Modern American conservatism: Content and contradictions

Dennis Phillips

Conservative: disposed to preserve existing conditions,
institutions, etcetera; cautious or moderate; traditional in style or manner.

Macquarie Dictionary

Mitt Romney’s mid-August choice of 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate guaranteed American voters their clearest ideological choice in a presidential election in 48 years. Not since Lyndon Baines Johnson defeated arch-conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964 has the US electorate been asked to choose between two more dramatically different political philosophies.

Republican Party leaders portrayed Romney’s selection of Ryan as a ‘bold’ choice’. Many political analysts disagreed, describing it more accurately as a puzzling, high-risk choice (Blumenthal 2012). Presidential candidates normally choose their vice-presidential running mate with an eye toward broadening their party’s overall geographical and political appeal. And they rarely do that by selecting someone from the 435-member House of Representatives rather than the more prestigious 100-member US Senate. Ryan is the first House member on a national ticket since Democrat vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro lost in 1984 (O’Connor & Hook 2012, p. 10).

The Republicans have long advocated tax cuts for the rich and services cuts for the poor.

Rather than provide needed balance to the party’s ticket, Paul Ryan was yet another Romney concession to conservative fundamentalists in the Republican Party. Ryan, who chairs the House of Representatives Budget Committee, is well known in Washington, but little known to voters across the nation. A CNN poll taken shortly after he joined the Republican ticket indicated more than 50 per cent of the electorate did not know enough about congressman Ryan to form an opinion about him (Norington 2012, pp. 1, 10). The facts are that Ryan was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 28 in 1998 and has remained there ever since. Like Romney, he has no notable foreign policy experience. He is best known as the author of an ‘alternative’ (to President Obama) federal budget proposal titled ‘The Path to Prosperity’ (see House Budget Committee 2012). If enacted, it would cut the top marginal tax rate by 10 per cent, scrap the Obama health initiatives and fundamentally change America’s welfare system (O’Malley 2012, p. 6).

The Republican Party has long advocated reducing the taxes of rich Americans while cutting services to the poor. A comparative note on income tax rates is instructive here: in 2012 the top marginal tax rate in Australia is 45 per cent, which is assessed on incomes over $AUS180,000. In the United States the top marginal tax rate is 35 per cent on incomes over $US388,350. Yet many wealthy Americans, while theoretically subject to a top marginal tax rate of 35 per cent, pay significantly less. By taking advantage of deductions, tax shelters and loopholes, they greatly reduce their real tax rate. In January, under pressure from his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney released his 2010 tax return. Estimated to own personal wealth valued at well over $200 million, he declared an annual income of $21 million, on which he paid an income tax of 13.9 per cent (Rucker 2012; Goldstein 2012).

Much more than Mitt Romney’s income tax is involved here. Recent research has shown an ever-increasing ‘equality gap’ in the United States where actual policy outcomes ‘strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle-income Americans’ (Gilens, p. 778). Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have traced rising inequality in the United States to the growth of an uncompromising ‘winner-take-all’ philosophy that largely ignores social justice as a concern of government (2010, p. 154).

In short, money talks louder than ever in American politics. The presidential election itself has become something of a bidding war between the two parties. Partly because of Obama’s proven ability to raise campaign funds at the grass-roots level and mostly because Romney enjoys the largesse of enormously wealthy conservative supporters, the US is now on track for its first $3 billion presidential election. It is almost as if the White House is up for sale and this year the Republicans are bidding higher than ever. Consider, for example, the role of Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino magnate who has pledged to donate $100 million to Romney and various other Republican candidates. ‘American Crossroads’ a ‘super political action committee’ or SuperPAC headed by Karl Rove, the brains behind George W. Bush’s two successful presidential election campaigns, has a target of $300 million in campaign funds this year and appears likely to exceed that figure. In London on the eve of the Olympic Games, Romney held a fund-raising dinner for wealthy American expatriates. The price per seat? $75,000 (Sherwell 2012).

Money is not the only threat to the democratic integrity of the coming election.

