Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Conservatism is generally more reactive than proactive. It is more the presentation of collective responses to other principles and tenets than a collection of its own pure ideologies. Politically, opposing forces are most often called liberal, or favoring reform, and conservative, favoring the preservation of existing order or law and/or cautiously regarding proposals for change. Either term generally refers to an orientation toward facts, laws, policies, or events.
Conservative political tenets vary by country. Whereas socialism and fascism imply certain universal principles, conservatism promotes more parochial continuation. British conservative Lord Falkland once said, “When it is not necessary to change, then it is necessary not to change,” begetting the more common, “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.” More moderate conservatives might cautiously change any practice or policy that seemingly has worked successfully for so long. In the alternative, conservatism supports returning to “traditional” or inherited political platforms and tenets as an argument for change.
But historical repetition itself defines what is considered “traditional.” Therefore, political conservatism can survive only where governments have been established long enough to secure social, economic, or political traditions. General characteristics include support for the “status quo”; cautiously considering or resisting change; and relying upon traditional values. Conservative ideology has been called “the right” or “right-wing” segment of a theoretical political continuum which radical, reformative, and “liberal” elements define on the left.
Conservative or liberal inclinations are products of one’s educational, social, and political environment. Conservative or liberal bias in the media, educational institutions, the courts, and global affairs can greatly affect daily life and one’s independent beliefs. One does not often hear about socialistic, communistic, fascist, collectivist, or totalitarian biases in schools or media. One may often hear, however, that conservative or liberal bias has affected a certain policy, rule, decision, vote, or presentation of facts. Under such polarization, there is a tendency to label all political ideas wanting reform or change in government as “liberal.” Conversely, any notion that supports continuing the controlling force or government is considered conservative, even if it means maintaining the status quo of an existing “liberal” government: Everything is relative. In any group of two or more persons discussing or arguing the merits of change, the voice of cautious resistance will be deemed conservative.
Historically, political conservatism in the United States has been most often associated with the Republican Party in an essentially bi-partisan system. On the other hand, and although other political parties have appeared sporadically, the Democratic Party has been most often identified with liberals wanting substantive government change to accommodate social needs. Labels, however, are deceptive. In an effort to capture more votes, political candidates have increasingly muddied partisan political waters. Thus, the constituency may often have to decide whether to elect an apparent liberal Republican or conservative Democrat. There are conservative liberals, liberal conservatives, progressive Republicans, and reactionary Democrats, so party labels often reflect political strategy more than ideology, generating more confusion.
U.S. President George W. Bush (1946- ), attempting to bridge political gaps, has extolled “compassionate conservatism.” In this century, partisan politics and “labels” may diminish as the U.S. attempts to establish parameters of conservative and liberal policies and principles.
Since conservatism generally does not involve strict adherence to tenets but rather the continuation of those in place, there is no tangible origin. Still, in every country in which government has existed long enough to establish social, economic, or political traditions, there will most likely be some form of conservative element in its legislative or executive ruling bodies, or in opposition. The emphasis here is on the Western Hemisphere.
Several world figures, such as Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), Cicero (106-43 B.C.), Saint Augustine (354-430), Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-1274), Richard Hooker (1554-1600), and John Locke (1632-1704), have pioneered conservative political thought. But Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is considered the founder of modern conservative thought. His “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790) form the basis of conservatism as a distinct political ideology. Burke’s form, however, has been, and remains, a Western phenomenon, and continues to defend most values of Western society. Thus, over the years, the United Kingdom and the United States have become the greatest proponents of conservatism, and even between these two great powers, conservative principles have differed substantially.
The United Kingdom consists of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; the first three constitute Great Britain. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the area was politically organized under the old feudal system, which entailed large-scale grants of land by William the Conqueror (c. 1027-1087) to his Norman followers. These followers were to become the dominant element of the country’s nobility. But the Anglo-Saxon influence contributed to the establishment of English political and civil liberties granted by the Magna Carta (The Great Charter) under King John (1167-1216) at Runnymede in 1215. As one provision in the Carta declared, “The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter.”
England’s Parliament is descended from the original councils of these barons, feudal landlords, and high-ranking clergy who advised the king on various matters. In the late thirteenth century, additional members of the Great Council were elected from town shires. A bicameral “Parliament” evolved, consisting of members appointed by the king (House of Lords), and elected tradesman, noblemen, guilders, educators, and merchants (House of Commons). From those councils and sessions came the differences in opinions that eventually led to further factions and parties within the House of Commons.
Great Britain’s Conservative Party traces to the founding of the Tory Party in 1689. Ironically, the term first applied to Irishmen who, dispossessed by the English in the mid-seventeenth century, became bandits. It then became, sequentially, a term for any marauder, an Irish Catholic royalist, and a supporter of James II (1633-1701). After 1689, it applied to any member of the English party that initially opposed the “Glorious Revolution” during which King James II was dethroned in a bloodless battle, and his daughter and son-in-law, William (1650-1702) and Mary (1662-1694) of Holland, were invited to assume the throne. Thus, Tory resistance to this change in events may have contributed to their eventual association with conservatism. The Tories were to grow into the party that always supported the monarchy and opposed political reform. Their fear of having the French Revolution repeat itself in England directly relates to their conservative stance of upholding law and order. The Tory Party eventually split into Liberals and Traditionalists, losing their political hold to the Whigs for many years. The terms Tory Party and Conservative Party are often used interchangeably.
The Whigs, short for “Whigamore,” one of a body of seventeenth-century Scottish insurgents, were formed in the 18th century as opposition to the Tories. They favored high tariffs, more parliamentary control, and liberal interpretation of laws and charters. Britain’s Liberal Party is the heir to the old Whig Party. Following World War I (1914-1918), the Labour Party displaced the Liberal Party as the main opponent to Britain’s Conservative Party.
The Roots of Conservatism in America
In the United States, one must look to its founding fathers to understand American political theories, institutions, and moral order. Eventually, as an America independent of England began to form, so also did the rudiments of conservative versus liberal political thought, and their association with certain political parties. Party names and affiliations shifted, mostly the result of conflicting conservative and liberal opinions within.
In colonial America, anyone who could read was certain to have one book: the Bible. This unified New England pilgrims who may have otherwise differed. They established their commonwealth according to the Ten Commandments and it is fair to say that contemporary American democratic society rests upon inherited Puritan and Calvinistic influences. As Clinton Rossiter observed in Seedtime of the Republic: the Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty, from this Christian heritage comes “the contract and all its corollaries; the higher law as something more than a brooding omnipresence in the sky; the concept of the competent and responsible individual; certain key ingredients of economic individualism; the insistence on a citizenry educated to understand its rights and duties; and middle class virtues, that high plateau of moral stability on which, so Americans believe, successful democracy must always build.” The influence of New England Puritan Christianity and the work ethic of later immigrants from Western Europe were the underlying forces in establishing the rudiments of the America’s capitalist democratic republic. It also served to influence the ordered liberty and principles found in the U.S. Constitution.
