A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in The Great Purge: The Deformation of the Conservative Movement, edited by Paul Gottfried and Richard Spencer, and issued by Washington Summit Publishers in 2015.
Among the few successes the “conservative movement” can reasonably claim is having established the descriptive epithet of “big government” as a term of opprobrium in American political discourse. Indeed, a review of the literature, websites, and broadcast media associated with American conservatism reveals “big government” to be an ongoing and consistent target of rhetorical invective. For example, an August 15, 2014 piece of commentary appearing on the Townhall.Com website bears the title, “Dismantling Big Government One Step at a Time.” Two days earlier, a post with the curious title of “How to Transcend Obamacare” appeared on National Review Online, and discussed the widely held conservative view that Obamacare “represents our best opportunity to roll back Big Government” largely because of the “less entrenched” nature of this “newest entitlement.” Even the most casual conversation with rank and file conservative movement activists, dutiful Republican voters, fans of “conservative” talk radio, and loyal viewers of the FOX news network will reveal a mentality that regards “big government” as a primordial evil approximating that of original sin. It is therefore fascinating to compare the striking difference between the movement’s rhetoric and stated ambitions, and the reality of what the conservative movement has actually produced when it has had access to power in the political realm.
The Uniqueness of American Conservatism
An emphatic opposition to what is now called “big government” has been a definitive aspect of American conservatism for more than a century. Attempting to formulate a precise description of conservatism is problematic as the historic meaning of “conservatism” in the European sense was a robust defense of monarchy, the established church, and a hereditary aristocracy against the rising liberal, republican, and democratic movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The birth of the United States owes much to the influence of English liberal notions of “natural rights” and republican ideals. Consequently, the influence of conservatism of the European kind has been largely absent from American political history. Instead, American conservatism has always assumed a republican orientation, and is less distinguishable from classical liberalism.
As some Marxist writers have pointed out, American conservatism is more representative of the American bourgeoisie than of a traditional aristocracy. While the American republic has its roots in the American Revolution, it was a revolution that was less radical and transformative than the French Revolution of the same era. American conservatism owes much to the thought of Edmund Burke and his critique of the excesses of the French radicals. Political discourse in the American conservative tradition bears a great debt to Burke’s skepticism of utopianism, and the overly optimistic view of the potential for human perfectibility and transformative social progress associated with some radical Enlightenment thinkers. This view of human nature as primarily fixed rather than malleable, combined with a vigorous defense of republican values, has defined the American model of conservatism.
However, the specific manifestations of American conservatism have varied significantly throughout the nation’s history. It could be reasonably argued that the Federalists and their Whig successors, and the opposition of both to more radical Jeffersonian and Jacksonian ideas, represented American conservatism in its earliest forms. The subsequent rise of the Radical Republicans during the era of the Civil War and its aftermath had the effect of associating conservatism with supporters of the Confederate cause. However, the foundations for the future development of American conservatism began to crystallize during the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century when laissez faire economic ideology became highly influential among American elites. This ideology was symbolized by the Lochner v. New York Supreme Court decision of 1905 which struck down a New York state law limiting the working hours of bakers, and declared “liberty of contract” to be largely inviolable on constitutional grounds.
In the century that has passed since the Lochner decision, American conservatism has largely been associated with opposition to state intervention in the economy for the sake of objectives sought by reform liberals, progressives, and socialists. As the twentieth century progressed, conservatism of this kind began to crystallize in response to the growth of the radical labor movements of the era. What was later termed the “Old Right” emerged during the 1930s in opposition the expansion of state intervention under the New Deal regime of President Franklin Roosevelt. The Old Right was largely a loose collection of conservative Democrats, Midwestern Republicans, and intellectuals who espoused liberalism in the classical sense. Many on the Old Right were also military isolationists, and opposed American entry into World War Two.
The Emergence of “Movement Conservatism”
The founder of the American Spectator magazine, R. Emmett Tyrell, Jr. has described the contemporary American conservative movement as “the conservatism that, when it made its appearance in the early 1950s, was called the New Conservatism and for the past fifty or sixty years has been known as 'movement conservatism' by those of us who have espoused it.” The late William F. Buckley, Jr. is normally regarded as the movement’s founder, and launched his National Review as the movement’s flagship publication in 1955. A supposed opposition to “big government” was present in the movement’s rhetoric from the very beginning. For example, the first issue of National Review declared:
It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly. In this great social conflict of the era, we are, without reservations, on the libertarian side. The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order. We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.
However, it was also clear from conservative movement’s very beginning that this battle against ever more expansive government was to be subordinated to needs of the Cold War struggle with Communism. In an article published three years before the founding of National Review, Buckley declared, “We have to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.” It was this fundamentally contradictory aspect of the conservative movement that would largely define the course of the movement over the next six decades.