Money is not the only threat to the democratic integrity of the coming election. So intense is the Republican determination to defeat Obama and seize control of both houses of Congress that in a number of key states (including Florida, Ohio and Georgia) Republican-led legislatures have enacted a variety of regulations designed to suppress the votes of democratic-leaning voters (Froomkin 2012). Measures to restrict voter registration, purge the electoral rolls, reduce early and absentee voting, etcetera are all designed to make it more difficult for racial minorities and the poor to cast a ballot.


Clearly, well-financed conservative forces are hard at work in their drive to unseat Barack Obama and reform the nation along conservative lines. But what brand of conservatism are we talking about here? The word ‘conservative’ has been so widely used and abused in America that some authorities believe it is pointless to try to define it. Conservatives are merely who and what they claim to be (Nash 2006, pp. xiv-xv).

Fortunately, in The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, British writers John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge disagree. They argue, ‘American conservatism is a practical, flexible creed, refashioned to deal with the shock of great events … for all its wild tributaries, American conservatism clearly has a mainstream’ (2004, p. 340). And that mainstream has real impact. In no other democracy has such an influential coalition of interests formed a more durable and influential political movement.

The fundamental principles of classical conservatism are generally attributed to Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Irish statesman and political philosopher. Burke was not a flaming optimist. Doubtful about prospects of human progress, he believed the pursuit of equality would undermine the more important quest for individual liberty. He distrusted government and believed in the stabilising influence of established institutions. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge argue that, without knowing much at all about Edmund Burke, American conservatives seized upon certain aspects of Burkian thought and refashioned it to suit their own ends (2004, p. 13). For example, Burke’s suspicion of government, his emphasis on liberty over equality and his nationalism were appropriated by various US groups then exaggerated almost beyond recognition. As a result, the American Right ‘exhibits a far deeper hostility toward the state than any other modern conservative party’ (2004, p. 13). It is also ‘more obsessed with personal liberty’ (as illustrated by the power of the gun lobby) and prepared to turn its back on shocking examples of social inequality (2004, pp. 306–308).

Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue American conservatism is less a political strategy than an emotional reaction to a range of contemporary problems and challenges. In effect, it presents itself as a patriotic conviction that ‘goes to the heart of what it means to be an American’ (2004, p. 19). It is based on a bedrock belief bordering on religious faith that the United States of America has a special destiny. American conservatives view their nation as a genuinely unique ‘noble experiment’ as a constitutional democracy. In quasi-religious terms, it has been ‘called’ to be a global leader. Its duty is to serve as a ‘city on a hill’, a moral example to other nations. This conviction is so deeply ingrained in many Americans that it sometimes comes across to foreign observers as self-righteous and hypocritical (2004, p. 122).

The Macquarie Dictionary tells us that true conservatives are ‘disposed to preserve existing conditions and institutions … cautious or moderate … traditional in style or manner …’, but the modern American conservative movement has radically revised that definition. ‘Disposed to preserve’ morphed into disposed to destroy; ‘cautious or moderate’ evolved into aggressive or extreme, and ‘traditional in style and manner’ sacrificed both its style and its manners when it joined the Tea Party and like-minded groups. The modern American conservative movement bears little resemblance to the principled restraint of traditional political conservatism (Sabine 1961, pp. 616–617).

A fundamental fear of big government forms the bedrock of the conservative worldview.

It is important to note here that there are still millions of thoughtful, moderate and concerned conservative citizens in the United States, individuals legitimately worried about the national debt, government spending, unemployment and other problems. But, as even casual observers of American politics can plainly see, there is also a particular and peculiar brand of contemporary American conservatism that is doctrinaire, angry, intensely anti-government—and it is the one taking the lead in 2012.


A fundamental fear, even hatred, of big government forms the bedrock of the conservative worldview. Micklethwait and Wooldridge declare, ‘Hostility to government is arguably the American Right’s ruling passion’ (2004, p. 174). The Right takes quite literally Thomas Jefferson’s famous dictum, ‘that government is best which governs least’, even though Jefferson never said those words and certainly did not govern by them.