The Constitutional debates
Yet, there were early political and cultural divides. This is apparent from the constitutional debates between the Federalists, who were essentially nationalists, and the Anti-Federalists, who rallied against strong central government in favor of state power. Both sides, however, were concerned with preserving liberty, having just fought a war to protect it. The Federalists believed there were enough checks and balances in the Constitution as written to protect liberty. The Anti-Federalists wanted the Constitution to spell out specific liberties. Between 1787 and early 1788, five states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut) had ratified the Constitution as written. Massachusetts was the first holdout. The Federalists penned a series of 85 papers composed for publication in New York newspapers under the title of “The Federalist,” hoping to sway public opinion. Of the papers’ three main authors, Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), James Madison (1751-1836), and John Jay (1745-1829), Madison, in “The Federalist No. 10,” argued persuasively for a strong federal government. They said:
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States: a religious sect, may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the national Councils against any danger from that source: a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union, than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular country or district, than an entire State.
But the Anti-Federalist Patrick Henry (1736-1799) of Virginia rebutted:
The first thing I have at heart is American liberty, the second thing is American Union. The rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press, all your immunities and franchises, all pretensions to human rights and privileges, are rendered insecure, if not lost, by this change so loudly talked of by some… You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your Government.
The Bill of Rights
The Anti-Federalists wanted a Bill of Rights written into the Constitution. Ultimately, the Federalists proposed ratifying the Constitution as written, with adding a Bill of Rights the first order. This compromise enabled Massachusetts and all other states, except Maryland, to ratify. The document took effect June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state.
George Washington (1732-1799) himself understood well the importance of his Anti-Federalist adversaries. He wrote,
Upon the whole, I doubt whether the opposition to the Constitution will not ultimately be productive of more good than evil; it has called forth, in its defence (sic), abilities which would not perhaps been otherwise exerted, that have thrown new light upon the science of Government, they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner as cannot fail to make a lasting impression….
The Constitution of the United States of America had its first ten amendments, now commonly called the Bill of Rights. So much contention and debate had occurred among the States that Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), asked by a citizen what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had proposed for the country, replied, “A republic… if you can keep it.” America’s political system invites the free expression of opposing and diverse views, a right so fundamental that liberty would have little meaning without it. As Washington said in 1789, “The sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are… deeply and finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Neither the Constitution nor its framers contemplated separate political parties as playing a role in the legislative process. Under the “Great Compromise” reached at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the delegates agreed that a House of Representatives would represent the “national principle,” while the Senate would be an expression of the “federal principle.” The Federalists had succeeded in having their proposed Constitution ratified, with the addition of the Bill of Rights; Washington was unanimously voted in as a non-partisan first president, and Federalist sentiments controlled the nation’s first Congress. John Adams, the second president, was a strong Federalist. But starting with Thomas Jefferson, the third president and an Anti-Federalist, many of America’s first presidents were “Democratic Republicans,” including James Madison and James Monroe after Jefferson. It was not until 1828 that the Democratic and Republican parties split into two under Andrew Jackson, who called himself a Democrat and the Federalist Party was dissolved.
Fundamental differences even ran through Washington’s cabinet, between Jefferson, the secretary of state, and Alexander Hamilton, the treasury secretary. Jefferson, an aristocratic Virginia planter and landowner, considered himself a progressive proponent of the “European Enlightenment” movement and fully supported the French Revolution. He defended local government and viewed rural society as the bearer of democratic sentiment in a struggle against the commercial aristocracy of cities. Jefferson became increasingly conservative in his political sentiments, remaining essentially against centralized government and eventually, international commerce.
Hamilton, by contrast, admired the British constitution and staunchly opposed the French Revolution. The House as well as the Senate, upon receiving Hamilton’s first financial plan, began to exhibit a spirit of partisanship. Hamilton and his followers banded together as Federalists, and their opponents, representing agrarian (land-owning) aristocracy, led by Jefferson and Madison, became known as Democratic Republicans in 1792.
Hamilton and his followers, meanwhile, inspired the eventual creation of Henry Clay’s National Republicans and Whigs. Decades later, a formal Republican Party was formed from the Whigs in 1854 to oppose the Democratic Party. This ended the American factions of Whigs and Tories, inherited from England. American Whigs supported the Revolution; American Tories opposed it. Since 1832, the Tories were considered the conservative party, and remained so in England (opposite the Whigs, and later, the Labour Party). In America, however, the Republicans (the prior Whigs) eventually became known for their conservatism.
Later in that century, a group calling themselves “populists,” or “People’s Party,” most prominently led by William Jennings Bryan, made Jefferson their hero, even though they advocated such policies as public ownership of utilities which would have horrified Jefferson. The Populist Party formed to represent agrarian interests in the presidential election of 1892. They advocated a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, big business and small independent businesses, a graduated federal income tax, and an increased currency with free coinage of gold and silver.
The Progressive Movement also aligned with Jeffersonian Populists, particularly in the Midwest and South. Jefferson had previously interpreted “Whig” to represent those in favor of change, and “Tory” to mean those opposed to change, that is, conservative. Those supporting change do so in the name of progress, hence the term “progressive.” Throughout the late nineteenth century, the Progressive Movement fought for state ownership of railroads and utilities, hoping to break up monopolies and cartels hostile to rural farmers who relied on rail for shipment of their grains and produce. They also tended toward isolationism, non-interference in world affairs, and opposed imperialism on both moral and practical grounds. They promoted support for local government as a means to prevent wealth and political power from concentrating.
In the early twentieth century, however, the Populist and Progressive movements again splintered. A new progressivism, associated with Theodore Roosevelt and eventually Woodrow Wilson, was taking hold. This more liberal progressivism tracked similar events and times occurring during the Industrial Revolution in England. It promoted nationalism and imperialism, and saw American involvement in World War I as an opportunity to centralize economic control.
Later, during the lengthy period when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) controlled a Democratic administration, anti-New Deal conservatives and old-time Progressives united again in their opposition of World War II. They also wanted the repeal of the income tax amendment and passage of an amendment to prohibit deficit spending. The Roosevelt administration opposed them and attempted to rally support by labeling them German sympathizers and “Copperheads.” But the attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, nearly ended the argument for isolationism and the increasing threat of Communism sent the isolationists into decline. The only part of conservatism that continued after the New Deal and World War II was a suspicion of big government and big business. This thinking was eventually referred to as the post-war “Old Right.”
Conservatism After World War II
Still another shift occurred when Ohio Republican Senator Robert Taft (1889-1953) took over as the political leader of the Old Right. Taft was anti-Communist, favored free enterprise, and opposed most of New Deal social welfare legislation. Because the American conservative movement had changed ideologically so many times, the post-war Old Right stood out for its commitment to local liberties and local government, and a concerted dislike for the “collectivist” modern state. American conservatism of the 1940s and 1950s attracted big-business Republicans and other heirs of Alexander Hamilton, but was still under libertarian influence that opposed war, conscription, and imperialism.
From the turn of the century to the 1950s, there had been an increase in administrative consolidation. Government now controlled wages; the national civil service had grown tremendously; executive and congressional authority had empowered labor unions; and federal and state taxes had steadily increased to pay for all this. It appeared to conservatives that old- fashioned libertarianism had become endangered in its own country of origin. Big Government and Big Brother now ruled. The turn of events in post-war England was even more dramatic, when socialists swept to power in the summer of 1945. The newly elected Labour government entered Parliament and sung the “Red Flag” and other songs the revolutionary left had popularized starting in the 1930s.
