The 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 Foundation and other organizations;
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.
Let us begin our examination of the state of American
conservatism with a little history.
Forty-five years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson won the presidency
in a landslide, receiving 61 percent of the popular vote and
carrying 44 states for a total of 486 electoral votes. Johnson's
coattails were long and wide: Democrats wound up with a two-to-one
majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives-- the
largest Democratic majority in the House since the high point of
the New Deal.
The political historian Theodore White concluded that "the
elections of 1964 had left the Republican party in desperate
condition." Because Barry Goldwater had run a defiantly
conservative campaign from beginning to end, most political experts
were quick to second White's bleak assessment of Republicanism and
go him one better with regard to the state of American
Walter Lippmann, the preeminent pundit of the day, wrote that
the returns disproved "there is a great latent majority of
'conservative' Republicans." Author-journalist Robert J. Donovan
said that if Republicans are seen to be "the voice of right-wing
radicalism," they "will remain a minority party indefinitely." The
New York Times's James Reston summed up that "Barry
Goldwater not only lost the presidential election...but the
conservative cause as well."
Conservatives dismissed this doomsday analysis. Ronald Reagan,
fresh from his widely hailed national television address on behalf
of Goldwater, wrote that the landslide majority did not vote
against conservatism but against "a false image" of conservatism
that "our liberal opponents successfully mounted."
Frank Meyer, the politically astute senior editor of National
Review, pointed out that despite the caricature of the
conservative cause as "extremist, radical, nihilist, anarchic,"
two-fifths of the voters voted for the conservative alternative to
liberalism. Meyer's implication was clear: You can
build a powerful political movement on a foundation of 27 million
So who was proved more correct in their assessment of the
returns--Walter Lippmann or Ronald Reagan?
From Goldwater to Reagan
Reviled and rejected in 1964 as no other presidential candidate
in the 20th century--one magazine cover screamed that he was
"psychologically unfit" to be President--Barry Goldwater was easily
reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1968 while the President who buried
him in an historic landslide dared not seek reelection.
Looking back, we can see that the 1964 election results and the
1965 passage of the Great Society into law marked the apogee of
modern liberalism. In 1966, the Republican Party, led by Goldwater
conservatives, gained 47 seats in the House of Representatives and
three seats in the Senate.
Fifteen years after the so-called Goldwater debacle, Ronald
Reagan announced that he would again seek the Republican nomination
for President. The immediate reaction of the punditocracy was that
Reagan was too old--he was nearly 69--too conservative, and too
dumb to be President. How could anyone who had hosted a TV program
called "Death Valley Days" cope with the multifaceted
responsibilities of the leader of the free world?
The New Republic characterized Reagan as an "ex-movie
actor, darling of the rabid right...an international innocent, and
an economic extremist." Sociologist Robert Coles called the
prospect of Reagan winning the GOP nomination "preposterous," while
James Conaway wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that among the
news media, the idea of Reagan as President "was more than [they]
Yet, a decade later, when Ronald Reagan left the White House,
historians and politicians poured forth a stream of encomiums about
his presidency, citing the restoration of Americans' confidence in
themselves, the impressive economic recovery, and the end of the
Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield.
Summing up his presidency after his death, the Pulitzer
Prize-winning historian Edmund Morris said, "We know his greatness
as a president by what we don't see today.... Where is the Soviet
Union? Where is the double-digit inflation? Where is the national
malaise?" "On foreign policy," remarked Democratic Senator Edward
M. Kennedy, "[Reagan] will be honored as the president who won the
Still, not everyone sang Reagan's praises. The Reagan legacy,
said Nobel Prize economist James Tobin, was "a crippled federal
government." "I don't think history has any reason to be kind to
him," said CBS's Morley Safer.
So who was more correct in their assessment, Morley Safer or
American conservatism has undoubtedly suffered steep ups and
downs in the post-World War II period. Indeed, it seemed on the
edge of extinction after the crushing defeat of Goldwater in 1964,
after Reagan's failure to capture the Republican presidential
nomination in 1976, and after Bill Clinton's "Third Way" victory in
1992, but each time conservatism rose from the ashes like the
A New Era for Conservatives?
