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How Conservatism Started in America

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Who Stood Athwart History First?

The 1964 election, which concluded in a victory for Lyndon B. Johnson, had far more deeper effects on the Republican Party than what is seen on the surface. This was the first Presidential election in which states considered Democratic strongholds, particularly in the south, went to Republican challenger Barry Goldwater. An explanation for this enigma was the growing presence of a new form of conservatism developing during this period. This new form of conservatism combined several schools of thought, ranging from libertarianism to social conservatism. Since it was Barry Goldwater that brought this new form of conservatism into the mainstream, both those on the left and on the right have called Barry Goldwater the father of modern American conservatism. But is this accurate? Did Barry Goldwater play a large enough role in shaping modern American conservatism to be called the father of modern American conservatism? The answer is no, and not just that, but Goldwater cannot be the father of modern American conservatism because no such figure exists.

To understand why modern American conservatism has no father, modern conservatism must be defined. By the 1960s, an ideological gap had grown within the Republican Party. On one side of this divide, there was the “Old Right”, which according to historian Anthony Gregory, was “a loose grouping of intellectuals, writers, publicists, and politicians who vocally opposed the New Deal and bitterly resisted U.S. entry into World War II”. The Old Right also favored isolationism. On the other side, there was the “New Right”, who pushed for interventionism and an unwavering commitment to confront communism. During the 1964 election, the New Right largely backed Barry Goldwater, who was a supporter of “states’ rights, lower taxes, voluntary Social Security, and a strengthened military” (Dallek). It was for these reasons that the New Right backed Goldwater. Ultimately, the Democrats won the 1964 election. Despite this, Goldwater’s conservatives gained “27 million votes” (Dallek). The Goldwater campaign helped give rise to modern conservatism. According to researcher Cliff White, “out of the ruins of the 1964 campaign emerged a well-organized, experienced movement that was more determined than ever to win political power”. And win it did. By 1968, conservatives had dominated the Republican Party.

While it may appear that modern American conservatism has its roots in the Goldwater campaign, this is not the case. There were many thinkers before Goldwater that held views that are found in modern conservatism. One of these thinkers was Edmund Burke, a Whig in the English parliament. He wanted to “limit the king’s power… and favored freedom of the press” (Maciag). He also “accepted the American Revolution”, but was against the French Revolution. (Maciag). He viewed the French Revolution as “radically redesigning society” and called the Jacobins “terrorists” (Maciag). He clung to “unalterable moral certainties” due to his belief in the preservation of tradition (Maciag). Despite all this, Burke did hold some views that are not fundamentally conservative. He wanted prison reform, with “humane changes”, abolition of “imprisonment for debt” and “restrictions on capital punishment”. (Maciag). Still, Burke is held in high regard among modern conservatives for three reasons. Firstly, his rhetoric against rapid change found new ears during a period of American history in which there were

“rapid political, social, and cultural transformations” taking place (Maciag). Secondly, much of his anti-Jacobin rhetoric was applied to Stalinists by the New Right during the postwar Red Scare of the 1950s (Maciag). Thirdly, no significant group claims Burke as their own, with most intellectuals being “content to let conservatives keep Burke for themselves” (Maciag). Another thinker that modern conservatives accept as their own is Alexis de Tocqueville. Influenced by the Enlightenment, he “believed deeply in freedom, liberty, and individual autonomy” (Langenbacher). He, however, did not believe that natural rights could be used to “justify revolution” (Lakoff). Also, although he believed in rationalism, he “objected to rationalism in politics” (Lakoff). Like Burke, Tocqueville held many views that are not fundamentally modern conservative, causing him to “not fit neatly into the conventional [political] categories” (Lakoff). For this reason, although Tocqueville shared views held by modern conservatives, he cannot be called the father of modern American conservatism. A final figure that played a significant role in shaping modern conservatism is founding father James Madison. Many of James Madison’s conservative views can be found in the Federalist Papers. For example, in Federalist Paper 10 and 51, Madison makes his case for a republic. Rather than believing that a republic would prevent the rich minority from oppressing the poor majority, Madison believed the opposite. He thought that a “plebeian majority” could be capable of taking rights away from the “rich minorities” (Zuckerman). In Federalist Paper 46, Madison writes that the United States Government is distinct because it allows its citizens to own firearms. He writes that the European governments “are afraid to trust the people with arms” because it “forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition”. Both of these sentiments are arguably conservative. So why is James Madison not the father of modern American conservatism? Because like Burke and Tocqueville, Madison held views counter to modern American conservatism. He wanted to “keep religion apart from politics” (Zuckerman), differing from the beliefs of certain modern conservatives, especially the “Religious Right”, who “detest and deny the separation of church and state.” (Zuckerman). Although these thinkers held many views shared by modern conservatives, they also held views that not many modern conservatives hold. Still, it is undeniable that these thinkers played a role in shaping modern American conservatism, but it would be incorrect to call any of them the father of modern American conservatism.

