full-fledged tax revolt had gotten underway, led by the overwhelming passage in 1978 of Proposition 13 in California, which sharply cut property taxes, and the growing Congressional support for the Kemp-Roth tax bill, which proposed cutting federal income taxes by 30 percent. Supply-side economics developed during the 1970s in response to Keynesian economic policy, and in particular the failure of demand management to stabilize Western economies during the stagflation of the 1970s, in the wake of the oil crisis in 1973. It drew on a range of non-Keynesian economic thought, particularly the Chicago School and Neo-Classical School.
Stopping the Equal Rights Amendment
Conservative women were mobilized in the 1970s by Phyllis Schlafly in an effort to stop ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution. The ERA had seemed a noncontroversial effort to provide legal equality when it easily passed Congress in 1972 and quickly was ratified by 28 of the necessary 38 states. Schlafly denounced it as tilting the playing field against the traditional housewife in a power grab by anti-family feminists on the left. She warned it would mean women would be drafted in the Army on the same basis as men. Through her Eagle Forum she organized state-by-state to block further ratification, and to have states rescind their ratification. Congress extended the time needed, and a movement among feminists tried to boycott tourist cities in states that had not ratified (such as Chicago and New Orleans). It was to no avail. The ERA never became law and Schlafly became a major spokesperson for anti-feminism in the conservative movement.
With Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980 the modern American conservative movement took power. Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time since 1954, and conservative principles dominated Reagan's economic and foreign policies, with supply side economics and strict opposition to Soviet Communism defining the Administration's philosophy. Reagan's ideas were largely espoused and supported by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which grew dramatically in its influence during the Reagan years, extended to a second term by the 1984 presidential election, as Reagan and his senior aides looked to Heritage for policy guidance.
An icon of the American conservative movement, Reagan is credited by his supporters with transforming the politics of the United States, galvanizing the success of the Republican Party. He brought together a coalition of economic conservatives, who supported his supply side economics; foreign policy conservatives, who favored his staunch opposition to Communism and the Soviet Union; and social conservatives, who identified with his religious and social ideals. Reagan labeled the Soviet Union the "evil empire." Conservatives also supported the Reagan Doctrine, under which the U.S. provided military and other aid to insurgency movements resisting governments aligned with the Soviet Union. For these and other efforts, Reagan was attacked by liberals at the time as a dangerous warmonger, but conservative historians assert that he decisively won the Cold War.
In defining conservatism, Reagan said: "If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals—if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is." Reagan's views on government were influenced by Thomas Jefferson, especially his hostility to strong central governments. "We're still Jefferson's children," he declared in 1987. He also stated, "Freedom is not created by Government, nor is it a gift from those in political power. It is, in fact, secured, more than anything else, by limitations placed on those in Government". Likewise he greatly admired and often quoted Abraham Lincoln.
Supply side economics dominated the Reagan Era. During his eight years in office the national debt more than doubled, from $907 billion in 1980 to $2.6 trillion in 1988, and consumer prices rose by more than 50%. But despite cuts in income tax rates, federal income tax revenues grew from $244 billion in 1980 to $467 billion in 1990. The real median family income, which had declined during the previous administration, grew by about ten percent under Reagan. The period from 1981 to 1989 was among the most prosperous in American history, with 17 million new jobs created.
The 1980s also saw the founding of The Washington Times, a newspaper influential in the conservative movement. Reagan was said to have read the paper every morning, and the paper had close ties to multiple Republican administrations.
In 1992, many conservatives repudiated President Bush because he violated his promise, "Read My Lips: No New Taxes." He was defeated for reelection in 1992 in a three way race, with populist Ross Perot attracting considerable support on the right. Democrat Bill Clinton was stopped in his plan for government health care, and in 1994 the GOP made sweeping gains under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, the first Republican to become Speaker in 40 years. Gingrich overplayed his hand by cutting off funding for the Federal government, allowing Clinton to regain momentum and win reelection in 1996. The "Contract with America" promised numerous reforms, but little was accomplished beyond the ending of major New Deal welfare programs. A national movement to impose term limits failed to reach Congress (because the Supreme Court ruled that a constitutional amendment was needed) but did transform politics in some states, especially California. TIME stated there has been an identity crisis in U.S. conservatism growing since the end of the Cold War and the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Supporters of classical liberalism—distinct from modern liberalism—tend to identify as "conservatives," and in the 21st century, classical liberalism remains a major force within the Republican Party and the larger conservative movement. In the 21st Century, only in the United States is classical liberalism a significant political ideology.
