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in the United States
Conservatism in the United States has played an important role in American politics since the 1950s. Historian Gregory Schneider identifies several constants in American conservatism: respect for tradition, support of republicanism, "the rule of law and the Christian religion", and a defense of "Western civilization from the challenges of modernist culture and totalitarian governments". The history of American conservatism has been marked by tensions and competing ideologies. Economic conservatives and libertarians favor small government, low taxes, limited regulation, and free enterprise. Social conservatives see traditional social values as threatened by secularism, so they support school prayer and oppose abortion and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Neoconservatives want to expand American ideals throughout the world and show a strong support for Israel. Paleoconservatives, in opposition to multiculturalism, press for restrictions on immigration. Most conservatives prefer Republicans over Democrats, and most factions favor a strong foreign policy, a strong military, and strong support for Israel. 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".
|“||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 conform with 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.
In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan solidified conservative Republican strength with tax cuts, greatly increased defense spending, deregulation, a policy of rolling back Communism (rather than just containing it), and appeals to family values and conservative Christian morality. The 1980s and beyond became known as the "Reagan Era". Typically, conservative polticians and spokesmen in the 21st century proclaim their devotion to Reagan's ideals and policies on most social, economic and foreign policy issues.
After the fall of Soviet Communism in 1991, conservatives focused what William Safire calls "God, guns, and gays". Conservative voters typically to oppose abortion, gun control, and gay marriage. From 2001 to 2008 Republican President George W. Bush stressed cutting taxes and minimizing regulation of industry and banking, while increasing regulation of education.. Conservatives generally advocate the use of American military power to fight terrorists, promote democracy, and support Israel.
Other modern conservative beliefs include opposition to a world government (a view shared with many anti-globalists on the political left), skepticism about the importance or validity of various environmental issues, the importance of self-reliance instead of reliance on the government to solve problems, support for the state of Israel, support for prayer in the public schools, opposition to gun control, opposition to embryonic stem cell research, support for a strong Law and Order policy, strict enforcement of the law, and long jail terms for repeat offenders.
According to an August 1, 2011 poll, 11% of American voters identify themselves as "very conservative", 30% as "conservative", 36% as "moderate", 15% as "liberal", and 6% as "very liberal". These percentages have been fairly constant since 1990. Conservatism appears to be growing stronger at the state level. The trend is most pronounced among lower income voters in the most economically hard-hit states. Although, once one adjusts for the cost of living in each state, the perceived economic disparities based on ideological differences become more ambiguous since many conservative states have a relative low cost of living.
The meaning of "conservatism" in America has little in common with the way the word is used elsewhere. As Ribuffo (2011) notes, "what Americans now call conservatism much of the world calls liberalism or neoliberalism." Since the 1950s conservatism in the United States has been chiefly associated with the Republican Party. However, during the era of segregation many Southern Democrats were conservatives, and they played a key role in the Conservative Coalition that controlled Congress from 1937 to 1963.
The United States has never had a national political party called the Conservative Party. All major American political parties support the republican and liberal ideals on which the country was founded in 1776, with an emphasis on liberty, pursuit of happiness, rule of law, opposition to aristocracy, and emphasis on equal rights. Political divisions inside the United States have seemed minor or trivial to Europeans, where the divide between the Left and the Right led to very high polarization, starting with the French Revolution.
However American historian Patrick Allitt, finds "Certain continuities can be traced through American history. The conservative 'attitude' ... was one of trusting to the past, to long-established patterns of thought and conduct, and of assuming that novelties were more likely to be dangerous than advantageous."
Since 1776 there have been no American spokesmen for the European ideals of "conservatism" such as an established church and a hereditary aristocracy. Rather, American conservatism is a reaction against utopian ideas of progress. Russell Kirk saw the American Revolution itself as "a conservative reaction, in the English political tradition, against royal innovation".
In the 1790s Jeffersonian Democracy arose in opposition to the elitism of the Federalist Party, and fears that it intended to impose a monarchical system like Britain's. Jeffersonians opposed a strong federal government and an interventionist judiciary—themes later picked up by conservatives. By the 1830s, conservatism came to be identified with the Whig Party, which supported banks, business and modernization of the economy, while opposing the Jacksonian democracy which represented poor farmers and the urban working class. They chose the name "Whig" because it had been used by patriots in the Revolution. Daniel Webster and other Whig leaders referred to their new political party as the "conservative party", and they called for a return to tradition, restraint, hierarchy, and moderation.
During the American Civil War the South fought for the right to expand slavery while the North fought to preserve the Union. After the war, "conservative" meant opposition to the Radical Republicans, who wanted to grant full citizenship rights to freed slaves. During the Reconstruction Era, conservative meant opposition to the Radical Republicans, who wanted to grant freed slaves political power and take it away from the ex-Confederates.
American conservatives in the 21st century express strong admiration for the Founding Fathers, and demand a return to what they see as their values. Historians call these values republicanism. The media have given massive attention to these claims. At the time of the American Revolution, the colonists under British rule lived under the freest government in the European world, and they were fiercely determined to protect and preserve their historic rights. By the 1750s most Americans owned land and could vote in elections that controlled local government. Local and colonial taxes were low, and imperial taxes were few.
However there was also a large and powerful element tied to the British Empire, including wealthy merchants involved in international trade, and royal officials and patronage holders. Those who remained loyal to the Crown are called Loyalists or "Tories". The Loyalists were "conservatives" in that they tried to preserve the status quo of Empire against revolutionary change. Their leaders were men of wealth and property who loved order, respected their betters, looked down on their inferiors, and feared democratic rule by the rabble at home more than rule by a distant aristocracy. When it came to a choice between protecting their historic rights as Americans or remaining loyal to the King, they chose King and Empire. About 70,000 Loyalists left the new United States after the war; most went to Canada where they are still known as United Empire Loyalists.
The patriots who fought the Revolution did so in the name of preserving traditional rights of Englishmen—especially the right of "no taxation without representation"; they increasingly opposed attempts by Parliament to tax and control the fast-growing colonies. When the British cracked down hard on Boston after the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the patriots organized colony-by-colony and were ready to fight. Fighting broke out in spring 1775, and all Thirteen Colonies rallied to expel royal officials. The colonies formed a Congress that became the de facto national government, raised an army under George Washington, won support from France, and declared independence as the "United States of America" in July 1776. The patriots formed a consensus around the ideas of republicanism, whereby the people were sovereign (not the king), every citizen had equal legal rights, elected assemblies made the laws, inherited titles, established armies and churches were rejected, and corruption of the sort practiced by royalty was repudiated.
Labaree (1948) has identified eight characteristics of the Loyalists that made them essentially conservative in opposing Independence. Psychologically they were older, better established, and resisted innovation. They thought resistance to the Crown—the legitimate government—was morally wrong. They were alienated when the Patriots' resorted to violence, such as burning houses and tarring and feathering. They wanted to take a middle-of-the road position and were angry when forced by the Patriots to declare their opposition. They had a long-standing sentimental attachment to Britain (often with business and family links). They were procrastinators who realized that independence was bound to come some day, but wanted to postpone the moment. They were cautious and afraid of anarchy or tyranny that might come from mob rule. Finally they were pessimists who lacked the confidence in the future displayed by the Patriots. Loyalists willing to accept republican principles remained after the war—80% stayed on—while those who rejected republicanism went elsewhere in the British Empire (mostly to Canada), taking their conservatism with them. The new principles of the Revolution became the core American political values agreed to by all sides, and became part of the core principles of what is now called American conservatism.