Anti-Communism and opposition to Soviet imperialism became the driving forces of post-war conservatism. In 1955, the periodical National Review appeared. Directed by Yale University graduate William F. Buckley, Jr., the periodical’s central issues of anti-Communism, anti-federalism, individualism, and libertarianism were to shape American conservative politics during through the 1960s and beyond.
Post-war conservatism began during these years and coincided with the Cold War against the Communist Soviet Union. Clearly the galvanizing influence of this conservatism was American anti-Communism, generally called the “Red Scare.” President Harry Truman (1884-1972) used the Communist threat to justify his administration’s Marshall Plan, the European recovery program following World War II and an economic boost for American industry. Truman concurrently appeared before Congress to request extra funds to create congressional subcommittees to investigate and round up Communist insurgents within U.S. borders.
In a 1962 editorial for National Review, Buckley defended the House Committee on Un-American Activities and other congressional investigations by appealing to the notion of a “clear and present danger” to America were Communism left unchecked. Buckley balanced libertarian constitutional rights of freedom of speech with the threat of atom bombs and Marxist revolutionaries. Likewise, National Review writer Will Herberg, a Jewish theologian, wrote, “It is only when ‘un-American’ propaganda becomes a part of a conspiratorial movement allied with a foreign enemy, bent on the destruction of our nation, of freedom, and of Western civilization that it becomes a proper subject for congressional inquiry, disclosure, and legislation.” Thus, the influential Buckley and his colleagues actually helped promote the conservative premise of maintaining the free-enterprise system against the Communist threat.
Civil rights movement
As the conservative movement entered the 1960s, it widened its focus and became more polarized against the growing civil rights movement. To diehard conservatives, the movement represented the destruction of communities that to date had been free of bureaucratic control. They resented government social engineering and considered it an abridgement of their private rights of contract and association.
But separating principle from policy created yet another splintering. There was internal dissent over civil rights, particularly feminism and what was seen as black radicalism. Orthodox libertarians also differed over strong laws regarding pornography. A “fusion” and alignment of issues occurred. Conservatism in America came to represent all of these: economic libertarianism, cultural traditionalism, strong local government, and militant anti-Communism. This fusionist concept united both libertarian and traditionalist factions and became the vital center of what came to be known as neo-conservatism.
This time marked the era of the new Campus Right as well. By the late 1950s, Yale had become a breeding ground such conservative activists as Buckley. In his first published book, God and Man at Yale (1951), Buckley protested the pervasive liberalism of Yale’s professors. Catholic universities such as Fordham, Notre Dame, and St. John’s in New York became important centers of conservative activity. The Catholic component of the intellectual right defended anti-Communist and anti-secularist views and promoted activism to stamp out these threats. They assumed strong positions of political and global involvement to save America Communism’s threatening spread. These views separated them, however, from the Southern and Midwestern Protestants, whose foreign policy views were still isolationist. The abortion controversy surfaced in the 1960s after mothers who had taken thalidomide drugs gave birth to deformed babies. Again, the Catholic and Protestant conservatives splintered over this issue, the Catholics being patently anti-abortion. Irish-American Catholics also rallied against liberal social policies such as forced busing. Racial tensions, court-ordered busing, and violent crimes during the 1960s started to move traditionally Democratic Catholic communities in the North toward the conservative Right. Concerned about the expanding welfare system, they demanded harder eligibility tests for welfare recipients.
The conservative movement of the 1960s promoted economic deregulation, a strong military commitment, and a vigorous struggle against Soviet power. Republican Party presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s (1909-1998) ultra-conservative platform included notions of a “breakdown of moral fiber in the United States,” a big-government conspiracy theory, and an ominous forecast of a Communist takeover of the country. Big business, nonetheless, withheld support from Goldwater-type purists, fearing the loss of lucrative contracts with an expanded federal government and civil service. In 1964, big business backed the more liberal Republican, Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979). Goldwater won the Republican nomination that year, but lost the November election to incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), who was completing the term of assassinated President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). About this time, the Christian libertarian, Frank Meyer, who continued to prophesize until his death in 1972, warned that a conservative political majority would again rise in America when its citizens realized the harm liberal policies had caused to their constitutional and moral legacies.
The next political crisis was the Vietnam War, which also started in the mid-1960s. Involvement in the war had divided the nation, torn between conservative and liberal sentiments. A liberal Democrat had gotten the U.S. into the war, it was argued, so Republican President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) would end it. Nixon, however, resigned in 1974 during preliminary impeachment hearings following the Watergate scandal. The old conservative distrust of big government returned, but this time, it involved one of their own.
The Reagan era
For the 1980 presidential race, California Republican Governor Ronald W. Reagan (1911- ) was the conservatives’ dream candidate. As president, he was optimistic and humorous, his manner easy. Amid recession, he spoke of economic growth and hope. Reagan spoke firmly about containing Soviet and Communist expansionism. He was comfortable with his traditional views of family and American pride. He revived national pride and helped unite an economically troubled people. The economy during his administration (1981-1989) embarked on a twenty-year growth pattern that did not slow down until after the millennium, and big business supported him all the way. Conservatism was back in vogue.
Reagan, like Goldwater, spoke of a “moral crisis of our times,” and during his administration extreme right conservative organizations such as the “Moral Majority” surfaced. Ironically, for all the great things that Reagan did for the name “conservative,” the term became increasingly associated with the extreme religious right, a stereotype that also carried into the millennium.
Reagan’s rise also spawned different kind of populism, according to Richard Viguerie, publisher of Conservative Digest. In a commentary for the National Review in 1984, Viguerie wrote, “To say that every populist is a demagogue is as wrong as accusing every conservative of racism,” he wrote. “The 1980s-style populists I describe in The Establishment vs. the People are anti-racist, compassionate, anti-Communist, future-oriented, and grounded in traditional values while sympathetic to libertarianism.”
George Herbert Walker Bush (1924- ), vice president under Reagan, was elected in 1988. Although there was no scandal associated with Bush’s term, liberal forces were brewing. Out of virtually nowhere came Arkansas Democratic Governor Bill Clinton (1946- ). From 1993 to 2001, Clinton occupied the White House during continued economic prosperity. Many of his liberal policies, however, such as admitting China into the World Trade Organization, drew fire from conservatives, and his intentions for a national health plan never materialized.
In the contested presidential election of 2000, Republican George W. Bush, son of the former president, defeated Clinton’s incumbent vice president, Al Gore (1948- ). Bush pledged to govern with “compassionate conservatism,” a call to return to the private sector, in voluntary social and faith-based settings, the business of social welfare. Priorities rapidly shifted, however, on September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center in New York was destroyed, killing several thousand people in the worst act of terrorism known to America. The Pentagon building outside Washington D.C., in a simultaneous attack, was also severely damaged.