George W. Bush
The election of George W. Bush in 2000 brought a new generation of conservatives to power in Washington. Bush cut taxes in a 10-year plan that was renewed in late 2010, following major debate. Bush forged a bipartisan coalition to pass "No Child Left Behind", which for the first time imposed national standards on public schools. The September 2001 terrorist attacks resulted in American commitment to the War against Terror with invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Bush won solid support from Republicans in Congress and from conservative voters in his 2004 reelection campaign. Exit polls in 2004 showed that 34% of the voters identified themselves as "conservatives" and they voted 84% for Bush. By contrast, 21% identified as "liberals," of whom 13% voted for Bush; 45% were "moderates" and they voted 45% for Bush. Almost the same pattern had appeared in the 2000 exit polls. The exit polls show Bush won 57% of the rural vote, 52% of the suburban vote and 45% of the urban vote.
When the financial system verged on total collapse in 2008, Bush pushed through large scale rescue packages for banks and auto companies that even some conservatives in Congress did not support. Some noted conservatives, including Richard A. Viguerie and William F. Buckley, Jr., have said that Bush was not a "true" conservative.
The Republican contest for the nomination in 2008 was a free-for-all, with Senator John McCain the winner, facing Barack Obama. McCain chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, and while she was greeted by the GOP establishment with initial skepticism, she electrified many conservatives and became a major political force on the right.
After the election of Obama for president, Republicans in Congress were unified in almost total opposition to the programs and policies of Obama and the Democratic majority. They unsuccessfully attempted to stop an $814 billion stimulus spending program, new regulations on investment firms, and a program to require health insurance for all Americans. They did keep emissions trading from coming to a vote, and vow to continue to work to convince Americans that burning fossil fuel does not cause global warming. The slow growth of the economy in the first two years of the Obama administration led Republicans to call for a return to tax cuts and deregulation of businesses, which they perceived as the best way to solve the financial crisis. Obama's approval rating steadily declined in his first year in office before leveling off at about 50-50. This decline in popularity led to a GOP landslide in the mid-term elections of 2010.
On foreign policy, some conservatives, especially neoconservatives and those in the National Review circle, supported Obama's policy of a surge in Afghanistan, air raids to support the insurgents in Libya, and the war on terror, especially after he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011. At issue in 2012 was the efficacy of diplomacy and sanctions in stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons.
A relatively new element of conservatism is the Tea Party movement of 2009–present, a populist grassroots movement comprising over 600 local units who communally express dissatisfaction with the government and both major parties. Many units have promoted activism and protests. The stated purpose of the movement is to stop what it views as wasteful government spending, excessive taxation, and strangulation of the economy through regulatory bureaucracies. The Tea Party attracted national attention when it propelled Republican Scott Brown to a victory in the Senate election for the Massachusetts seat held by the Kennedy brothers for nearly 60 years. In 2010 Tea Party candidates upset establishment Republicans in several primaries, such as Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Nevada, New York, South Carolina, and Utah, giving a new momentum to the conservative cause in the 2010 elections, and boosting Sarah Palin's visibility. Rasmussen and Schoen (2010) conclude that "She is the symbolic leader of the movement, and more than anyone else has helped to shape it." In the fall 2010 elections, the New York Times identified 129 House candidates with significant Tea Party support, as well as 9 running for the Senate; all are Republicans, as the Tea Party has not been active among Democrats.
The Tea Party itself is a conglomerate of conservatives with diverse viewpoints including libertarians and social conservatives. Most Tea Party supporters self-identify as "angry at the government". One survey found that Tea Party supporters in particular distinguish themselves from general Republican attitudes on social issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and illegal immigration, as well as global warming. However, discussion of abortion and gay rights has also been downplayed by Tea Party leadership. In the lead-up to the 2010 election, most Tea Party candidates have focused on federal spending and deficits, with little focus on foreign policy.