Thus the American Revolution disrupted the old networks of conservative elites. The departure of so many royal officials, rich merchants and landed gentry destroyed the hierarchical networks that had dominated most of the colonies. In New York, for example, the departure of key members of the DeLancy, DePester Walton, and Cruger families undercut the interlocking families that largely owned and controlled the Hudson Valley. Likewise in Pennsylvania, the departure of powerful families—Penn, Allen, Chew, Shippen—destroyed the cohesion of the old upper class there. New men became rich merchants but they shared a spirit of republican equality that replaced the elitism and the Americans never recreated such a powerful upper class. One rich patriot in Boston noted in 1779 that "fellows who would have cleaned my shoes five years ago, have amassed fortunes and are riding in chariots." The great majority of Loyalists remained in America, and were loyal to the new republic. For the most part, they avoided politics; certainly they never tried to form a revanchist movement seeking a return to the Empire. Loyalist Samuel Seabury, for example, abandoned politics but became the first Episcopalian bishop in the United States, rebuilding a church that appealed to families that still admired hierarchy, tradition, and historic liturgy, but had given up their allegiance to the king.
The Federalist Party, dominated by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton used the presidency of George Washington to promote a strong nation capable of holding its own in world affairs, with a strong army and navy, capable of suppressing internal revolts (such as the Whiskey Rebellion) and founding the national finances on a sound basis while winning the broad support of the financial and business community. Intellectually, Federalists, while devoted to liberty, held profoundly conservative views attuned to the American character. As Samuel Eliot Morison explained, They believed that liberty is inseparable from union, that men are essentially unequal, that vox populi [voice of the people] is seldom if ever vox Dei [the voice of God], and that sinister outside influences are busy undermining American integrity. Historian Patrick Allitt concludes that Federalists promoted many conservative positions, including the rule of law under the Constitution, republican government, peaceful change through elections, judicial supremacy, stable national finances, credible and active diplomacy, and protection of wealth.
The Federalists were dominated by businessmen and merchants in the major cities and was supportive of the modernizing, urbanizing, financial policies of Hamilton. These policies included the funding of the national debt and also assumption of state debts incurred during the Revolutionary War (thus allowing the states to lower their own taxes and still pay their debts), the incorporation of a national Bank of the United States, the support of manufactures and industrial development, and the use of a tariff to fund the Treasury. In foreign affairs the Federalists opposed the French Revolution. Under John Adams they fought the "Quasi War" (an undeclared naval war) with France in 1798–99 and built a strong army and navy. Ideologically, the controversy between Jeffersonian Republicans and Federalists stemmed from a difference of principle and style. In terms of style the Federalists distrusted the public, thought the elite should be in charge, and favored national power over state power. Republicans distrusted Britain, bankers, merchants, and did not want a powerful national government. The Federalists — notably Hamilton, were distrustful of "the people," the French, and the Republicans. In the end, the nation synthesized the two positions, adopting representative democracy and a strong nation state. Just as importantly, American politics by the 1820s accepted the two-party system whereby rival parties stake their claims before the electorate, and the winner takes control of the government. As time went on, the Federalists lost appeal with the average voter and were generally not equal to the tasks of party organization; hence, they grew steadily weaker as the political triumphs of the Republican Party grew after 1800. After 1816 the Federalists had no national influence apart from John Marshall's Supreme Court. They retained some local support into the 1820s, but important leaders left their fading cause, including future presidents John Quincy Adams and James Buchanan, and future Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.
The "Old Republicans," led by John Randolph of Roanoke, refused to form a coalition with the Federalists and instead set up a separate opposition, since the main Republican leaders (notably James Madison, Albert Gallatin, James Monroe, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay) had in effect adopted Federalist principles by chartering the Second Bank of the United States, promoting internal improvements for transportation, raising tariffs to protect factories, and promoting a strong army and navy after the failures of the War of 1812.
Before the outbreak of the war, Abraham Lincoln tried to appeal to conservatives. In a speech in Ohio in 1859, he explained what he meant by conservatism in terms of fealty to the original intent of the Founding Fathers:
Lincoln elaborated his position in his famous Cooper Union speech in early 1860, arguing that the Founding Fathers expected slavery to die a natural death, not to spread. His point was that the Founding Fathers were anti-slavery and the notion that slavery was good was a radical innovation that violated American ideals. This speech solidified Lincoln's base in the Republican party and helped assure his nomination.
During the war, Lincoln fought the Radical Republicans on the issue of dealing with slavery and re-integrating the South in to the nation. He built his own coalition of conservative and moderate Republicans, and War Democrats. After the war, Lincoln tried to reintegrate the white South into the union as soon as possible by offering generous peace terms, "with malice toward none, with charity toward all". When Lincoln was assassinated, the Radicals gained the upper hand and imposed much harsher terms than those Lincoln had wished.
Throughout his career, Lincoln was a champion of the conservative Whig party and fought the liberal Jacksonian Democracy. He promoted business interests, especially banks, railroads and factories. The question of whether Lincoln was a liberal or conservative has been debated. Norman Graeber has argued in favor of Lincoln having conservative positions while James Randall has argued in favor of Lincoln having 19th century liberal positions while at the same time emphasized Lincoln's tolerance and moderation "in his preference for orderly progress, his distrust of dangerous agitation, and his reluctance toward ill digested schemes of reform." Randall concluded that Lincoln was "conservative in his complete avoidance of that type of so-called 'radicalism' which involved abuse of the South, hatred for the slaveholder, thirst for vengeance, partisan plotting, and ungenerous demands that Southern institutions be transformed overnight by outsiders." David Greenstone argues that Lincoln's thought was grounded in reform liberalism but notes his unionism and Whiggish politics had a deeply conservative side as well.
White Southerners thought that the radical experiments by Northern reformers to educate the freed slaves violated the rights of white men and they often accused anyone who tried to help freed slaves of corruption. The race-based conservatism in the American South differed from the business-based conservatism in the North in its strong support for white supremacy, and insistence on a second-class powerless status for blacks, regardless of the Constitution. Southern conservatives later added anti-communism to their agenda, believing that the ideology was behind the civil rights movement and the push for integration.
There was also a liberal element in the South—in support of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt—but they rarely opposed Jim Crow. From 1877 to 1960, the "Solid South" voted for Democrats in almost all national elections; Democrats had firm control of state and local government in all southern states. By the late 1930s conservative Southern Democrats in Congress joined with most Northern Republicans in an informal Conservative Coalition that usually proved decisive in stopping liberal domestic legislation until 1964. However the Southerners generally were much more internationalist than the mostly isolationist Republicans in the Coalition.
