Conservatism in the United States

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"American conservative" redirects here. For the magazine, see The American Conservative.
For related and other uses, see Conservatism (disambiguation).

American Conservatism is a broad system of political beliefs in the United States that is characterized by respect for American traditions, support for Judeo-Christian values, economic liberalism, anti-communism, advocacy of American exceptionalism, and a defense of Western culture from threats posed by "creeping socialism", moral relativism, multiculturalism, and liberal internationalism. Liberty is a core value, with a particular emphasis on strengthening the free market, limiting the size and scope of government, and opposition to high taxes and government or labor union encroachment on the entrepreneur. American conservatives consider individual liberty, within the bounds of conformity to American values, as the fundamental trait of democracy, which contrasts with modern American liberals, who generally place a greater value on equality and social justice.[1][2]

American conservatism originated from classical liberalism of 18th and 19th centuries, which advocates civil liberties and political freedom with representative democracy under the rule of law and emphasizes economic freedom.[3][4]

Historians argue that the conservative tradition has played a major role in American politics and culture since the 1790s. However they have stressed that an organized conservative movement has played a key role in politics only since the 1950s.[5][6][7] The recent movement is based in the Republican Party, though some Democrats were also important figures early in the movement's history.[8][9]

The history of American conservatism has been marked by tensions and competing ideologies. Fiscal conservatives and libertarians favor small government involvement in the economy, a flat tax, limited regulation, and free enterprise. Social conservatives see traditional social values as threatened by secularism; they tend to support voluntary school prayer and oppose abortion and same sex marriage.[10][11][12][13][14] Some also want the teaching of intelligent design or creationism allowed, as the topics are currently judicially prohibited in public schools. The 21st century has seen an increasingly fervent conservative support for Second Amendment rights of private citizens to own firearms. Neoconservatives want to expand American ideals throughout the world.[15] Paleoconservatives advocate restrictions on immigration, non-interventionist foreign policy, and stand in opposition to multiculturalism.[16] Nationwide most factions, except some libertarians, support a unilateral foreign policy, and a strong military. The conservative movement of the 1950s attempted to bring together these divergent strands, stressing the need for unity to prevent the spread of "godless communism."[17]

William F. Buckley Jr., in the first issue of his magazine National Review in 1955, explained the standards of his magazine and helped make explicit the beliefs of American conservatives:[18]

Among our convictions: It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens' lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly. In this great social conflict of the era, we are, without reservations, on the libertarian side. The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order. We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.


Recent policies[edit]

Russell Kirk, conservative theorist

President Ronald Reagan set the conservative standard in the 1980s; in the 2010s the Republican leaders typically claim fealty to it. For example, most of the Republican candidates in 2012 "claimed to be standardbearers of Reagan's ideological legacy."[19] Reagan solidified conservative Republican strength with tax cuts, a greatly increased military budget, continued deregulation, a policy of rollback of Communism (rather than just containing it), and appeals to family values and conservative morality. The 1980s and beyond became known as the "Reagan Era."[20] Typically, conservative politicians and spokesmen in the 21st century proclaim their devotion to Reagan's ideals and policies on most social, economic and foreign policy issues.

Other modern conservative beliefs include skepticism of the theory of man-made global warming and opposition to government action to combat it, which conservatives contend would do severe economic damage, and ultimately more harm than good even if one accepts the premise that human activity is contributing to climate change.[21][22] They support a strong policy of law and order to control crime, including long jail terms for repeat offenders. Most conservatives support the death penalty for particularly egregious crimes. The "law and order" issue was a major factor weakening liberalism in the 1960s.[23] From 2001 to 2008, Republican President George W. Bush stressed cutting taxes and minimizing regulation of industry and banking, while increasing regulation of education.[24] Conservatives generally advocate the use of American military power to fight terrorists and promote democracy in the Middle East.

According to a 2014 poll, 38% of American voters identify as "conservative" or "very conservative," 34% as "moderate," 24% as "liberal" or "very liberal".[25] These percentages were fairly constant from 1990 to 2009,[26] when conservatism spiked in popularity briefly[27] before reverting to the original trend while liberal views on social issues reached a new high. Although the study does show some distinction between the concentration of moderates and conservatives or liberals between the Republican and Democratic parties. Among Democrats, 44% are self-identified liberals, 19% as conservatives, and 36% as moderates. For Republicans 70% self-identified as conservative, 24% as moderate, and 5% as liberal.

Conservatism appears to be growing stronger at the state level. The trend is most pronounced among the "least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states."[28][29]

Conservatives generally believe that government action is not the solution to such problems as poverty and inequality. Many believe that government programs that seek to provide services and opportunities for the poor actually encourage dependence and reduce self-reliance. Most conservatives oppose affirmative action policies, that is, policies in employment, education, and other areas that give special advantages to people who belong to groups that have been historically discriminated against. Conservatives believe that the government should not give special benefits to people on the basis of group identity and oppose it as "reverse discrimination".