Noting the lack of central organization or explicit spokesmen, Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard has said: "There is no single Tea Party. The name is an umbrella that encompasses many different groups. Under this umbrella, you'll find everyone from the woolly fringe to Ron Paul supporters, from Americans for Prosperity to religious conservatives, independents, and citizens who never have been active in politics before. The umbrella is gigantic."
Gallup Poll editors noted in 2010 that "in addition to conservatives being more enthusiastic than liberals about voting in this year's election, their relative advantage on enthusiasm is much greater than we've seen in the recent past."
The Rise of Donald Trump
During the Obama Presidency, many voters on the right were alienated by a do-nothing Congress and a liberal agenda that was perceived by many to be too extreme. In the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, Democrats were obliterated at the state and federal level. Republicans ended with control of over two-thirds of state legislatures, three-fifths of the governorships and majorities in the House and Senate. In June 2015, Donald Trump's campaign was officially born and he promised to restore enthusiasm, national pride and identity in the American people. Mr. Trump was greeted with open arms by the populist, anti-establishment and conservative wings of the Republican Party. However, he was lambasted by the GOP establishment base (consisting of Republicans past and present). Mr. Trump's biggest critics included Mitt Romney, John McCain, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Lindsay Graham, strategist Ana Navarro and many others as they perceived Trump to be too far to the right. Mr. Trump ran an aggressive campaign that supported the deportation of illegal immigrants, torturing terrorists, defeating ISIS, ending/negotiating NAFTA and the TPP, building a border wall, strengthening the military, repealing and replacing Obamacare, and nominating conservative justices to the Supreme Court. Mr. Trump would ultimately win his 2016 Republican primary contest by courting voters who had been neglected by the pragmatic, moderate approach of the mainstream Republican Party.
In the 2016 Presidential election, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by an electoral college vote of 304 to 227 (despite losing the nationwide popular vote). Trump's victory was predicted to be very unlikely but a key factor was voter anger on the right wing. The GOP was simply sick and tired of the moderate, centrist, establishment politics.
Admission to academe
Liberal and leftist viewpoints have dominated higher education faculties since the 1970s, according to many studies, whereas conservatives are better represented in policy-oriented think tanks. Data from a survey conducted in 2004 indicated that 72% of full-time faculty identify as liberal, while 9–18% self-identify as conservative. Conservative self-identification is higher in two-year colleges than other categories of higher education but has been declining overall. Those in natural sciences, engineering, and business were less liberal than those in the social sciences and humanities. A 2005 study found that liberal views had increased compared to the older studies. 15% in the survey described themselves as center-right. While the humanities and the social sciences are still the most left leaning, 67% of those in other fields combined described themselves as center-left on the spectrum. In business and engineering, liberals outnumber conservatives by a 2:1 ratio. The study also found that women, practicing Christians, and Republicans taught at lower ranked schools than would be expected from objectively measured professional accomplishments. A study by psychologists Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammars, of the Netherlands' Tilburg University, published in September 2012 in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, found that, in social and personality psychology, about a third of those surveyed say that they would to a small extent favor a liberal point of view over a conservative point of view. A 2007 poll found that 58% of Americans thought that college professors' political bias was a "serious problem". This varied depending on the political views of those asked. 91% of "very conservative" adults agreed compared with only 3% of liberals. That same year a documentary, Indoctrinate U, was released which focuses on the perceived bias within academia.
On the other hand, liberal critic Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that this phenomenon is more due to personal choice than some kind of discrimination or conspiracy, noting that, for example, vocations such as military officers are much more likely to be filled by conservatives, rather than liberals. Additionally, two studies published in the journal of the American Political Science Association have suggested that the political orientations of college students' professors have little influence or "indoctrination" in terms of students' political belief.
Relativism versus universal truths
Postmodernism is an approach common in the humanities on campus that greatly troubles conservative intellectuals. The issue is relativism versus absolute truths. Ellen Grigsby says, "Postmodern perspectives contend that any ideology putting forward absolute statements as timeless truths should be viewed with profound skepticism." Kellner says, "Postmodern discourse frequently argues that all discourses and values are socially constructed and laden with interests and biases. Against postmodern and liberal relativism, cultural conservatives have argued for values of universal truth and absolute standards of right and wrong."
Neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has energetically rejected postmodern academic approaches:[Postmodernism in history] is a denial of the objectivity of the historian, of the factuality or reality of the past, and thus of the possibility of arriving at any truths about the past. For all disciplines it induces a radical skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism that denies not this or that truth about any subject but the very idea of truth—that denies even the ideal of truth, truth is something to aspire to even if it can never be fully attained.
Here is a representative summary of postmodern literary studies of the sort that antagonize conservatives, written by Jay Stevenson:[in] the postmodern period. Traditional literature has been found to have been written by "dead white males" to serve the ideological aims of a conservative and repressive Anglo hegemony....In an array of reactions against the race, gender, and class biases found to be woven into the tradition of Anglo lit, multicultural writers and political literary theorists have sought to expose, resist, and redress injustices and prejudices. These prejudices are often covert—disguised in literature and other discourses as positive ideals and objective truths—but they slant our sense of reality in favor of power and privilege.
Conservative intellectuals have championed a "high conservative modernism" that insists that universal truths exist, and have opposed approaches that deny the existence of universal truths. Many argued that natural law was the repository of timeless truths. Allan Bloom, in his highly influential The Closing of the American Mind (1987) argues that moral degradation results from ignorance of the great classics that shaped Western culture. His book was widely cited by conservative intellectuals for its argument that the classics contained universal truths and timeless values which were being ignored by cultural relativists.
In the United States today, the word "conservative" is often used very differently from the way it is used in Europe and Asia. The Americans after 1776 rejected the core ideals of European conservatism, which were based on the landed aristocracy, the established church, and the powerful, prestigious army.
Barry Goldwater in the 1960s spoke for a "free enterprise" conservatism. Jerry Falwell in the 1980s preached traditional moral and religious social values. It was Reagan's challenge to form these groups into an electable coalition. In the 21st century U.S., some of the groups calling themselves "conservative" include:
Ideology and political philosophy
Traditional (Burkean) conservatives tend to be anti-ideological, and some would even say anti-philosophical, promoting rather, as Russell Kirk explains, a steady flow of "prescription and prejudice". Kirk's use of the word "prejudice" here is not intended to carry its contemporary pejorative connotation: a conservative himself, he believes that the inherited wisdom of the ages may be a better guide than apparently rational individual judgment.
There are two overlapping subgroups of social conservatives—the traditional and the religious. Traditional conservatives strongly support traditional codes of conduct, especially those they feel are threatened by social change and modernization. For example, traditional conservatives may oppose the use of female soldiers in combat. Religious conservatives focus on conducting society as prescribed by a religious authority or code. In the United States this translates into taking hard-line stances on moral issues, such as opposition to abortion and homosexuality. Religious conservatives often assert that "America is a Christian nation" and call for laws that enforce Christian morality.
Fiscal conservatives support limited government, limited taxation, and a balanced budget. They argue that low taxes produce more jobs and wealth for everyone, and also that, as President Grover Cleveland said, "unnecessary taxation is unjust taxation". A recent movement against the inheritance tax labels such a tax as a death tax. Fiscal conservatives often argue that competition in the free market is more effective than the regulation of industry. Some make exceptions in the case of trusts or monopolies. Others, libertarians and followers of Ludwig von Mises, believe all government intervention in the economy is wasteful, corrupt, and immoral. More moderate fiscal conservatives argue that "free market economics" is the most efficient way to promote economic growth: they support it not based on some moral principle, but pragmatically, because they hold that it just "works."
Most modern American fiscal conservatives accept some social spending programs not specifically delineated in the Constitution. As such, fiscal conservatism today exists somewhere between classical conservatism and contemporary consequentialist political philosophies.
Through much of the 20th century, a primary force uniting the varied strands of conservatism, and uniting conservatives with liberals and socialists, was opposition to communism, which was seen not only as an enemy of the traditional order, but also the enemy of Western freedom and democracy. Thus it was the British Labour government—which embraced socialism—that pushed the Truman administration in 1945–47 to take a strong stand against Soviet Communism.
Social conservatism and tradition
Social conservatism in the United States is the defense of traditional social norms and Judeo-Christian values.