The Purge of the Libertarians
From its inception, the conservative movement championed libertarian ideals in the abstract, but feverishly promoted a foreign policy agenda whose inevitable effect was to facilitate an ever growing domestic expansion of the state. It was during the era of the conservative movement’s beginnings that America’s military-industrial complex began to grow to unprecedented levels. Even President Eisenhower expressed concern about this phenomenon during his final address. The early conservative movement was an alliance of traditionalists, anti-communists and libertarians, and the libertarians soon fell out of favor with their coalition partners. This was due largely to the conflicting motives and objectives of the movement’s early participants. While the libertarians were primarily concerned with the growth of government, the remainder of the movement considered anti-communism to be its overarching priority. Some of the anti-communists, such as Buckley himself and his friend L. Brent Bozell, Jr., were Catholic traditionalists who opposed Communism because of its militant atheism, and regarded themselves as defenders of Western Christian civilization. Others, ranging from Frank Meyer to James Burnham to Ernst van den Haag, were themselves former Communists in search of a showdown with their former comrades. Indeed, the anti-communist wing of the conservative movement even came to include anti-Soviet intellectuals who continued to regard themselves as socialists, such as the philosopher Sidney Hook.
As Paul Gottfried has observed, the earliest purges that took place within the conservative movement were not oriented towards ridding the movement of racialists and anti-Semites, as the movement’s official narrative maintains. Rather, the targets of the purges were those who displayed an insufficient level of hawkishness concerning the Cold War. These included the John Birch Society, an organization that was staunchly anti-communist but opposed to the war in Vietnam. It also included those, mostly libertarian thinkers who retained their loyalty to the isolationism of the Old Right. One of these was Ayn Rand, an outspoken atheist, who further affronted Buckley by telling him, “You are too intelligent to believe in God.” Another was Murray Rothbard, who had belonged to the Old Right during this youth, and subsequently became the godfather of the radical libertarian movement he called “anarcho-capitalism.”
Rothbard’s views were the polar opposite of Buckley’s in many ways. While both men professed fidelity to libertarian ideals, Buckley’s overriding concern was always the anti-communist cause. Not only was Rothbard’s libertarianism much more radical than Buckley’s, but Rothbard considered opposition to wars between states to be the highest priority for libertarians, even to the point of actively campaigning for liberal Democrats like Adlai Stevenson. He also endorsed Lyndon Johnson’s reelection to the presidency over challenger and conservative icon Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 on the grounds that Johnson was supposedly less hawkish that Goldwater. Indeed, Rothbard never showed any interest in the anti-communist cause. Drawing on the insights of the classical liberal economist Ludwig von Mises’ critique of the central planning schemes of socialist economies, Rothbard regarded Communism as destined for failure and eventual collapse due to its internal inefficiencies. This was also the position of Lawrence Dennis, and some other veterans of the Old Right. However, Rothbard went even further.
In a 1965 article titled “Left and Right: Prospects for Liberty,” Rothbard declared himself to be a radical leftist, and condemned conservatism as an outgrowth and relic of an archaic throne and altar traditionalism. He regarded socialism as a middle-of-the-road position between conservatism and true liberalism (libertarianism), and described fascism as a hybrid of conservatism and socialism. He even stated his view of Communism as a historically progressive force for having overthrown feudalism in Russia, China, and elsewhere, and paving the way for the eventual emergence of authentic liberalism. Rothbard expounded upon these views even further in a 1968 article published in the New Left journal Ramparts under the title “Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal.” In the article, Rothbard delivered a scathing attack on the Buckleyite Right, and the direction in which Buckley had taken American conservatism.
The historical heroes of the new right were changing rapidly. Mencken, Nock, Thoreau, Jefferson, Paine — all these either dropped from sight or were soundly condemned as rationalists, atheists or anarchists. From Europe, the ‘in’ people were now such despotic reactionaries as Burke, Metternich, DeMaistre; in the United States, Hamilton and Madison were ‘in,’ with their stress on the imposition of order and a strong, elitist central government — which included the southern slavocracy…’
…They never quite dared to state it publicly, although they would slyly imply it and would try to whip the public up to the fever pitch of demanding it. What they wanted — and still want — was nuclear annihilation of the Soviet Union. They want to drop that Bomb on Moscow. (Of course, on Peking and Hanoi too, but for your veteran anti-communist — especially back then — it is Russia which supplies the main focus of his venom.) A prominent editor of National Review once told me: ‘I have a vision, a great vision of the future: a totally devastated Soviet Union.” I knew that it was this vision that really animated the new conservatism.’