Theory in Depth
True political conservatism argues that the survival of any institution such as marriage, the pledge of allegiance, or free enterprise, means it has successfully served a need. Accordingly, its continuation is necessary for that society or government. Conservative statesman Benjamin Disraeli once argued that constant change should at least defer to “the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people.” That notion is at the heart of true conservatism. Conservatism is acutely sensitive to the cost of radical change or reconstruction; until the full consequences are understood, such changes may lead to harmful, unintended consequences or other negative or unanticipated effects.
Conservatism vigorously defends the premise that not all people are equal. It supports the idea that all people are created equal with regard to personal freedoms and rights. But it argues strongly for the inherent inequality in talent and initiative. Conservatism considers it a folly to try to level society by social engineering. Accordingly, attempts to distribute wealth evenly or give equal say to those who have earned no vested interest in a matter are clearly suspect.
Persistent themes of traditional conservatism include a universal moral order sanctioned by organized religion, the primary role of private property and a defense of the social order. On the other end is the criticism that true conservatism is interested only in maintaining existing inequalities or restoring lost ones.
The Conservative Split
Traditionalists and reformers differ on issues, but still consider themselves overall conservatives. As President Ronald Reagan once quipped after being confronted with differences among his aides, “Sometimes our right hand doesn’t know what our far-right hand is doing.”
Traditionalists and libertarians splintered following World War II. One of the key thinkers of that period was Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963), who defended the old, agrarian hierarchical values of the antebellum South. The agrarians argued that a strictly commercial society and civilization, divorced from the land and from tradition, lacked the necessary traditional and spiritual roots to survive. “Southern” conservatism took on its own character, still resenting a strong central government that had taken away states’ rights to secede from the Union, to maintain a slave population and to engage in commerce without federal interference. They would have concluded similarly on their own, they argued, but the issue was the federal government telling them what to do. As Reagan said, “The nine most terrible words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”
Russell Kirk (1918-1994), who admired Weaver, attempted to define American conservatism as having existed and sometimes dominated Anglo-American culture since the late eighteenth century. Kirk’s conservatism paralleled the nineteenth century British version in proclaiming that social hierarchy was necessary for world order. There were also re-affirmations of the divine sources of traditional morality, and a strong belief that property and freedom were inseparable. Kirk adopted and re-promoted many of Edmund Burke’s original views about the natural law doctrine. Kirk found further support in the writings of two Harvard University alumni, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. Ultimately, a shared distaste for social engineering and manipulation united traditionalists and libertarians; their shared beliefs included economic libertarianism, social/cultural traditionalism, strong local government, and militant anti-Communism.
Their most common theme was the moral and social good of private property. There was a general support for private enterprise. By the mid-1950s, libertarians and traditionalists regarded personal liberties as virtually incompatible with a welfare state. Communism, therefore, became their nemesis.
John Kekes, in his book, A Case for Conservatism, calls the source of conservatism “a natural attitude that combines the enjoyment of something valued with the fear of losing it.” According to Kekes, all political theorists agree that certain political conditions are necessary to benefit citizens. Those include general civility and equality, freedom, healthy environment, justice, and peace. Kekes argued that even though these conditions are important to all political theories, liberals and conservatives differ by priority. The conservative premise that there are latent effects of social, economic, and moral policies not always readily apparent, and that changing them without understanding their relationship to the whole system may inadvertently alter things for the worse.
Common to conservative thinking has been affirming the need for an orderly, disciplined, unequal society that benefits from appropriate leadership. All political ideologies, arguably, would desire an orderly, disciplined society. The “unequal” element separates conservatism from liberal socialism. Differences among conservatives have focused on exercising “appropriate leadership.” For free-market conservatives, society consists of a hierarchy of talent and achievement, in which an entrepreneurial minority reaps the rewards of its hard work, which gives the minority the incentive to continue creating the prosperity that ultimately will benefit many. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925- ) called this the “trickle down” effect.
Patrician conservatives, by contrast, might argue continuing the hierarchy of privileges and obligations, but also safeguarding the majority from capitalistic excess. This requires a delicate balance of laws and protections, because “hand-outs” discourage individual responsibility and negate work incentive. Likewise, those who work hard and succeed would lose the incentive, were their wealth distributed to those who did nothing to earn it.
Both views, however, support the need for a solid framework of law and order which counteracts human weaknesses. These flaws weaken society and tear it apart. The key to rewarding capitalistic venture is apparent. But it is harder to find just the right formula to provide minimum protections for the less fortunate without removing their incentive to change their lives. Thus, social welfare programs or a “welfare state” in which government takes on the responsibility for caring for the needy is viewed narrowly and cautiously. For patrician conservatives, each man is responsible for his or her own life, and only those incapable of earning an honest living should receive economic aid.
Some critics challenge that conservatives are also more likely to resist changes to the U.S. Constitution—one dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Conservatives, believing in responsibility for one’s own life, resent shifting such responsibility to government. Pure conservatism supports the idea of equality in man’s basic inherent rights, but not in talents, resources, or in benefits achieved through hard work.
Over the years and mostly as a result of twentieth-century immigration and urbanization, the country’s growing diversity contributed greatly to disparate views about government’s role. One can start to see the connection of these events to the development of American conservatism and liberalism. What is also apparent is the fallacy in trying to attach labels to partisan political views. America’s early Republicans were reformers and revolutionaries. But in the early twenty-first century, the Republicans were generally viewed as the more conservative of the two major parties. Historians have attempted to attach such categories as “neo-conservatism,” “American conservatism,” “the New Conservatism,” and “the New Right.” Each term, however, relates to a period when the issues of the time were redefining political conservatism. But conservatism more recently has usually referred to economic conservatism and social traditionalism.
The Essentials of Conservatism
Conservatism endeavors to preserve the existing order or the continuance of existing institutions, principles, and policies. Its cautious resistance to change is premised upon the belief that would-be reformers do not fully comprehend the interrelationship and interdependency of their proposed change upon other elements of the larger system in which it is a component. English statesman Edmund Burke is most often credited with inspiring the form of conservatism that has its roots in the Western Hemisphere. American conservatism, although vacillating on a continuum, is generally characterized by economic conservatism (maintenance of a free-enterprise system without government interference) and social traditionalism (the upholding of values and principles as envisioned by the founding fathers).
Theory in Action
Perhaps nowhere has conservatism established deeper political roots than in the Western Hemisphere. Wherever the politics of tradition, wealth, and aristocracy have been a historic force, one will find a strong conservative presence in government. Examples include the Tories or Conservative Party of Great Britain, the Republican Party of the United States, the prior Gaullists of France, the largely dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan (which, despite its name, is conservative), and the Swatantra Party of India.
Similar polities exist in other countries. In Italy’s May 2001 general election, the right-of-center alliance known as the Casa delle Liberta (House of Freedom) prevailed over the center-left coalition which had ruled the country for the five previous years. In Switzerland, run for more than a century with the Liberals governing and the Conservatives in opposition a four-party coalition known as the “magic formula” now runs the government. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has created a parliament. Its two main political forces are the conservative right’s Yabloko and a loose coalition of liberal parties known as the Union of Rightist Forces (URF). Iran has suffered relatively bitter power struggles between conservatives and reformers since 1989.