Fundamentalism, especially on the part of Southern Baptists, was a powerful force in Southern conservative politics beginning in the late 1970s. They voted for Reagan in 1980 over a fellow Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter.
There was little nostalgia and backward looking in the dynamic North and West during the "Gilded Age"—the boom decades that followed the Civil War. Business was expanding rapidly, with manufacturing, mining, railroads, and banking leading the way. There were millions of new farms in the prairie states. Immigration reached record levels. Progress was the watchword of the day. The wealth of the period is highlighted by American upper class opulence, but also by the rise of American philanthropy (referred to by Andrew Carnegie as the "Gospel of Wealth") that used private money to endow thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities.
Conservatives in the 20th Century, looking back at the Gilded Age, retroactively applied the word "conservative" to those who supported unrestrained capitalism. For example, Oswald Garrison Villard, writing in 1939, characterized his former mentor Horace White (1834–1916) as "a great economic conservative; had he lived to see the days of the New Deal financing he would probably have cried out loud and promptly demised."
In this sense, the conservative element of the Democratic party was led by the Bourbon Democrats and their hero President Grover Cleveland, who fought against high tariffs and on behalf of the gold standard. In 1896, the Bourbons were overthrown inside the Democratic Party by William Jennings Bryan and the agrarians, who preached "Free Silver" and opposition to the power that banks and railroads had over the American farmer. The agrarians formed a coalition with the Populists and vehemently denounced the politics of big business, especially in the decisive 1896 election, won by Republican William McKinley, who was easily reelected over Bryan in 1900 as well.
Religious conservatives of this period sponsored a large and flourishing media network, especially based on magazines, many with close ties to the Protestant churches that were rapidly expanding due to the Third Great Awakening. Catholics had few magazines but opposed agrarianism in politics and established hundreds of schools and colleges to promote their conservative religious and social values.
Modern conservatives often point to William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), a leading public intellectual of the era, as one of their own, citing his articulate support for free markets, anti-imperialism, and the gold standard, and his opposition to what he saw as threats to the middle class from the rich plutocrats above or the agrarians and ignorant masses below.
The Gilded Age came to an end with the Panic of 1893 and the severe nationwide depression that lasted from 1893 to 1897.
As the 19th century drew to a close the United States became a major world power, having acquired overseas territories in Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. The two parties re-aligned in the election of 1896, with the Republicans, led by William McKinley, becoming the party of business, sound money, and assertive foreign policy, while the Democrats, led by William Jennings Bryan, became the party of the worker, the small farmer, "Free Silver", and anti-imperialism. Bryan was also popular with religious fundamentalists and white supremacists.
Imperialism won out, as the election of 1900 ratified McKinley's policies and the U.S. possession of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and (temporarily) Cuba. Theodore Roosevelt promoted the military and naval advantages of the U.S., and echoed McKinley's theme that America had a duty to civilize and modernize the heathen. The supposed business, religious, and military advantages of having an empire proved illusory; by 1908 or so the most ardent imperialists, including Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Elihu Root turned their attention to building up an army and navy at home and to building the Panama Canal. They dropped the notion of additional expansion and agreed by 1920 that the Philippines should become independent.
In the early years of the 20th century, Republican spokesmen for big business in Congress included Speaker of the House Joe Cannon and Senate Republican Leader Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island. Aldrich introduced the Sixteenth Amendment, which allowed the federal government to collect an income tax; he also set in motion the design of the Federal Reserve System, which began in 1913. Pro-business conservatives supported many Progressive Era reforms, especially those opposed to corruption and inefficiency in government, and called for purification of politics. Conservative Senator John Sherman sponsored the nation's basic anti-trust law in 1890, and conservatives generally supported anti-trust in the name of opposing monopoly and opening up opportunities for small business. The issues of prohibition and woman suffrage split the conservatives.
The "insurgents" were on the Left of the Republican Party. Led by Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, George W. Norris of Nebraska, and Hiram Johnson of California, they fought the conservatives in a series of bitter battles that split the GOP and allowed the Democrats to take control of Congress in 1910. Teddy Roosevelt, a hawk on foreign and military policy, moved increasingly to the Left on domestic issues regarding courts, unions, railroads, big business, labor unions and the welfare state. By 1910–11, Roosevelt had broken bitterly with Taft and the conservative wing of the GOP. In 1911–12 he took control of the insurgency, formed a third party, and ran an unsuccessful campaign for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912. His departure left the conservatives, led by President William Howard Taft, dominant in the Republican party until 1936. The split opened the way in 1912 for Democrat Woodrow Wilson to become president with only 42% of the vote.
The Great War broke out in 1914, with Wilson proclaiming neutrality. Former president Theodore Roosevelt denounced Wilson's foreign policy, charging, 'Had it not been for Wilson's pusillanimity, the war would have been over by the summer of 1916." Indeed, Roosevelt believed that Wilson's approach to foreign policy was fundamentally and objectively evil. He dropped the ill-fated Progressive Party and campaigned for the GOP. But Wilson gained many of the Progressive Party voters, and won a narrow victory in 1916. The GOP, under conservative leadership, regained Congress in 1918 and the White House in 1920.
Conservative Republicans returned to dominance in 1920 with the election of President Warren G. Harding, who called for a return to "normalcy." Tucker (2010) argues that the 1924 election marked the "high tide of American conservatism," as both major candidates campaigned for limited government, reduced taxes, and less regulation. A third-party candidate on the left won only 17% of the vote, as Calvin Coolidge scored a landslide. Under Coolidge (1923–29) the economy boomed and the society was stabilized by moving to Americanize the immigrants already here, and not allowing many more in.
A representative conservative of the 1900–1930 era was James M. Beck, a lawyer under Presidents Roosevelt, Harding and Coolidge, and a congressman 1927–1933. His conservatism appeared in his support for nationalism, individualism, constitutionalism, laissez-faire, property rights, and opposition to reform. Conservatives like Beck saw the need to regulate bad behavior in the corporate world with the intention of protecting corporate capitalism from radical forces, but they were alarmed by the anti-business and pro-union proposals of Roosevelt after 1905. They began to question the notion of a national authority beneficial to big capital, and instead emphasized legalism, concern for the Constitution, and reverence for the American past.
With the success of the Communist takeover of Russia in 1917, both American political parties became strongly anti-Communist. Within the U.S., the far Left split and an American Communist Party, emerged in the 1920s. Conservatives denounced the movement as a subversion of American values and kept up relentless opposition until Communism collapsed in Russia in 1991. They paid special attention to Communist agents trying to change national policies and values in the U.S. government, the media, and academe. Conservatives gave enthusiastic support to anti-Communist agencies such as the FBI and the Congressional investigations of the 1940s and 1950s, particularly those led by Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy. They paid special attention to ex-Communists who exposed the system, such as Whittaker Chambers.
Classic conservative writing of the period includes Democracy and Leadership (1924) by Irving Babbitt. The Efficiency Movement attracted Progressive Republicans like Herbert Hoover with its pro-business, quasi-engineering approach to solving social and economic problems.