Today, liberal pundits and historians are at it again. Amnesic
as ever, they are saying that in the wake of last November's
elections, American conservatism is headed for the ash heap of
The country is no longer "America the conservative," asserted
senior editor John Judis of The New Republic, but "America
Barely able to contain herself, the editor of The Nation
trumpeted that the election of Barack Obama marked "the collapse of
Barack Obama's victory signaled more than "the end of an era of
Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology,"
stated one-time conservative Michael Lind; "it may mark the
beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States."
Lind's conclusion that the era of conservatism was ended and
America was at the beginning of an era of "Hamiltonian
centralization and reform" was seconded not only by euphoric
liberals, but by anxious conservatives ready to chart a new course
even if they were uncertain about the destination.
Former Republican Congressman Mickey Edwards has called for a
return to the libertarian philosophy of Barry Goldwater. The
villain behind the collapse of conservatism, Edwards says, was the
coupling of Big Government conservatives and the Religious
Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson states that we need
compassionate conservatism to confront global AIDS, combat U.S.
poverty, and promote human rights abroad. Saying that conservatism
without idealism is dead, he lists his heroes: William Lloyd
Garrison, William Jennings Bryan, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John
Paul II--a quartet that has yet to make an appearance at the annual
CPAC or the Southern Baptist Convention.
Commentator Patrick J. Buchanan lambastes arrogant
neoconservatives and greedy Wall Streeters for leading us astray
and sets forth an America First platform.
Cato's David Boaz invokes a plague on both Big Government
conservatives and liberals and says that choice is the key--whether
you're choosing a church, a school, or a lifestyle.
Let us be clear about one thing: Republicans lost in 2008 and
2006 not because they ran on conservative ideas but because they
ran away from conservative ideas.
Needed: An Inclusive Constitutional
So what is to be done? I suggest that what is now needed is a
politics of inclusion, not exclusion--no casting out of social
conservatives or neoconservatives or any other kind of
conservative, but a renewed fusionism that will unite all the
branches of the now-divided conservative mainstream. I believe that
a rejuvenated fusionism can do this by blending the concepts of
liberty and order, individual freedom and responsibility, limited
government and a strong national defense just as the Founding
Fathers did with the checks and balances of the Constitution.
Frank Meyer, the author of the original fusionism and an avowed
libertarian, stated that the core principle of his theory was that
"the freedom of the person [is] the central and primary end of
political society." The state has only three limited functions:
national defense, the preservation of domestic order, and the
administration of justice between citizens.
But Meyer argued that religious and traditional precepts were
needed to undergird freedom, which could not exist on the
relativist-materialistic premises of modern thought. In the
American experience, liberty and faith are joined, not separated as
the secularists have long argued.
Such a constitutional conservatism, in the words of my colleague
Matthew Spalding, will unite all conservatives through the natural
fusion provided by American principles. It will remind economic
conservatives that morality is essential to limited government,
cultural conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to
moral self-government, and national security conservatives that
energetic but responsible government is the key to the nation's
well-being and proper place in the world.
What all the brave new proposals by anxious conservatives lack
is an understanding of the history of modern American conservatism.
So how has conservatism survived crisis after crisis for more than
50 years and each time emerged 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
syndrome that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., suggested dominates American
politics, swinging left for a generation or so, then right, then
left again, ad infinitum? 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 over the course of the past five decades?
The Conservative Ascendancy
Herein, I believe, lies the central reason for the viability of
the conservative movement, guided by principles such as limited
constitutional government, free enterprise, and traditional
American values based on our Judeo-Christian heritage.
The movement has been fortunate--I might even say blessed--to
have been led by a remarkable group of philosophers, popularizers,
politicians, and philanthropists.
First came the men of ideas, intellectuals and philosophers like
Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian-born classical liberal; Russell Kirk,
the Midwestern traditionalist; and Whittaker Chambers, the one-time
Communist spy turned anticommunist champion.
Next came the men of interpretation, the journalists and
popularizers like the polymath William F. Buckley Jr., the
columnist and television commentator George Will, and the radio
talkmeister Rush Limbaugh.
