Movement conservatism

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The term movement conservatism was an inside term describing conservatism in the United States and New Right. According to Nash (2009) the movement comprises a coalition of five distinct impulses. From the mid-1930s to the 1960s, libertarians, traditionalists, and anticommunists made up this coalition, with the goal of fighting the liberals' New Deal. In the 1970s, two more impulses were added with the addition of neoconservatives and the Religious Right.[1]

Editor William F. Buckley, Jr. (left) and former President Ronald Reagan were dominant leaders of the movement from the 1950s to the 1980s

R. Emmett Tyrrell, a prominent writer on the right, says, "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."[2] Political scientists Doss and Roberts say that "The term movement conservatives refers to those people who argue that big government constitutes the most serious problem.... Movement conservatives blame the growth of the administrative state for destroying individual initiative."[3] Historian Allan J. Lichtman traces the term to a memorandum written in February 1961 by William A. Rusher, the publisher of National Review, to William F. Buckley, Jr., envisioning National Review as not just "the intellectual leader of the American Right," but more grandly of "the Western Right." Rusher envisioned philosopher kings would function as "movement conservatives".[4]

Recent examples of conservative writers using the term "movement conservatism" include Sam Tanenhaus,[5] Paul Gottfried,[6] and Jonathan Riehl.[7] New York Times columnist Paul Krugman devotes a chapter of his The Conscience of a Liberal (2007) to the movement.

Political roles[edit]

Scholars have traced the political role of movement conservatives in recent decades. Political scientist Robert C. Smith reports that in the 1960 presidential election, "While movement conservatives supported Nixon against Kennedy, the support was half-hearted." Smith notes that the National Review, edited by William F. Buckley, Jr., called Nixon the lesser of two evils.[8] Historian William Link, in his biography of Jesse Helms, reports that "By the mid-1970s, these movement conservatives wanted to control the Republican Party and, ultimately, the national government."[9] Phyllis Schlafly, who mobilized conservative women for Reagan, boasted after the 1980 election that Reagan won by riding "the rising tides of the Pro-Family Movement and the Conservative Movement. Reagan articulated what those two separate movements want from government, and therefore he harnessed their support and rode them into the White House.".[10]

However, movement conservatives had to compete for President Reagan's attention with fiscal conservatives, businessmen, and traditionalists. Nash (2009) identifies a tension between middle-of-the-road republicans and "movement conservatives.:[11] Conservative historian Steven Hayward says, "Movement conservatives bristled at seeing the GOP establishment so well represented in Reagan's inner circle", and they did not realize how well this arrangement actually served Reagan.[12] To sabotage movement plans, the fiscal conservatives sometimes would leak movement conservatives' plans to the press.[13] New Left historian Todd Gitlin finds that, "movement conservatives of a religious bent had to be willing to accept a long-term strategy for limiting abortion (via legislation banning partial-birth abortion, and certain statewide bans), rather than go for broke with a probably doomed constitutional amendment."[14]

Movement conservative publications and institutes[edit]


  1. ^ George H. Nash, Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism (ISI Books, 2009), p. 344
  2. ^ R. Emmett Tyrrell, After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery (2010) p 127.
  3. ^ Marion T. Doss and Robert North Roberts, From Watergate to Whitewater: The Public Integrity War (1996) p. xiv
  4. ^ Allan J. Lichtman, White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement (2008) p. 240
  5. ^ The Death of Conservatism: A Movement and Its Consequences (2010) p 10 and book title
  6. ^ Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right (2009) p. 137—Gottfried is a leading paleo
  7. ^ The Federalist Society and movement conservatism (2008), book title
  8. ^ Robert C. Smith, Conservatism and Racism, and Why in America They Are the Same (2010) p 114
  9. ^ William A. Link, Righteous warrior: Jesse Helms and the rise of modern conservatism (2008) p. 193
  10. ^ Donald T. Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and grassroots conservatism: a woman's crusade (2005) p 267
  11. ^ H. Nash, Reappraising the Right, p. 346
  12. ^ Steven F. Hayward, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989 (2009) p. 9
  13. ^ George E. Curry and Cornel West, The affirmative action debate (1996) p. 254
  14. ^ Todd Gitlin, The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals (2007) p 126

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Frohnen, Bruce et al. eds. American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (2006) ISBN 1-932236-44-9
  • Perlstein, Rick. "Thunder on the Right: The Roots of Conservative Victory in the 1960s," OAH Magazine of History, Oct 2006, Vol. 20 Issue 5, pp 24-27