Numerous literary figures developed a conservative sensibility and warned of threats to Western Civilization. In the 1900–1950 era Henry Adams, T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Donald Davidson, and others feared that heedless scientific innovation would unleash forces that would undermine traditional Western values and lead to the collapse of civilization. Instead they searched for a rationale for promoting traditional cultural values in the face of an onslaught by moral nihilism based on historical and scientific relativism.
Numerous former Communist or Trotskyite writers repudiated the Left in the 1930s or 1940s and embraced conservatism, becoming contributors to National Review in the 1950s. They included Max Eastman (1883–1969), John Dos Passos (1896–1970), Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961), Will Herberg (1901–1977), and James Burnham (1905–1987).
Dozens of small circulation magazines aimed at intellectuals promoted the conservative cause in the 20th century.
Major newspapers in metropolitan centers with conservative editorial viewpoints have played an important part in the development of American conservatism. In the 1930–1960 era, the Hearst chain, and the McCormick family newspapers (especially the Chicago Tribune), and the Los Angeles Times championed most conservative causes, as did the Henry Luce magazines, Time and Fortune. In recent years, those media have lost their conservative edge.
By 1936, most publishers favored Republican Alf Landon over liberal Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. In the nation's 15 largest cities the newspapers that editorially endorsed Landon represented 70 percent of the circulation, while Roosevelt won 69% of the actual voters Roosevelt's secret was to open up a new channel of communication to his supporters, through radio. His Fireside Chats especially influenced young radio broadcaster Ronald Reagan, who was an enthusiastic New Dealer at that time. Newspaper publishers continue to favor conservative Republicans.
The Wall Street Journal has continuously been a major voice of conservatism since the 1930s, and remains so since its takeover by Rupert Murdoch in 2007. As editor of the editorial page, Vermont C. Royster (1958–1971), and Robert L. Bartley (1972–2000), were especially influential in providing a conservative interpretation of the news on a daily basis.
The Great Depression which followed the 1929 stock market collapse led to price deflation, massive unemployment, falling farm incomes, investment losses, bank failures, business bankruptcies and reduced government revenues. Herbert Hoover's conservative protectionist economic policies failed to halt the depression, and in the 1932 presidential election, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a landslide victory.
When Roosevelt tried to bring the country out of depression and ease the plight of the unemployed with the New Deal, conservatives fought him every inch of the way. The counterattack first came from conservative Democrats, led by presidential nominees John W. Davis (1924) and Al Smith (1928), who mobilized business men into the American Liberty League. Opposition to the New Deal also came from the Old Right, a group of conservative free-market anti-interventionists, originally associated with Midwestern Republicans led by Hoover and Robert A. Taft, the son of former President William Howard Taft. The Old Right accused Roosevelt of promoting socialism and being a "traitor to his class". The New Deal strongly supported labor unions, which became the main target of conservatives.
Vice President John Nance Garner worked with congressional allies to prevent Roosevelt from packing the Supreme Court with six new judges, so the court would not over-rule New Deal legislation as unconstitutional. U.S. Senator Josiah Bailey (D-NC) released the "Conservative Manifesto" in December 1937 which marked the beginning of the "conservative coalition" between Republicans and Southern Democrats. Roosevelt tried and failed to purge conservative Democrats in the 1938 primaries, but all but one beat him back and the Republicans made nationwide gains in 1938. The Conservative Coalition generally controlled Congress until 1963; no major legislation passed which the Coalition opposed. Its most prominent leaders were Senator Robert Taft (R-OH) and Senator Richard Russell (D-GA). Robert Taft unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in 1940, 1948, and 1952, and was an opponent of American membership in NATO and of American participation in the Korean War.
Many conservatives, especially in the Midwest, in 1939–41 favored isolationism and opposed American entry into World War II—and so did many liberals. (see America First Committee). Conservatives in the East and South were generally interventionist, as typified by Henry Stimson. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Dec. 1941 united all Americans behind the war effort, with conservatives in Congress taking the opportunity to close down many new agencies, such as the bête noire WPA.
In the New Deal era of the 1930s, Jefferson's memory became contested ground. Franklin D. Roosevelt greatly admired Jefferson and had the Jefferson Memorial built to honor his hero. Even more dramatic, however, was the reaction of the conservatives, as typified by the American Liberty League (comprising mostly conservative Democrats who resembled the Bourbon Democrats of the 1870–1900 era), and the Republican Party. Conservative Republicans abandoned their Hamiltonian views because they led to enlarged national government. Their opposition to Roosevelt's New Deal was cast in explicitly Jeffersonian small-government terms, and Jefferson became a hero of the Right.
The modern conservative political movement, combining elements from both traditional conservatism and libertarianism, emerged following World War II, but had its immediate political roots in reaction to the New Deal. In 1946, conservative Republicans took control of Congress and opened investigations into communist infiltration of the federal government under Roosevelt. Congressman Richard Nixon accused Alger Hiss, a senior State Department official, of being a Soviet spy. Based on the testimony of Whittaker Chambers, an ex-Communist who became a leading anti-Communist and hero to conservatives, Hiss was convicted of perjury.
President Harry Truman (1945–53) adopted a containment strategy against the U.S.'s World War II ally, the Soviet Union, through the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and NATO (1947–1949). Truman's Cold War policies had the support of most conservatives except for the remaining isolationists. The far left (comprising Communist Party members and fellow travelers) wanted to continue détente with Russia, and followed FDR's vice president Henry Wallace in a quixotic crusade in 1948 that failed to win broad support and, indeed, largely destroyed the far left in the Democratic party. Truman was reelected but his vaunted "Fair Deal" went nowhere, as the Conservative Coalition set the domestic agenda in Congress. However, the Coalition did not play a role in foreign affairs.
In 1947 the Conservative Coalition in Congress passed the Taft Hartley Act, balancing the rights of management and unions, and delegitimizing Communist union leaders. However, the major job of rooting out Communists from labor unions and the Democratic party was undertaken by liberals, such as Walter Reuther of the autoworkers union and Ronald Reagan of the Screen Actors Guild (Reagan was a liberal Democrat at the time).
A typical conservative Republican in Congress was Noah M. Mason (1882–1965), who represented a rural downstate district in Illinois from 1937 to 1962. Not nearly as flamboyant or well known as his colleague Everett McKinley Dirksen, He ardently supported states' rights in order to minimize the federal role, for he feared federal regulation of business. He distrusted Roosevelt, and gave many speeches against high federal spending. He called out New Dealers, such as Eveline Burns, Henry A. Wallace, Adolph A. Berle, Jr., and Paul Porter, as socialists, and suggested their policies resembled fascism. He fought Communism as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee(1938–43), and in 1950 he championed Joe McCarthy's exposes.
When the Communists from North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 Truman adopted a rollback strategy, planning to free the entire country by force. Truman decided not to obtain Congressional approval for his war—he relied on UN approval—which left the Republicans free to attack his war policies. Taft said Truman's decision was "a complete usurpation by the president." Truman's reliance on the UN reinforced conservative distrust of that body. With the Allies on the verge of victory, the Chinese Communists entered the war and drove the Allies back with terrific fighting in sub-zero weather. Truman reversed positions, dropped the rollback policy, and fired the conservative hero General Douglas MacArthur (who wanted rollback), and settled for containment. Truman's acceptance of the status quo at a cost of 37,000 Americans killed and undermined Truman's base of support. Truman did poorly in the early 1952 primaries and was forced to drop his reelection bid. The Democrats nominated a liberal intellectual with no ties to Roosevelt or Truman, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II.
