Conservative elements have shaped American political culture since the creation of the republic. Around 1800, they flowed through two separate political positions. The first was a commitment to republican government stewarded by an educated, judicious, and propertied elite. Best represented in spirit and style by the Founders themselves, an enlightened elite could instill order, stability, and wisdom in the body politic. Eager to be virtuous, this elite would guarantee the spread of civic virtue—so ran a loosely conservative line of argument. The early republic's other conservative element was a resistance to radical change and especially to the change symbolized by the French Revolution. The corollary to such resistance was reverence for tradition, which might mean the tradition of British law, as absorbed into the United States, or the Judeo-Christian heritage within American culture, in all its variety, or the traditions that gradually rose up around the US Constitution. Reverence for tradition and resistance to radical change were often associated with the British political thinker and member of Parliament Edmund Burke ( 1729–1797 ), a conservative hero in America from the eighteenth century down to the present day.
Several protoconservative formations emerged in the course of the nineteenth century. The augmentation of antislavery sentiment in the North fostered a reactionary mood in the South, starting in the 1830s and 1840s. The South's political philosopher was John C. Calhoun ( 1782–1850 ), who defended states' rights against the feared interference of the federal government. Calhoun and his supporters sought to preserve a particular image of southern culture and, if necessary, to do so by exporting slavery westward, an aspiration that would lead to war. In 1861, secession was framed as a conservative act by many southerners who construed the Civil War and Reconstruction as evidence of a radicalized North. In the second half of the nineteenth century, as socialism and social democracy made inroads in the United States, a dichotomy arose between those who equated the capitalist system with exploitation and those who worried about a new militancy and statist overreach. Other polarities— liberal-conservative, left-right, Republican-Democrat in the modern sense—would crystallize around this original dichotomy of attitude.
In the early twentieth century, there was an extant and recognizable business conservatism, cultural conservatism, and intellectual conservatism. Business conservatism opposed the ascendant Progressive movement, which championed the expert's ability to disaggregate power and wealth by fortifying the government's regulatory powers. Touched at times by social Darwinism, business conservatism promoted the free market, individual enterprise, and a theory of political economy based on limited government. Cultural conservatism drew inspiration from the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, as conservative Protestants fought against multiple enemies: the secularism of science, the hedonism of the big cities, and immigration's remaking of American society. Their activism helped make temperance the law of the land from 1920 to 1933. Intellectual conservatism turned away from all that advertised itself as modern, defining modernity as disorientation and cultivating a hunger for the better times either of the early republic ( as in Henry Adam's 1918 memoir, The Education of Henry Adams ) or of the distant European past (as in T. S. Eliot's 1922 poem, “The Waste Land”). Business and cultural conservatives could enjoy the 1920s as an era of Republican presidents, from 1922 to 1932, but this was cold comfort to intellectual conservatives who saw modernity continuing apace. The Ku Klux Klan and other nativist groups beholden to a certain romance of the past were active throughout the 1920s.
A conservative viewpoint that did not survive the Second World War was isolationism. Right-wing isolationists rejected the liberal internationalism of Woodrow Wilson ( 1856–1924 ) and his Democratic Party. They wanted Fortress America, and they worried, after Roosevelt's election in 1932, that the Democrats would once again march the country into a world war. The heterogeneous anticommunism of the interwar Right was as strong as it was existential, but it did not encourage advocacy of a more interventionist foreign policy. From 1941 until 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union were wartime allies. The American-British-Soviet alliance was practical rather than ideological. Its ideological instability was obvious once Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were defeated in 1945.
From 1945 to 1989, the Cold War determined the substance and structure of American conservatism. First, the Cold War planted a bipartisan foreign-policy establishment in the US State Department, the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the White House, a dynamic that helped return conservatives to the political mainstream after their Depression-era tribulations. Later on, the Cold War would inspire conservatives to form an establishment of their own, brought into being by a conservative movement. This establishment would come into its own in the 1980s, and it would endure long beyond the Cold War.