While modern American conservatism has roots prior to the Goldwater campaign, many of Goldwater’s contemporaries played a role in shaping modern conservatism. One of Goldwater’s contemporaries was Russell Kirk. He published The Conservative Mind in 1953, which “shaped a nascent conservative intellectual movement then struggling for survival” (McDonald). Kirk received praise from both Newsweek and Time for his works, with both calling him an intellectual that represented the conservative movement. Kirk was a conservative in the sense that he believed in the preservation of tradition. He viewed tradition as a preservation of morality, claiming “Private judgment alone can never replace the authority of moral judgments handed down by traditional culture”. He agreed with Edmund Burke’s statement, “[the] individual is foolish; but the species is wise”. Kirk believed that the past should be learned from. However, despite being a supporter of capitalism, Kirk was not a supporter of libertarian positions such as “free markets” (McDonald). In his later years, he criticized the libertarian-friendly neoconservatives in the late 1980s. Because modern American conservatism upholds economic libertarianism, Russell Kirk cannot be called the father of modern American conservatism. Another one of Goldwater’s contemporaries is William F. Buckley. The historian George Will once wrote of Buckley:

And before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 has become a conflagration.

Buckley began his activism at a young age. After graduating Yale, he criticized his alma mater in God and Man at Yale for not teaching free market principles (William F. Buckley…). According to professor Carl T. Bogus, it was Buckley that founded modern conservatism since he combined: “free-market capitalism, support for American military actions, libertarianism and social conservatism” (William F. Buckley…). While Buckley did link together the critical schools of thought contained in modern conservatism, it would be dismissive of his predecessors, such as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and James Madison, to claim that he is the sole father of modern American conservatism. But Buckley should be credited for his large role in shaping modern American conservatism, which he continued to do even after the 1964 election. Initially, Buckley rejected the Civil Rights movement, opposing “legislative and other attempts to enforce Brown vs. Board of Education” and favoring legal segregation since whites were the “more advanced race” according to him (Felzenberg). However, Buckley gradually changed his mind on the Civil Rights movement. He was “outraged” by the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, he “ridiculed” practices such as poll taxes that prevented many southern blacks from voting, and he began to refer to racist southern politicians as “primitives” (Felzenberg). When running for mayor of New York City in 1965, Buckley endorsed affirmative action and promised to crack down on discriminatory labor unions, “a cause even his liberal opponents were unwilling to embrace” (Felzenberg). But Buckley did not want to stop with changing his own views on civil rights. He wanted to change the conservative movement too. He declared war on “kooks” and anti-Semites within the movement. He cut ties with the John Birch Society and “barred any National Review writer from also writing for the American Mercury”, a magazine that Buckley called “anti-Semitic” (Felzenberg). His zeal is undeniable. Now that Goldwater’s contemporaries’ contributions to modern conservatism have been explored, Barry Goldwater himself should be examined. Goldwater admired many thinkers that had influenced conservatism, appreciating and “reading Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison” (Edwards). He supported libertarian policies towards business, claiming that the New Deal had given “the federal government the power to impose its will on private business” (Edwards). He stayed true to his libertarian views, opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act despite voting for the “1957 and 1960 civil rights bills”(Edwards). He did this because he disagreed with “Title II (public accommodations) and Title VII (fair employment)” (Edwards), claiming that there was “no constitutional basis for the exercise of Federal regulatory authority in either of these areas”, essentially saying that the federal government did not have the power to enforce this act. He was a man of principle, but he was not the first person to follow all the principles he followed. He never added anything significant to the conservative movement. In fact, his Conscience of a Conservative was “ghostwritten by L. Brent Bozell” (Edwards).

Modern American conservatism borrowed ideas from thinkers that were active during the 1964 election as well as earlier thinkers. Therefore, there cannot be a single father of modern conservatism since all these thinkers contributed significantly to the conservative movement. Calling any one of them responsible for modern American conservatism would ignore the contributions of the other thinkers. Barry Goldwater, although a face of the conservative movement, played a minimal role in shaping modern American conservatism compared to other thinkers.

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