America's modern conservative movement began as a Remnant with
Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov, grew into an intellectual
movement with Friedrich Hayek, Richard Weaver, and Russell Kirk,
blossomed into a political movement with William F. Buckley Jr. and
Barry Goldwater, burst into full bloom as a governing movement with
Ronald Reagan and the Heritage-ACU-YAF axis, succumbed to hubris
with Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, imploded under George W. Bush and
the neoconservatives, and is now wondering whether it is headed for
the ash heap of history.
How has conservatism survived crisis after crisis for more than
50 years and emerged each time with renewed strength and
Was it luck? Divine intervention? Well, I believe in providence,
but I also believe in free will.
Was each conservative recovery simply part of the pendulum that
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. suggested dominates American politics,
swinging left for a generation or so, then right, then left again,
Or is the continuing success and durability of American
conservatism due to the conscious acts of individual men and women
operating on certain fundamental principles?
The movement has been fortunate--I might say blessed--to have
been led by a remarkable group of philosophers, popularizers,
politicians, and philanthropists.
First came the men of ideas, intellectuals like Hayek, the
Austrian-born classical liberal; Kirk, the Midwestern
traditionalist, and Whittaker Chambers, the one-time Communist spy
turned anticommunist champion.
Next came the men of interpretation, the journalists and
commentators like the polymath William F. Buckley Jr., the
columnist George Will, and the radio talkmeister Rush Limbaugh.
Last came the men of action, the politicians and policy-makers,
led by what I call the Four Misters: "Mr. Republican," Senator
Robert A. Taft of Ohio; "Mr. conservative," Senator Goldwater of
Arizona; "Mr. President," Ronald Reagan; and "Mr. Speaker," Georgia
Congressman Newt Gingrich.
But the philosophers would not have been able to write their
books and the popularizers would not have been able to publish
their magazines and the politicians would not have been able to run
their campaigns without the support of conservative
philanthropists--men of means and vision--such as Sun Oil Company's
J. Howard Pew, who gave ISI its first $1,000; Colorado beer baron
Joseph Coors, whose $250,000 investment enabled the Heritage
Foundation to open its doors; and California oilman Henry
Salvatori, who put up much of the money for Reagan's historic TV
address for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
So, where is conservatism is headed today? Let us examine the
essential elements of a successful political movement and see how
weak or strong conservatism is in each one.
To begin with, a political movement must have a clearly defined
consistent philosophy. Conservatives of all stripes honor the
Constitution and its system of checks and balances. They agree that
government should be limited, individuals should be free and
responsible, and there can be no lasting liberty without virtue,
public and private.
These are not just conservative ideas but American ideas that
have their roots in the Founding of the Republic and are endorsed
by a majority of the American people. Every poll continues to
report that a near majority of Americans call themselves
conservative while about one-fourth of Americans call themselves
liberal--that gives conservatives a 2-1 advantage.
Next, a political movement must have a broad-based, broad-minded
national constituency. Yes, conservatives are independent,
individualistic. They like to argue about ideas and institutions
with friends as well as adversaries.
But they come together and stay together when the times require
it and under the right leadership--as with Goldwater in the 1960s,
Reagan in the 1980s, and, I would argue, with George W. Bush
immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Third, a political movement must have a sound financial base.
Thanks to technical proficiency and political success, the number
of conservative donors has grown exponentially, from as few
thousand in the 1950s to more than eight million today.
The fiscal strength of conservative organizations is impressive.
The combined annual budgets of the 16 most influential
groups--including Heritage, ISI, Young America's Foundation, and
the Media Research Center--total $544 million, in 2008 dollars.
Next, a political movement must be media savvy, familiar with
and expert in the use of the latest mass communications. Here there
is a paradox. Conservatives have displayed mistrust, anger and
contempt toward the mass media for decades.
Yet, the number one newspaper columnist in America is
conservative Cal Thomas. The number one radio talk show host is
conservative Rush Limbaugh. The number one cable news network is
conservative Fox News.
Which brings us to the fifth element of a political
movement--charismatic, principled leadership. Today, for the first
time, in 60 years, there is no undisputed conservative leader--no
Taft, no Goldwater, no Reagan, no designated successor.
But there are many rising and already visible stars in the
conservative firmament, such as Congressmen Mike Pence, Paul Ryan,
and Tom Price, chairman of the Republican Study Committee; Senators
John Cornyn, Tom Coburn, and Jim DeMint, chairman of the Senate
Steering Committee; Governors Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, and Mark
Sanford, chairman of the Republicans Governors' Conference--plus
past and future presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Mike
The one political constant throughout the past 50 years has been
the rise of the Right, whose path to national power and prominence
was interrupted by the death of its leaders, calamitous defeats at
the polls, constant feuding within its ranks over means and ends,
and the hostility of the prevailing liberal establishment.
But through the power of its ideas--linked by the priceless
principle of ordered liberty--and the successful political
application of those ideas, the conservative movement became a
major and often dominant player in the political and economic
realms of our nation.
So it was and so it is in these times of crisis and doubt and
even fear when conservative values are urgently called
for--prudence, not rashness; custom, not the impulse of the moment;
a transcendent faith, not a fatal conceit; reform, not
As we seek solutions to problems that seem almost unsolvable, we
should recall the wisdom of T. S. Eliot, who reminded us that no
great cause is wholly lost because no great cause is ever wholly
Edwards is a Distinguished Fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon
Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in The Washington Examiner
America's modern conservative movement began as a Remnant with Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov, grew into an intellectual movement with Friedrich Hayek, Richard Weaver, and Russell Kirk, blossomed into a political movement with William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater, burst into full bloom as a governing movement with Ronald Reagan and the Heritage-ACU-YAF axis, succumbed to hubris with Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, imploded under George W. Bush and the neoconservatives, and is now wondering whether it is headed for the ash heap of history.
First Principles Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
Lee Edwards, Ph.D.
Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
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