The true definition of a philosophy is ultimately determined by the consensus of the intellectuals that help to shape that philosophy. Political philosophies are one of the most open and mailable schools of thought one can imagine. At any given moment, the definition of conservatism is being debated by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of scholars, politicians, comities, constituencies, and activists. The fact that bloggers are now part of the conservative equation should be some indication of just how wide open the door is when it comes to compiling an answer.
Part of the trouble of composing a true definition for exactly what conservatism is is the sheer variety in definitions depending on who you ask. It differs from place to place. Ask a Cuban or a Columbian what a conservative is and you’ll get a completely different answer than if you ask a Frenchman or a German what conservatism is and yet another answer from a Japanese man or a Korean. Even in America, the definition of conservatism differs dramatically. Ask Ron Paul what conservatism is and you’ll get a completely different answer than you would if you were to ask Mike Huckabee — and Sean Hannity would bash them both. The truth is that the definition of conservatism evolves and changes.
The Evolving Definition of Conservatism
America was born in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. The declaration was signed by our founding fathers, each of whom subscribed to the philosophy of the Radical Whigs. The Radical Whigs espoused the supremacy of parliament over the monarchy, worked for the protection of non-Anglicans from religious persecution, supported free trade, supported merchants and the industrial revolution (then in its infancy), fought against taxation, and generally fought for the emerging middle class. My fellow conservatives, does this sound familiar? The Radical Whigs were an arm of the leftist Whig Party. Today the Whigs have evolved into the modern Liberal Party of the United Kingdom. What was radical liberal politics in Great Britain in 1776 is bedrock conservatism in modern America.
Early American conservatism was something of a work in progress. While there have only really been two liberal parties in America, no one really figured out how to setup a successful conservative party until almost 50 years after the signing of the constitution, and even then, that party only lasted 20 years. Indeed, to the modern conservative, the early conservative parties of America would be completely unrecognizable as such.
The first conservatives in America were a coalition of federalists (those who supported the ratification of the constitution) that came together to form the Federalist Party. By modern standards, the Federalists would hardly be considered conservative. They were lead by Hamilton who advocated a strong, centralized government, strong nationalism, a lose interpretation of the constitution, mercantilism (protective tariffs and trade practices), public works projects to expand domestic infrastructure, strengthening the military, and a foreign policy that allied with the British monarchy over the French revolutionaries. The Federalist Party fell apart quickly however, blundering in foreign policy and alienating voters by supporting upper-class policy in what was then a mostly agrarian society.
The second American conservative party was a a short lived coalition that arose when the main opposition to the first party, the Democratic-Republicans, collapsed. As with all hegemonic powers, when people run out of enemies, they tend to turn against their own. At any rate, the collapse of the Democratic-Republican Party resulted in the creation of the short lived National Republican Party, which supported much of the same things that the Federalist Party did and should not be confused with the modern Republican Party. The National Republican Party died after just twelve years when it failed to gain enough national support to keep it going.
The first successful American conservative party was the Whig Party. The Whigs had nothing to do with the British Whigs, except for the name, which had always been a symbol of standing up to tyranny in American politics since the revolution. The Whigs were a coalition of former National Republicans and states rights (read: pro-slavery) politicians that opposed the stronger Presidential role that was personified in Andrew Jackson and wanted the balance of power to favor the congress. Despite their diverse origins, they were able to gain popular support on economic issues, their attempts to encourage industrialization (despite their calls for protective tariffs), and social issues which they took a decidedly moralistic stance on. Although they were partly successful in gaining national recognition, the Whigs were out flanked on the right by third parties such as the Anti-Masons, the Know-Nothings, and the Free Soil parties and they were plagued by their inability to take a stand on the question of slavery. The Whigs held together until the 1850s when the question of slavery eventually tore the party apart.
At the same time, the liberal Democratic Party was undergoing the same internal struggle over slavery. With Democrats and Whigs defecting from their parties over the issue of slavery, American politics began to coalesce into semi-recognizable camps and modern conservatism as we know it began to emerge. The northern anti-slavery defectors joined together to form a party that combined nationalism, morality, and capitalism. That party was the modern Republican Party. This new coalition left the southern Democrats who supported slavery, states rights, and agrarian economic policies found themselves in the minority for the first time in American history at a point where the question of slavery and agrarian versus industrial economic policies were the two most divisive issues in America. The result of this shift in political power was the Civil War.
At the end of the Civil War, America was left with just two parties: Republican and Democratic. The Republican Party supported northern interests, the Democratic supported southern interests, and while the Republican Party is mostly what we consider to be conservative today, there was little in the way of debate between liberals and conservatives. Southerners, regardless of their political ideology, voted Democratic.
During this time, there was a cognitive dissidence between the liberal values of the Democratic Party and the relatively conservative values of the average southern voter. Eventually, a conservative southern wing arose and became a prominent part of the Democratic Party. This conservative wing of the Democratic Party teamed up with the conservative Republican Party to create the Conservative Coalition. This coalition ensured that, with a few notable exceptions, little in the way of liberal policy was ever able to be pushed through congress. This trend continued, more or less unchanged, until the 1980s.
During the 1980s, a number of things happened which would further refine the definition of conservatism. Ronald Reagan, whom many consider to be the godfather of modern conservatism, was elected to the presidency, neoconservatism to took root as a major force in American politics, the Conservative Coalition came to an end, and the Democratic Party began the slow process of losing the southern vote that was finally and dramatically completed during the Republican Revolution of 1994. What we were left with is what we have today.