Much of the Republican Party welcomed the containment strategy pioneered by the State Department's Russia specialist, George Kennan ( 1904–2005 ), and adopted by President Harry Truman ( 1884–1972 ) to contain the Soviet Union's expansionist goals. Much of the Republican Party also agreed with the internationalist intentions of the Marshall Plan, aimed at rebuilding Europe, and the establishment of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance. Significantly, the conservative initiatives of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy ( 1908–1957 ) from 1950 to 1954 were directed at the problem of domestic communism. McCarthy, who retained some midwestern isolationist reflexes, did not propose an alternative strategy to containment. Nor did Dwight Eisenhower ( 1890–1969 ) when he became president in 1952. Eisenhower embodied establishment conservatism. He had run for president in part because of his dedication to an activist American foreign policy, to NATO, and to the continuance of the Korean War (begun under Truman). Eisenhower perpetuated the New Deal welfare state he had inherited from Truman and Roosevelt. Eisenhower presided over the socalled Quiet Decade in American culture, colored by the patriotic consensus forged in World War II. A calm proponent of quiet, Eisenhower did not use the word conservative to describe his Republican Party.
After Eisenhower, establishment conservatism died a slow death. Eisenhower's vice president was Richard Nixon ( 1913–1994 ), who lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy ( 1917–1963 ). In 1964, Nelson Rockefeller ( 1908–1979 ), another establishment figure, lost the GOP nomination to Arizona senator Barry Goldwater ( 1909–1998 )—an outspoken conservative—who lost the general election in a landslide. Nixon then won two presidential elections, in 1968 and 1972. Nixon had a moderate side expressed in environmental legislation, antipoverty legislation, the foreign-policy doctrine of détente and the opening of diplomatic relations with Mao Zedong's China. Nixon's moderation was among the casualties of the Watergate scandal ( 1974 ). Yet, already in 1968, Nixon had started to reconsider Republican Party strategy. With his law-and-order rhetoric, he courted white ethnics. With his focus on southern states, he reimagined the electoral-college calculus of American conservatism. Unlike Eisenhower, he had to acknowledge a conservative movement that was too important to ignore.
The conservative movement had, from the beginning, aimed at destroying establishment conservatism. Its leader was William F. Buckley Jr. ( 1925–2008
The 1970s was a decade of conservative ferment. The Republican Party was in disarray after Watergate. In addition, the Vietnam War introduced a new divisiveness in American politics. The antiwar movement and the related rights revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s seemed to push the entire political spectrum leftward. The energy crisis, urban problems, and economic dislocations of the early 1970s seemed to cast doubt on the basic premises of American political economy. The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 could be interpreted as the beginning of a liberal cycle in American politics. Yet the 1970s was, in fact, a decade of conservative renewal. Nixon's outreach to white ethnics and to southerners would result in a much larger conservative base by the decade's end. The youth movement National Review had called for in 1960 was maturing into a cadre of experienced political actors. Ferment was most evident in conservative intellectual life. The leftwing radicalism of the 1960s split the Democratic Party. One group of intellectuals, liberal anticommunists in the manner of Truman and Kennedy, shifted over to the Republican Party in the 1970s. New to conservatism, they were dubbed the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives were more centrist than their National Review coun-terparts, more policy-minded, and better connected to academia. Through think tanks and publications, they would lay the foundation for conservative action at the highest levels of government.
The New Deal Democratic Party had consisted of southerners, working-class voters, and educated liberals. This Democratic Party collapsed in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ( 1911–2004 ) triumphed over Carter. Reagan's victory was more than electoral. He had come of political age with the conservative movement. The speech that first made him famous, “A Time for Choosing,” was given on Goldwater's behalf in 1964. A fan of National Review, Reagan was friends with William F. Buckley Jr., and Reagan subscribed to National Review's belief that conservatism should be proactive, that conservatism should eschew the New Deal, that conservatives should excise détente from American foreign policy, and that conservatives should struggle to preserve a traditionalist culture. A historical line extended from Goldwater's candidacy to Reagan's presidency. Once elected, Reagan portrayed his ideas as the wave of the future and he stigmatized—to considerable effect—his opponents' ideas as relics of the past. The campaign motif Reagan used in 1984 was “morning in America.”