Conservatives typically hold that the government should play a smaller role in regulating business and managing the economy. They typically oppose high tax rates and programs to redistribute income to assist the poor. Such efforts, they argue, do not properly reward people who have earned their money through hard work. However, conservatives usually place a strong emphasis on the role of private voluntary charitable organizations (especially faith-based charities) in helping the poor.

As conservatives value order and security, they favor a small but strong government role in law enforcement and national defense.

Social issues[edit]

On social issues, many religious conservatives oppose changes in traditional moral standards regarding sexuality and gender roles. They oppose abortion, same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws against homosexuals.[30] The libertarian faction tends to ignore these issues, instead focusing on fiscal and monetary policy. Business-oriented conservatives oppose the social conservatives if state laws limiting gay rights threaten to hurt business. The National Review reported in 2016 that, "as evangelical forces have become less unified...the influence of Right-leaning business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce has only grown."[31][32] In the culture war of recent decades, multiculturalism has been a flashpoint, especially regarding the humanities curriculum. Historian Peter N. Stearns finds a polarization since the 1960s between conservatives, who believe that the humanities express eternal truths that should be taught, and those who think that the humanities curriculum should be tailored to demonstrate diversity.[33] In campus battles, progressives demand "Cultural diversity" while conservatives denounce efforts to impose "political correctness" and stifle free speech.[34]

Conservatives typically favor a "melting pot" model of assimilation into common English-speaking American culture, as opposed to a "salad bowl" approach that lends legitimacy to many different cultures.[35][36] In the 21st century, conservatives have warned on the dangers of tolerating radical Islamic elements, of the sort that they say are engaging in large-scale terrorism in Europe.[37]


In the United States today, the word "conservative" is often used very differently from the way it is used in Europe and Asia. The Americans after 1776 rejected the core ideals of European conservatism, which were based on the landed aristocracy, the established church, and the powerful, prestigious army.

Conservatism in the United States is not a single school of thought.[38] Barry Goldwater in the 1960s spoke for a "free enterprise" conservatism. Jerry Falwell in the 1980s preached traditional moral and religious social values. It was Reagan's challenge to form these groups into an electable coalition.[39] In the 21st century U.S., some of the groups calling themselves "conservative" include:

  • Traditionalist conservatism – Opposition to rapid change in political and social institutions. This kind of conservatism is anti-ideological insofar as it emphasizes means (slow change) over ends (any particular form of government). To the traditionalist, whether one arrives at a right- or left-wing government is less important than whether change is effected through rule of law rather than through revolution and utopian schemes.[40]
  • Christian conservatism – Conservative Christians are primarily interested in family values. Typical positions include the view that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, that abortion is wrong, that there should be prayer in state schools, that intelligent design or creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution, and that marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman and not between two members of the same sex. Many attack the profanity and sexuality in the media and movies.[41]
  • Limited government conservatism – Limited government conservatives look for a decreased role of the federal government. They follow Jeffersonian democracy in their suspicion of a powerful federal government.[42]
  • Neoconservatism – A modern form of conservatism that supports a more assertive, interventionist foreign policy, aimed at promoting democracy abroad. It is tolerant of an activist government at home, but is focused mostly on international affairs. Neoconservatism was first described by a group of disaffected liberals, and thus Irving Kristol, usually credited as its intellectual progenitor, defined a neoconservative as "a liberal who was mugged by reality." Although originally regarded as an approach to domestic policy (the founding instrument of the movement, Kristol's The Public Interest periodical, did not even cover foreign affairs), through the influence of figures like Dick Cheney, Robert Kagan, Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman and (Irving's son) Bill Kristol, it has become most famous for its association with the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration in the Middle East that used the military to promote democracy.[43]
  • Paleoconservatism – In part a rebirth of the Old Right, arising in the 1980s in reaction to neoconservatism, stresses tradition, especially Christian tradition and the importance to society of the traditional family. Some, Samuel P. Huntington for example, argue that multiracial, multi-ethnic, and egalitarian states are inherently unstable.[44] Paleoconservatives are generally isolationist, and suspicious of foreign influence. The magazines Chronicles and The American Conservative are generally considered to be paleoconservative in nature.[45]
  • Libertarian conservatism – A fusion with libertarianism, this type emphasizes a strict interpretation of the Constitution, particularly with regard to federal power. Libertarian conservatism is constituted by a broad, sometimes conflicted, coalition including pro-business social moderates, those favoring more rigid enforcement of states' rights, individual liberty activists, and many of those who place their socially liberal ideology ahead of their fiscal beliefs. This mode of thinking tends to espouse laissez-faire economics and a critical view of the federal government. Libertarian conservatives' emphasis on personal freedom often leads them to have social positions contrary to those of social conservatives, especially on such issues as marijuana, abortion and homosexuality. Ron Paul and his son Rand Paul have been influential proponents in the Republican presidential contests.[46]

Ideology and political philosophy[edit]

Traditional (Burkean) conservatives tend to be anti-ideological, and some would even say anti-philosophical,[47] promoting rather, as Russell Kirk explains, a steady flow of "prescription and prejudice". Kirk's use of the word "prejudice" here is not intended to carry its contemporary pejorative connotation: a conservative himself, he believes that the inherited wisdom of the ages may be a better guide than apparently rational individual judgment.