Conservatism in Great Britain
Britain produced the most famous conservative statesman of the twentieth century, Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965). Twice elected prime minister of the United Kingdom, Churchill conveyed the image of invincible strength and carried his nation through World War II with admirable resolve. He distinguished himself from pre-war Conservative leaders who wanted to negotiate appeasement policies with Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Churchill refused Hitler’s offers and organized one of the boldest military strategies ever. Together with Allied forces, Britain held off the Germans.
The war, however, had devestated Britain. Then, in one of the most striking reversals in political history, Churchill’s Conservative Party was soundly defeated by the Labour Party in the general election in July, 1945. Rather than a personal vote of censure against Churchill, the defeat was probably a reaction against twenty years of Conservative rule, a desire for social reconstruction, and uncertainty about the aggressive international policies espoused by the Conservatives. He easily won a seat in his new district of Woodford, which he held for the last nineteen years he spent in Parliament. He immediately resigned as prime minister. The resulting Labour government passed a National Insurance Act and a National Health Service Act.
Churchill, as leader of the opposition from 1945 to 1951, continued to enjoy a worldwide reputation and warned the Western democracies to stand firm in the face of the growing threat of the Soviet Union. Churchill’s speeches created a storm of protest and controversy in the West, but events soon confirmed his views of world events and the rapidly developing Cold War. The Conservatives won a narrow victory in 1951, and Churchill was returned to his position as prime minister.
One positive aspect of conservatism was that Britain’s Conservative Party did not alter any of the social welfare programs enacted by the Labour Party in the late-1940s—although the Conservatives probably did not do so because they had no mandate, not much money to spend, and the programs were popular and were working in the relative prosperity of the early-1950s. More so than the Labour Party, however, the Conservatives wanted to maintain a colonial presence on many of Britain’s possessions around the world, but economic problems at home and the waves of independence ferver rendered this impossible, and the British Empire continued its rapid decline.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s leadership in the Conservative Party enjoyed a clear majority from 1979 through 1990. Thatcher vowed to reverse Britain’s economic decline and reduce government’s role in the economy. Her policies included abolishing free milk in the schools, curbing trade union power, expanding private-sector roles in health services and pensions, and deregulating some sectors to break up monopolies. Thatcher is also remembered for her strong position over the Falkland Islands, which Argentina and the United Kingdom both claimed during a crisis in 1982. When Argentine forces occupied the islands, Thatcher’s government sent troops to defeat them. Thatcher, despite high unemployment rates, led the Conservatives to a sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections of 1983, bolstered mostly by her successful Falkland Islands policy.
Eventually, even influential figures in Thatcher’s Conservative Party resisted some of her changes, especially the controversial poll tax and her negative attitudes toward the then European Community (EC). John Major, a New Democrat, replaced her in 1992. Ultimately, the reign of the New Democrats was short-lived when the Labour Party, downtrodden and traditionally identified with the poor and the public-housing tenants, built a more dynamic image around new leader Tony Blair (1953- ). His party remained in control in 2001.
America’s Own Breed of Conservatism
Democracy and industrialism proved more potent forces than Edmund Burke’s principles. And America had its own signature conservative, Henry Ford (1863-1947). The quintessential capitalist and automobile manufacturer was the most conservative of men in his personal habits and opinions. Known for his anti-union labor policies, he employed spies and company police to prevent workers from unionizing his Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. He promoted Christian values and principles among his laborers, and monitored personal habits and lives, such as discouraging smoking and alcohol, and providing family housing, counseling, and community events. He also published a weekly journal, the Dearborn Independent, which contained several anti-Semitic articles in its first issues. Ford, however, won respect as an inspiration for change.
Forever linked to extreme post-war conservatism is Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (1908-1957), the man ultimately responsible for the label “McCarthyism.” His U.S. Senate tenure occurred during the Cold War and America’s fight to rid itself of Communism. In her book, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History With Documents, author Ellen Schrecker described the shift from American tolerance for Communism to American antagonism. She noted that comparative tolerance grew out of a World War II alliance with the Soviet Union, but turned into an aggressive stance against Communism, premised mostly upon the growing hostile relationship with the Soviet Union following the war. In the first five years after the war, the Soviet Union attempted government takeover of the countries it had helped liberate from Hitler’s regime during the war. It overtook Poland’s government in 1945, pressured Turkey and Iran in 1946, partly instigated the Greek Civil War in 1947, caused the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the blockade of Berlin in 1948, and detonated an atomic bomb one year later. Peaceful coexistence no longer appeared viable, and the United States remained the only free nation strong enough to stave off Communist aggression. The world actually hovered on the verge of another world war. Moreover, the threat of internal infiltration of Communist party members and spies caused near panic in America.
As Schrecker wrote, “An important element of the power of a modern state is its ability to set the political agenda and to define the crucial issues of the moment, through its actions as well as its words.” This is particularly important when we consider the difference between conservative versus liberal interpretation of the perceived “Communist threat” to the world or to America in the 1940s. In any event, the threat was real, and based on real evidence, and it is true that individual Communists who had infiltrated the government did steal secrets. It is also true that Communist agitators had infiltrated America’s labor unions. However, the response to the threat bordered on frenzy and serious violations of civil liberties. In the late 1940s, for example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began to round up foreign-born Communists and labor leaders for deportation and detention without bail. It has been argued in retrospect that the Truman administration, fearing a Republican Congress that might not allocate enough funds for anti-communist activities or the Administration’s foreign policy programs, exaggerated the Communist threat. In March 1947, the president went before a special session of Congress and pled the case for the assessment of Communist infiltration within American society. Congress then created the House Un- American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate the extent of the perceived threat. The institutions which best exemplify the McCarthy era were these congressional investigative committees.
Red Scare begins
Politically, the move backfired. In 1947, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) testified before the HUAC and created such fear of an internal Communist threat that the Republican-dominated Congress launched an all-out attack on anti-American sentiment and activity. Communists were summarily dehumanized and transformed into ideological criminals. Protecting the nation from this danger became the American political theme of that era, which continued well into the 1950s.
The First Amendment’s freedom of speech and press does not protect those preaching the violent overthrow of the government. Therefore, Congress, under the HUAC, began a concerted effort to investigate, expose, and prosecute Communist sympathizers. Communist labor leaders were involved in many highly publicized strikes in U.S. defense industries. Although the Communist-dominated Fur and Leather Workers union posed little threat to national security, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) as well as various maritime unions, were of more concern. The politically left-led union leaders became the subjects of investigation and exposure, and many, along with other party leaders, were prosecuted and incarcerated for alleged anti-American activity. The government also implemented an anti-Communist loyalty-security program for government employees in March 1947. Major prosecution trials of espionage agents such as Alger Hiss and Ethel (1915-1953) and Julius (1918-1953) Rosenberg received enormous publicity and enhanced the credibility of a real threat to the country. The notorious spy cases of the early Cold War period seemed to punctuate J. Edgar Hoover’s contention that “every American Communist was, and is, potentially an espionage agent of the Soviet Union.” The Smith Act trials of the top leaders of the American Communist Party in 1949 helped the U.S. government unify all the anti-American themes to bolster its contention that the Communist Party represented an illegal conspiracy under Soviet control and direction.
