Conservative Movement

Conservative Movement in the United States

Conservatism American: Conservative Movement

Unlike England and the European continent, the main currents of American political thought converged throughout the 19th century into a broad consensus that incorporated economic individualism and constitutional democracy with powerful restraints on the government. This had little in common with the conservative doctrines of Edmund Burke; it was in fact closer to liberalism, with the principles of individual freedom and equality taken as self-evident. Thus, the major characteristics of American conservatism emerged as economic individualism, social Darwinism, and nationalism.

Economic individualism accepted the free play of the market and extolled individual acquisitiveness. Individual freedoms and property rights were identified with moral, religious, political, and civil rights. It was assumed that growth, change, and progress derived mainly from individual effort and competition. Wealth was considered proof of a person’s natural superiority; poverty connoted moral inadequacy and lack of resourcefulness. What was advocated, then, was capitalism – free of federal controls. Since the “best government” was the one that “governed the least,” a great emphasis was placed on separation of powers, judicial review, and states’ rights as opposed to federal power.

Social Darwinism transposed Darwin’s theory of the “survival of the fittest” from nature to society. Competition for goods, services, wealth, and power was considered natural and therefore necessary. Those who succeeded were supposed to be the fittest. Social Darwinism was also used to justify distinctions among races and among nations as well; some were deemed superior and others inferior.

In the 19th century, American nationalism claimed to have a “manifest destiny” to guide and educate “lesser” peoples in the world. Many conservative intellectuals and political leaders, therefore, favored a colonial policy for the United States.

With the Great Depression of the 1930s and the New Deal introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, American conservatism became a distinct political movement. Many Americans applauded the New Deal legislation that introduced serious constraints on free-market activities and allowed for the growth of the federal government, heavy taxation, and governmental intervention in and regulation of the economy. The conservatives disapproved of the New Deal and restated the fundamental premises of a free-market economy. The most forthright rejection of the New Deal appeared in a book by the Austrian-born economist Friedrich A. von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944), in which he argued against governmental economic controls and planning. Conservatives continued to insist on a return to the free-market economy and on a retrenchment of the federal government and its bureaucracy. In 1962 a Conservative Party devoted to these principles was founded.

Conservatives gradually made important inroads among Republicans and even among Democrats. Eventually the liberal consensus that had been originally established around the New Deal welfare philosophy was seriously challenged. In 1980 renewed support for religious and national values as well as strong opposition to high taxes, government controls, and federal spending accounted for the ascendancy of the conservatives within the Republican Party. This led to the defeat of many liberal senators and representatives in the 1980 national election and the victory of the Republican presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan. (1)

Conservative Definition and History

A person who tends to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions. Earl Killian says that is a person “who advocates a radical agenda of change, including demands of conformance to a narrow set of conventions (e.g. social, economic) prescribed by self-appointed spokesmen.”

And that the “meaning of conservative has shifted over time. An old-style conservative was one who is skeptical of change, and who prefers a “go slow” approach to change. The original meaning of “conservative” had meaning independent of the political spectrum (an imaginary continuum of political thought ranging from the right to the left), but is now simply used – incorrectly in my opinion – as to mean someone from the right, i.e. one of the two dominant parties of the two-party system. The modern meaning of “conservative” has therefore become simply a synonym for a Republican, i.e. an artificial packaging of political views created to help perpetrate the two party system. As such, “conservative” has undergone an about-face to one who demands change from current forms or ways, which are perceived as deeply flawed, toward a set of restrictive social mores coupled with a laissez-faire economic program designed to strengthen the current class system and maintain the power of the existing ruling classes.”


Notes and References

  1. Encarta Online Encyclopedia

See Also

  • Conservative Party
  • Party Names
  • U.S. Labor law and movement history
  • Union Party
  • Nixon Administration
  • Progressive movement
  • Liberalism

Conservative Movement: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

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State Administrative Materials and Resources

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