In his 1980 and 1984 campaigns for the presidency, Ronald Reagan repeatedly declared, ‘Government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem’. Once elected, he set about deregulating the economy by reducing the power of the federal government to deal with the nation’s social and economic problems (The Reagan Presidency, n.d.).

No other president in American history has been so successful at winning the highest office in the land by campaigning against the powers of that office. Reagan won the presidency twice by encouraging and exploiting popular distrust of the very government he was elected to lead. It is hard to imagine any profession other than politics where an individual can be elected chief executive officer by attacking the powers of the office he/she seeks to occupy.

Loyalty to the so-called ‘free market’ shares top billing with anti-government sentiment as a feature of modern American conservatism. Inspired by the work of ‘Austrian school’ economists Ludwig von Mise and Friedrich von Hayek (who moved to the United States in 1950), the ‘Chicago School’ that produced Milton Friedman sought to diminish the role of government in the economic life of the nation.

During the early Cold War years, the political fragments that eventually coalesced into the modern conservative movement spent most of their time arguing with each other. In A Time of Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism, Jonathan Schoenwald explains how conservatives were able to recover from the debacle of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid and present to the voters in 1980 a friendlier conservative face in Ronald Reagan (2002, chapter 7). Indeed, long before Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, conservative journalists, academics, authors and political activists were hard at work shaping an informal brains trust for the movement. Many of these people became household names familiar to many Americans and millions overseas: Ayn Rand, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Phyllis Schlafly, William Kristol, Anne Coulter and others.


If one relied entirely on Micklethwait’s and Wooldridge’s otherwise excellent history of modern American conservatism, one would infer the entire movement arose largely as a single sex enterprise. An important corrective is provided by several recent books devoted to the important role of women in the development of the conservative movement. Michelle Nickerson’s Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right (2012) and Lisa McGirr’s, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (2001) focus on the rise of the movement in California, Nickerson on Los Angeles and McGirr primarily on Orange County. Catherine Rymph’s, Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right (2006) takes a broader historical view and concludes with a chapter on the impact of the New Right on ‘Republican feminism’.

The conservative mantra for small government and reduced spending is riddled with costly exceptions.

Recent books on the women’s movement and the Right challenge the stereotypical view that American women in the immediate post-war period were all happy wives and mothers preoccupied with bright new household gadgets and banal television entertainment. In fact, post-war prosperity gave many middle-class women the time, money and mobility (increased automobile ownership) to become active in community affairs. For these women, ‘housewife populism’ became a natural expression of their interest in both local and national politics (Nickerson 2012, pp. 2–3, 169–174).

During the Cold War, middle-class women who saw themselves as guardians of family values became involved in a variety of suburban study/discussion groups and political causes. Conservative meetings, seminars, sermons, newsletters, etcetera. provided a wealth of information in language often focused on imminent threats to both the family and the nation. With most post-war men fully occupied with their jobs, conservative women came to the fore, regarding themselves as guardians of both local and national security (Nickerson 2012, p. 6).

As self-described ‘experts’ on what they saw as both foreign and domestic threats, conservative women had little trouble discovering potential dangers everywhere. Inspired by the fearsome rhetoric of Senator Joe McCarthy and other zealots on the Right, conservative women were quick to confirm there really were subversives under every bed: foreign spies, domestic traitors, advocates of ‘world government’, homosexuals, social planners and critics of American exceptionalism.

Even feminists were highly suspect because, as Right-wing women saw it, they threatened to disrupt American social harmony. (This same argument was also used against civil rights advocates like Martin Luther King Jr.). According to conservative activists, the common goal of all these groups was to undermine America’s social cohesion by breaking down ‘civilization’s most basic unit: the family’ (Nickerson 2012, p. 7). The crisis could not be more serious, nor the call to action more urgent.