Using these events to punctuate their criticism of the liberal social policies of the New Deal during the previous Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, conservative politicians, mostly Republican, accused the Democrats of being soft on Communism. Congressional investigating committees, such as McCarthy’s Permanent Investigating Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee, and Senator Pat McCarran’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, paralleled the activities of the HUAC. But “McCarthyism” stood for the publicizing or directing of accusations of disloyalty, regardless of evidence.
McCarthy goes too far
McCarthy directed his attention to the media and the educational systems because they were viewed as shapers and molders of public opinion. One by one, Hollywood producers, actors, and artists, as well as college educators, were subpoenaed to testify before the congressional subcommittees about their knowledge of and/or affiliation with the Communist Party. Hollywood blacklisted actors who named their colleagues. Witnesses who refused to testify were prosecuted for contempt of Congress, labeled “unfriendly witnesses,” and stigmatized equally. The work of the Congressional subcommittees trickled down to state and local levels with their own Un-American Activities Committees. Private employers cooperated in the probes, resulting in public exposure of Communist sympathizers, who then lost their jobs and generally faced ostracism from a patriotic public.
The official manifestations of McCarthyism— public hearings, FBI investigations, and criminal prosecutions—ultimately proved mild compared to the horrors of Stalin’s Russia. Nonetheless, in retrospect, they have negatively represented conservatism in the extreme. The government’s characterization of the Soviet/Communist threat invoked the criminal justice system and enhanced the American public’s perception of domestic Communists as criminals. However, according to Schrecker, even at its peak, the Communist Party had a high turnover rate, and by the early 1950s, most party members had actually quit. The “Red Scare” resulted in numerous violations of civil liberties and freedoms of those whose ties with Communism may have been only incidental or not threatening to the United States.
Here again, is another application of conservative versus liberal sentiment. Extreme conservatism may favor incidental or mild abridgments of civil liberties as a necessary price to secure free enterprise and a way of life that nurtures such freedoms. Alternatively, liberalism believes personal freedom and liberty trump the needs of national freedom from foreign or internal threat. In retrospect, McCarthy-era critics call it the worst kind of conservatism. On the other hand, conservative politicians argue that such tactics would not have been necessary but for the lax policies of liberal politicians and/or the socialistic policies of the New Deal. They argue that such policies ultimately created an environment in which workers felt they were entitled to equal shares of economic prosperity, regardless of personal input. The ultimate fall of Communism and the Soviet empire during the late twentieth century, and a commensurate rise in global free-enterprise systems and governments, emphasize their point.
Important to the application of the freedom of speech and association to extremist groups, such as the Communist Party, is that they may enjoy First Amendment protections, even if their views are repugnant to some or outside the mainstream. If Communism is associated with liberal socialism near one extremity, then ultra-conservative groups such as the Moral Majority and John Birch Society might occupy the other end. These groups have grown over the years, particularly stimulated into activism during periods of comparative liberal political thought. Many of them have targeted a growing federal bureaucracy and the recovery of perceived lost liberties and/or freedoms (not to be confused with the work of the ultra-liberal American Civil Liberties Union).
Private citizen Robert Welch (1899-1985) founded the John Birch Society in 1958 to preserve and promote America as it was originally established: a Constitutional Republic. It embodies what is perceived as extreme right-wing conservatism, even though many Americans not part of the Society’s membership agree with its principles. Because the Society refers to the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values, it is often criticized as having a religious agenda or representing the Christian Right. Yet, looking to the country’s history, the values the Society promotes are similar than those the new republic promoted in the late 1700s: a belief in the family as the primary social unit, a support for a free-market system and competitive capitalism, and a protection of the personal freedoms the original framers of the Constitution contemplated.
John Birch (1918-1945) was a Christian missionary the Chinese Communists killed following World War II. His death symbolized for the Society a unified resistance to a “new world order,” a love for freedom, and the rejection of totalitarianism “under any label.” According to the Society’s Internet website (http://www.jbs.org), its members believe “that the rights of the individual are endowed by his Creator, not by governments…”
In America’s early days, the John Birch Society may not have been able to accommodate the number of persons clamoring to join such an organization. But in the twenty-first century, the multiplicity of cultures, values, and religions within the United States has alienated the Society from those who favor diversity. Despite the Society’s invitation to “individuals from every walk of life and from all ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds” who share a love for liberty, the Society remains stigmatized as representative of an ultra-right minority attempting to turn back the clock. For example, attitudes toward the “family” as a primary social unit have changed tremendously, particularly in the last century, when single parenthood, one-parent families, and homosexual marriages affected many lives. Another issue polarizing the Society against more “liberal” conservatives is the Christian theme, admittedly representing the majority of citizens and the country’s heritage, but no longer considered “politically correct” within a diverse contemporary citizenry. This serves as a good example of the changing nature of conservatism and its relevance to time along a continuum: what was once considered mainstream thought later becomes threatened and must be defended.
Another important consideration affecting the balance of conservatism versus liberalism in the U.S. is the presence or absence of media bias. Over the years, various accusations have been directed at both sides, claiming that the media attempts to advance its own political agenda by slanting the news. There is apparently some truth in this, straight from the media itself. In The Media Elite, authors S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda S, Lichter summarized the results of their interviews with 238 journalists from the entire spectrum of mass media. This included reporters, editors, executives, anchors, correspondents, and department heads from America’s most influential media outlets: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS, among others. The results, though dated, (1990), tend to support what many have claimed for years. A majority, 54 percent, described themselves as left of center. Only 17 percent described themselves as right of center. While 56 percent responded that they believed their colleagues were on the left, only eight percent responded that their colleagues were on the right.
Moreover, journalists’ descriptions of themselves on a wide range of social and political issues revealed the following: 90 percent believed in abortion rights; 75 percent believed homosexuality is not wrong; 53 percent believed adultery is not wrong; and 68 percent believed government should reduce the income gap.
The criticism against a biased media is, of course, that the American people deserve to know all, and not select, facts on any given issue, and that journalists should be compelled to impartially present them. Eva Thomas, Washington bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, commenting on House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (1943- ) charge that the media was biased, noted, “Particularly at the networks, at the lower levels, among the editors and the so-called infrastructure, there is liberal bias.” And Bernard Goldberg, CBS News correspondent, wrote in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, stated that the liberal bias in the media is so “blatantly true that it’s hardly worth discussing anymore.” It’s usually not something the media plans to do—or is necessarily even conscious of doing. Goldberg added that bias is something that comes out of reporters naturally, whether they like it or not.
According to a 1996 Freedom Forum/Roper Center survey of 139 Washington-based bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents, 89 percent voted for Democrat Bill Clinton. (Figures for the 2000 election were not yet available.) Richard Harwood, former assistant managing editor and ombudsman for the Washington Post, also noted in 1996 that, while the majority of American journalists do their best to remain impartial, “the journalist without those allegiances is rare indeed…”
Conservatism in the Courtroom
One of the most important ways in which conservatism affects the daily lives of Americans is reflected in political appointments to judicial posts, particularly those by U.S. presidents of justices to the higher federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Since these are appointments for life, they are not taken lightly.
