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The term conservative is derived from the word conserve, and in a political sense is often used to indicate a desire to preserve existing political and social arrangements, institutions, policies, or customs. This conception of conservative leaves as a critical defining question what it is that one is seeking to conserve.
Both European and American conservatism contain numerous strands, but share some points of commonality. To a significant extent, both developed as a response to revolutions from the Left, the violent revolution of the guillotine in France in the 1790s and the peaceful revolutions of New Deal economics and counterculture social mores in the United States in the 1930s and 1960s. Both European and American conservatism have been imbued with a strong sense of anti-utopianism and a greater deference for religion, tradition, experience, and property than that found on the Left. On many other scores, however, the two versions of conservatism—or some of their constituent strands—are quite distinct. Those strands are defined by the question of whether they are a subset of liberal democratic politics or a reaction against it.
Representing one pole of European conservatism was Edmund Burke (1729–1797), the English parliamentarian who wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. Reflections embodied not so much an ideology as an anti-ideology, a marked preference for experience, tradition, decentralization, and prudence over the abstract theorizing that drove the French Revolution and that, Burke predicted, would lead to a new and unconstrained form of despotism. Burke favored evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, change, though he supported the moderate American Revolution. He also favored a trustee model of representation consistent with his fear of mass democracy unchecked by moderating institutions. In essence, Burke advocated the conservation of liberal society though caution and prudence. Directly descended from Burke, nineteenth-century British conservatives like Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) called for “Tory democracy,” reforms aimed at giving the lower classes a greater stake in the preservation of traditional English liberty. This conservatism retained, to some extent, an aristocratic and paternalistic cast.
The other pole of European conservatism was starkly reactionary, calling for a restoration of absolute monarchy and Catholic faith summed up in the slogan “throne and altar.” Chief among these clerical monarchists were Count Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) and Louis de Bonald (1754–1840). Where Burke extolled ordered liberty, Maistre and Bonald were content with order. In his Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (1810), Maistre argued against rationalism in politics. He held with Burke that attempting to remake society on the basis of abstract conceptions through such devices as a declaration of rights or a written constitution was foolhardy (and often destructive). Human society was too complex to manipulate in that way. However, to Maistre, absolutism, tempered by religion—the combination of “Pope and executioner”—was the solution for social instability.
In nineteenth-century Germany, the antirationalist and clerical romantic school—heavily influenced by Maistre, but both political and literary in character— developed among thinkers like Adam Muller, K.L. von Haller, Joseph von Radowitz, and Karl von Vogelsang, idealizing the German Middle Ages. At the same time, Joseph von Gorres, a former supporter of the French Revolution, swung around to embrace Maistre’s theocratic vision. His Gorres circle of thinkers was important in German intellectual life at midcentury, and some argued that it contributed to subsequent German and Austrian authoritarianism.
Also clustered nearer to Maistre’s pole than to Burke’s, a strand of extreme nationalism appeared in the late nineteenth century, though its ultimate form arguably represented a repudiation of traditionalist conservatism rather than a completion of it. In France, Maurice Barres (1862–1923) and Charles Maurras (1868–1952) advocated nationalism as the sole source of social rootedness and authoritarianism as the means of expressing that nationalism. Maurras, unlike both Barres and traditional conservatives, embraced mass agitation and atheism and ultimately veered into fascism. More directly influencing national socialism, Heinrich von Treitschke (1834– 1896), author of German History in the Nineteenth Century (1879–1894), advocated a blunt philosophy of racial nationalism, power, and militarism, themes at odds with the mainstay of European conservatism.
Clustered around Burke’s pole were a variety of thinkers whose aim was not restoration of the Middle Ages but the ennobling and conservation of European liberty in one form or another. Like Burke, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville (famous for writing Democracy in America in the 1830s and Ancient Regime and the Revolution twenty years later) was supportive of popular constitutional government and evolutionary change but cautioned against democracy’s potential for excess. Indeed, it is an interesting conceptual question whether Tocqueville should be considered a liberal conservative or a conservative liberal. To the French revolutionaries, egalitarianism and liberty went hand in hand. To Tocqueville, the two values could easily conflict, as local liberty and individual difference might be sacrificed to a singleminded pursuit of equality. Tocqueville thus called for countervailing features like freedom of the press, independent courts, local government, a strong civil society, and Christian morality to preserve liberty.
