I like challenges. Give me a reason to think and I will. So, when Malcolm Greenhill posed some questions to me about the American conservative movement, I went studying. I call myself a non-partisan constitutional conservative, but he got me thinking about that term “conservative.” He’s British, you see, and they view conservative differently than Americans do. But maybe, like many in the United States, my view of America’s conservative movement is a bit muddled. So, I’m unpacking my presuppositions and taking a look at it. I’m going to give an all-inclusive shout-out to the Heritage Foundation, the American Conservative, and the National Review for helping me out here.
I’m going to start by saying that the American conservative movement has not walked a straight path and has not always been true to its core principles. That doesn’t mean it’s invalid or that the principles originally laid out don’t make sense, just that sometimes practical reality muddles principles.
The central idea of American conservatism is ordered liberty. Individuals have freedom and responsibility inherent in our being and this is best realized in the context of limited government and unlimited markets. However, individuals live in communities, which immediately result in conflicting needs and wants. Individual liberty, therefore, must be ordered to work within community.
In 1953, Russell Kirk published “The Conservative Mind” which set out the principles American conservatives (more or less) embrace.
- A divine intent, as well as personal conscience, rules society;
- Traditional life is filled with variety and mystery while most radical systems are characterized by a narrowing uniformity;
- Civilized society requires orders and classes;
- Property and freedom are inseparably connected;
- Man must control his will and his appetite, knowing that he is governed more by emotion than by reason; and
- Society must alter slowly.
The book laid out the history of American conservative thought going back to the Founding Fathers and later Kirk traced the movement back into antiquity. Primarily, though, the focus was on the United States Constitutional Convention, where — really for the first time — men managed to resolve the conflicting demands of freedom and order, creating a true national government with a federal system and carefully enumerated, separated, and restrained powers.
1953 was a critical year in American politics. Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated as President, signaling the end of the New Deal era. Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Richard Weaver, Clinton Rossiter, and Leo Strauss all published works that could not be ignored as conservatives began to coalesce in a political movement characterized as much by disagreement as solidarity.
Conservatives, for better or for worse, declared that communism was evil and must be defeated (as opposed to simply contained) and that the federal government had grown dangerously large and must be reduced (not merely managed more efficiently). There is some paradox in there, because the United States needed a large military and many of the supporting roles to defeat communism. Principles sometimes do funny things in the real world.
In the first edition of “National Review” William F. Buckley, Jr. declared that conservatives, like all other Americans, live in a “liberal world” and that National Review planned to stand “athwart history yelling STOP!” confident that a “vigorous and incorruptible journal of Conservative opinion” could make a critical difference in the realms of ideas and politics. He gave conservatives a media voice. Sometimes that voice was pure and clarion and sometimes it was … well, principles do funny things in the real world.
Barry Goldwater was a strong constitutionalist who pledged to repeal laws rather than pass them. Who knows what might have happened had President Kennedy not been shot less than a year before the 1964 Presidential election? Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide primarily because the country was not prepared to have three presidents in a year. In a “conservative” country that was just too much change too fast. That didn’t stop liberal commentators from declaring the conservative movement as dead. (Hmm, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
In the fallout of the Goldwater campaign, Republicans discovered Ronald Reagan. The former Democrat who insisted that his former party had drifted away from him rather than the other way around, handily won the California gubernatorial election and spent the next eight years cutting and trimming government in the most populous state in the union while balancing the state budget — a plan that would be the blueprint for Clinton’s welfare reform in the 1990s. Conservatives wanted Ronald Reagan as the GOP nominee in 1976, but GOP elites thought it better to stick with then-President Gerald Ford, whose selection of Nelson Rockefeller as Vice President signaled a huge step toward liberalism for the GOP.
Similar to 2012, the conservatives stayed home and the Democratic candidate won. The GOP, seeing itself becoming irrelevant, formed a coalition party — a big tent — of conservatives who deeply distrusted government and neoconservatives (mostly former Democrats who saw communistic socialism taking over the DNC) who liked big government so long as it was military or infrastructure and hated communism. The new GOP also spoke to social conservatives (mostly evangelical Christians) and blue collar workers who were losing their jobs to unions to bolster party support.
Reagan is practically a god-like figure in conservative circles today, but he was a human just like anyone else. He was also a practical politician who sometimes had to compromise principles to move in the “right” direction. The 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act, which cut all income taxes by 25%, showed that conservative fiscal policies could work, as the economy had 60 straight months of growth for the first time since 1854.
Reagan left as an indelible mark on American politics in the last half of the 20th century as Roosevelt left on the first half. Roosevelt grew government to solve the problems of the people while Reagan turned to the people to solve the problems of government. Conservatives may not have been wholly comfortable with how Reagan went about defeating communism, but the growing economy persuaded them to sublimate their concerns over deficit spending for the greater good. We understood that peace through strength did not allow the US government to immediately fold our worldwide military presence. That would take time. We looked forward to both a gradual reduction in military spending and a cut in the debt in the future. The big tent, however, would seriously sag after Reagan left office.