Only federal judges, and a handful of state judges, are appointed for life, barring impeachment. In all other states and in local governments, most judges are elected and reelected by popular vote, and for a specific term. In the abstract, it has always been the desire to make judges, in the words of John Adams’s Massachusetts constitution, “as free, impartial and independent as the lot of humanity will admit.” But in a political system where social issues define party politics—and where jurisprudence largely affects social issues—alignment and/or labeling is inevitable. A judge, whether elected or appointed, assumes his or her post based on how others perceive he or she will run the bench—conservatively or liberally. Nowhere is it more important that a justice stay politically independent than on the U.S. Supreme Court, for the “supremacy clause” of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution makes the Constitution and treaties “the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby.” The top court has the final opinion on Constitutional interpretation.
A president’s conservative or liberal leanings, however, may greatly affect his judicial selections. Of course, the Constitution provides a check and balance power of review and confirmation by the Senate for each presidential selection.
The Supreme Court decides some of society’s most profound issues, and its ideological makeup during any era may affect decisions on sensitive matters: rights and protections of the unborn, rights of minorities, rights of speech and personal freedom, employee rights, the rights of the accused, rights of the incarcerated, and rights of non-citizens and aliens, among others. Although conservative or liberal leanings may suggest bias in interpreting a law or constitutional provision, a minimum of four other justices would have to agree in order to carry a majority in a decision.
Although a Supreme Court decision may be labeled conservative or liberal, there is a distinction between political conservatism and judicial conservatism. Politicians make the laws; justices interpret them. When the terms refer to court decisions, conservatism usually means a narrow interpretation of existing law, limited most often by the plain or express language contained therein. This is sometimes called “strict constructionism.” Conversely, courts rendering what may be labeled as a liberal opinion in any matter have broadly interpreted the plain language of a law in order to fit the specifics of the case before them.
Conservatism of justices
In one sense, the conservatism of justices parallels true conservatism more so than that of politicians. Justices and judges are extremely hesitant to interpret a law in such a way that it undermines the original legislative intent; in fact, they will often go beyond the arguments made by attorneys in the case, and take it upon themselves to seek the legislative history of the law in question. This is true even if a more liberal or broad interpretation may be more just or favorable under the certain sets of facts before the Court. A court of law has no power to alter or amend existing law, and many times it will state in its opinion that the litigants need to seek legislative rather than judicial relief, i.e., consult their local state representatives or senators to discuss amendments to the written law. However, courts may and often do find certain laws to be unconstitutional under state or federal constitutions, and such a decision by the highest court with jurisdiction over the matter renders the previous law void. And if, in retrospect, a court deems an earlier decision has had far too liberal or conservative effects when applied to other situations, it will attempt to delineate or contain that decision in a subsequent one.
Thus, often in subsequent cases that would require the application of the same law or decision, but with a different set of facts, the Supreme Court will chip away exceptions to the general rule, resulting in a more narrow application of its earlier decision. Although the Supreme Court is empowered to reverse its own decisions, it rarely does. The justices take ultimate care that their decisions are legally and constitutionally sound.
Take, for example, the case of Miranda v. Arizona (1966), in which a liberal Supreme Court held that confessions or responses accused persons gave when law enforcement officials interrogated them could not be used as evidence in court unless the accused had first been advised of such legal rights as not speaking and having legal counsel. These have since been generally called “Miranda rights.” While this decision may have been constitutionally sound at the time, the reality of its sweeping effect and/or its application to real cases convinced many Americans that perhaps the Court had been a little too liberal in its constitutional interpretation of the rights of the accused. As a result of the Court’s decision, repeat offenders and many persons accused of violent and/or heinous crimes were being released from custody or incarceration. This could have been because of some minor technical oversight or stress-induced mistake on the part of an arresting officer who may have failed to fully advise an accused person of his or her rights.
Since 1966, the Supreme Court has invoked Miranda many times, making exceptions or clarifying the general rule. In the 2000 case of Tankleff v. Senkowski, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Martin Tankleff, convicted of murdering his parents in Belle Terre, New York. Tankleff claimed that his confession, given after he was read his Miranda rights, was nonetheless tainted by police questioning that occurred before they advised him of his rights. This case established no legal precedent.
Conservatives and liberals try to affect the Supreme Court through congressional pressure to increase the number of justices on the Court. Since justices are appointed for life, members of Congress often want to neutralize the effect of sitting justices. The most recent attempt came during the Clinton administration. Even though Clinton had already nominated two justices during his tenure, liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-) and Stephen Breyer (1938-), Congress considered a measure to add two more. Ostensibly it was argued as a measure to reduce a backlog of cases, but in reality it was an attempt to affect the conservative/liberal balance. Congress has the constitutional authority to fix the number of associate justices on the Court; the current number under the chief justice is eight. This most recent attempt to increase the number failed.
In fact, the nine justices who sat on the court going into the new millennium may represent one of the most balanced groups of justices ever to sit concurrently. Three are known conservatives, three are known liberals, and three often provide the “swing vote,” which may carry the Court one way or the other in a given case.
William Rehnquist, originally appointed as associate justice in 1971 by a conservative President Nixon, was nominated chief justice by Reagan in 1986. He is known for his hard-line conservative position on most constitutional matters. Another conservative is Clarence Thomas (1948- ), whom Bush the elder nominated in 1991. Antonin Scalia (1936- ), nominated by Reagan, took his oath in 1986. He is the third traditionally conservative justice sitting on the top court.
Ginsburg, nominated by Clinton in 1993, is widely known as a liberal. So is Breyer, appointed in 1994 to replace Harry Blackmun (1908-1999). The third liberal justice is John Paul Stevens (1920- ). Conservative President Gerald Ford (1913- ) nominated him to the top court in 1975. After his appointment, however, he shifted to the left.
Although Reagan appointed justices Sandra Day O’Connor (1930- ) and Anthony Kennedy (1936- ), in 1981 and 1988, respectively, they have, in fact, proved to be middle-of-the-roaders, often taking moderate stances independent of any other justice. This has also been true of David Souter (1939- ), a Bush nominee in 1990. Souter, Kennedy, and O’Connor, therefore, play particularly important roles in delicate decisions the public may erroneously perceive as conservatively or liberally biased.
The Court faced such an accusation following its decision in the Bush-Gore presidential campaign of 2000 involving as many as 15,000 absentee ballots from Florida’s Seminole County. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the manual recount of votes ordered by the Florida Supreme Court violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution by treating voters’ ballots differently and by conducting it erratically and arbitrarily without proper standards. The media wasted no time labeling judicial players by race, party, and political and personal preferences. Over the years, Democratic governors had appointed all seven Florida Supreme Court justices. But the U.S. Supreme Court comprised a mix of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. When the majority ruled against the Florida court, some liberals in the media were openly skeptical about an undercurrent of a “results-oriented” majority seeking a high-minded legal rationale to front their own political leanings. The Supreme Court, however, simply but firmly denied the inference.
