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Forgetting the boundaries of conservatism in the US

By William Hill - posted Monday, 11 April 2016

The 2016 Republican presidential primary has demonstrated the clear weakness of the Republican establishment through its inability to present an electorally viable candidate that satisfies all sides of the party. One by one candidates with credible records in governing have allowed themselves to be intimidated and pushed out of the race by the celebrity candidacy of Donald Trump.

Texas governor Rick Perry, whose state is fast becoming the go to place for budding entrepreneurs could not get his candidacy off the ground. Reformist governor Scott Walker couldn’t endure a relatively mild verbal spar with Trump and beat a hasty retreat. Jeb Bush succeeded as the chief executive of Florida but his inability to shake his brother’s legacy and his lacklustre debate performances skewered his chances. Marco Rubio presented well in theory however he proved too glib and to lacking in any intellectual stature. Indeed, had he been the Republican candidate he would have been the least experienced of any past Republican nominee at least since Wendell Willkie in 1940.

Of the final three contenders, John Kasich is the most qualified in the running and would be the sort of conservative candidate you would find in a parliamentary system. He has been in congress for some time working within the committee structure through the Reagan to Clinton era with past experience in state politics. As Chair of the House Budget Committee he was a shadow finance minister of sorts responsible for the budget negotiations process that delivered on a bipartisan commitment to eliminate the federal government deficit. His governorship of Ohio is considered to have been a great success according to nearly all economic and fiscal indicators. No one can know if his campaign would have ignited under different political conditions, clearly it hasn’t in this race.


I would argue that American conservatism has allowed itself to be distracted and has forgotten the formula that delivered it long successful periods of government. The intellectual godfather of modern conservatism in America is a title most deserved by the humorous and affable figure of William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the premier conservative journal National Review. In an era when conservatism seemed on the wane Buckley emerged as the centre of the conservative intellectual universe, refusing to surrender or to affirm beliefs and policies he believed anathema to established norms and principals.

However, what made Buckley most laudable was his practice of putting ideals into the market to debate them and to draw potentially unwanted conclusions from the consequences. This became emblematic of his endeavour to define the boundaries of conservatism. This much quoted expression entailed Buckley’s often contentious willingness to identify and denounce figures and movements whose motivations were clearly extreme and antithetical to proper conservatism. Among those Buckley sought to ostracise included the John Birch Society, Ayn Rand, George Wallace, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.       

By standing up and presenting to his audience an example of how a conservative can be strong in principle without being obnoxious or dallying with ugly political elements Buckley fashioned a modern conservative message that spoke to the problems of America after the 1960s. Buckley’s style clearly had an influence on Reagan who is arguably the most successful of Republican presidents since Eisenhower and probably the most transformative since Roosevelt. As David Frum has argued, conservatism advanced solutions to America’s problems and thus dominated the political scene in the 1980s. However, recently it has failed to tackle the underlying problems facing America and since 1988 has only won more than 50 percent of the vote once at a presidential election.

Today the Republican Party is indulging too many currents that make holding together the conservative coalition an increasingly fraught task. Instead of conscientious conservative intellectuals defining the boundaries now it is becoming media pundits and personalities whose financial motives rather than their principals are causing them to influence the conservative movement into strange directions. This current is also hindering the Republicans chances in presidential races. John McCain looked very different in 2008 compared to his run in 2000 owing to his need to placate his more hard-line constituents. In 2012 Mitt Romney failed to find a message that broadened the parties appeal without upsetting the Tea Party faction. And in this election year the race has narrowed to two of the Republicans most extreme figures Trump and Ted Cruz. 

Buckley once laid down his electoral philosophy for the Republicans in clear terms stating that the ‘rightwardmost electable candidate’ should be chosen. He wanted a true conservative but included the crucial qualification that that person had too have realistic prospects of victory. Buckley supported Ronald Reagan because he believed Reagan shared his conservative ethos but also because Reagan was a substantial figure. A former governor of the diverse and moderate state of California. By 1980 he was a three time candidate for the Republican nomination so he was hardly new to national politics. But Reagan was primarily a conservative intellectual who spent close to a decade developing a conservative philosophy and program for government. He was the Republican Party’s foremost debater and he conducted himself in the same vein he would as a statesman in office. He was not one for highly personalised attacks nor did he descend into bitter disputes with political foes as we increasingly see in modern politics.

It is true that the strict polarisation of US politics came as a consequence of Reagan’s rise, but it is hard to imagine that this could have been forestalled for much longer. The Democratic Party as it existed in 1960 could not be sustained by 2000. The conservative, Christian and Southern bastions of the Democrats would evacuate to the Republican Party. The former Texas governor Rick Perry switched parties in 1990 and Charlie Christ the former Republican governor of Florida switched in 2012. The Reagan Revolution expanded the Republican Party but it also contributed to its equal and opposite effect. The Democrats lost their stronghold of Texas to the Republicans but the Republicans lost their stronghold of California to their liberal opponents, the home of state of both Reagan and Nixon.


The anti-tax activist Grover Norquist said in 1994 that Richard Nixon would be the most liberal Republican by the standards of the 1990s. We can now see that Republicans of the 1980s and 90s are becoming to moderate by the standards of the present. John Kasich was the architect of major fiscal and welfare reforms that were applauded by American conservatives, now he is considered suspect for his moderation.

Ronald Reagan himself has been re-remembered and his bipartisanship and legislative compromise have been absented from the historical memory as a justification for refusing to negotiate as the US political system requires. Reagan’s party did not control the House of Representatives during his presidency requiring him to seek support from Democratic congressmen and senators in order to pass his legislative program.

Newt Gingrich disparaged Mitt Romney in 2012 as a ‘Massachusetts moderate’ and unsuccessfully attempted to cast himself as the most conservative alternative candidate to Barack Obama. However Gingrich brought the Republican Party into the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years by consolidating the often at variance factions of the conservative movement around a well thought out and practical legislative program known as the Contract with America. He was also able to deliver on much of his agenda by working with Bill Clinton who was more reform minded than his own party. The Contract as Gingrich saw it was a pro-free market and free trade document and the Republican leadership of the 1990s in Congress were not opposed to large scale immigration. The Gingrich agenda was largely opposed by the nativist and libertarian forces that tended to favour Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul. Figures, Buckley was not endeared towards and who bear strong similarities to Donald Trump.

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About the Author

William Hill is a graduate from the Australian National University with a Bachelor of International Security Studies. He has a strong interest in political science and issues of foriegn policy.

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