Last came the men of action, the politicians and policymakers,
led by what I call the Four Misters: "Mr. Republican," Senator
Robert A. Taft of Ohio; "Mr. Conservative," Senator Barry 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 the Intercollegiate Studies Institute 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
Ronald Reagan's TV address for Barry Goldwater.
And I must mention another funding father, Richard Viguerie, who
perfected the craft of direct-mail political fund-raising. Viguerie
and his followers have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for
causes and candidates, without which the conservative movement
would be a pale shadow of itself.
The conservative ascendancy was also helped by the decline and
fall of American liberalism, its swift descent marked by a telltale
shift from concern for the common man and Middle America to
preoccupation with minorities and special interests.
Conservatives triumphed in the 1980s and 1990s when their
movement contained all the elements necessary for political
success: a clear, consistent philosophy; a broad-based national
constituency; a sound financial base; proficiency in the mass
media; and charismatic, principled leadership.
They were also helped by a sixth factor--an atmosphere of
crisis. In 1980, Americans were sharply aware that the nation
required leaders who could cope with critical problems like
inflation, unemployment, and the Soviet empire. In 1994, the people
demanded that something be done about out-of-control government
programs like welfare.
But life in this target-rich environment had unintended
consequences. Some Americans began to believe that government was
always the problem-- a position, by the way, that Ronald Reagan
never held. Antipathy and then antagonism spread, affecting
everything from voter turnout to respect for government as an
institution. Conservatives were obliged to explain that they were
for limiting, not eliminating government. Some Americans concluded
that conservatives, in their rush to wipe out 50 years of
welfarism, apparently did not care what happened to people
dependent on welfare.
William Kristol asked a pertinent question: "How can Americans
love their nation if they hate its government?" Government does
have its legitimate purposes, he argued, but then he
overcompensated by urging a revival of "national greatness"
conservatism modeled on the example of Theodore Roosevelt.
As Matthew Spalding has pointed out, T.R. is a problematic
choice since Roosevelt's New Nationalism called for an activist
state with strong regulatory powers, a goal at cross purposes with
modern conservatism. While some conservatives might find
Roosevelt's brand of vigorous leadership "refreshing," Spalding
says, a better and more recent statesman to emulate is Ronald
It is beyond dispute that conservatives miss Reagan. Starting in
1989, traditional conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives
have been fussing and feuding like so many Hatfields and McCoys.
They miss the soothing presence of Ronald Reagan and the unifying
threat of Communism.
As soon as the Berlin Wall came down, conservatives began
building walls between one another. Soon there was open talk of a
"conservative crackup." Sharp disagreements erupted among
conservatives over trade, immigration, and the direction of U.S.
However, following Bill Clinton's 1992 victory, conservatives
began constructing a coalition of economic free-marketers,
anti-government Perot supporters, and believers in conservative
family values. The last group--the social conservatives--turned out
in many ways to be the most important for they provided the
necessary ground troops in the political wars.
It did not trouble conservatives that coalition-building was an
uneven and often frustrating process. Just as conservatives have
always opposed centralized economic planning, so do they oppose
centralized political planning. The conservative movement is a
loosely bound movement made up, in the words of political
strategist Morton Blackwell, of "activists, scholars, donors and
organizational entrepreneurs held together by ... shared
philosophy, shared enemies, and shared experiences."
The present spirited debate about the future of conservatism
among conservatives is a sign not of decay, but of vitality.
Disagreement can strengthen a movement as long as the disagreements
are based on principle and not driven by a desire for personal
Building a Successful Movement
So where is conservatism headed? As I have said, certain
elements are necessary for a successful political movement.
To begin with, it must have a clearly defined, consistent
philosophy. It is a given that conservatives of all stripes
honor the Constitution and its established 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 ideas 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. Last October, the
Tarrance Group reported that 57 percent of Americans call
themselves "somewhat conservative" or "very conservative" while
just 35 percent consider themselves "somewhat liberal" or "very
liberal." A Rasmussen survey at about the same time underscored
Americans' skepticism about government, reporting that 59 percent
of voters agreed with the statement that government is the problem
and not the solution.
Even in the midst of an economic crisis, America remains a
center-right nation in its political philosophy, although the
center is farther to the Left than it was 25 years ago. Many
Americans have seen the future of the welfare state, and they like
what they think they see, especially the entitlements.