Analysis and Critical Response
In his essay entitled, “Conservatism Is a Vital Political Ideology,” found in Politics in America: Opposing Viewpoints, Heritage Foundation president Edwin J. Feulner Jr. attributed to conservatism the conquering of Soviet Communism, the promotion of democracy throughout the world, and the strengthening of the U.S. economy. Feulner argued in his essay that the governments of Eastern Europe were turning to conservative Americans and their free-market ideas for advice. In Warsaw and Prague, Feulner said, the people wanted capitalism, not lectures on capitalist exploitation.
In an opposing viewpoint entitled, “Conservatism is a Declining Political Ideology,” Democrat David Dinkins, former New York mayor (1989-1993), argued that with the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatism lost its cause, i.e., in Dinkins’s words, “No Enemy, No Energy.” He also blamed the fear of Communism for “block[ing] the path to progress here at home.” Said Dinkins:
The conservatives regaled us with tales of resurgence while the rest of the world went whizzing by. So now we can remember the touching speeches and sentimental images of the 1980s while we travel across roads and bridges that are crumbling, to take our kids to schools that aren’t teaching, to prepare them for life in a global economy that suddenly threatens to leave them behind…Military might [has become] the sole measure of national security, leaving no room in our calculation of American strength for infant mortality, literacy, or economic opportunity.
Conservatism ran into some problems in the 1990s, particularly in the United States. It was a belief held by many people—many registered voters—that conservatism was an ideology of the rich, and the 1992 election of Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton was in part a rejection of conservative politics. When the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994 it often led to policy standoffs with the president which resulted in government shutdowns, and opinion polls showed that people sided with Clinton. “Given the political excitement in the 1980s, the governmental failings of conservatism in the 1990s are nothing short of astonishing,” wrote Alan Wolfe in an article in the June 7, 1999 issue of The New Republic. Conservative figures such as Pat Buchanan (1938-), Newt Gingrich, and Bob Dole (1923-) were stereotyped as politicans who looked out for big business while not showing much concern for ordinary people facing economic hardship. Sometimes the stereotype was justified, often it was not, but it stuck. Indeed, when George W. Bush campaigned for president in 2000, his platform called for the toned-down version of conservatism which he labeled “compassionate conservatism.” This softening of the conservative image may have given Bush the extra boost he needed in one of the closest elections in American history.
Out of Touch?
Of course, the most consistent criticism of conservatism is that its resistance to change has resulted in it being outdated and out of touch with the real world. Liberals may argue that a demand for change is simply a corrective measure to bring forward a lagging conservatism that has been left behind. For example, the British public, through the media, expressed its wish for a more personable and approachable monarchy, especially during the time immediately following the death of Princess Diana (1961-1997). Conversely, a majority of the British public confirmed its continued belief in the monarchy, its heritage and tradition, and its maintenance as a British institution.
In economic policy, the general conservative attitude toward a laissez-faire capitalism or free enterprise system has always been under attack by a concerted minority. The problem has been that both conservatives and liberals support such a system, and the dissenting minority is also comprised of both conservative and liberal elements of political following. This mingling with the opposition has manifested on other fronts as well—on issues such as abortion, affirmative action, foreign policy, social welfare, and taxation.
The New Right
Historians and partisan politics have attempted to rectify these muddles by creating subgroups and attaching newer names to the ideology, such as “neo-conservatism,” “American conservatism,” “the New Conservatism,” and “the New Right.” However, each of these terms ultimately relates to a particular historic period when the tenets of political conservatism were again being re-defined by, and re-oriented to, pressing issues of the time. For example, critics have argued that following the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union (a declared victory for conservatism), there was no cause celebre to unite conservative forces anymore. But to twenty-first century American conservatives, high crime rates and financial returns on investments were of greater concern than Communism. The fall of the Soviet Union was remote and not palpable, perhaps of more interest to their aging parents than to them.
Moreover, although conservatives have historically been referred to as the political “right,” this can no longer be true because those that want to maintain the status quo actually oppose radical “neo liberals” who want to establish a world-wide system of laissez-faire capitalism. Still further, some conservatives actually support and defend certain institutions of a welfare state. The distinction between conservative and liberal views must now necessarily be made on an issue-by-issue basis. General stereotypes and labels have become increasingly less accurate, and characteristic parameters of conservative ideology continue to shift.
This, in turn, pressures political parties in a bipartisan or multi-partisan political system to more clearly distinguish themselves from their competitors or opposition, which, in turn, creates a more adversarial campaign and election system. In a government such as that enjoyed in the U.S., free speech allows two or more sides of an issue to be freely argued, though with special-interest lobbying. But the system has checks and balances. A conservative or liberal president has veto power over Congress, and Congress can override a presidential veto. Judicial rulings of constitutional provisions ensure that no radical new law abridges the rights of the people.
The National Motto
Perhaps a poignant example of the ebb and flow of conservative versus liberal forces in the United States is the sometimes anecdotal, sometimes vociferous arguments over the country’s motto. In 1956, the U.S. Congress enacted a law declaring the national motto of the United States to be “In God We Trust.” Although the motto had existed de facto for more than one hundred and fifty years prior, it had never been officially codified into law. The motto is now codified at 36 U.S.C. 302. In fact, America’s history is replete with other references to God and Providence, only some of which have come under such attack.
Our country, undeniably, was formed on Christian principles. For about two hundred years, this created no palpable problem, as the majority of Americans were primarily of Western European Christian heritage. Any protest directed at the symbol or motto of America would have been unthinkable. But the great immigration influx of the twentieth century has made America more consisting of multiple cultures, races, and peoples. Conservatives would argue that it does not matter where you came from, that now you are an American, and you must live according to American tradition and heritage. Liberals would argue that the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution require that America accommodate the cultural heritages of its newcomers and minorities, who may find such references to God as contrary or even repulsive to their own beliefs. But the real bitterness centered on a majority of Americans still identifying with Christianity in the twentieth century, and resenting a small but vociferous minority attempting to usurp their American heritage. The tensions created when applying old traditions to a newer multi-ethnic, multi-cultural population are all too apparent.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never expressly ruled on the constitutionality of our national motto. When asked to rule, however, it has let stand the decisions of several U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal (one level down from the Supreme Court) that have upheld the constitutionality of the motto, essentially on grounds of historical significance and heritage.
Still, on April 25, 2000, a three-member panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled 2-1 that the official motto of the State of Ohio, “With God All Things Are Possible,” was unconstitutional. The motto, which was unanimously adopted by the state in 1959 (Ohio Revised Code Section 5.06), existed for years without ado, along with the state wildflower, the state animal, the state coat of arms, and the state song. However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), representing a single plaintiff, Reverend Matthew Peterson, had challenged the motto in 1997.
Extreme conservatism can be as harmful as radical liberalism. Unbending or uncompromising attitudes, whether conservative or liberal, have limited appeal in any society. It has been partly a media phenomenon that has been responsible for creating stereotypes of conservative Americans as ultra- right-wing religious fanatics. In reality, that is as far from the truth as promoting the perception that all liberals are revolutionaries who wish to agitate Americans toward socialistic totalitarianism. Both extremes do not speak for the vast majority of Americans (and politicians) who vacillate along a continuum of association according to their own views and beliefs.