From the early 1950s conservative women in America have repackaged ‘housewife populism’ to combat an ever changing array of perceived threats—communism, feminism, liberalism, globalism, post-industrialism, multiculturalism, etcetera (Nickerson 2012, p. 169). Deeply antistatist, conservative women have opposed government-mandated desegregation, pro-choice legislation and judicial rulings, the Equal Rights Amendment, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and much more. In 2012 the Republican Party has asked them to add Barack Obama to that list.


No political philosophy is completely consistent but in terms of glaring contradictions modern American conservatism is in a class of its own. Most obviously, the conservative mantra for small government and reduced spending is riddled with costly exceptions. For starters, it does not apply in any significant way to the US military budget, projected at $851 billion in 2013, a sum that exceeds US spending for Social Security or Medicare. During his first term as president, Obama has ended one war (Iraq) and is in the process of winding down another (Afghanistan). Yet any attempt to reduce military spending is met with a barrage of Republican criticism while Republican candidates make bellicose statements about future threats from Iran and China (Peter 2012).

In The Right Nation Micklethwait and Wooldridge point out that the state of Texas, proudly anti-government in its popular rhetoric, has benefited in countless ways from massive injections of federal funds. Starting with generous subsidies and allowances for the Texas oil industry, ‘the federal government’s largesse helped transform a rural backwater into a high-tech leviathan, starting with hydroelectric power in the 1930s, intensifying with the space program in the 1960s and continuing with today’s huge military buildup’ (2004, p. 139).

The Right also champions individual freedom of choice when it comes to such things as gun ownership, but is completely against it on a range of social issues, including abortion. Conservatives declare they want the powers of government drastically reduced, but not when it comes to legislating and implementing many aspects of their program.

In 2012 American voters have a clear choice.

Nor do conservatives want to do away with the ‘big government’ federal benefits they themselves receive. Wealthy farmers, for example, pride themselves in their bootstrap individualism while enjoying a host of price supports, subsidies, allowances and compensation programs. Does the Republican Party intend to cut them off and force them to stand alone in a global competitive marketplace? Of course not.

Obviously, there is a great deal of hypocrisy at work here. Republican vice-presidential candidate Ryan has regularly decried the role of government in local affairs, but his record as a Wisconsin congressman tells an entirely different story. In 2005 he voted for a federal transportation bill that pumped over $700 million into his state. In 2007, he got more than $1.5 million in federal subsidies for projects in his hometown of Janesville (population, 65,000). Reviewing his Congressional record, a reporter for The Times (London) concluded, ‘Mr. Ryan’s budget plan remains paper, perhaps a good thing for his state, which would lose $US413 million in federal funding in the first year if it were to pass’ (Philp 2012, p. 9).

If the case against the Republican platform is so strong, why will millions of Americans voters cast their November ballot for Romney/Ryan? One obvious reason is a persistently high unemployment rate, although the Republicans have not articulated a convincing plan to remedy that problem. Another more subtle reason is the disconnect between reality and the aspirational thinking of many conservative voters. The Republican Party strongly encourages people to view their nation through ‘a veil of opulence’. In this context, America is a nation of unlimited resources and opportunities freely available to all. There is no element of randomness, no obstacles to success for the truly worthy. Public policy is viewed from the perspective of the wealthy and ‘assumes that the playing field is level, that all gains are fairly gotten … In doing so, it is partial to the fortunate—for fortune here is entirely earned or deserved’ (Hale 2012). Viewing the world through a veil of opulence does not change reality. As the already disproportionate influence of the very wealthy continues to grow, the views of the middle class and the poor are increasingly suppressed. And, as some of America’s most informed researchers have concluded, ‘representational biases of this magnitude call into question the very democratic character of our society’ (Gilens 2005, p. 778).

In 2012 American voters have a clear choice. One political party views government as a progressive instrument of civil life; the other sees it as a threat that must be contained. One party stresses social responsibility; the other unfettered personal liberty. One has a proven record of foreign policy success; the other has no foreign policy experience at all. Let us hope the voters choose wisely.


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Until retirement in 2010, Dennis Phillips taught US politics and history at The University of Sydney and Macquarie University.