When anxiety over Communism in Korea and China reached a fever pitch, an otherwise obscure Senator, Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, launched extremely high-visibility investigations into the cover-up of spies in the government. McCarthy used careless tactics that allowed his opponents to effectively counterattack. Irish Catholics (including Buckley and the Kennedy Family) were intensely anti-Communist and defended McCarthy (a fellow Irish Catholic). Paterfamilias Joseph Kennedy (1888–1969), a very active conservative Democrat, was an ardent supporter of McCarthy, and got his son Robert F. Kennedy a job with McCarthy. McCarthy had talked of "twenty years of treason" (i.e. since Roosevelt's election in 1932). When he in 1953 he started talking of "21 years of treason" and launched a major attack on the Army for promoting a Communist dentist in the medical corps, his recklessness was too much for Eisenhower, who encouraged Republicans to censure McCarthy formally in 1954. The Senator's power collapsed overnight. Senator John F. Kennedy did not vote for censure.
Arthur Herman says, "McCarthy was always a more important figure to American liberals than to conservatives." McCarthy defined the liberal target, and made liberals look like the innocent victims. In recent years conservatives have not so much defended McCarthy's rough tactics as argued, using fresh evidence from Soviet records such as the Venona project, that the Left at the time was not all innocent and indeed that some Leftists were covering up networks of Communist spies.
Examining postwar conservative intellectual history, Kim Phillips-Fein writes:
Isolationism had weakened the Old Right, as shown by General Eisenhower's defeat of Senator Robert Taft for the GOP nomination in 1952. Eisenhower then won the 1952 election by crusading against what he called Truman's failures: "Korea, Communism and Corruption." Eisenhower quickly ended the Korean War, which most conservatives by then opposed and adopted a conservative fiscal policy while cooperating with Taft, who became the Senate Majority Leader. Eisenhower as president promoted "Modern Republicanism," involving limited government, balanced budgets, and curbing government spending. Although taking a firm anti-Communist position, Ike cut defense spending by shifting the national strategy from reliance on expensive army divisions to cheap nuclear weapons. He tried (but failed) to eliminate expensive supports for farm prices, and tried (and succeeded) to reduce the federal role by returning offshore oil reserves to the states. Eisenhower kept the regulatory and welfare policies of the New Deal, with the Republicans taking credit for the expansion of Social Security. Eisenhower sought to minimize conflict among economic and racial groups in the quest for social harmony, peace and prosperity. He was reelected by a landslide in 1956.
While Republicans in Washington were tweaking the New Deal, the most critical opposition to liberalism came from writers. Russell Kirk (1918–1994) claimed that both classical and modern liberalism placed too much emphasis on economic issues and failed to address man's spiritual nature, and called for a plan of action for a conservative political movement. He said that conservative leaders should appeal to farmers, small towns, the churches, and others. This target group is similar to the core constituency of the British Conservative Party.
Kirk adamantly opposed libertarian ideas, which he saw as a threat to true conservatism. In Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries Kirk wrote that the only thing libertarians and conservatives have in common is a detestation of collectivism. "What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever have.".
The most effective organizer and proponent of conservative ideas was William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925–2008), the founder of National Review in 1955 and a highly visible writer and media personality. There had been numerous small circulation magazines on the right before, but the National Review gained national attention and shaped the conservative movement, due to strong editing and a strong stable of regular contributors. Erudite, witty and tireless, Buckley inspired a new enthusiasm.
Buckley assembled an eclectic group of writers: traditionalists, Catholic intellectuals, libertarians and ex-Communists. They included: Russell Kirk, James Burnham, Frank Meyer, Willmoore Kendall, L. Brent Bozell, and Whittaker Chambers In the magazine’s founding statement Buckley wrote:
The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. It is not that of course; if National Review is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no other is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
More influential was the Chicago School of Economics, led by Milton Friedman (1912–2006) and George J. Stigler (1911–1991), who advocated neoclassical and monetarist public policy. The Chicago School provided a vigorous criticism of regulation, on the grounds that it led to control of the regulations by the regulated industries themselves. Since 1974, government regulation of industry and banking has greatly decreased. The School attacked Keynesian economics, the dominant theory of economics, which Friedman claimed was based on unsound models. The "stagflation" of the 1970s (combining high inflation and high unemployment) was impossible according to Keynesian models, but was predicted by Friedman, giving his approach credibility among the experts.
By the late 1960s, Ebenstein argues, Friedman was "the most prominent conservative public intellectual at least in the United States and probably in the world." Friedman advocated, in lectures, weekly columns, and books and on television, greater reliance on the marketplace. Americans should be "Free to Choose". He convinced many conservatives the draft was inefficient and unfair; Nixon ended it in 1973. Nine Chicago School economists won Nobel Prizes, and their ideas on deregulation became widely accepted. Friedman's "monetarism" did not fare as well, with current monetary practice targeting inflation, not the money supply. Early in his academic career Ben Bernanke published a modified view that the banking crises of the early 1930s deepened and prolonged the depression. As Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Bernanke's energetic reaction to the great financial crisis of 2008 was based on Friedman's ideas.
Robert W. Welch Jr. (1900–1985) founded the John Birch Society as an authoritarian top-down force to combat Communism. It had tens of thousands of members and distributed books, pamphlets and the magazine American Opinion. It was so tightly controlled by Welch that its effectiveness was limited, and it focused on calls to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren, as well as supporting local police Instead it became a lighting rod for liberal attacks, and indeed Welch was denounced by Goldwater, Buckley and other mainstream conservatives.
The main disagreement between Kirk, who would become described as a traditionalist conservative, and the libertarians was whether tradition and virtue or liberty should be their primary concern. Frank Meyer tried to resolve the dispute with "fusionism": America could not conserve its traditions without economic freedom. He also noted that they were united in opposition to "big government" and made anti-communism the glue that would unite them. The term "conservative" was used to describe the views of National Review supporters, despite initial protests from the libertarians, because the term "liberal" had become associated with "New Deal" supporters. They were also later known as the "New Right", as opposed to the New Left.
In January 1963 the newly elected governor of Alabama, Democrat George Wallace, electrified the white South by crying out for "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" He later stood in the schoolhouse door in a failed attempt to stop federal officials from desegregating the University of Alabama. Wallace communicated traditional conservatism in a populist, anti-elitist and "earthy" language that resonated with rural and working class voters who long had been part of the New Deal Coalition. He was able to exploit anticommunism, yearnings for "traditional" American values and dislike of civil rights agitators, anti-war protesters and sexual exhibitionists. The Wallace movement did help break away a major element of the New Deal coalition—less educated, powerless low income whites--which decades later made its way into the GOP in the South. He helped pave the way for the conservative blacklash of the 1970s and 1980s. However, Wallace did not receive support from Goldwater, Buckley or any mainstream conservative. He did get support from the John Birch Society and the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade. Wallace's populist base of poor white farmers, echoed earlier racist demagogues such as Tom Watson of Georgia. As governor of Alabama (and, when he had his wife elected, as husband of the governor) Wallace combined his reactionary position on civil rights with relatively liberal programs, such as support for women. Despite this support for state-level government welfare, Wallace did not believe in government intervention in free enterprise and private property. He accused liberals of using the federal government to interfere in "everybody's private business" and as a conservative believed in "freedom for business and labor".