There are two overlapping subgroups of social conservatives—the traditional and the religious. Traditional conservatives strongly support traditional codes of conduct, especially those they feel are threatened by social change and modernization. For example, traditional conservatives may oppose the use of female soldiers in combat. Religious conservatives focus on conducting society as prescribed by a religious authority or code. In the United States this translates into taking hard-line stances on moral issues, such as opposition to abortion and homosexuality. Religious conservatives often assert that "America is a Christian nation" and call for laws that enforce Christian morality.

Fiscal conservatives support limited government, limited taxation, and a balanced budget. They argue that low taxes produce more jobs and wealth for everyone, and also that, as President Grover Cleveland said, "unnecessary taxation is unjust taxation".[48] A recent movement against the inheritance tax labels such a tax as a death tax. Fiscal conservatives often argue that competition in the free market is more effective than the regulation of industry. Some make exceptions in the case of trusts or monopolies. Others, libertarians and followers of Ludwig von Mises, believe all government intervention in the economy is wasteful, corrupt, and immoral. More moderate fiscal conservatives argue that "free market economics" is the most efficient way to promote economic growth: they support it not based on some moral principle, but pragmatically, because they hold that it just "works."

Most modern American fiscal conservatives accept some social spending programs not specifically delineated in the Constitution. As such, fiscal conservatism today exists somewhere between classical conservatism and contemporary consequentialist political philosophies.

Through much of the 20th century, a primary force uniting the varied strands of conservatism, and uniting conservatives with liberals and socialists, was opposition to communism, which was seen not only as an enemy of the traditional order, but also the enemy of Western freedom and democracy. Thus it was the British Labour government—which embraced socialism—that pushed the Truman administration in 1945–47 to take a strong stand against Soviet Communism.[49]

Social conservatism and tradition[edit]

photograph of a throng of people holding signs
YES on 8 rally in Fresno, California

Social conservatism in the United States is the defense of traditional social norms and Judeo-Christian values.[50]

Social conservatives tend to strongly identify with American nationalism and patriotism. They often denounce anti-war protesters and support the police and the military. They hold that military institutions embody core values such as honor, duty, courage, loyalty, and a willingness on the part of the individual to make sacrifices for the good of the country.

Social conservatives are strongest in the South and Rocky Mountain States, and in recent years played a major role in the political coalitions of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin.[51]

Fiscal conservatism and economic liberalism[edit]

Fiscal conservatism is the economic and political policy that advocates restraint of governmental taxation and expenditures. Fiscal conservatives since the 19th century have argued that debt is a device to corrupt politics; they argue that big spending ruins the morals of the people, and that a national debt creates a dangerous class of speculators. A political strategy employed by conservatives to achieve a smaller government is known as starve the beast. Activist Grover Norquist is a well-known proponent of the strategy and has famously said, "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."[52][53] The argument in favor of balanced budgets is often coupled with a belief that government welfare programs should be narrowly tailored and that tax rates should be low, which implies relatively small government institutions.

This belief in small government combines with fiscal conservatism to produce a broader economic liberalism, which wishes to minimize government intervention in the economy or implement laissez-faire policies. This economic liberalism borrows from two schools of thought: the classical liberals' pragmatism and the libertarian's notion of "rights." The classical liberal maintains that free markets work best, while the libertarian contends that free markets are the only ethical markets.

Historian Kathleen G. Donohue argues that classical liberalism in the 19th century U.S. had distinctive characteristics as opposed to Britain:

at the center of classical liberal theory [in Europe] was the idea of laissez-faire. To the vast majority of American classical liberals, however, laissez-faire did not mean no government intervention at all. On the contrary, they were more than willing to see government provide tariffs, railroad subsidies, and internal improvements, all of which benefited producers. What they condemned was intervention in behalf of consumers.[54]

The economic philosophy of conservatives in the United States tends to be more liberal allowing for more economic freedom. Economic liberalism can go well beyond fiscal conservatism's concern for fiscal prudence, to a belief or principle that it is not prudent for governments to intervene in markets. It is also, sometimes, extended to a broader "small government" philosophy. Economic liberalism is associated with free-market, or laissez-faire economics.

Economic liberalism, insofar as it is ideological, owes its creation to the "classical liberal" tradition, in the vein of Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises.