Fortunately, there are a number of conservative scholars, young
and old, committed to explaining the conservative philosophy and
exposing modern liberalism, building on the work of Hayek, Richard
Weaver, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and others.
Present-day conservative intellectuals include Robert George of
Princeton, Harvey Mansfield of Harvard, Charles Kesler of the
Claremont Institute, Hadley Arkes of Amherst, James Ceaser at the
University of Virginia, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise
Institute, and Matthew Spalding here at Heritage.
Next, a political movement must have a broad-based,
broad-minded national constituency. Conservatives are
independent, individualistic. They like to argue about ideas and
institutions with friends as well as adversaries. They are
uncomfortable with compromise and scorn accommodation.
But they have come together and stayed together when the times
required it and when the right leadership managed it--as with
Robert Taft in the 1950s, Barry Goldwater in the 1960s, Ronald
Reagan in the 1980s, Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, and even George W.
Bush following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Next, 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 a
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 conservative
organizations-- including The Heritage Foundation, the
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Young America's Foundation, and
the Media Research Center--total $544 million in 2008 dollars. And
there are the center-right foundations whose assets approximate
$7.4 billion, including the Big Six--Templeton, Scaife, Bradley,
Noble, Amway, and Castle Rock--and another 37 foundations across
A political movement must be media-savvy, familiar with and
expert in the use of the latest in mass communications. Here
there is a paradox: Conservatives have displayed mistrust, anger,
and contempt toward the mass media for decades. Yet:
The number one columnist in America is conservative Cal Thomas.
A bevy of younger writers like Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and
Jonah Goldberg have written best-selling books and are in frequent
demand as TV commentators.
The number one radio talk show host is conservative Rush
Limbaugh, who has a weekly audience of some 15 million. The number
two radio host is conservative Sean Hannity.
In the cable world, Fox News leads CNN in audience ratings,
thanks to such commentators as Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and
Glenn Beck. The Fox network has been the number one cable news
network for seven years.
In the world of the Internet, dominated by liberals for most of
the decade, conservatives are asserting themselves with new Web
sites, blogs, and experiments in Facebook and Twitter.
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 like George
Herbert Walker Bush in 1988 and George W. Bush in 2000, both of
whom sorely disappointed conservatives.
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 Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, and Mark
Sanford, chairman of the Republican Governors' Conference--plus
past and future presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Mike
With the right leadership, much of the frustration and
uncertainty that characterize the conservative movement at present
will fade away as they did when Taft, Goldwater, Reagan, and
Gingrich were the acknowledged leaders of conservatism.
The One Political Constant
When the day comes, as it will, when the conservative movement
unites behind the right leader and puts him on course to enter the
White House, the question will be raised: Can conservatives govern?
It is a reasonable question, given the glaring missteps and
failures of the Bush Administration.
The answer is simple: Of course conservatives can govern.
In 1947, a Republican Congress under the leadership of Senator
Taft cut federal spending and taxes and helped lay the foundation
for the successful foreign policy of containment.
In 1981, the Reagan Administration overcame the opposition of a
Democratic House and passed the Economic Recovery Act, which cut
marginal tax rates across the board and prepared the way for a
period of unprecedented economic recovery lasting more than 20
In 1996, a Republican Congress under House Speaker Newt Gingrich
passed, over President Clinton's veto, welfare reform which
substituted work for welfare and enabled the states to reduce their
welfare rolls by as much as 33 percent.
In 2001, the Bush Administration, working with a Republican
Congress, enacted a monumental tax cut of $1.6 trillion--the
largest in U.S. history--which kept the economy humming until the
financial collapse of 2008.
The liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote in 1947
that "there seems no inherent obstacle to the gradual advance of
socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals."
Five-and-a-half decades later, the conservative columnist and
commentator George Will wrote that we had experienced "the
intellectual collapse of socialism" around the world.
The one political constant throughout these years was the rise
of the Right, whose ascent 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 called for--prudence, not
rashness; custom, not the impulse of the moment; a transcendent
faith, not a fatal conceit; reform, not revolution. 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 gained.
Lee Edwards, Ph.D., is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American
Studies at The Heritage Foundation and a leading historian of the
American conservative movement.