Another school focused on economic liberty. From Adam Smith in the eighteenth century to the Austrian school of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek in the twentieth, these thinkers shared an appreciation for private property, decentralization of power, and organic evolutionary change. While far removed from Maistre, they were compatible with Burke and Tocqueville. Hayek assaulted central planning in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, in which he argued that central planning invited both tyranny and economic inefficiency. Hayek preferred to call himself a liberal, but in the context of the rise of both democratic and totalitarian socialism, must be (and usually was) counted a conservative.
In between the poles, Clemens von Metternich served as foreign minister of the Habsburg Empire from 1815 to 1848 and was a key figure in the Congress of Vienna, the 1815 diplomatic conference in which the kings of Europe agreed on a framework to keep the peace after the Napoleonic wars. That framework relied on the defense of monarchy and the suppression of radicalism. Although Metternich is widely criticized as a reactionary, he was also cosmopolitan and pacific and advised the Hapsburg emperor to grant more constitutional rights to Hungary and other outposts of the empire. He called his philosophy “conservative socialism”: socialism defined as organic social unity in preference to atomistic individualism, a notion that defined much of European conservatism. Metternich’s secretary Freidrich Gentz translated Burke’s Reflections into German, wrote widely himself, and shared Metternich’s cosmopolitanism.
In postwar, increasingly secular, Europe, both extreme nationalism and clericism withered; Maurras fell with Vichy France, and the last European outpost of Maistre was arguably Franco’s Spain. Rather, the conservatism of the last half of the century was dominated by figures influenced most by the Burkean pole’s paternalistic offshoot (the British statesman Winston Churchill [1874–1965], who sought to model himself after Disraeli), by its free-market offshoot (Britain’s Margaret Thatcher or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi), or by Metternich’s cosmopolitanism (Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl and other European Christian Democrats).
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a Latin American conservatism arose that largely paralleled its European counterpart. After independence, Maistre dominated, as conservatives promoted close church-state connections and centralized state authority. The twentieth century saw a divide between Maistre’s conservatism, reflected in extreme form in the Argentinean junta among others, and a free-market, neoliberal conservatism more comfortable with Burke and Smith. (The Chilean military dictatorship incongruously melded Maistre’s politics and Smith’s economics.) In contrast to Europe, however, the Burkeans seemingly gained the upper hand only in the last fifth of the century.
Historian Louis Hartz famously argued in 1955 that there were no true conservatives in America, only rival species of liberals. Nevertheless, American thinkers as disparate as the anti-federalists, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Calhoun have sometimes been labeled “conservative.” Modern American conservatism, however, grew out of opposition to the New Deal and the rise of the welfare state. Its first mobilization took the form of the American Liberty League in the 1930s, consisting of an alliance between Republican businessmen and Jeffersonian Democrats. This nascent conservatism drew on a belief that the New Deal threatened constitutional principles by centralizing power, undermined the free enterprise system, and corrupted the civic virtue of Americans. If equality was the first value of the New Deal, the chief aim of these conservatives was the preservation of Lockean liberty. Like Hayek, President Herbert Hoover long argued that he was the real liberal, as he—not Franklin Roosevelt—had remained true to the tenets of limited government and free markets that defined classical liberalism. Senator Robert Taft (R-OH), though sometimes dubbed “Mr. Conservative” by contemporaries, fell in this category as well.
