I’ve recently enjoyed a significant increase in the number of followers and readers of my work thanks to the Facebook “boost” tool (thanks to all of you who have connected!). This has introduced me to a variety of new “fans” who have variously questioned my politics, sanity, motivations, writing ability, and overall level of education. While they have unwittingly provided me seeds for several future articles, the academic in me was compelled to defend my body of knowledge first. So I thought it important to address what seemed to be the most common theme/question asked amongst responses from my last article “Dear Conservative,”… “What do you know about conservatives anyway?” (Expletives removed)
American conservatism is a unique political ideology. Like American liberalism, its roots can be traced back to 18th and 19th century European political philosophy. And like most things Americans borrow, it has been transformed in ways that make it incomparable to conservatism in other countries, or its classical form for that matter. The result from a domestic perspective is a growing list of paradoxes within the conservative Republican political platform that seem hypocritical to outsiders, and a repudiation of traditional conservative values to a growing number within the GOP itself. In order to fully understand these contradictions, we must examine their origins, contemporary meanings, and future implications.
Edmund Burke is widely recognized as the father of traditional conservatism. An 18th-century Irish political philosopher, his writings have been used across the political spectrum to establish assumptions and arguments supporting conservative politics in America. His most important assertions would become the foundation of traditional conservatism in America with the first principle being that all order and morality originates from God and is expressed through divine rulers. Second, this relationship naturally flows from rulers, through nobility, to subjects and is the foundation of the nation-state as evidenced by the existence of traditions and laws. Third, radical or rapid social and economic change represent the greatest threat to the stability of those relationships and the overall order of society.
With these basic principles in mind we can then characterize traditional or Burkian conservatism as being elitist, risk-averse, and reactive when it comes to engaging national politics. It is elitist in the sense that although morality and righteousness are the foundations of liberty and thus politics, Burke’s clear assumption was that only those who can perceive and act on natural law derived from a Christian God can act with good intentions. More directly, it was only the noble or ‘well-bred citizen’ that could competently participate in politics. Traditional conservatism is risk-averse because the primary goal is to maintain stability and order within society, avoiding revolution of any kind. As a result, traditional conservatism has often been most energetic at those moments in when there seemed to be the greatest threat of societal upheaval (e.g. the 1950’s and 60’s). Specifically, traditional conservatism is a reactive political ideology, seeking to maintain the status quo and limit the most destructive aspects of inevitable social growth and change.
For a long-time, whether residing in the Democratic or Republican party, American conservatism was traditional in most respects. We traded business moguls for nobility and legacies for lineage, but up until at least the 1960s American conservatism could still be considered the politics of elites. It was most symbolized by an aversion to risk, especially when it came to economic and foreign policy. Latent American traditions such as isolationism and protectionism for instance were always more prevalent under conservative administrations. The reactive nature of traditional conservatism could be seen most at those times when there proved to be the greatest push for change in US society. From Reconstruction and Woodrow Wilson’s call to join the League of Nations, through dissatisfaction with Roosevelt’s New Deal and the rise of the Silent Majority, American conservatism acquires the greatest momentum when it is reacting to major progressive or liberal movements.
Something changed in the 1960’s however. First and foremost, American conservatism began to evolve from an elite political perspective to the politics of the blue-collar worker. The process began with the conservative push back against the Vietnam War protests and desegregation. Specifically, loyalty to a ‘natural God-given social order’ gave way to loyalty to country and tradition in the form of patriotic defense of ‘the Old Order’. This alteration of a key principle of conservatism made it attractive to Americans far beyond its elitist white Anglo-Saxon Protestant origins. It broadened how conservatives conceptualized the traditions they were protecting allowing large groups of middle- and lower-class individuals to define for themselves exactly what conservative traditions they felt represented them. It also helped develop a strengthening allegiance to the new home of conservatism, the Republican Party.
The ability to continually redefine American conservatism would open the door for the rise of Ronald Reagan and the ‘Christian Right’ in the 1980s, as well as some of the more ultra-conservative positions we see today, without any significant threats to the platform of the Republican Party itself. Most importantly, the transition from elitist political ideology to blue-collar social movement is what has allowed populism to become such a prominent aspect of American conservatism today. The great irony is that it was the populist chaos and violence associated with the French Revolution that ultimately led Burke to harden his own conservative principles.
The second key change to American conservatism that took place during the 1960s was the general conclusion that it was the minority that was most often the cause of rapid or radical social change in America. Earlier in American history this tended to be focused almost exclusively on the position of the African-American in society. By the 1960s however women, veterans, the disabled, and other marginalized groups were beginning to make significant claims for rights that they expected the government to fulfill and protect. Thus, while traditional conservatism saw threats to the status quo in a variety of different social and economic areas, American conservatism began to adopt an increasing focus on slowing the advancement of minority rights within American politics.
It is important to say that I do not think American conservatism is inherently racist. It is more appropriate to say that American racism is one part of a broader conservative reaction to the impact of “the other” on a society that they have come to define according to certain traditions. Much to the chagrin of contemporary conservatives their philosophy continues to be attached to the legacy of racism and sexism in American. This is because historically discrimination was the most widely used tool through which rapid social change was avoided.
But American conservatism in both its Democratic and Republican forms can also be seen in various periods of nativist reaction towards immigration, as well as chauvinist responses to women’s rights. The key conclusion is that contrary to traditional conservatism, conservatives in America today actually encourage wide-ranging and rapid socioeconomic advancement. By narrowing the causes of unwanted social progress to “the other” and excluding traditional sources such as economic and class conflict, American conservatism was again able to re-conceptualize a traditional principle. It could now promote social and economic progress in the society without fear of individuals outside the system getting enough power to change the status quo.
The last change has been the slowest to take root, but clearly manifested itself in the election of Trump. Rather than being reactive to a slow and methodical liberal evolution of American society, conservatives have now become proactive in their approaches to American politics. Instead of waiting for the development of liberal or progressive policies that they feel push them too far, American conservatives have adopted the tactic of drawing a political line in the sand to deter liberals from even beginning the fight. This means that it is the conservatives and not the liberals that choose the primary issues of contention (e.g. gun control).
Perhaps the most direct illustration of this new approach is an unwillingness to let perceived liberal victories stand. Where traditional conservatism sought to resist where it could and accept what it had to, American conservatism now sees the reversal of social change as a political goal. From abortion and Obamacare to environmental regulation and free trade, the current conservative agenda is one of refusing to accept changes that have already been made. The goal is no longer just to slow the inevitable tide of socioeconomic change as much as possible. Rather American conservatism has adopted the unique perspective that social change can be stopped and even reversed with enough political power. And the election and subsequent policy initiatives of the Trump administration are proving them correct.
The result of America’s transformation of conservatism is Trump populism. an unapologetic, uncompromising, and aggressive political philosophy that seeks to return the United States to a time of ‘traditional’ family values, unquestioned patriotism, and a common understanding that no one should get special treatment. There is a small but vocal group of traditional Republicans that worry about the increasing disconnect between core conservative values and the promotion of Trump populism. But for the majority, they are still able to fit their own definition of conservatism into the broader philosophy in order to continue support for Trump and the Party. They are still able to clearly see a personal vision of the ‘“good ol’ days” when special interests didn’t exist, you were paid a dollar for a dollar’s work, and most Americans shared the same American dream. The problem for the Republican Party and American conservatism right now is that those good ol’ days are for many Americans also associated with racism, sexism, and economic corruption… as is our current president.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.