The first President Bush was anything but a conservative. He loved big government. He called for greater taxes to deal with a recession that was partially caused by the national debt. I will admit that most conservatives did not really object to our interference in Iraq on behalf of the Kuwaitis. Conservatives don’t like bullies anymore than liberals do, but unlike liberals, we believe a good sock in the nose will back down a bully. In retrospect, we probably should have objected, but hindsight is 20/20 while foresight is often quite myopic. Still, we wanted and expected to see a continuation of the conservative policies begun under Reagan. When we didn’t see that, conservative voters expressed their displeasure with Bush 1 by voting for Ross Perot in 1992. Yes, we gave Bill Clinton to the country. We also gave the country the first Republican House majority since 1953 (there’s that pivotal year again!). And the “Contract with America” was a resounding success, for which Bill Clinton took full credit.
Consistent with the original conservative idea that America could return to a more manageable governmental size after the defeat of communism, many conservatives tacitly accepted Bill Clinton’s reduction of the US military. Many of us objected to his forays into the Balkans.
I’m not going to argue that George W. Bush was a conservative. He was a neoconservative, I suppose, just more subtle about it than his father. I think this is where the conservative movement sort of got dizzy. By 2000, conservative voters had lost their way. After eight years of Clinton, we hoped for a more conservative president who would build on the Contract — forgetting that “more conservative than a Democrat” doesn’t mean actually conservative. Bush cut taxes, showing that he wasn’t his father’s son politically and we’ll never know if he might have reigned in spending — continuing with the Contract — if September 11, 2001, had not seen jet aircraft smashing into American buildings. That is where principles got trampled and American conservatives were as willing to rush to war and the big government that comes with it as anyone else. Our willingness to accept deficit spending to prosecute war against those who attacked us was understandable at the time. Again, 20/20 hindsight.
By 2006, conservatives were starting to be fed up by Washington DC’s government expansion. GWB’s agreeing to nearly double discretionary spending under Nancy Pelosi’s leadership of the House was a symptom of a deepening divide between the GOP and conservatives. I started seeing posts on the Internet suggesting that it was time for conservatives to either not vote or vote for a third party. Oddly, the GOP went on as if conservatives were not objecting to a Republican president expanding government or the GOP nominating a progressive moderate. But note that John McCain was slightly ahead in the polls before he signed onto TARP1. What would have happened if he’d refused to sign? We’ll never know because that’s not what he did.
Up until the Recession of 2008 and the election of Barack Obama, the impact of conservative thought on America had been profound. Conservative initiatives like welfare reform had significantly reduced violent crime and poverty. Socialism was on the retreat not just in the United States, but worldwide. Public skepticism about big government was growing. That is still ongoing. Just the other day Pew polled Americans and found that 53% of us — including 36% of Democrats — distrust the federal government.
The conservative movement is not dead. We’ve stumbled and fallen and maybe need some first aid. We’ve become an increasingly populist movement and that may require some rethinking. Do tea party folks really understand what small government means? I think many of them do. I think many of them don’t. Conservatives of the first half of the Baby Boom want to see smaller government that still provides all the benefits of larger government. They don’t fully understand that those programs have to go away to shrink government. They were promised those benefits and they paid for them (kind of), so they want them. For many “younger” conservatives (the second half of the Baby Boom), the prospect of government not providing us with Social Security or Medicare has been a constant throughout our adulthood. Ronald Reagan warned me way back in college that the system was in trouble. I have tried to plan accordingly. I’d like the money back the government has taken from me all these years, but I know that won’t happen.
There are other signs that the conservative movement is evolving and growing. Occupy Wall Street weren’t the only ones mad at huge corporations sucking up all the remaining economic vitality while walking in lock-step with a federal government that’s got a strangle hold on the rest of the economy. Here in Fairbanks, our Occupy group became libertarians. Polls show that Americans, including the 40% who self-describe as conservatives, broadly supported the increase in taxes on the wealthy — who are seen as deriving their money from huge corporations. Far from declining, there is evidence that conservative ideas are becoming more widely disbursed.
It remains to be seen what the movement will become. I like ordered liberty. I also think roads and the defense of our borders are best accomplished by the government. I don’t object to locally operated public schools. I think some basic environmental standards and financial rules are a good idea. I don’t think we need a huge federal apparatus to make any of that a reality. I know conservatives who would say that is too much government. I know other conservatives who would say that is the ideal, but we should take a long time getting there so we don’t destabilize the nation. American conservatives are not a monolith. We are, as we were in the beginning, a movement of diversity. And what we will become in our next phase of development is anyone’s guess.