While Rothbard decried the escalating militarism of the conservative movement, he described in the same article the direction in which he had traveled.
Twenty years ago I was an extreme right-wing Republican, a young and lone ‘Neanderthal’ (as the liberals used to call us) who believed, as one friend pungently put it, that ‘Senator Taft had sold out to the socialists.’ Today, I am most likely to be called an extreme leftist, since I favor immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, denounce U.S. imperialism, advocate Black Power and have just joined the new Peace and Freedom Party. And yet my basic political views have not changed by a single iota in these two decades!
For these and other similar comments made during the conservative-libertarian falling out in the 1960s, Rothbard earned himself the lifelong hatred of Buckley, culminating in Buckley’s uncharitable obituary on the occasion of Rothbard’s passing in 1995. Of course, not all libertarians chose the same maverick path as Rothbard. Some continued to be active in the conservative movement, at least on the periphery, even if the conservative movement’s opinion leaders insured the libertarians’ marginalization. However, the consequence of Buckley’s serial purging of any effective libertarian voice within the conservative movement was to condemn the movement’s ostensible goal of rolling back “big government” to overwhelming failure.
The Rise of the New Right (And Ever Bigger Government)
While partisans of the conservative movement were predictably horrified by the emergence of the New Left and the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and related social upheavals and cultural trends, it might be argued that the events of this era proved to be a blessing in disguise for American conservatism. It was the backlash against the radicalism of this period that helped to fuel the growth of the conservative movement during the 1970s. Beginning with the “Southern strategy” employed by the Nixon campaign during the 1968 election, large numbers of formerly Democratic-voting Americans, particularly white Southerners and blue collar “white ethnics” in the North, began moving to the right. This shift in the electorate occurred for a number of obvious reasons.
The most significant was the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s which left conservative, Southern whites of the formerly “Solid South” without a political home. The perceived excesses of the anti-Vietnam War movement stirred the patriotic feelings of many working to middle class Americans, many of whom were now middle aged to elderly products of the World War Two generation. Crime rates exploded during this period, and the quality of public education in some jurisdictions deteriorated to the point where many public schools were now not only turning out functional illiterates, but had become dangerously unsafe places as well. A series of Supreme Court decisions removed religious practice and instruction from public schools, and religion was increasingly coming under attack in the public square as well. Many practices that were considered to be abhorrent by more traditional Americans, such as sexual promiscuity, pornography, homosexuality, and drug use became increasingly widespread. The frequency of divorce and illegitimate childbirths also escalated dramatically, and caused many to be concerned about the perceived decline of family structures. Lastly, the Supreme Court issued the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in 1973.
Big government also began to grow exponentially during the 1970s. His ironic image as a national security hawk and law and order conservative aside, President Nixon’s administration actually presided over major increases in the size and scope of the federal government, including the creation of new federal regulatory agencies, the expansion of affirmation action, the growth of the welfare state, the imposition of wage and price controls, and the assumption by the federal government of more and more responsibilities that were previously reserved for the states. In fact, many libertarians found Nixon’s expansion of government to be alarming to the point of founding a Libertarian Party in 1971. As government continued to expand throughout the 1970s, a series of severe economic crises also emerged including a gasoline shortage resulting from an OPEC embargo imposed on the United States because of America’s support for Israel during the Yom Kippur war in 1973. The embargo led to the temporary rationing of gasoline within the United States. Inflation continued to grow throughout the 1970s and fuel prices rose significantly as well. The loss of the Vietnam War and the decline of the military left many foreign policy hawks with the feeling that the nation had become incapable of successfully pursing the Cold War and containing Communism.
All of these many varied factors contributed to the growth of the New Right in the late 1970s. No longer was the conservative movement limited primarily to an assortment of right-wing journalists and academics, and Goldwater-Reagan Republicans who were marginalized within their own party. Instead, the 1970s saw the influx into the conservative movement of the formerly leftist intellectuals who now called themselves “neoconservatives,” led by Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, and the social conservatives associated with the so-called “religious right,” an umbrella coalition of evangelical Protestants, anti-abortion Catholics, and politically conservative members of other faiths. The public figures of the new religious right were often televangelists who experienced much ridicule at hands of the mostly liberal mass media.
The New Right certainly included many activists, writers, politicians, and voters who were genuinely concerned about the excessive and continued growth of American statism. Yet the libertarian-minded elements of the New Right found themselves sharing space with and often being eclipsed by those concerned primarily with foreign policy or cultural issues. Further, the array of big business interests that aligned themselves with the conservative movement at this point were less concerned about reducing the size of government per se than they were about establishing a tax, regulatory, and trade policies that were favorable to their own interests. This was clearly demonstrated by the fact that while marginal income tax rates were reduced and selective deregulation occurred during the twelve years of Republican administrations between 1981 and 1993, the greater legacy of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush was a quadrupled national debt, fueled in large part by the expansive growth of the military industrial complex during the same period.