Social conservatives tend to strongly identify with American nationalism and patriotism. They often denounce anti-war protesters and support the police and the military. They hold that military institutions embody core values such as honor, duty, courage, loyalty, and a willingness on the part of the individual to make sacrifices for the good of the country.
Social conservatives are strongest in the South and Rocky Mountain States, and in recent years played a major role in the political coalitions of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin.
Fiscal conservatism and economic liberalism
Fiscal conservatism is the economic and political policy that advocates restraint of governmental taxation and expenditures. Fiscal conservatives since the 19th century have argued that debt is a device to corrupt politics; they argue that big spending ruins the morals of the people, and that a national debt creates a dangerous class of speculators. A political strategy employed by conservatives to achieve a smaller government is known as starve the beast. Activist Grover Norquist is a well-known proponent of the strategy and has famously said, "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." The argument in favor of balanced budgets is often coupled with a belief that government welfare programs should be narrowly tailored and that tax rates should be low, which implies relatively small government institutions.
This belief in small government combines with fiscal conservatism to produce a broader economic liberalism, which wishes to minimize government intervention in the economy or implement laissez-faire policies. This economic liberalism borrows from two schools of thought: the classical liberals' pragmatism and the libertarian's notion of "rights." The classical liberal maintains that free markets work best, while the libertarian contends that free markets are the only ethical markets.
Historian Kathleen G. Donohue argues that classical liberalism in the 19th century U.S. had distinctive characteristics as opposed to Britain:at the center of classical liberal theory [in Europe] was the idea of laissez-faire. To the vast majority of American classical liberals, however, laissez-faire did not mean no government intervention at all. On the contrary, they were more than willing to see government provide tariffs, railroad subsidies, and internal improvements, all of which benefited producers. What they condemned was intervention in behalf of consumers.
The economic philosophy of conservatives in the United States tends to be more liberal allowing for more economic freedom. Economic liberalism can go well beyond fiscal conservatism's concern for fiscal prudence, to a belief or principle that it is not prudent for governments to intervene in markets. It is also, sometimes, extended to a broader "small government" philosophy. Economic liberalism is associated with free-market, or laissez-faire economics.
Economic liberalism, insofar as it is ideological, owes its creation to the "classical liberal" tradition, in the vein of Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises.
Classical liberals and libertarians support free markets on moral, ideological grounds: principles of individual liberty morally dictate support for free markets. Supporters of the moral grounds for free markets include Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises. The liberal tradition is suspicious of government authority, and prefers individual choice, and hence tends to see capitalist economics as the preferable means of achieving economic ends.
Modern conservatives, on the other hand, derive support for free markets from practical grounds. Free markets, they argue, are the most productive markets. Thus the modern conservative supports free markets not out of necessity, but out of expedience. The support is not moral or ideological, but driven on the Burkean notion of prescription: what works best is what is right.
Another reason why conservatives support a smaller role for the government in the economy is the belief in the importance of the civil society. As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville, there is a belief that a bigger role of the government in the economy will make people feel less responsible for the society. These responsibilities would then need to be taken over by the government, requiring higher taxes. In his book Democracy in America, De Tocqueville describes this as "soft oppression."
While classical liberals and modern conservatives reached free markets through different means historically, in recent years the lines have blurred. Rarely will a politician claim that free markets are "simply more productive" or "simply the right thing to do" but a combination of both. This blurring is very much a product of the merging of the classical liberal and modern conservative positions under the "umbrella" of the conservative movement.
The archetypal free-market conservative administrations of the late 20th century—the Margaret Thatcher government in Britain and the Ronald Reagan administration in the U.S.–both held the unfettered operation of the market to be the cornerstone of contemporary modern conservatism. To that end, Thatcher privatized industries and public housing and Reagan cut the maximum capital gains tax from 28% to 20%, though in his second term he agreed to raise it back up to 28%. He wanted to increase defense spending and achieved that; liberal Democrats blocked his efforts to cut domestic spending. Reagan did not control the rapid increase in federal government spending, or reduce the deficit, but his record looks better when expressed as a percent of the gross domestic product. Federal revenues as a percent of the GDP fell from 19.6% in 1981 when Reagan took office to 18.3% in 1989 when he left. Federal spending fell slightly from 22.2% of the GDP to 21.2%. This contrasts with statistics from 2004, when government spending was rising more rapidly than it had in decades.
