I have been a political conservative since 1964 when I was 7 years old. Brit Hume has a fascinating history, Right All Along, of the modern American conservative movement running on FOX News on Sundays at 8:00 PM Eastern. Part 2 is being broadcast tonight: A Time For Choosing.
The success of the modern American conservative movement is truly remarkable. 42% of adult Americans identify as conservatives, more than twice the number of self-identified liberals. This has been accomplished in the teeth of almost all of the media, academia and the entertainment industry being hostile to the movement. In a way this opposition has been of assistance to conservatives politically. Most institutions in this country have come into disrepute since the 60’s, so a political movement which is perceived as being opposed by the powers that be can often find favor with many voters for that reason. Politically conservatives have often prospered in defeat, the aftermath of the elections of 1964, 1976, 1992 and 2008, for example, while victories have usually led to a fracturing of the movement, and political defeat.
American conservatism is, most American conservatives believe, in large part the political ideals of the Founding Fathers. These ideals of course did not spring newborn to Earth in 1776. The largest ingredient was the experience of the American colonists from the time of settlement up to the Revolution. The colonies were largely left to their own devices by England throughout most of the colonial period. They grew used to running their own affairs. The American colonists were lightly taxed by the governments they set up, probably the most lightly taxed people in the history of the world. Self-reliance was a must in a new country with virtually zero in government services, and not much in the way of government at all, especially outside of the few towns. This was a great laboratory for a grand experiment in a new way of looking at government, and this experiment is still underway.
American conservatism is not reactionary, unlike what passes for conservatism in other countries. Edmund Burke and the Founding Fathers, with a strong admixture of Lincoln, are the guiding stars of most American conservatives from a philosophical stand point. A few of the things most American conservatives believe:
1. In a strong national defense.
2. In free enterprise.
3. In limited government.
4. In traditional moral values.
5. A concern as to the Federal government usurping powers that belong to the state.
6. A deep rooted suspicion of utopian projects that depend upon governmental power.
7. Self-reliance rather than reliance on the State.
8. In low taxes.
9. That government only derives its power from the consent of the governed.
10. That government is always a danger to human freedom unless carefully watched.
American conservatism is a movement that has attracted little careful analysis due to the antipathy that most of the academy have for it, and what analysis is done is often laughable.
After the 2008 election Sam Tanenhaus, wrote a book proclaiming the death of conservatism. Although a man of the Left, Tanenhaus had written a sympathetic biography of Whittaker Chambers, and was not by any stretch a reflexive basher of the Right. That he could be so incredibly wrong, demonstrates how little conservatism in this country is understood by most non-conservative American intellectuals.
It is a shame that it will probably be mostly conservatives who watch the Fox series on the history of the conservative movement. It is impossible to be an intelligent observer of the American scene without understanding conservatism, and to many non-conservative intellectuals in this country, conservatism is simply terra incognita.