The Liberal Foundations of Conservatism

By Sterling C. Beard ’12 and Blake Neff ‘13

Conservatism has not had a good decade. It began uneasily with the election of George Bush, a “compassionate conservative” who squeaked out a narrow victory in the 2000 election. Although his response to 9-11 boosted his popularity and he defeated John Kerry in 2004, numerous mistakes both at home and abroad made him among the most unpopular figures in American history. The popularity of conservatism seemed to follow President Bush’s downward slide in the polls. In 2008, the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, and a massive progressive Democratic majority to Congress, placed the entire movement on the verge of irrelevance.

Many argue today that Bush was not very conservative at all, due to his habitual high spending and Keynesian fling in the waning months of his administration. However, this naturally elicits the question from others: if Bush, the head of the nation’s conservative party for 8 whole years, was not very conservative, just what does conservatism consist of?

The open nature of this question has allowed many groups to rise and claim the banner of “true conservatism” in the past few years. Many argue that its soul is nativism, others in the dogmatic rejection of all tax increases and some in traditional social mores. Furthermore, individuals as varied as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney lay claim to the banner of conservative leadership. The once big tent has been replaced by wandering tribes of combative nomads searching for a home and a leader.

To find an ideological basis upon which the conservative movement might be revived, people are doing everything from reading The Federalist Papers to Glenn Beck’s Common Sense (Thomas Paine’s, if they’re feeling old-school). The most common path, however, has been through the exhumation of Ronald Reagan. This approach is understandable; Reagan was the last president who was manifestly popular, conservative and successful. People looking to him are on the right track, as he did embody a very practical form of conservatism.

At the same time, reflexively asking, “What would Reagan do?” is to overlook the entire intellectual underpinning of his ideology. As wonderful as our fortieth president was, he wasn’t Christ; his deeds are not to be emulated simply because he performed them and his words are not holy writ. Rather, Reagan’s achievements were the result of a successful application of an ideology that fused classical liberalism with a cautious, conservative approach to governance.

This philosophy, though commonly called “Reaganism,” predates the Gipper. Its origins can be traced back to the 1950s, with the rise of the so-called “New Right,” a reaction against Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition.  FDR’s philosophy of social liberalism initiated the modern American welfare state and he appointed Supreme Court justices more willing to follow his vision of constitutional law. The Constitution’s commerce clause soon became a catchall used to justify any number of government actions and, with the “necessary and proper” clause batting clean-up, the federal government came to possess essentially unlimited power. Even the Bill of Rights could be contorted by the need for a “living Constitution” to meet the “needs” of the day.

Responding to this trend of so-called living constitutionalism and reduced freedom were figures like William F. Buckley, Whittaker Chambers, and Barry Goldwater. In a striking instance of previously disparate interests coming together, a new conservative ideology formed consisting of a revived classical liberalism, a cautious approach towards government that paid tribute to Edmund Burke, and an aggressively anti-Communist stance in the realm of foreign policy. While this specific political formation was new, its intellectual roots had a long history.

Classical liberalism dates all the way back to the Enlightenment and thinkers such as John Locke. Locke’s writings championed basic ideals – innate rights to life, liberty and property – and supported policies of religious toleration and limited government.

In a similar vein, British writers Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard argued in their essay collection Cato’s Letters that freedom of speech and conscience were crucial rights, and that civic virtue was vital to the success and survival of a nation. Furthermore, they warned that excessive government power was a sure route to tyranny, as “the people’s jealousy tends to preserve liberty; and the prince’s to destroy it.”

These classically liberal ideas (henceforth ‘liberal’) found their greatest expression in the founding documents of the United States. The Constitution of the United States establishes a government of enumerated, limited powers. With the Bill of Rights, it is designed not to empower a sovereign, but to protect citizens from the potential tyranny of their government.

The liberal ideas of individual rights and limited government mesh well with the free market economics advocated by Adam Smith and other early capitalist thinkers. In a world of mercantilism, protectionism and controls, these men called for free markets and free trade, arguing that through specialization and the pursuit of individual self-interest, the “invisible hand,” would in the long run leave everybody better off.