In the United States, the Republican Party has been the party of conservatism since the 1890s, although there was a strong Eastern liberal wing. Since 1964 the conservatives largely took control. Meanwhile, the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, based in the South and strongly opposed to Civil Rights, grew weaker. The most dramatic realignment took place within the White South, which moved from 3–1 Democratic to 3–1 Republican between 1960 and 2000.
In addition, some American libertarians, in the Libertarian Party and even some in the Republican Party, see themselves as conservative, even though they advocate significant economic and social changes—for instance, further dismantling the welfare system or liberalizing drug policy. They see these as conservative policies because they conform to the spirit of individual liberty that they consider to be a traditional American value. However, many Libertarian think-tanks such as the Cato Institute, and Libertarian intellectuals such as David Boaz describe Libertarianism as being "socially liberal and fiscally conservative." Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul is one of the most well-noted Republicans with a libertarian-leaning philosophy. Espousing a return to a stricter interpretation of the Constitution, an audit of the Federal Reserve System and an end to American Interventionism in other parts of the world, Paul gained a loyal following among libertarians, displaced conservatives in the Republican Party and also made inroads with some Democrats during two failed attempts to gain the Republican Presidential Nomination in 2008 and 2012. Paul, an obstetrician by training, also ran as the 1988 Libertarian Party Presidential nominee.
On the other hand, some conservatives tend to oppose free-market trade policies and support protectionism instead. They want government intervention to support the economy and ptotect American jobs. They oppose free trade on the ground that it benefits other countries (especially China) in the expense of American workers. However, in spite of their support for protectionism, they tend to support othet free-market principles like low taxes, small government and balanced budgets.
The South, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountain states, and Alaska are generally conservative strongholds. The Northeast, Great Lakes Region, and West Coast are the main liberal strongholds. Conservatives are strongest in rural America and, to a lesser extent, in the exurbs or suburbs. Voters in the urban cores of large metropolitan areas tend to be more liberal and Democratic. Thus, within each state, there is a division between urban, suburban, exurban, and rural areas. In recent decades, the electoral geography has helped give Republicans control of the House of Representatives, and Democrats a decided edge in the Electoral College which elects the president.
Kirk's principles of conservatism
Russell Kirk developed six "canons" of conservatism, which Gerald J. Russello described as follows:
- A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
- An affection for the "variety and mystery" of human existence;
- A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize "natural" distinctions;
- A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
- A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
- A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.
Kirk said that Christianity and Western Civilization are "unimaginable apart from one another" and that "all culture arises out of religion. When religious faith decays, culture must decline, though often seeming to flourish for a space after the religion which has nourished it has sunk into disbelief."
In later works, Kirk expanded this list into his "Ten Principles of Conservatism" which are as follows:
- First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.
- Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.
- Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.
- Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.
- Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.
- Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.
- Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.
- Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
- Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.
- Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.
One stream of conservatism exemplified by William Howard Taft extols independent judges as experts in fairness and the final arbiters of the Constitution. In 1910 Theodore Roosevelt broke with most of his lawyer friends and called for popular votes that could overturn unwelcome decisions by state courts. Taft denounced his old friend and rallied conservatives to defeat him for the 1912 GOP nomination. Taft and the conservative Republicans controlled the Supreme Court until the late 1930s.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat, did not attack the Supreme Court directly in 1937, but ignited a firestorm of protest by a proposal to add seven new justices. Conservative Democrats immediately broke with FDR, defeated his proposal, and built up the Conservative Coalition. While the liberals did take over the Court through replacements, they lost control of Congress. That is, the Court no longer overthrew liberal laws passed by Congress, but there were very few such laws that passed in 1937–60.
A recent variant of conservatism condemns "judicial activism"; that is, judges using their decisions to control policy, along the lines of the Warren Court in the 1960s. It came under conservative attack for decisions regarding redistricting, desegregation, and the rights of those accused of crimes. This position goes back to Jefferson's vehement attacks on federal judges and to Abraham Lincoln's attacks on the Dred Scott decision of 1857.
