Conservative Nation

Conservative Nation

Mini Teaser: Declarations of conservatism's demise after the 2008 election were greatly exaggerated. As the opposition, American conservatives are in their element—can they draw upon their intellectual tradition to solve what ails America?

by Author(s): James Piereson

Yet this line of criticismisvalid only if we concede thatthe Burkean ideal isthe sole standard according to whichmodernconservatism should be judged or, indeed,that Burke’s principlescanbe extracted from the context in which they were developed and readily applied tocontemporary politics. The conservative movement is clearly a mixture of both Burkean and non-Burkean elements. It originated, in addition, out of several factors that are peculiar to the American scene.If we make theseallowances,we see that American conservatives are “conservative” nevertheless, but in ways unique to the nation.

American conservatism has taken on this aspect exactly because it originated outside the political mainstream and, despite the victories of the Reagan years and its currently strong representation in public opinion, it has never really functioned comfortably within it. Conservatism in the past, particularly in Great Britain, arose from inside the government—or in very close proximity to it—as a defense of established interests or patterns of politics. As an opposition movement in a democratic system, American conservatives can only gain power by taking their case to the public in order to win converts to their cause and, incidentally, to discredit the authority of the status quo. As long as it is on the outside looking in, such a movement must appear out of harmony with some of Burke’s key political principles.

Because it developed as a challenge to business as usual, and particularly to the New Deal and its successive iterations, American conservatism embodies many of the features of an insurgent or oppositional group. Conservatives, accordingly, have always described their enterprise as a “movement,” which brings up the image of an active and dedicated membership moving toward some definite destination. They continue to do so even though conservatism has by now growninto alarge and complex enterprise. Despite their many successes and the growth of their cause, most conservatives still think of themselves as an embattled minority fighting a proud and insulated establishment. Shut out of liberal institutions, such as elite-college faculties and the national press, along with mainline churches and even government itself, conservatives have set up their own counterinstitutions in the form of think tanks, radio and television networks, magazines, book publishers, citizen associations, charitable foundations, newspapers, and even a few colleges with conservative faculty and curricula. Within this framework, conservatives attend meetings and conferences, form friendships and associations, and develop and exchange ideas without ever having to come in contact with liberals (in this sense, emulating in reverse liberal-college faculties and journalistic associations). From these redoubts, they rally the public against the liberal establishment, often with impressive success and much to the alarm of liberal critics who are prone to view them as dangerous radicals.

Conservatives have in this way created their own “nation” within the nation, replete with its own culture, institutions and prominent personalities. In past generations, class, ethnic, religious and regional cultures have placed their stamps on parties and cause-oriented movements. Rarely has a philosophical orientation in politics been able to shape a unique culture. This is what allows conservatives to span boundaries and borders—be they social or geographical.

As a political insurgency, American conservatives also have naturally adopted the language of opposition, speaking of “revolution” when they mean only an orderly change in policy, and attacking “elites,” “the establishment” and an “out-of-control government.” The movement is distinguishable from a political party by its emphasis on principles and philosophy,its interest in recruiting only like-minded members and its focus upon large goals rather than incremental changes in policy. Because of this character, the conservative movementis not much interested in “the politics of compromise” or in accommodations withliberalism and liberal politics. Conservatism thus remains even now a movement of ideas and philosophy rather than, like a political party, a collection or coalition of interests.

As a separate culture, conservatism has a built-in resistance to being killed off because, even if the voters should abandon it temporarily, its institutions will undoubtedly persist to prepare the ground for renewed battles. Political parties die when they lose too many elections, but movements can continue intact in the face of persistent defeats until their goals have been reached or they have been absorbed into the mainstream operations of government. In fact, the conservative movement may be more in its element in opposition, when principles can be advocated in pure form, rather than in power when those principles are inevitably adulterated by compromise. Recent setbacks and a renewed challenge from liberalism may have reinvigorated the movement after the Bush years, and may have brought new recruits into the ranks. If that is so, the 2008 election, instead of killing off conservatism, may have created the conditions for its renewal.


SEVERAL YEARS ago, in an excellent history of the conservative movement in the United States, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both writers for the Economist magazine, pointed out that the influence of the American conservative movement is one of the features that provides the nation with its unique and exceptional identity in the world.1 To the extent that this is true, and there is much to be said for their thesis, it is American conservatism that has opened up the chasm between the politics of the United States and that found in other industrial nations of the world.

After all, the American Left, with its industrial unions, government workers and liberal intellectuals, has its obvious counterparts in Great Britain, France, Germany and much of the rest of Europe. The Democratic Party, though not as far to the left as its Continental counterparts, would not be out of place within the European context. But though much may be similar, those commonalities all exist on one side of the political spectrum. It is thus definitely not the American Left that makes the United States an exceptional nation.

American conservatism, on the other hand, is a unique and unusual movement in the modern world. Its various affiliated groups promoting liberty and free markets, lower taxes, religion and traditional morality, or patriotism and national strength, are largely unknown elsewhere. There exists no political institution in Europe that resembles the various components of the conservative movement, such as the Moral Majority, the National Rifle Association, the various tax-limitation and patriotic groups now active, or the Tea Party movement. And conservatism’s prominent representatives, from Sarah Palin to Newt Gingrich, would make little headway in other countries. While conservatism exists elsewhere as a philosophy of government, it nowhere else takes the form it has assumed in the United States.

In this sense, the conservative movement increasingly defines American exceptionalism in the contemporary world. That movement is unlikely to die anytime soon, but if it should ever do so, much that is exceptional about America will have died, too.


James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York City.


1 See John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

Image: Pullquote: The election of 2008 was not a public endorsement of liberalism and a repudiation of conservatism.Essay Types: Essay