Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Anatomy of Modern Movement Conservatism in the U.S.

In my previous post, I tried to rehabilitate the demonized term “liberal” in U.S. politics and locate myself as a part of this vital political tradition.  Here, I want to try to disect the anatomy of modern movement conservatism in U.S. politics.

Remember, “conservatism” as a personal temperament or orientation refers simply to a preference for the way things are and a desire for change to be slow and orderly when it must come. It is a focus on treasuring the good things of the past, of celebrating heritage. This kind of conservative is a traditionalist and it is vital that all societies have conservatives in this sense of the term.  In fact, seen as an orientation, we are probably ALL conservative about some part of our lives.

But what I want to describe is modern movement conservatism, conservatism as a political philosophy in the U.S. context. Once (before 1964) dominant among Southern Democrats, this is now the controlling force of the Republican Party in the U.S.–lately leaving little breathing space for other traditions within the Republican Party.  Movement conservatism as it exists today is a fairly recent ideology (ironically), first appearing after World War II and not really getting started until the 1950s–it’s early founders were William F. Buckley in his book, God and Man at Harvard and in the founding of The National Review, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, philosopher and bad novelist, Ayn Rand, her disciple, economist Milton Friedman (who began the horrible “Chicago School” of economics), columnist George Will and a few others.  Goldwater was the first presidential candidate of movement conservatives (1964)–and he lost in a landslide.  That landslide loss to LBJ could have crushed movement conservatism, but the youth movement’s unrest with LBJ over the Vietnam War added to Southern white dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party because of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, led Richard Nixon (who was authoritarian, but not really a movement conservative) to adopt “the Southern Strategy” of winning elections through thinly disguised appeals to white racial resentment.  Ronald Reagan was the first movement conservative to adapt Nixon’s strategy as a way, not just to win the White House, but to roll back the progessive and liberal gains of the New Deal and the Great Society.  Reagan was only partially successful in terms of legislation passed, but he changed the terms of debate from 1981 until now. (Liberals and progressives began to reframe the terms of debate in 2006 & 2008, but, beginning in the summer of 2009, conservatives have almost completely taken back the framing of political debate in mainstream circles in the U.S.–though whether this will lead to electoral or legislative success for these conservatives remains to be seen.)

As it has taken form in the post-1980 Republican Party coalition, movement conservatism is made up of three strands or streams–sometimes in tension as they do not really form a logically coherent governing philosophy.

  1. Business Conservatives.  This strand was once dominant in the Northeast (especially New England) and in some parts of the West.  It comes in 2 forms:  a) Protectionist crony capitalism, which is older, argued for tariffs and other trade deals which would support U.S. business against businesses located in other countries. It loves government corporate welfare in terms of defense contracts or sugar subsidies, etc. (or, in the West, free use of federal lands for mining, cattle grazing, etc.) b) “Soft” libertarianism. Pure libertarians are relatively rare in movement conservatism (but see Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Rep. Ron Paul, his son Rand, former U.S. Rep. from GA Bob Barr & a few others), but “soft” libertarians like Goldwater, former MN Gov.  Jesse Ventura, former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson are much more numerous. They argue for small government with little help or hindrance to business–and they tend to be socially moderate, having a “live and let live” attitude about people’s personal lives. (I can still remember Goldwater yelling at Jerry Falwell that abortion was NOT a conservative issue!) The soft libertarians tended to be strongest in Western conservatism and the crony capitalists (think George H.W. Bush ) stronger in New England.
  2. National Security Conservatives.  This strand is found geographically dispersed nearly evenly across the U.S.  It came out of the Cold War with the U.S.S.R.  After the imperialist Spanish-American War and prior to WWII, most Republicans were isolationists who were critical of internationalist Democrats for getting the U.S. involved in wars. But the Cold War stand-off forged a bi-partisan foreign policy of “containment of Communism.” Among liberals (especially in the Democratic Party) this took the form of “Cold War Liberalism” until the Vietnam War destroyed that form of militarized internationalism–although Pres. Barack Obama seems to be forging a new version which I fear will do to his presidency what Vietnam did to LBJ’s.  But in the Republican Party (and, for a time, with Southern Democrats) this bi-partisan policy of containment led to what I am calling “national security conservatism.” Again, this comes in two forms:  a)Traditional Nationalism.  Ronald Reagan, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), Colin Powell, George Schultz, and even Condaleeza Rice all fall into this strand.  They want a large military that can dwarf any conceivable foe, but are mostly wary of rash military adventurism–especially after Vietnam.  They want to use military force sparingly, only when what they consider to be “vital American interests” are threatened (and these can be economic–including another nation’s oil or a key strategic location for a military base) and with overwhelming force when it is used–and because wars are expensive, they usually want clear goals, and clear exit strategies before engaging. (Major example: The first Gulf War–1990-1991).  b)Neo-conservatives or Neo-cons.  These are people, following the collapse of the USSR, who wanted the U.S. to be far more aggressive militarily as the sole remaining superpower.  Some were involved in the administration of George H.W. Bush–although Bush I himself wavered between traditional nationalism and the neocon view that he partly inspired with his talk of a “new world order” after the Cold War. But they were far more dominant in the administration of his son, George W. Bush–including Rumsfeld, John Bolton, Donald Wolfowitz and many others. The neo-cons took the old liberal theme of spreading democracy and changed it to a belief (the “Bush Doctrine”) that the U.S. had the right to invade any country anywhere that might one day conceivably be a threat and impose a U.S.-friendly democratic regime by force. The architects of the invasion of Iraq were neo-cons and Afghanistan seems to be evolving that way–despite the official repudiation of the Bush Doctrine by the Obama administration.  Whereas traditional nationalists want to use the military sparingly, neocons think the road to peace (an openly imperial peace) is perpetual war.  National security conservatives originally had a love/hate relationship with business conservatives–it takes big government to have a big military and wars tend to get in the way of free trade.
  3. Social Conservatives.  When added to the mix that forms modern movement conservatism, social conservatives were predominantly found in the Old South (Dixie), though there were outposts in the Midwest (e.g., Grand Rapids, MI, the entire state of Kansas) & the West (e.g., Colorado Springs, CO; Orange County, CA).  Today, social conservatives are more geographically dispersed.  a)A politicized form of Christian fundamentalism is the primary strand of social conservatism with echoes in Mormonism. Although it has learned to echo the terms of the business conservatives (“small government,” “low taxes,”), and eventually take them on board, the original issues of the social conservatives had nothing to do with such matters, but were about using (Intrusive Big Government) federal and state power to enforce traditional morality–banning pornography, gambling, banning or restricting liquor sales, opposition to the sexual revolution (including, after about 1979, opposition to legal abortion–and eventually adopting the conservative Catholic opposition to artificial birth control methods, too), opposition to women’s rights and gay rights, enforcement of prayer and Bible reading in public schools–all things that REQUIRE the big government action that, theoretically, business conservatives oppose. b) A second stream of social conservatism that is less religious is white racial resentment of the growing social, political, and economic power of non-whites, especially African-Americans and Latino/as.  There is overlap, of course, since neither private Protestant schools nor the phenomenon of “homeschooling” existed until the desegregation of the public schools.