A more recent variant that emerged in the 1970s is "originalism", the assertion that the United States Constitution should be interpreted to the maximum extent possible in the light of what it meant when it was adopted. Originalism should not be confused with a similar conservative ideology, strict constructionism, which deals with the interpretation of the Constitution as written, but not necessarily within the context of the time when it was adopted. In modern times, the term originalism has been used by Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, former federal judge Robert Bork and some other conservative jurists to explain their beliefs.
In the past, Conservatives have supported conservation efforts, from the protection of the Yosemite Valley, to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. However, more recently, neoconservatives have opposed environmentalism; with environmentalists often ridiculed as "tree huggers". Republican Party leaders such as Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann advocate the abolition of the EPA, calling it "the job-killing organization of America."
Conservative think tanks since the 1990s have opposed the concept of man-made global warming; they challenged scientific evidence, publicised what they perceived as beneficial aspects of global warming, and stated their strong beliefs that proposed remedies would do more harm than good. The concept of anthropogenic global warming continues to be an ongoing debate amongst Conservatives in the United States, but the majority reject the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by humans; 73% of Republicans believed humans were uninvolved in causing global warming, according to a 2015 poll by Pew Research.
In recent times, American Conservatives have generally supported deregulation of pollution and reduced restrictions on carbon emissions. Similarly, they have advocated increased oil drilling with less regulatory interference, such as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the 2008 election, the phrase, "Drill baby drill" was used to express the Republican position on the subject.
Since the late 19th century conservatives use the term "socialism" (or "creeping socialism") as an epithet to attack liberal spending on social programs and regulatory expansions that enlarge the role and power of the federal government in daily life, lead to higher tax rates, increase government dependence, or diminish personal freedom. In this sense it's not strictly limited to formal government ownership of the means of production, or the various Socialist parties. Thus William Allen White attacked presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896 by warning that, "The election will sustain Americanism or it will plant Socialism." Barry Goldwater in 1960 called for Republican unity against John F. Kennedy and the "blueprint for socialism presented by the Democrats." Ronald Reagan often quoted Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist nominee for president in the New Deal era, as saying, "The American people would never knowingly vote for Socialism, but that under the name of liberalism, they would adopt every fragment of the socialist program."
In 2010 Newt Gingrich defined a common conservative usage when discussing his new book To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine (2010):Obama is committed to socialism. I mean socialism in the broad sense. I'm not talking about a particular platform adopted by the International Socialist Movement in the late 19th century. I'm talking about a government-dominated, bureaucratically-controlled, politician-dictated way of life.
Talk radio and Fox News
Conservatives gained a major new communications medium with the resurgence of talk radio in the late 1980s. Rush Limbaugh proved there was a huge nationwide audience for specific and heated discussions of current events from a conservative viewpoint. Other major hosts who describe themselves as conservative include: Michael Peroutka, Jim Quinn, Dennis Miller, Ben Ferguson, William Bennett, Andrew Wilkow, Lars Larson, Sean Hannity, G. Gordon Liddy, Laura Ingraham, Mike Church, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Kim Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Michael Reagan, Jason Lewis, Ken Hamblin, and Herman Cain. The Salem Radio Network syndicates a group of religiously oriented Republican activists, including Roman Catholic Hugh Hewitt, and Jewish conservatives Dennis Prager and Michael Medved. One popular Jewish conservative, Laura Schlessinger, offers parental and personal advice, but is outspoken on social and political issues. In 2011, the largest weekly audiences for talk radio were 15 million for Limbaugh and 14 million for Hannity, with about nine million each for Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and Mark Levin. The audiences overlap, depending on how many each listener dials into every week.
Fox News features conservative hosts such as Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Mike Huckabee.
Critic David Frum has argued that the influence of conservative talk radio and Fox News has harmed American conservatism, turning it from "a political philosophy into a market segment" for extremism and conflict making "for bad politics but great TV." Backed by the conservative book-publishing industry and think tanks, talk radio and Fox News,
have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he's a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even Britain. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) "the only place in the world where it doesn't matter who your parents were or where you came from."