Modern American Conservatism
Hopefully, after taking a look at the history of American conservatism, you can understand how and why we could have more than one competing conservative philosophy. The Republican Party is not the only conservative party in America. Two of the three successful (I use that word loosely) third parties, the Constitution Party and the Libertarian Party, are conservative parties.
The Libertarian Party is a conservative movement that is a natural outgrowth of the idea that less is more. The Libertarians believe in a strict reading of the constitution, absolutely no regulation of the economy (including the disbanding of the Federal Reserve), absolutely no income taxes, absolutely no welfare programs (including social security, Medicare, unemployment pay, disability pay, etc.), absolutely no environmental controls, absolutely no gun controls, and pretty much absolutely no government beyond what would be needed to maintain peace and order. Some Libertarians believe themselves to be neither conservative nor liberal. They instead claim that if government let its citizens be truly free, they could believe whatever they wanted to regardless of ideology. Charming as that notion may be, the Libertarian Party is definitely a conservative party by the modern American definition – they espouse smaller government, government non-intervention, lower taxes, fewer programs, and strong stances on crime and national defense.
The other conservative third party is the Constitution Party. The Constitution Party believes in two things: a strict, literal interpretation of the constitution and religious “freedom” (read: freedom to have strong Christian values). Like the Libertarians, they believe in scrapping unconstitutional government agencies like social welfare, the Federal Reserve, minimum wage laws, income taxes, and a whole host of other programs. Unlike the Libertarians, the Constitution Party is very much in favor of legislating religious ideals like gambling, drugs, prayer in schools, abortion, same sex unions, and other morally charged subjects. They espouse appointing Supreme Court Justices that will suspend judicial review for cases involving religious expression and who will help overturn decisions that have made the programs they oppose constitutional.
The third parties, while they talk a good game, are ineffective and completely subsumed by the ultimate modern American conservative party, the Republican Party. Today, the majority of the Republican Party subscribes to the philosophy of neoconservatism. Neoconservatism is the political philosophy embraced by conservative southern Democrats which defected to the Republican ticket and which has been espoused by many Republican leaders since the 1980s. As one can imagine, a philosophy embraced by former Democrats is not the most conservative philosophy the world has ever seen.
Neoconservatism is the brand of conservatism practiced by Ronald Reagan and both Bushs. Neoconservatism blends conservative social policies with hawkish foreign policies. To get the political capital needed to get legislation passed, neoconservatives willingly sacrifice their economic discipline and resistance to welfare programs that traditional conservatives so loudly demand. Neoconservativism is a moderate form of conservatism, which is usually criticized for being a half-hearted conservatism that doesn’t hold true to conservative ideals and is widely condemned by fiscal conservatives.
If Libertarians believe in a minimalist conservatism and neoconservatives believe in a zeal-based conservatism, then fiscal conservatives believe in a market driven conservatism. Fiscal conservatives believe in balanced budgets, lower taxes, fewer regulations, pro-business union dealings, free trade, a strong dollar, and privatizing as many aspects of government as possible. Fiscal conservatives concentrate strongly on self-interest and bottom line politics. They’re not opposed to flexing military muscle, but a case has to be made as to why such actions would be in the national best interest.
While the philosophical dialogues have traditionally been the domain of academia, parties do not exist to win academic debates. Parties exist to win elections. Therefore, in order to be successful as a political party in a winner takes all environment, one doesn’t just need to stand for something, one must stand for something that more than half of the electorate agrees with. At some point, a major political party will have to sacrifice dogma for votes. Those, like the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party, that fail to compromise may win a seat or two but they’ll never garner broad national support.
For liberals, whose appeal is to the masses, popular liberalism comes easily. For conservatives, whose policies mainly benefit the middle and upper classes, it takes painstaking work to create a version of conservatism that consistently brings in votes. While a true fiscal conservative might advocate a flat tax, to garner votes, most elected conservatives accept the progressive tax without question. Likewise, a true fiscal conservative would never think of lowering taxes when the country is so far in debt, but a conservative party looking for popular support would issue stimulus checks and offer tax cuts even when we’re $10 trillion in the red. Religious issues in particular sway working class voters who otherwise would have little reason to vote for a conservative ticket.
The Republican Party is the popular version of the conservative philosophy. It is not true conservatism but it is the mainstream conservative philosophy. What it is, in reality, is a compromise. The Republican party’s platform is conservative theory joined to political reality in a way that, hopefully, makes the ticket as successful as possible. If successful, the people become more willing to accept more conservative ideals but failure results in the rejection of those ideals. The result is a Darwinian evolution of mainstream conservative ideology.
The Future of American Conservatism
This election, like those in of the past, will result in a further refinement of conservative ideals. With less than two weeks until the election is decided, the Democrats have about a 95% chance to win the presidency this year. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that they will pick up a large number of seats in both houses of congress. Even if the Democrats fail to get the 60 seats in the senate required to circumvent a Republican filibuster, Republican congressmen will have to maintain strict party discipline to be able to mount an effective opposition. In two years, the Republicans will have to run a myriad of new candidates.
Political parties and philosophies, like species, evolve. Each election is a new generation. Every time there is a drastic shift in the number of elected officials from a given party, that party’s philosophy undergoes a form of natural selection as a result of the the winds that brought about that change. Neoconservatives have fallen out of favor with the electorate. As a result, a new breed of conservatism will arise within the Republican Party to take its place. Failure to adapt to the new political environment will result in the death of the species.
The debate over political philosophy that will come with the next election cycle, as it always does, will not only help to shape the future of the Republican Party, but also the definition of conservatism as we know it.