Classical liberals and libertarians support free markets on moral, ideological grounds: principles of individual liberty morally dictate support for free markets. Supporters of the moral grounds for free markets include Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises. The liberal tradition is suspicious of government authority, and prefers individual choice, and hence tends to see capitalist economics as the preferable means of achieving economic ends.

Modern conservatives, on the other hand, derive support for free markets from practical grounds. Free markets, they argue, are the most productive markets. Thus the modern conservative supports free markets not out of necessity, but out of expedience. The support is not moral or ideological, but driven on the Burkean notion of prescription: what works best is what is right.

Another reason why conservatives support a smaller role for the government in the economy is the belief in the importance of the civil society. As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville, there is a belief that a bigger role of the government in the economy will make people feel less responsible for the society. These responsibilities would then need to be taken over by the government, requiring higher taxes. In his book Democracy in America, De Tocqueville describes this as "soft oppression."

Ronald Reagan gives a televised address from the Oval Office, outlining his plan for tax reductions in July 1981 (excerpt)

While classical liberals and modern conservatives reached free markets through different means historically, in recent years the lines have blurred. Rarely will a politician claim that free markets are "simply more productive" or "simply the right thing to do" but a combination of both. This blurring is very much a product of the merging of the classical liberal and modern conservative positions under the "umbrella" of the conservative movement.

The archetypal free-market conservative administrations of the late 20th century—the Margaret Thatcher government in Britain and the Ronald Reagan administration in the U.S.–both held the unfettered operation of the market to be the cornerstone of contemporary modern conservatism.[55] To that end, Thatcher privatized industries and public housing and Reagan cut the maximum capital gains tax from 28% to 20%, though in his second term he agreed to raise it back up to 28%. He wanted to increase defense spending and achieved that; liberal Democrats blocked his efforts to cut domestic spending.[56] Reagan did not control the rapid increase in federal government spending, or reduce the deficit, but his record looks better when expressed as a percent of the gross domestic product. Federal revenues as a percent of the GDP fell from 19.6% in 1981 when Reagan took office to 18.3% in 1989 when he left. Federal spending fell slightly from 22.2% of the GDP to 21.2%. This contrasts with statistics from 2004, when government spending was rising more rapidly than it had in decades.[57]

Electoral politics[edit]

In the United States, the Republican Party has been the party of conservatism since the 1890s, although there was a strong Eastern liberal wing. Since 1964 the conservatives largely took control. Meanwhile, the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, based in the South and strongly opposed to Civil Rights, grew weaker. The most dramatic realignment took place within the White South, which moved from 3–1 Democratic to 3–1 Republican between 1960 and 2000.

In addition, some American libertarians, in the Libertarian Party and even some in the Republican Party, see themselves as conservative, even though they advocate significant economic and social changes—for instance, further dismantling the welfare system or liberalizing drug policy. They see these as conservative policies because they conform to the spirit of individual liberty that they consider to be a traditional American value. However, many libertarian think-tanks such as the Cato Institute, and libertarian intellectuals such as David Boaz describe libertarianism as being "socially liberal and fiscally conservative."[58][59] Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul is one of the most well-noted Republicans with a libertarian-leaning philosophy. Espousing a return to a stricter interpretation of the Constitution, an audit of the Federal Reserve System and an end to American Interventionism in other parts of the world, Paul gained a loyal following among libertarians, displaced conservatives in the Republican Party and also made inroads with some Democrats during two failed attempts to gain the Republican Presidential Nomination in 2008 and 2012. Paul, an obstetrician by training, also ran as the 1988 Libertarian Party Presidential nominee.

On the other hand, some conservatives tend to oppose free-market trade policies and support protectionism instead. They want government intervention to support the economy and ptotect American jobs. They oppose free trade on the ground that it benefits other countries (especially China) in the expense of American workers. However, in spite of their support for protectionism, they tend to support othet free-market principles like low taxes, small government and balanced budgets.


Percent of self-identified conservatives by state in 2010.[60]
  49% and above
  32% and under

The South, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountain states, and Alaska are generally conservative strongholds. The Northeast, Great Lakes Region, and West Coast are the main liberal strongholds. Conservatives are strongest in rural America and, to a lesser extent, in the exurbs or suburbs. Voters in the urban cores of large metropolitan areas tend to be more liberal and Democratic. Thus, within each state, there is a division between urban, suburban, exurban, and rural areas.[61] In recent decades, the electoral geography has helped give Republicans control of the House of Representatives, and Democrats a decided edge in the Electoral College which elects the president.[62]

Other topics[edit]

Kirk's principles of conservatism[edit]

Russell Kirk developed six "canons" of conservatism, which Gerald J. Russello described as follows:

  1. A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
  2. An affection for the "variety and mystery" of human existence;
  3. A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize "natural" distinctions;
  4. A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
  5. A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
  6. A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.[63]

Kirk said that Christianity and Western Civilization are "unimaginable apart from one another"[64] and that "all culture arises out of religion. When religious faith decays, culture must decline, though often seeming to flourish for a space after the religion which has nourished it has sunk into disbelief."[65]

In later works, Kirk expanded this list into his "Ten Principles of Conservatism"[66] which are as follows:

  1. First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.
  2. Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.
  3. Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.
  4. Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.
  5. Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.
  6. Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.
  7. Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.
  8. Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
  9. Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.
  10. Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.