The conservatives united behind the unsuccessful 1964 presidential campaign of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (1919–1998), who had published The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), a best-selling book that explained modern conservative theory. Support for the campaign came from numerous grass roots activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly (1924– ) and from the newly formed Young Americans for Freedom, a project sponsored by Buckley. In 1965 conservatives campaigned for Buckley as a third party candidate for Mayor of New York and in 1966 for Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), who was elected governor of California.
Governor Reagan increasingly dominated the conservative movement, especially in his failed 1976 quest for the Republican presidential nomination and his successful run in 1980.
By the 1950s conservatives were emphasizing the Judeo-Christian roots of their values. Goldwater noted that conservatives "believed the communist projection of man as a producing, consuming animal to be used and discarded was antithetical to all the Judeo-Christian understandings which are the foundations upon which the Republic stands." Ronald Reagan frequently emphasized Judeo-Christian values as necessary ingredients in the fight against communism. Belief in the superiority of Western Judeo-Christian traditions led conservatives to downplay the aspirations of Third World and to denigrate the value of foreign aid. Since the 1990s, the phrase "Judeo-Christian" has been primarily used by conservatives.
Evangelicals had been politicized in the 1920s, battling to impose prohibition and to stop the teaching of evolution in the schools (as in the Scopes Trial of 1925), but had largely been politically quiet since the 1930s. The emergence of the "religious right" as a political force and part of the conservative coalition dates from the 1970s and was a response to secularization and Supreme Court rulings on school prayer and abortion. According to Wilcox and Robinson, "The Christian Right is an attempt to restore Judeo-Christian values to a country that is in deep moral decline. ....[They] believe that society suffers from the lack of a firm basis of Judeo-Christian values and they seek to write laws that embody those values". Especially important was the hostile reaction to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, which brought together Catholics (who had long opposed abortion) and evangelical Protestants (who were new to the issue).
Noting the anger of Catholic bishops at losing state funding because of the Catholic opposition to gay adoptive parents, along with other social issues, the New York Times reported in late 2011 that:
The 1970s saw the movement of many prominent liberal intellectuals to the right, many of them from New York City Jewish roots and well-established academic reputations (Wald 1987)They had become disillusioned with liberalism, especially the foreign policy of détente with the Soviet Union.
Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss were founders of the movement. The magazines Commentary and Public Interest were their key outlets, as well as op-ed articles for major newspapers and position papers for think tanks. Activists around Democratic senator Henry Jackson became deeply involved as well. Prominent spokesmen include Gertrude Himmelfarb, Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, Norman Podhoretz, Richard Pipes, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, Robert Kagan, Elliott Abrams and Ben Wattenberg. Meanwhile, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was highly sympathetic but remained a Democrat. Some of Strauss' influential neoconservative disciples included Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, Paul Wolfowitz (who became Deputy Secretary of Defense), Alan Keyes (who became Assistant Secretary of State), William Bennett (who became Secretary of Education), Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, political philosopher Allan Bloom, writer John Podhoretz, college president John Agresto; political scientist Harry V. Jaffa; and novelist Saul Bellow.
Neoconservatives generally support pro-business policies. Some went on to high policy-making or advisory positions in the Reagan, Bush I and Bush II administrations.
The growth of conservatism within the Republican Party attracted white conservative Southern Democrats in presidential elections. A few big names switched to the GOP, including South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond in 1964 and Texas Governor John Connally in 1973. Starting in 1968 the GOP dominated most presidential elections in the South (1976 was the lone exception), but not until the 1990s did the GOP become dominant in state and local politics in the region. The Republicans built their strength among Southern Baptists and other religious Fundamentalists, among the middle class suburbs, and among migrants from the North, and Cubans in Florida. Meanwhile, starting in 1964, African American voters in the South began to show overwhelming support for the Democratic Party at both the presidential and local levels. They elected a number of Congressmen and mayors. By 1990 there were still many moderate white Democrats holding office in the South, but when they retired they were typically replaced by much more conservative Republicans, or by liberal blacks.
In 1971 Lewis F. Powell Jr. urged conservatives to retake command of public discourse by "financing think tanks, reshaping mass media and seeking influence in universities and the judiciary." Aware that the Brookings Institution had played an influential role for decades in promoting liberal ideas, the American Enterprise Institute and later the Heritage Foundation were designed as counterparts on the right. They brought in intellectuals for shorter or longer periods, financed research, and disseminated the products through conferences, publications, and systematic media campaigns. They typically focused on projects with immediate policy implications.
In the following decades conservative policies once considered outside the liberal mainstream—such as abolishing welfare, privatizing Social Security, deregulating banking, embracing preemptive war—were taken seriously and sometimes passed into law due to the work of the Hoover Institution, Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and smaller tanks.
Complaining that mainstream academe was hostile to conservatives, several foundations have been especially active in funding conservative intellectuals, notably the Adolph Coors Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Koch Family Foundations, the Scaife Foundations, and (until it closed in 2005), the John M. Olin Foundation. They typically have emphasized the need for market-based solutions to national problems. The foundations often invested in conservative student publications and organizations, such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and for law students the Federalist Society.
The Republican administrations of President Richard Nixon (1969–74) and Gerald Ford (1974–77) were characterized by their emphasis on détente and on economic intervention through wage and price controls. Ford angered conservatives by continuing Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State and pushing his policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Conservatives finally found a new champion in Ronald Reagan, whose 8 years as governor of California had just ended in 1976, and supported his campaign for the Republican nomination. Ford narrowly won renomination but lost the White House. Following major gains by liberal Democrats in the 1974 midterm election, the American people elected Jimmy Carter. Carter proved much too liberal for his fellow Southern Baptists (they voted for him in 1976 but not 1980), too conservative for the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and insufficiently competent in foreign affairs for many. Carter realized there was a strong national sense of malaise, for which he blamed the people, as inflation skyrocketed, interest rates soared, the economy stagnated, and prolonged humiliation resulted when Islamic militants in Tehran kept American diplomats hostage for 444 days in 1979–81.
During recessions of the 1970s inflation and unemployment simultaneously soared and budget deficits were first starting to raise alarms. America was still a moderately progressive country in the early ’70s: citizens supported social programs and voted down efforts to cut taxes. But by the end of the decade, a full-fledged tax revolt had gotten under way, led by the overwhelming passage in 1978 of Proposition 13 in California, which cut property taxes sharply, and the growing Congressional support for the Kemp-Roth tax bill, which proposed cutting federal income taxes by 30 percent. Supply-side economics developed during the 1970s in response to Keynesian economic policy, and in particular the failure of demand management to stabilize Western economies during the stagflation of the 1970s, in the wake of the oil crisis in 1973. It drew on a range of non-Keynesian economic thought, particularly the Chicago School and Neo-Classical School.
