The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

REFERENCE DESK
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Movement Conservatism
Lee Edwards - 12/13/11

First came the men of ideas, intellectuals and philosophers like Friedrich A. Hayek, the Austrian-born classical liberal; Russell Kirk, the midwestern traditionalist; and Irving Kristol, the New York Trotskyite-turned-neoconservative. Next came the men of interpretation, the journalists and popularizers like the polymath William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review; the columnist and television commentator George Will; and the radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. Last came the men of action, the politicians and policymakers, led by the Four Misters: “Mr. Republican,” Robert A. Taft; “Mr. Conservative,” Barry Goldwater; “Mr. President,” Ronald Reagan; and “Mr. Speaker,” Newt Gingrich.

Equally important was the political maturation of American conservatism as the movement learned how to combine into a winning electoral force traditionalists, libertarians, and neoconservatives; the South, Midwest, and West; and blue-collar Catholics and Protestant evangelicals.

Conservatism triumphed—as in 1980 and 1994—when the movement contained all the essential elements of political success: a clearly defined, consistent philosophy; a broad-based, cohesive national constituency; experienced, charismatic, principled leadership; a sound financial base; and proficiency in the mass media. It failed to advance—as in the 1998 congressional elections—when one or more of these elements was missing.

Whatever their specific label—Old Right, New Right, neoconservative, paleoconser-vative, compassionate conservative—conservatives have shared certain basic beliefs: in the great majority of cases the private sector can be depended upon to make better economic decisions than the public sector; government serves the governed best when it is limited; good men and women produce a good society rather than the opposite; and peace is most surely protected through military strength.

Conservative ideas that were labeled extreme fifty years ago are now accepted as mainstream. They determine much of the debate in Congress and the executive branch, in the statehouses, in national and regional think tanks, in newspaper op-ed and magazine articles, in television and radio programs. They are discussed respectfully in a growing number of colleges and universities. Still, the political future of movement conservatism depends on its success not only in maintaining a governing majority in Washington, D.C., but in maintaining this majority’s foundation on shared conservative principles.

Further Reading
  • Edwards, Lee. The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America. New York: Free Press, 1999.
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