One stream of conservatism exemplified by William Howard Taft extols independent judges as experts in fairness and the final arbiters of the Constitution. In 1910 Theodore Roosevelt broke with most of his lawyer friends and called for popular votes that could overturn unwelcome decisions by state courts. Taft denounced his old friend and rallied conservatives to defeat him for the 1912 GOP nomination. Taft and the conservative Republicans controlled the Supreme Court until the late 1930s.[67][68]

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat, did not attack the Supreme Court directly in 1937, but ignited a firestorm of protest by a proposal to add seven new justices. Conservative Democrats immediately broke with FDR, defeated his proposal, and built up the Conservative Coalition. While the liberals did take over the Court through replacements, they lost control of Congress. That is, the Court no longer overthrew liberal laws passed by Congress, but there were very few such laws that passed in 1937–60.[69]

A recent variant of conservatism condemns "judicial activism"; that is, judges using their decisions to control policy, along the lines of the Warren Court in the 1960s. It came under conservative attack for decisions regarding redistricting, desegregation, and the rights of those accused of crimes. This position goes back to Jefferson's vehement attacks on federal judges and to Abraham Lincoln's attacks on the Dred Scott decision of 1857.[70][71]


Main article: Originalism

A more recent variant that emerged in the 1970s is "originalism", the assertion that the United States Constitution should be interpreted to the maximum extent possible in the light of what it meant when it was adopted. Originalism should not be confused with a similar conservative ideology, strict constructionism, which deals with the interpretation of the Constitution as written, but not necessarily within the context of the time when it was adopted. In modern times, the term originalism has been used by Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, former federal judge Robert Bork and some other conservative jurists to explain their beliefs.[72]


In the past, Conservatives have supported conservation efforts, from the protection of the Yosemite Valley, to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.[73] However, more recently, neoconservatives have opposed environmentalism; with environmentalists often ridiculed as "tree huggers". Republican Party leaders such as Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann advocate the abolition of the EPA, calling it "the job-killing organization of America." [74]

Conservative think tanks since the 1990s have opposed the concept of man-made global warming; they challenged scientific evidence, publicised what they perceived as beneficial aspects of global warming, and stated their strong beliefs that proposed remedies would do more harm than good.[75] The concept of anthropogenic global warming continues to be an ongoing debate amongst Conservatives in the United States,[76] but the majority reject the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by humans; 73% of Republicans believed humans were uninvolved in causing global warming, according to a 2015 poll by Pew Research.[77]

In recent times, American Conservatives have generally supported deregulation of pollution and reduced restrictions on carbon emissions.[78] Similarly, they have advocated increased oil drilling with less regulatory interference, such as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.[79] In the 2008 election, the phrase, "Drill baby drill" was used to express the Republican position on the subject.

Semantics, language, and media[edit]



Since the late 19th century conservatives use the term "socialism" (or "creeping socialism") as an epithet to attack liberal spending on social programs and regulatory expansions that enlarge the role and power of the federal government in daily life, lead to higher tax rates, increase government dependence, or diminish personal freedom. In this sense it's not strictly limited to formal government ownership of the means of production, or the various Socialist parties. Thus William Allen White attacked presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896 by warning that, "The election will sustain Americanism or it will plant Socialism."[80][81] Barry Goldwater in 1960 called for Republican unity against John F. Kennedy and the "blueprint for socialism presented by the Democrats."[82] Ronald Reagan often quoted Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist nominee for president in the New Deal era, as saying, "The American people would never knowingly vote for Socialism, but that under the name of liberalism, they would adopt every fragment of the socialist program."[83]

In 2010 Newt Gingrich defined a common conservative usage when discussing his new book To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine (2010):

Obama is committed to socialism. I mean socialism in the broad sense. I'm not talking about a particular platform adopted by the International Socialist Movement in the late 19th century. I'm talking about a government-dominated, bureaucratically-controlled, politician-dictated way of life.[84]


Talk radio and Fox News[edit]