Many times these different strands come to similar conclusions through different routes:  A Western soft-libertarian Goldwater conservative would oppose Medicare, Medicaid, and, eventually, universal healthcare because of a belief that government has no business interfering in the “private business” of healthcare–seeing healthcare as a commercial commodity instead of a basic human right.  A Southern social conservative may oppose the same things because of a belief that liberal Yankees will use all their tax money to help “undeserving” poor blacks instead of poor working class whites.  And militaristic nationalism has been widely shared throughout the history of the U.S.A.–but positively fetishized in Old Dixie where Civil War memorials are found every other mile and there are more military bases (and military highschools!) than in the rest of the nation and where, since the end of the draft, a greater than average number of military recruits are found.

But there remain tensions between the strands of modern movement conservatism–tensions wide enough that, in a parliamentary system, the Republican Party would be split into 3-4 parties.

I think the movement is incoherent and I think it is dangerous.  In the presidency of George W. Bush we finally saw what happens when (for the first 6 years anyway) movement conservatism dominated all branches of the federal government.  The result was 2 endless wars, a corrupt Justice Department, federal departments like FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration) that were completely inept (run by a horse trainer!), Katrina, a huge budget surplus turned into a skyrocketing deficit and, finally, complete economic collapse.

That legacy haunts the Obama administration because, as Naomi Klein shows in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, movement conservatives during the Bush administration deliberately weakened government’s ability to be a force for good and then undermined the public’s faith in government, creating a vicious circle.  Ronald Reagan had said that the scariest words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But most people want government to help–especially during crises. But movement conservatives spent decades weakening the capacity of government to help–becoming a self-fulfillment of Reagan’s prophecy.  If you deregulate the markets, for instance, and then understaff regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), you make it next to impossible to avoid economic meltdowns such as happend in 2008–and you make rebuilding and prevention harder.  If you shrink the budget for toy inspectors, it’s hard to keep lead toys from China from poisoning the nation’s children. If you weaken safety regulations in the mining industry, then spend years underfunding inspectors and enforcement mechanisms, you make it difficult to prevent mine cave-ins and difficult to hold companies accountable for unsafe conditions when such cave-ins happen.  The same process is at work in the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Government can never do everything, nor should it try–such an attempt would lead to tyranny.  But, from the perspective of anyone who is not a movement conservative, government exists to enable people to do together what it is difficult or impossible to do by themselves.  Government has been and can be again a force for good. (And one needs only look at some place like Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government for twenty years, to see that the lack of government is no libertarian paradise, but a very bloody anarchy.) Rebuilding OUR government’s capacities for good–and public trust in government as a potential positive force–will take some time. In my view, that is reason enough to keep the reigns of government away from modern movement conservatives.

June 5, 2010 - Posted by | civil rights, ethics, History, political philosophy, pop culture, race


  1. Calling Ayn Rand a Libertarian is wrong on so many levels it boggles the mind. Rand said this about them: “Above all, do not join the wrong ideological groups or movements, in order to “do something.” By “ideological” (in this context), I mean groups or movements proclaiming some vaguely generalized, undefined (and, usually, contradictory) political goals. (E.g., the Conservative Party, which subordinates reason to faith, and substitutes theocracy for capitalism; or the “libertarian” hippies, who subordinate reason to whims, and substitute anarchism for capitalism.) To join such groups means to reverse the philosophical hierarchy and to sell out fundamental principles for the sake of some superficial political action which is bound to fail. It means that you help the defeat of your ideas and the victory of your enemies.”

    Perhaps check your facts?

    Comment by Larry | June 6, 2010 | Reply

    • Well, Rand may have said that and it certainly fits with the philosophy of her character John Galt who just couldn’t be bothered. But her extreme market fundamentalist views are repeatedly cited by libertarians (and soft libertarians) as inspiration for their views.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 6, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] is an authoritarian instinct that demonstrates nothing but insecurities. If the positions of movement conservatism were intellectually honest and reality based, would such suppression be […]

    Pingback by Fox News is Killing American Conservatism | Reason and Politics | November 29, 2012 | Reply

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