A number of other influential figures came to advance free-market economics and limited government. Among these was Nobel economist Milton Friedman, whose Chicago school advocated “monetarism”—an emphasis on free markets and control of the money supply—as an alternative to liberal Keynesianism. Though not as libertarian as the Austrian school of Hayek and von Mises, Friedman favored limits on government spending, taxing, and regulation, as well as school vouchers and a negative income tax as an alternative to welfare. In the 1970s, a school known as supply-side economics was advanced by economic thinkers like Arthur Laffer, Robert L. Bartley, and Jude Wanniski. The supply-siders emphasized improved incentives for work and investment. While differing on many specifics, the revived schools of freemarket economics agreed that political liberty and economic liberty were intertwined.
A second strand of conservatism was skeptical of mass politics and abstractions like natural rights, and was concerned with the decline in importance of religion and traditional social forms and morals. The postwar traditionalists were anticipated in some respects by a school known as Southern Agrarianism (Richard Weaver, John Crowe Ransom, and others), whose unhappiness with industrialism and materialism was laid forth in their 1930 manifesto I Take My Stand. Traditionalism’s most noteworthy spokesmen in the 1950s were Willmoore Kendall and Russell Kirk, the latter of whom argued his case for “the permanent things” in The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot (1953). Unlike many of the constitutionalists and the libertarian-leaning economists, these thinkers were not averse to the label “conservative.” While these traditionalists may have been the most European strand of American conservatism, none were enamored of authoritarianism. Indeed, their fear was that tyranny would result from the collapse of virtue that they diagnosed. The traditionalists sought refuge for liberty in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of liberty rather than in natural rights, and what they sought to conserve above all was Western civilization.
A third strand of postwar conservatism consisted of a strong anticommunist movement. While Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) is perhaps the best-known, and most notorious, anticommunist conservative of the era, anticommunism was widely shared by millions of Americans who were concerned by the totalitarian character of Leninist ideology, the international threat posed by the Soviet Union, and the penetration of domestic communism into American social and governmental institutions. Key intellectual figures in this movement were the former Trotskyite James Burnham and former communist
Whittaker Chambers. Chambers testified against State Department official and Soviet spy Alger Hiss and wrote the widely read book Witness (1952) to chronicle his religious and political conversion. Anticommunism was an essential glue, appealing both to the religious scruples of the traditionalists and the limited government views of the economic conservatives.
While not part of the broad public resurgence of conservatism, other rightward intellectual currents of the time were represented by anti-utopian philosophers such as Leo Strauss (1899–1973) and Eric Voegelin (1901–1985). Strauss looked to classical Greek philosophy for guidance to the good life and best society. Voegelin fashioned a philosophy emphasizing experience and both the transcendence and limits of humans.
The conservative movement as a coherent force was forged in the mid-1950s when the three major strands of conservatism coalesced. A key moment in that effort was the founding by William F. Buckley of the conservative journal National Review in 1955. National Review advanced what became known as fusion, a conception of conservatism that balanced and wove together the three strands.
While the conservative movement was coming together at the intellectual level, it was also gaining at the grassroots level. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican presidential campaign recruited tens of thousands of conservative volunteers into Republican politics and shifted the party to the right. Goldwater was the first major American political figure in the postwar era to embrace the label “conservative.” In his 1960 book Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater laid out a “fusionist” doctrine that was economically free-market, politically constitutionalist, vehemently anticommunist, and religiously grounded. It was also populist in the style of the English Whigs, the “country party” that regularly took the “court party” to task for its elitism, corruption, and autocratic tendencies. After Goldwater’s landslide defeat against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, many commentators concluded that conservatism as a political force in America was finished.
However, developments in the 1960s and 1970s from stagflation to moral permissiveness to Soviet advances abroad made the conservative critique seem increasingly plausible. At the same time, three new ingredients were added to the stew of American conservatism. One was the growth of black intellectual conservatism represented by thinkers like economists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, social commentator Shelby Steele, and future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Another was the development of neoconservatism in the form of figures such as Midge Decter, Nathan Glazer, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and Ben Wattenberg. Neoconservatives were typically once-liberal intellectuals who had shifted significantly to the right on the ideological spectrum owing to concerns about Soviet expansionism and cultural issues. While limited in number, the neoconservatives also added considerable intellectual heft to the conservative movement through organs such as Commentary and The Public Interest.