Rush Limbaugh, 2009

Conservatives gained a major new communications medium with the resurgence of talk radio in the late 1980s. Rush Limbaugh proved there was a huge nationwide audience for specific and heated discussions of current events from a conservative viewpoint. Other major hosts who describe themselves as conservative include: Michael Peroutka, Jim Quinn, Dennis Miller, Ben Ferguson, William Bennett, Andrew Wilkow, Lars Larson, Sean Hannity, G. Gordon Liddy, Laura Ingraham, Mike Church, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Kim Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Michael Reagan, Jason Lewis, Ken Hamblin, and Herman Cain.[85] The Salem Radio Network syndicates a group of religiously oriented Republican activists, including Roman Catholic Hugh Hewitt, and Jewish conservatives Dennis Prager and Michael Medved. One popular Jewish conservative, Laura Schlessinger, offers parental and personal advice, but is outspoken on social and political issues. In 2011, the largest weekly audiences for talk radio were 15 million for Limbaugh and 14 million for Hannity, with about nine million each for Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and Mark Levin. The audiences overlap, depending on how many each listener dials into every week.[86]

Fox News features conservative hosts.[87] One such host is Sean Hannity, who also has a talk radio program.[88] One former host is Matt Drudge;[89] prior, and after his time on Fox News, Drudge has operated Drudge Report a news aggregation website and is a self-professed conservative.[90] It is more conservative than other news sources in the United States, such as National Public Radio and CNN.[91]

Critic David Frum has argued that the influence of conservative talk radio and Fox News has harmed American conservatism, turning it from "a political philosophy into a market segment" for extremism and conflict making "for bad politics but great TV." Backed by the conservative book-publishing industry and think tanks, talk radio and Fox News,

have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he's a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even Britain. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) "the only place in the world where it doesn't matter who your parents were or where you came from."[92]


Admission to academe[edit]

Liberal and leftist viewpoints have dominated higher education faculties since the 1970s, according to many studies,[93][94][95] whereas conservatives are better represented in policy-oriented think tanks. Data from a survey conducted in 2004 indicated that 72% of full-time faculty identify as liberal,[96] while 9–18% self-identify as conservative. Conservative self-identification is higher in two-year colleges than other categories of higher education but has been declining overall.[97] Those in natural sciences, engineering, and business were less liberal than those in the social sciences and humanities. A 2005 study found that liberal views had increased compared to the older studies. 15% in the survey described themselves as center-right. While the humanities and the social sciences are still the most left leaning, 67% of those in other fields combined described themselves as center-left on the spectrum. In business and engineering, liberals outnumber conservatives by a 2:1 ratio. The study also found that women, practicing Christians, and Republicans taught at lower ranked schools than would be expected from objectively measured professional accomplishments.[98][99] A study by psychologists Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammars, of the Netherlands' Tilburg University, published in September 2012 in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, found that, in social and personality psychology,[100] about a third of those surveyed say that they would to a small extent favor a liberal point of view over a conservative point of view.[101] A 2007 poll found that 58% of Americans thought that college professors' political bias was a "serious problem". This varied depending on the political views of those asked. 91% of "very conservative" adults agreed compared with only 3% of liberals.[102] That same year a documentary, Indoctrinate U, was released which focuses on the perceived bias within academia.[103][104][105]

On the other hand, liberal critic Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that this phenomenon is more due to personal choice than some kind of discrimination or conspiracy, noting that, for example, vocations such as military officers are much more likely to be filled by conservatives, rather than liberals.[106] Additionally, two studies published in the journal of the American Political Science Association have suggested that the political orientations of college students' professors have little influence or "indoctrination" in terms of students' political belief.[107]

Relativism versus universal truths[edit]

Postmodernism is an approach common in the humanities on campus that greatly troubles conservative intellectuals.[108][109] The issue is relativism versus absolute truths. Ellen Grigsby says, "Postmodern perspectives contend that any ideology putting forward absolute statements as timeless truths should be viewed with profound skepticism."[110] Kellner says, "Postmodern discourse frequently argues that all discourses and values are socially constructed and laden with interests and biases. Against postmodern and liberal relativism, cultural conservatives have argued for values of universal truth and absolute standards of right and wrong."[111]

Neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has energetically rejected postmodern academic approaches:

[Postmodernism in history] is a denial of the objectivity of the historian, of the factuality or reality of the past, and thus of the possibility of arriving at any truths about the past. For all disciplines it induces a radical skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism that denies not this or that truth about any subject but the very idea of truth—that denies even the ideal of truth, truth is something to aspire to even if it can never be fully attained.[112]

Here is a representative summary of postmodern literary studies of the sort that antagonize conservatives, written by Jay Stevenson:

[in] the postmodern period. Traditional literature has been found to have been written by "dead white males" to serve the ideological aims of a conservative and repressive Anglo hegemony....In an array of reactions against the race, gender, and class biases found to be woven into the tradition of Anglo lit, multicultural writers and political literary theorists have sought to expose, resist, and redress injustices and prejudices. These prejudices are often covert—disguised in literature and other discourses as positive ideals and objective truths—but they slant our sense of reality in favor of power and privilege.[113]