Historians in recent years have agreed that they need to rethink the role of conservatism in recent American history. An important new approach rejects the older consensus that liberalism was the dominant ethos. Labor historians Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore argue the New Deal was a short-term response to depression and did not mark a permanent commitment to a welfare state, claiming that America has always been too individualistic and too hostile to labor unions to ever embrace liberalism for any extended period of time. This new interpretation argues that conservatism has largely dominated American politics since the 1920s, with the brief exceptions of the New Deal era (1933–36) and the Great Society (1963–66). Zelizer, however, argues that "The coherence of conservatism has been exaggerated. The movement was as fragile as the New Deal coalition that it replaced....Policy change has thus proved to be much more difficult than conservatives hoped for." Zelizer does find four areas where conservatives did make major changes: retrenchment of domestic programs, lowering taxes, deregulation, and opposition to labor unions. He concludes, "The fact is that liberalism survived the rise of conservatism."
American conservatives typically promote American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is inherently different from other nations and has a duty to take the lead in spreading democracy and free markets to the world. Reagan especially articulated this role (and many liberals also agree with it). They see American values emerging from the American Revolution, thereby becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called "the first new nation" and developing a uniquely American ideology, "Americanism", based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy, laissez-faire capitalism, and Judeo-Christian values.
Although the term does not necessarily imply superiority, many neoconservative and other American conservative writers have promoted its use in that sense. To them, the U.S. is like the biblical "City upon a Hill"—a phrase evoked by Puritan settlers in Massachusetts as early as 1630—and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.
Scholars have argued that British and European conservatism has little or no relevance to American traditions. According to political scientist Louis Hartz, because the United States skipped the feudal stage of history, the American community was united by liberal principles, and the conflict between the "Whig" and "Democratic" parties were conflicts within a liberal framework. In this view, what is called "conservatism" in America is not European conservatism (with its royalty, landowning aristocracy, elite officer corps, and established churches) but rather 19th century classical liberalism with an emphasis on economic freedom and entrepreneurship. This is in contrast to the view that Burkean conservatism has a set of universal principles which can be applied all societies. Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind argued that the American Revolution was "a conservative reaction, in the English political tradition, against royal innovation". Liberal historian Richard Hofstader criticized modern American conservatives as "pseudo-conservatives", because their negative reaction to the policies of Harry Truman showed "dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions" and because they had "little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism".
Clinton Rossiter, a leading expert on American political history, published his history of Conservatism in America (1956) and also a summary article on "The Giants Of American Conservatism" in American Heritage. His goal was to identify the "great men who did conservative deeds, thought conservative thoughts, practiced conservative virtues, and stood for conservative principles." To Rossiter, conservatism was defined by the rule of the upper class. He wrote, "The Right of these freewheeling decades was a genuine Right: it was led by the rich and well-placed; it was skeptical of popular government; it was opposed to all parties, unions, leagues, or other movements that sought to invade its positions of power and profit; it was politically, socially, and culturally anti-radical." His "giants of American conservatism" were: John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Elihu Root, and Theodore Roosevelt. He added that Washington and Lincoln transcend the usual categories, but that conservatives "may argue with some conviction that Washington and Lincoln can also be added to his list." In the 21st century United States, former president Ronald Reagan, journalist William F. Buckley, and former senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, along with former presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush are considered modern conservative icons, with many Republican political candidates frequently referencing and comparing themselves with these people, particularly Reagan.
Rossiter went to note the importance of other conservative leaders over the past two centuries. Among the fathers of the Constitution, which he calls "a triumph of conservative statesmanship", Rossiter said conservatives may "take special pride" in James Madison, James Wilson, Roger Sherman, John Dickinson, Gouverneur Morris and the Pinckneys of South Carolina. For the early 19th century, Rossiter said the libertarians and constitutionalists who deserve the conservative spotlight for their fight against Jacksonian democracy include Joseph Story and Josiah Quincy in Massachusetts; Chancellor James Kent in New York; James Madison, James Monroe, and John Randolph of Roanoke in Virginia.
In the decades around 1900, Rossiter finds that Grover Cleveland, Elihu Root, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt "were most successful in shaping the old truths of conservatism to the new facts of industrialism and democracy."
Writing in 1955 he suggests that Robert A. Taft, Charles Evans Hughes, and Dwight D. Eisenhower may someday be added to the list.
Prominent figures and organizations
Many of these figures were conservative for their entire career, but others moved into or left the category at different stages of their career.