Finally, a new mass movement of social and religious conservatives arose to complement the traditionalist intellectuals. This movement was distressed by what it perceived as the moral breakdown of American society and the role of government policy in abetting that breakdown. Ultimately known as the “religious right” or the “Christian right,” it was catalyzed by the Supreme Court’s abortion, school prayer, and obscenity decisions, the fight over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and rules proposed by the Internal Revenue Service during the Carter administration that threatened the tax-exempt status of many Christian schools. Mass organizations like the Moral Majority and, later, the Christian Coalition formed to promote socially conservative policies.
The growing strength of American conservatism helped lead to the 1980 and 1984 presidential victories of former California governor Ronald Reagan, by then the unquestioned standard-bearer of the conservative movement. Reagan, like Goldwater, promoted a populist blend of free market economics, cultural conservatism, and anticommunist nationalism, though without Goldwater’s harder edges. Although falling short of many of his goals, Reagan achieved a significant rightward move in public policy and forged a strong Republican electoral coalition that contributed to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and to Republican electoral successes in the early twenty-first century.
Nevertheless, when President Bill Clinton successfully stymied many of their policy departures after 1994, many conservatives searched for a new approach. In his 2000 campaign and subsequent presidency, George W. Bush offered what he called “compassionate conservatism,” a reorientation of conservatism that would accommodate big government rather than trying to curtail it, and would institute reforms aimed at making it more accountable and more subject to citizen choice.
Contrasts and Tensions
In Europe, a considerable distance separated Burke from Maistre, and a vast gulf divided Burke, Tocqueville, and even Metternich on one hand from the outliers Maurras and von Treitschke on the other. Even within the narrowed range of postwar European conservatism, divisions remained, for example between free-market Thatcherites and their more paternalistic and statist Tory compatriots in Britain. Arguably, not as much distance has divided American conservatives, who largely agreed that what they wanted to conserve was the synthesis between
Lockeanism, biblical republicanism, and classical Western civilization that they held to be essential parts of the nation’s heritage. Nevertheless, they have differed about what themes to emphasize, and have often differed over specific means. The more libertarian-leaning of the economic conservatives have an uneasy relationship with the social/cultural conservatives. Those traditionalists who eschew natural rights have clashed with other conservatives who defend the natural rights paradigm. Even the monetarists and the supply-siders have engaged in sometimes bitter disputes. When some post-Reagan conservatives argued for a conservatism grounded not in limited government but in promotion of “national greatness” or of a more accountable form of big government, this innovation brought vehement opposition from others. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism was at the center of that debate.
American conservatism has been more populist and dynamic than its European counterpart, and less paternalistic, aristocratic, authoritarian, and clerical. There is no influential American counterpart to the tradition of Maistre, let alone Maurras. However, the gap between the continents has narrowed substantially as postwar European conservatism shifted decisively in favor of its Burkean pole. Reagan’s kinship with Thatcher in the 1980s illuminated an increasing convergence in favor of a conservatism that seeks to preserve the (classical) liberal polity against more radical challenges at home and abroad.
- Buckley, William F., Jr., and Charles R. Kesler, eds. 1988. Keeping the Tablets: Modern American Conservative Thought. New York: Harper & Row.
- Burke, Edmund, and Isaac Kramnick. 1999. The Portable Edmund Burke. New York: Penguin.
- Goldwater, Barry M. 1960. The Conscience of a Conservative. Shepherdsville, KY: Victor Publishing.
- Hayek, Friedrich A. von. 1944. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Kirk, Russell, ed. 1982. The Portable Conservative Reader. New York: Viking Penguin.
- Kirk, Russell. 1989. The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot. 7th ed. Chicago: Regnery.
- Nash, George H. 1996. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. 2nd ed. Wilmington, DE: ISI Press.
- Viereck, Peter. 1956. Conservatism from John Adams to Churchill. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand.
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