Conservative intellectuals have championed a "high conservative modernism" that insists that universal truths exist, and have opposed approaches that deny the existence of universal truths.[114] Many argued that natural law was the repository of timeless truths.[115] Allan Bloom, in his highly influential The Closing of the American Mind (1987) argues that moral degradation results from ignorance of the great classics that shaped Western culture. His book was widely cited by conservative intellectuals for its argument that the classics contained universal truths and timeless values which were being ignored by cultural relativists.[116][117]


Historians in recent years have agreed that they need to rethink the role of conservatism in recent American history.[118] An important new approach rejects the older consensus that liberalism was the dominant ethos. Labor historians Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore argue the New Deal was a short-term response to depression and did not mark a permanent commitment to a welfare state, claiming that America has always been too individualistic and too hostile to labor unions to ever embrace liberalism for any extended period of time. This new interpretation argues that conservatism has largely dominated American politics since the 1920s, with the brief exceptions of the New Deal era (1933–38) and the Great Society (1964–66).[119] Zelizer, however, argues that "The coherence of conservatism has been exaggerated. The movement was as fragile as the New Deal coalition that it replaced....Policy change has thus proved to be much more difficult than conservatives hoped for."[120] Zelizer does find four areas where conservatives did make major changes: retrenchment of domestic programs, lowering taxes, deregulation, and opposition to labor unions. He concludes, "The fact is that liberalism survived the rise of conservatism."[121]

American exceptionalism[edit]

American conservatives typically promote American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is inherently different from other nations and has a duty to take the lead in spreading democracy and free markets to the world. Reagan especially articulated this role (and many liberals also agree with it).[122][123] They see American values emerging from the American Revolution, thereby becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called "the first new nation"[124] and developing a uniquely American ideology, "Americanism", based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy, laissez-faire capitalism, and Judeo-Christian values.

Although the term does not necessarily imply superiority, many neoconservative and other American conservative writers have promoted its use in that sense.[125][126] To them, the U.S. is like the biblical "City upon a Hill"—a phrase evoked by Puritan settlers in Massachusetts as early as 1630—and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.[127]

Scholars have argued that British and European conservatism has little or no relevance to American traditions. According to political scientist Louis Hartz, because the United States skipped the feudal stage of history, the American community was united by liberal principles, and the conflict between the "Whig" and "Democratic" parties were conflicts within a liberal framework.[128] In this view, what is called "conservatism" in America is not European conservatism (with its royalty, landowning aristocracy, elite officer corps, and established churches) but rather 19th century classical liberalism with an emphasis on economic freedom and entrepreneurship.[129] This is in contrast to the view that Burkean conservatism has a set of universal principles which can be applied all societies.[130] Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind argued that the American Revolution was "a conservative reaction, in the English political tradition, against royal innovation".[131] Liberal historian Richard Hofstader criticized modern American conservatives as "pseudo-conservatives", because their negative reaction to the policies of Harry Truman showed "dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions" and because they had "little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism".[132]

Thinkers and leaders[edit]

Rossiter's giants[edit]

Clinton Rossiter, a leading expert on American political history, published his history of Conservatism in America (1956) and also a summary article on "The Giants Of American Conservatism" in American Heritage.[133] His goal was to identify the "great men who did conservative deeds, thought conservative thoughts, practiced conservative virtues, and stood for conservative principles." To Rossiter, conservatism was defined by the rule of the upper class. He wrote, "The Right of these freewheeling decades was a genuine Right: it was led by the rich and well-placed; it was skeptical of popular government; it was opposed to all parties, unions, leagues, or other movements that sought to invade its positions of power and profit; it was politically, socially, and culturally anti-radical." His "giants of American conservatism" were: John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Elihu Root, and Theodore Roosevelt. He added that Washington and Lincoln transcend the usual categories, but that conservatives "may argue with some conviction that Washington and Lincoln can also be added to his list."

Rossiter went to note the importance of other conservative leaders over the past two centuries. Among the fathers of the Constitution, which he calls "a triumph of conservative statesmanship", Rossiter said conservatives may "take special pride" in James Madison, James Wilson, Roger Sherman, John Dickinson, Gouverneur Morris and the Pinckneys of South Carolina. For the early 19th century, Rossiter said the libertarians and constitutionalists who deserve the conservative spotlight for their fight against Jacksonian democracy include Joseph Story and Josiah Quincy in Massachusetts; Chancellor James Kent in New York; James Madison, James Monroe, and John Randolph of Roanoke in Virginia.

In the decades around 1900, Rossiter finds that Grover Cleveland, Elihu Root, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt "were most successful in shaping the old truths of conservatism to the new facts of industrialism and democracy."

Writing in 1955 he suggests that Robert A. Taft, Charles Evans Hughes, and Dwight D. Eisenhower may someday be added to the list.

