The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 16, 2018

Movement Conservatism
Lee Edwards - 12/13/11

In 1950, critic Lionel Trilling asserted that “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in America. While Trilling conceded that a conservative “impulse” existed here and there, conservatism, he insisted, usually expressed itself only in “irritable mental gestures which seem to resemble ideas.” Fifty-plus years later, conservatives and their ideas occupied the White House, controlled the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, constituted a majority of the nation’s governors, and generally dominated the political landscape of America. What had happened to produce such a sea change in American politics?

The shift depended largely on two epic events that shaped the last half of the twentieth century—the waging of the Cold War and the growth of the modern welfare state. Conservatives declared that communism was evil and had to be defeated, not simply contained. And they argued that the welfare state had grown dangerously large and had to be reduced in size and influence, not just managed more efficiently.

Because conservatives played a decisive role in ending the Cold War peacefully and alerting America to the perils of a leviathan state, they reaped enormous political rewards, from Ronald Reagan’s sweeping presidential victories in 1980 and 1984 to the Republicans’ historic capture of Congress in 1994 and George W. Bush’s upset win in 2000.

The conservative movement’s rise was helped by the decline of American liberalism, which lost its way between the New Deal and the Great Society, between the Korean War and Kosovo, between Harry Truman and Bill Clinton. Liberals went into free fall, their descent marked by a shift from a concern for the common man and Middle America to a preoccupation with minorities and special interests.

The tectonic shift from liberalism to conservatism was not inevitable. Indeed the conservative movement frequently seemed to be on the edge of extinction—after the untimely death of Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio in 1953, after the crushing presidential defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona in 1964, the razor-thin loss of Ronald Reagan to Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, and the demonization of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress in the mid-1990s. But the movement not only survived these crises but gained strength and momentum each time, in large measure because of its principled leaders.

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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