Even while the size of government was continuing to grow, the conservative movement’s rhetorical attacks on “big government” continued to find its way into public discourse even to the point where this rhetoric was appropriated by the Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton, who declared “the era of big government is over.” Indeed, it could be argued that the Reagan-Bush administrations of the 1980s and early 1990s did not govern any further to the right of President Kennedy, who also reduced marginal income tax rates and maintained a hawkish foreign policy stance. The administration of President George W. Bush from 2001-2009 was arguably even worse for proponents rolling back the state. Not only was there yet another massive expansion of the military industrial complex during this time, along with constrictions of civil liberties, with both of these fueled in part by the events of September 11, 2001 and the administration’s response to these events. There was also a significant growth of statism with regards to many different areas of policy. The economics of the Bush administration were essentially Keynesian, and public debt continued to spiral. Among other efforts to grow the size of government, the administration also sought to expand the welfare state by creating a prescription drug entitlement, increased federal involvement in education, and increased expenditures ostensibly for the purpose of treating AIDS victims in Africa.
The Big Government Legacy of “Movement Conservatism”
The size, scope, and costliness of government has continued to grow unabated in the United States even as the conservative movement has, over a period of sixty years, grown from a relatively marginal enterprise to a powerful force in American political life, the mass media, and popular consciousness. The Republican Party dominated presidential politics for forty years between 1968 and 2008, including landslide elections in 1972 and 1984. A slate of supposed conservatives promising radical change scored a dramatic victory during the 1994 mid-term elections. Popular conservative talk radio hosts have brought their message to loyal listeners on a daily basis for two decades. The conservative movement enjoys having a major television network under its control, and maintains a collection of think tanks, journalistic outlets, and activist organizations whose combined budgets number into many, many millions of dollars. Yet none of this supposed conservative success has reduced the size of government in America one iota, or even slowed down the growth of the state by any appreciable amount. Indeed, it could be argued that conservative Republican administrations have done as much or more to expand the state than their liberal Democratic opponents.
Why has the conservative movement failed so monumentally at the task of actually reducing the role of government in American society? The answer appears to lie with the nature and history of the movement itself. It is no coincidence that just as the conservative movement purged its libertarians in order to strengthen its commitment to militarism, so has the conservative movement failed to diminish the presence of the state in the lives of Americans when actually holding state power, while presiding over the dramatic expansion of the military industrial complex. Communism imploded under the weight of its own economic ineptitude just as Rothbard, Mises, Dennis and others predicted it would. Meanwhile, the “totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores” that William F. Buckley, Jr. insisted in 1952 was necessary for the duration of the Cold War is now larger than ever, even a quarter century after the Cold War ended. Indeed, the conservative movement has achieved none of its other proclaimed objectives that do not involve increased military spending. As this writer has remarked elsewhere:
Conservatism has succeeded in achieving only one of its stated goals and that is the permanent escalation of the military budget and the permanent expansion of America’s foreign military presence. On every other issue claimed by this brand of conservatism (a misnomer?), the level of failure is overwhelming. Rolling back the welfare state? “Big government” is now bigger and more expansive than ever. Fiscal restraint? The U.S. public debt is larger than ever to the point where America is the biggest debtor in world history. Social conservatism and traditional values? America is a more culturally leftist and egalitarian society today than ever before, and leads the world in the advancement of “diversity” and the fight against intolerance.
Indeed, given the phenomenal success of the “conservatives” in expanding military spending and military interventionism, and their phenomenal failure at everything else, one might be tempted to argue that the former was the only issue that ever really mattered all along, and that the grassroots economic, fiscal, social, cultural, religious and patriotic conservatives who comprised the activist base and key voting blocks were, to use an ironic Leninist term, nothing more than “useful idiots.”
The social issue on which there is the most agreement among conservatives, i.e. the desire to repeal Roe v. Wade, is arguably further away from being realized now than ever before. While government has continued to expand, the wider culture has continued its leftward drift. This has occurred even as the influence of the conservative movement has grown over the past few decades. Social policies that were considered outrageously extreme only a short time ago, such as same-sex marriage, are well on their way to becoming almost entirely normalized. The secularization of American institutions has likewise continued, and non-religion is now the fastest growing religious perspective in American society. Conservatives have not even been able to halt the permanent demographic transformation of the United States by means of mass immigration, or even reduce immigration rates at all. It would appear the legacy of the conservative movement is destined to be the perpetuation of a massive apparatus for waging war under the control of an even more massive public administration state that presides over a thoroughly left-wing society.
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