Prominent figures and organizations[edit]

Many of these figures were conservative for their entire career, but others moved into or left the category at different stages of their career.

Politicians and office holders[edit]

Intellectuals, writers and activists[edit]

Media: print, television, radio and online[edit]

Media personalities: publishers, editors, radio hosts, columnists and bloggers[edit]


Think tanks[edit]


Political, social & economic organizations[edit]

Business leaders involved in conservative politics[edit]

Religious leaders involved in conservative politics[edit]


See also[edit]

Competing ideologies[edit]


  1. ^ Gregory L. Schneider, The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution "The label (conservatism) is in frequent use and has come to stand for a skepticism, at times an outright hostility, toward government social policies; a muscular foreign policy combined with a patriotic nationalism; a defense of traditional Christian religious values; and support for the free market economic system.", "Within the conservative disposition in America there are inherent contradictions between supporters of social order and tradition and supporters of individual freedom.", (2009) pp. 4–9, 136
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  7. ^ Nicol C. Rae (1994). Southern Democrats. Oxford U.P. p. 66. 
  8. ^ Merle Black, "The transformation of the southern Democratic Party." Journal of Politics 66.4 (2004): 1001–17.
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  11. ^ Ahoura Afshar, "The Anti-gay Rights Movement in the United States: The Framing of Religion," Essex Human Rights Review (2006) 3#1 pp. 64–79
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  13. ^ Cal Jillson (2011). Texas Politics: Governing the Lone Star State. Taylor & Francis. p. 87. Social conservatives focus on moral or values issues, such as abortion, marriage, school prayer, and judicial appointments. 
  14. ^ John Anderson; University of North Carolina John Anderson (September 19, 2014). Conservative Christian Politics in Russia and the United States: Dreaming of Christian Nations. Routledge. p. 136. ISBN 978-1-317-60663-5. 
    Amy Lind; Stephanie Brzuzy (2008). Battleground: M-Z. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 508. ISBN 978-0-313-34039-0. 
    Kenneth M. Cosgrove (2007). Branded Conservatives: How the Brand Brought the Right from the Fringes to the Center of American Politics. Peter Lang. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-8204-7465-6. 
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  16. ^ Michael Foley (2007). American credo: the place of ideas in US politics. Oxford University Press. Against accusations of being pre-modern or even anti-modern in outlook, paleoconservatives press for restrictions on immigration, a rollback of multicultural programmes, the decentralization of the federal polity, the restoration of controls upon free trade, a greater emphasis upon economic nationalism and isolationism in the conduct of American foreign policy, and a generally revanchist outlook upon a social order in need of recovering old lines of distinction and in particular the assignment of roles in accordance with traditional categories of gender, ethnicity, and race. 
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Further reading[edit]

  • Aberbach, Joel D. "Understanding American Political Conservatism." in Robert A. Scott and Stephen M. Kosslyn, eds. Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource (2015). DOI: 10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0373
  • Allitt, Patrick. The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History (2010) excerpt and text search
  • Critchlow, Donald T. The Conservative Ascendancy: How the Republican Right Rose to Power in Modern America (2nd ed. 2011)
  • Critchlow, Donald T. and Nancy MacLean. Debating the American Conservative Movement: 1945 to the Present (2009)
  • Filler, Louis. Dictionary of American Conservatism (Philosophical Library, 1987)
  • Frohnen, Bruce et al. eds. American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (2006); the most detailed reference
  • Gottfried, Paul. The Conservative Movement (Twayne, 1993.)
  • Gross, Neil, Thomas Medvetz, and Rupert Russell. "The Contemporary American Conservative Movement," Annual Review of Sociology (2011) 37 pp. 325–54
  • Guttman, Allan. The Conservative Tradition in America (Oxford University Press, 1967).
  • Hayward, Steven F. The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964–1980 (2009) excerpt v 1; The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980–1989 (2009) excerpt and text search v2
  • Hemmer, Nicole. Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). xvi, 320 pp.
  • Kabaservice, Geoffrey. Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (2012) scholarly history favorable to moderates excerpt and text search;
  • Lora, Ronald.; The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America Greenwood Press, 1999 online edition
  • Lyons, Paul. American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It. (Vanderbilt University Press, 2009). 202 pp. ISBN 978-0-8265-1626-8
  • Nash, George. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (2006; 1st ed. 1978) influential history
  • Phillips-Fein, Kim. "Conservatism: A State of the Field," Journal of American History, (Dec. 2011) 98#3 pp. 723–43 in JSTOR
  • Rosen, Eliot A. The Republican Party in the Age of Roosevelt: Sources of Anti-Government Conservatism in the United States (2014)
  • Schneider, Gregory. The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution (2009)
  • Thorne, Melvin J. American Conservative Thought since World War II: The Core Ideas (1990) online edition

External links[edit]