Conservative women were mobilized in the late 1970s by Phyllis Schlafly (1924– ) in an effort to stop ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution. The ERA had seemed a noncontroversial effort to provide legal equality when it easily passed Congress in 1972 and quickly was ratified by 28 of the necessary 38 states. Schlafly denounced it as tilting the playing field against the traditional housewife in a power grab by anti-family feminists on the left. She warned it would mean women would be drafted in the Army on the same basis as men. Through her Eagle Forum she organized state-by-state to block further ratification, and to have states rescind their ratification. Congress extended the time needed, and a movement among feminists tried to boycott tourist cities in states that had not ratified (such as Chicago and New Orleans). It was to no avail. The ERA never became law and Schlafly became a major spokesperson for anti-feminism in the conservative movement.
In Tehran, Islamic militants released the hostages at the moment Ronald Reagan was sworn in. With its victory in 1980 the modern American conservative movement took power. Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time since 1954, and conservative principles dominated Reagan's economic and foreign policies, with supply side economics and strict opposition to Soviet Communism defining the Administration's philosophy. Reagan's ideas were largely espoused and supported by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which grew dramatically in its influence during the Reagan years, extended to a second term by the 1984 presidential election, as Reagan and his senior aides looked to Heritage for policy guidance.
An icon of the American conservative movement, Reagan is credited by his supporters with transforming the politics of the United States, galvanizing the success of the Republican Party. He brought together a coalition of economic conservatives, who supported his supply side economics; foreign policy conservatives, who favored his staunch opposition to Communism and the Soviet Union; and social conservatives, who identified with his religious and social ideals. Reagan labeled the former Soviet Union the "evil empire." Conservatives also supported the Reagan Doctrine, under which the U.S. provided military and other aid to insurgency movements resiting governments aligned with the Soviet Union. For these and other efforts, Reagan was attacked by liberals at the time as a dangerous warmonger, but conservative historians assert that he decisively won the Cold War.
In defining conservatism, Reagan said: "If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals—if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is." Reagan's views on government were influenced by Thomas Jefferson, especially his hostility to strong central governments. "We're still Jefferson's children," he declared in 1987. "Freedom is not created by Government, nor is it a gift from those in political power. It is, in fact, secured, more than anything else, by limitations placed on those in Government". Likewise he greatly admired and often quoted Abraham Lincoln
Supply side economics dominated the Reagan Era During his eight years in office the national debt more than doubled, from $907 billion in 1980 to $2.6 trillion in 1988, and consumer prices rose by more than 50%. But despite cuts in income tax rates, federal income tax revenues grew from $244 billion in 1980 to $467 billion in 1990. The real median family income, which had declined during the previous administration, grew by about ten percent under Reagan. The period from 1981 to 1989 was among the most prosperous in American history, with 17 million new jobs created.
In 1992 many conservatives repudiated President Bush because he violated his promise, "Read My Lips: No New Taxes." He was defeated for reelection in 1992 in a three way race, with populist Ross Perot attracting considerable support on the right. Democrat Bill Clinton was stopped in his plan for government health care, and in 1994 the GOP made sweeping gains under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, the first Republican to become Speaker in 40 years. Gingrich overplayed his hand by cutting off funding for the Federal government, allowing Clinton to regain momentum and win reelection in 1996. The "Contract with America" promised numerous reforms, but little was accomplished beyond the ending of major New Deal welfare programs. A national movement to impose term limits failed to reach Congress (because the Supreme Court ruled that a constitutional amendment was needed) but did transform politics in some states, especially California. TIME stated there has been an identity crisis in U.S. conservatism growing since the end of the Cold War and the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.
In a close race George W. Bush was elected president in 2000 which brought a new generation of conservative activists to power in Washington. Bush cut taxes in a 10-year plan that was renewed in late 2010, following major debate. Bush forged a bipartisan coalition to pass "No Child Left Behind", which for the first time imposed national standards on public schools. The 9-11 Attacks unified the nation in the War against Terrorism, with invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Bush won solid support from Republicans in Congress and from conservative voters in his reelection bid in 2004. Exit polls in 2004 showed that 34% of the voters identified themselves as "conservatives" and they voted 84% for Bush. By contrast, 21% were "liberals," of whom 13% voted for Bush; 45% were "moderates" and they voted 45% for Bush. Almost the same pattern had appeared in the 2000 exit polls. As the map demonstrates, Bush carried most rural counties. The exit polls show Bush won 57% of the rural vote, 52% of the suburban vote and 45% of the urban vote.
When the financial system verged on total collapse in 2008, Bush pushed through large scale rescue packages for banks and auto companies that some conservatives in Congress did not support. Some noted conservatives, including Richard A. Viguerie and William F. Buckley, Jr. concluded that Bush was not a conservative, neither in foreign policy nor in domestic economic policy.
The Republican contest for the nomination in 2008 was a free-for-all, with Senator John McCain the winner, facing Barack Obama. McCain chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, and while she was greeted by the GOP establishment with initial skepticism, she electrified many conservatives and has become a major political force on the Right.
After the election of Obama for president, Republicans in Congress were unified in almost total opposition to the programs of Obama and the Democratic majority. They tried, but failed, to stop a $814 billion stimulus spending program, new regulations on investment firms, and a program to require health insurance for all Americans. They did keep Emissions trading from coming to a vote, and vow to continue to work to convince Americans that burning fossil fuel does not cause Global warming. The slow growth of the economy in the first two years of the Obama administration has led Republicans to call for a return to tax cuts and deregulation of businesses as the best way to solve the financial crisis. Under relentless and heavy conservative verbal attacks, Obama's popularity steadily declined in his first year in office, then leveled off at about 50-50, as some elements of his 2008 coalition slackened in their enthusiasm, especially young voters and independents. The result was a GOP landslide in the mid-term elections of 2010.
On foreign policy, some conservatives, especially neoconservatives and those in the National Review circle, supported Obama's foreign policy of a surge in Afghanistan, air raids to support the insurgents in Libya, and the war on terror, especially after he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, 2011. At issue in 2012 was the efficacy of diplomacy and sanctions in stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons.
A new element of conservatism was the Tea Party movement of 2009–present, a populist grass-roots movement comprising over 600 local units angry at the government and at both major parties. Many units have promoted activism and protests. The stated purpose of the movement has been to stop what it views as wasteful government spending, excessive taxation, and strangulation of the economy through regulatory bureaucracies. The Tea Party attracted national attention when it propelled Republican Scott Brown to a victory in Senate election for the Massachusetts seat held by the Kennedy brothers for nearly 60 years. In 2010 Tea Party candidates upset establishment Republicans in several primaries, such as Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Nevada, New York, South Carolina, and Utah, giving a new momentum to the conservative cause in the 2010 elections, and boosting Sarah Palin's visibility. Rasmussen and Schoen (2010) conclude that "She is the symbolic leader of the movement, and more than anyone else has helped to shape it." In the fall 2010 elections, the New York Times has identified 129 House candidates with significant Tea Party support, as well as 9 running for the Senate; all are Republicans, as the Tea Party has not been active among Democrats.