In office, Reagan brought about substantial change. He altered the conventional wisdom about political economy. Ever since the New Deal, dominant opinion had sided with the pursuit of equality through government regulation, with organized labor and with the aim of minimizing poverty. Reagan substituted the ideal of economic growth for the pursuit of equality, deregulating the economy, and refusing to cooperate with organized labor, while celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit. Reagan also moralized American foreign policy, focusing on the assertion of national interest not so much as interest but as a moral good. Unlike President Carter or Lyndon Johnson ( 1908–1973 ), Reagan implied that Soviet communism was potentially transient. He enjoyed characterizing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and enjoining Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Communist Party, to “tear down” the Berlin Wall. Reagan's increase in military spending followed from his ardent anticommunism. If the Soviet Union was evil, and if it could somehow be defeated, it made sense to ground America's superior moral purpose in military superiority. Thus, to the delight of fellow conservatives, Reagan recalibrated the tenor of American foreign policy.
Reagan left a crucial conservative legacy, and he left many conservative ambiguities. Even Democrats would adopt his view of political economy. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been no less solicitous of economic growth than Reagan. Clinton evoked Reagan's moralization of American foreign policy in the Kosovo War of 1998. George W. Bush drew explicitly on the figure and presidency of Reagan in formulating his response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, suffusing the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq with a rhetoric meant to sound Reaganesque. The conservative establishment in Washington, DC, expanded in size and influence after Reagan left the White House in 1989. It demonstrated its might in sustained and effective opposition to Bill Clinton and in its dense support for George W. Bush, especially after the September 11 attacks enhanced Bush's executive powers. Conservatism's media presence grew exponentially in the 1990s, from the world of talk radio to the Fox News media empire.
The ambiguities Reagan appended to American conservatism stem from conservatism's organic association with Reagan. While in office, Reagan was American conservatism, regardless of the fact that the federal government was expansionary under Reagan, in tension with his governing philosophy, and regardless of the fact that Reagan went out of his way to negotiate with the Soviets, at least after Gorbachev came to power. Reagan had a knack for containing contradictions, and so the contradictions of American conservatism could be contained for the duration of his presidency. As soon as Reagan's vice president, George H. W. Bush, became president, conservatism showed its diversity, with neoconservatives criticizing Bush for excessive foreign-policy pragmatism, and traditionalist conservatives—sometimes called paleoconservatives—worrying that Bush's presidency was a throwback to Eisenhower's passive Republicanism.
Divisions within conservatism would help Bill Clinton get elected in 1992. In George W. Bush's second term, conservative divisions concentrated around the prosecution of the Iraq War (which Buckley opposed), as isolationism returned among traditionalists and libertarians, and around burgeoning government debt. The issue of government debt, coupled with the Republicans' loss of the White House to Barack Obama in 2008, stimulated the rise of the Tea Party movement, a small-government initiative that would prove effective in influencing congressional elections. By 2014, the Tea Party lost some of its early initiative, as momentum began to shift back to a more moderate conservative establishment. Viewed in retrospect, the conservative unity of the Cold War period is anomalous. More common historically has been the coexistence of disparate conservative elements, possible but difficult to organize into a united political front.
SEE ALSO Buckley, William F. Jr. ; Communitarianism ; Constitutionalism ; Democracy ; Democrats ; Equality ; Federalists ; Liberalism ; Libertarianism ; Liberty ; Limited Government ; Political Ideology ; Reagan, Ronald ; Republicans ; Tea Party Movement .
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