Taken together, these two modes of liberalism create a proudly individualistic belief system. When a people can speak openly, worship freely, pursue private enterprise, and defend themselves, they become true citizens rather than wards of the state. As Calvin Coolidge said, “self-government means self-support.”

American success is more complicated, however, than pure libertarianism. The country was also able to succeed because of the existence of strong institutions. These institutions, from families to churches to civic organizations promoted the existence of a virtuous citizenry which was necessary for liberalism to thrive. A country filled with such citizens equipped with inalienable rights is able to flourish, as the history of the United States ably demonstrates.

The success of American liberalism however, is more complicated than pure libertarianism. America’s liberal experiment also succeeded because of a conservative approach which paid unwitting tribute to Edmund Burke.

It is this brand of liberalism that provided the basis for the New Right. It wasn’t simply a reaction against the social liberalism of Roosevelt, but a reassertion of the value of those principles which had made America great in the first place. Still, these new conservatives could not simply reënact the same version of classical liberalism that had once prevailed. With the rise of social liberalism and the welfare state, those institutions which had cultivated the virtue of American citizens were weakened. Families were less stable, churches less prominent and civic organizations were displaced by government bureaucracy. To recreate classical liberalism without correcting these matters would create a nation that had many freedoms but few virtues. Therefore, the New Right embraced a conservative outlook that paid tribute to thinkers like Edmund Burke.

Burke, an English statesman from the late 1700s, was an advocate of liberalism but simultaneously defended the value of existing institutions, past experiences and a cautious approach to change. His approach to liberalism, while supporting freedom, also valued institutions. In adopting a Burkean outlook, the new breed of conservatives sought to actively preserve and protect the institutions from decline, acknowledging them as necessary for liberalism. 

Even after American conservatism formed, it did not immediately take flight. The New Deal coalition would continue to up to the presidency of Carter, reaching perhaps its apogee under LBJ and the Great Society. Programs and regulations piled up, creating an America that was economically stagnant, increasingly dependent, racked with dying cities and a sense of malaise. The tide began to turn once Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.

Reagan was fundamentally an optimist. Not in the power of the state, but in that of individuals, and he did his best to return their liberties to them by reducing the power of government. While he was not perfectly conservative, he reversed the statist trend in society by decreasing the weight of onerous regulations, cutting taxes and devolving federal authority to the state and local level. The conservative momentum extended past his presidency, allowing welfare reform to pass during the Clinton Administration, and turning back the gun control movement with a revived strict constructionist view of the Second Amendment. Even the commerce clause finally had a cap placed on its power by several Supreme Court decisions such as United States v. Lopez.

The overall positive effects of this shift are easy to see; the United States avoided European-style stagnation and instead coupled remarkable economic growth with increasing personal liberty. Even in the Age of Obama and the conservative movement’s current listlessness, conservatism has brought many classically liberal ideas into the mainstream.

The essence of modern or “Reaganite” conservatism can be found here. Conservatives deeply value the original liberal principles embodied in the Constitution and early America and believe these values are worthy of preservation. Whether they are perfect or not, they represented a great advance in human prosperity. They should not be pushed aside by a creeping statism which believes that bureaucrats and social planners are best able to instruct a person in how to live their life.  

As the right wing of the Review’s right wing, this struggle resonates with us. Believing strongly in both individual liberty and a degree of social conservatism, and possessing a firm belief that America still has numerous exceptional qualities, the lack of a true ideological core in both the Republican Party and American conservatism at large is quite disheartening. We believe that rediscovering Reaganism (or, more appropriately, the philosophy that guided him) will be the key to rebuilding the tent of American conservatism. By looking to Reaganism and its foundations, conservatism can become more that a disorganized stream of vitriol directed at political opponents. Instead, it can find its identity as a movement once again, working to preserve and if necessary restore those things which allowed America to become great.