House Republicans, optimistic about regaining control, announced "A Pledge to America" in September 2010. It called for permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts, including those on the wealthy; cancellation of $250 billion in unspent stimulus money, and repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, replacing it with conservative proposals, including limits on malpractice lawsuits.
The Tea Party itself is a conglomerate of conservatives with diverse viewpoints including libertarians and social conservatives. Most Tea Party supporters self-identify as "angry at the government". One survey found that Tea Party supporters in particular distinguish themselves from general Republican attitudes on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and immigration, as well as global warming. However, discussion of abortion and gay rights has also been downplayed by Tea Party leadership. In the lead up to the 2010 election, most Tea Party candidates have focused on federal spending and deficits, with little focus on foreign policy.
Noting the lack of central organization or explicit spokesmen, Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard has said: "There is no single Tea Party. The name is an umbrella that encompasses many different groups. Under this umbrella, you’ll find everyone from the woolly fringe to Ron Paul supporters, from Americans for Prosperity to religious conservatives, independents, and citizens who never have been active in politics before. The umbrella is gigantic."
Gallup Poll editors noted in 2010 that "in addition to conservatives being more enthusiastic than liberals about voting in this year’s election, their relative advantage on enthusiasm is much greater than we've seen in the recent past."
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In the United States today, the word "conservative" is often used very differently from the way the word was used in the past and still is used in many parts of the world. The Americans after 1776 rejected the core ideals of European conservatism, based on the landed aristocracy, the established church, and the powerful, prestigious army.
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 electoral coalition. In the 21st century U.S., some of the groups calling themselves "conservative" include:
Classical conservatives tend to be anti-ideological, and some would even say anti-philosophical, 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.
In contrast to classical conservatism, social conservatism and fiscal conservatism are concerned with consequences.
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. 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 favor 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". 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.
Throughout much of the 20th century, one of the primary forces uniting the occasionally disparate strands of conservatism, and uniting conservatives with their liberal and socialist opponents, 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. In the 1980s, the United States government spent billions of dollars arming and supporting Islamic terrorists, because these terrorists were fighting communists.
Social conservatism in the United States is the defense of traditional social norms and Judeo-Christian values. Typically rooted in religion, modern cultural conservatives, in contrast to "small-government" conservatives and "states-rights" advocates, increasingly turn to the federal government to overrule the states in order to reverse state laws they find unacceptable, such as laws allowing gay marriage or restricting gun ownership.
Social conservatives tend to strongly identify with American nationalism and patriotism. They often denounce anti-war protesters and hail 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.
While some conservatives denounce judges they consider too liberal, many want to use the federal courts to fight against the health care law of 2010 and to overrule laws legalizing access to marijuana or assisted suicide.
Richard Hofstadter in 1966 claimed that opposition to conservatism has been common among intellectuals since about 1890. In the 1920s, religious fundamentalists including William Bell Riley and William Jennings Bryan (a liberal Democrat) led the battle against Darwinism and evolution, a battle which fundamentalists are still fighting today. More recently, conservative anti-intellectualism has taken the form of attacks on elites, experts, scientists, public schools and universities.
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. 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.
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.
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."
While classical liberals and modern conservatives reached free markets through different means historically, to-date 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 (this philosophy is called neoliberalism by critics on the left). 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. 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.
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." 
On the other end of the scale, some Americans see themselves as conservative while not being supporters of free market policies. These people generally favor protectionist trade policies and government intervention in the market to preserve American jobs. Many of these conservatives were originally supporters of neoliberalism who changed their stance after perceiving that countries such as China were benefiting from that system at the expense of American production. However, despite their support for protectionism, they still tend to favor other elements of free market philosophy, such as low taxes, limited government and balanced budgets.
Geographically the South, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountain states, and Alaska are conservative strongholds. The "Left Coast" (California, Oregon, Washington) and the Northeast are liberal strongholds, albeit with some pockets of conservative strength. Conservatives are strongest in rural areas and, to a lesser extent, in the "exurbs" or suburbs(however, liberal cities also tend to have Democratic 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.
Russell Kirk developed six "canons" of conservatism, which Gerald J. Russello described as follows:
Kirk said that Christianity and Western Civilization are "unimaginable apart from one another" 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."
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.
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.
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.
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, originalism has been advocated by Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, former federal judge Robert Bork and other conservative jurists.
Conservatives have supported conservation efforts, from the protection of the Yosemite Valley, to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. However, it has been noted that Conservatives have opposed environmentalism; with environmentalists often ridiculed as "tree huggers", and in the 1980s President Reagan appointing Interior Secretary James G. Watt. Conservative think tanks in the 1990s challenged the concept of global warming; scientific evidence was challenged, benefits of global warming were stated, and warned that proposed remedies would do more harm than good. The concept of anthropogenic global warming continues to be an ongoing debate within Conservatives in the United States.
In the late 20th century conservatives found new ways to use language and the media to support their goals and to shape the vocabulary of political discourse. Thus the use of "Democrat" as an adjective, as in "Democrat Party" was used first in 1940 by Republicans to criticize large urban Democratic machines run in authoritarian non-democratic fashion. Republican leader Harold Stassen stated in 1940, "I emphasized that the party controlled in large measure at that time by Hague in New Jersey, Pendergast in Missouri and Kelly Nash in Chicago should not be called a 'Democratic Party.' It should be called the 'Democrat party.'"
In 1947 Senator Robert A. Taft said, "Nor can we expect any other policy from any Democrat Party or any Democrat President under present day conditions. They cannot possibly win an election solely through the support of the solid South, and yet their political strategists believe the Southern Democrat Party will not break away no matter how radical the allies imposed upon it". The use of "Democrat" as an adjective is standard practice in Republican national platforms (since 1948), and was a standard practice in the White House in 2001–2008, for press releases and speeches.
Since the late 19th century "socialism" (or "creeping socialism") is often used as an epithet by conservatives to attack liberal spending or tax programs that enlarge the role of the government. In this sense it has little to do with 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."
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, Lars Larson, Sean Hannity, G. Gordon Liddy, Laura Ingraham, Mike Church, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Kim Peterson, Michael Reagan, Jason Lewis and Ken Hamblin. The Salem Radio Network syndicates a group of religiously oriented Republican activists, including Evangelical Christian 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.
Conservative 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 England. 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.”
Historians in recent years have agreed that they need to rethink the role of conservatism in recent American history. 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 (1933-36) and the Great Society (1963-66). 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." 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."
Scholars have debated the theme of American exceptionalism, the theory 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. 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. This is in contrast to the view that Burkean conservatism has a set of universal principles which can be applied all societies. Another view is found in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind who argued that the American Revolution was "a conservative reaction, in the English political tradition, against royal innovation". Kirk's theories were severely criticized by M. Morton Auerbach in The Conservative Illusion. Theodore Adorno and Richard Hofstader referred to modern American conservatives as "pseudo-conservatives", because of their "dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions" and because they had "little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism".
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. 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."
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