In common usage, the term “conservatism” names a belief that hierarchies constituting the status quo are worth preserving and protecting; that inequality is not a necessary evil but a positive good; and that the defense of individual liberty is the best bulwark against the so-called totalitarian tendencies of an egalitarian politics. One popular variation of this usage posits conservatism as a trans-historical reaction against revolution from below: the emancipation of the lower orders in France; the rebellions of slaves in the Americas; the struggles of the white working class in nineteenth-century United States; and in successive generations, the demands of women, the poor, nonwhite and racialized minorities, and people with marginalized gender identities. In short, conservatism is synonymous with power and the defense of power in ways that are enlivened by violence and war (Robin 2011).
In the first couple of decades of the new millennium, this usage of the term feels consistent with the performance of conservative politics on FOX News and its articulation in publications such as Breitbart. It is also accords well with the “dark money” vision (Mayer, 2016) of the political machinations of the Koch brothers and others judged to be responsible for funding and fueling the Radical Right. And it reflects a belief that conservatism is embroiled in a “deep history” of “stealth planning” to alter the rules of democratic governance in America (MacLean 2017). A key feature of this approach to defining – and exposing – conservatism is the charge that impossibly-wealthy interests promote and then cynically use the resentment of the working-classes, especially the white working-classes, to advance their own agenda. As with the “business conservatism” perspective urged by Kim Phillips-Fein (2010), this definition views conservatism not as a manifestation of the post-WWII “crisis of liberalism,” but as a long, historical process of consolidating political, social and corporate power in the United States while paying lip service to ideas of democracy and individualism.
This dark vision of conservatism, and the politics of the contemporary Republican Party it is said to support, reached a watershed in cultural analysis in Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter with Kansas? (2004). Frank explored the rise of supposedly grassroots and “anti-elitist” conservatism refracted through his home state of Kansas and the use of cultural wedge issues such as gay marriage, prayer in schools, and misdirected anger toward liberal elites to cement conservative electoral victories. Frank updated the interpretive emphasis on the interconnections among conservatism, power, and resentment with considerable wit. But the general outlines of his argument stretch back at least as far as Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Published in the wake of Barry Goldwater winning the presidential nomination over Nelson D. Rockefeller (and the moderate wing of the Republican Party) in 1964, the book describes the Goldwater brand of conservatism as marked by three tendencies: “heated exaggeration,” “suspiciousness,” and “conspiratorial fantasy.” Hofstadter was struck by what was for him the unfathomable unwillingness to sever ties to rightwing extremist organizations such as the John Birch Society. For Hofstadter and others who contributed to the edited volume The New American Right (Bell, 1955), this was at best a “pseudo-conservatism” well outside of the liberal consensus.
Defining conservatism in these ways – through a lens of criticism and suspicion – means that the term cannot be understood without the preservation of racial hierarchies in and through racist and xenophobic ideologies. But what of those who seek to use the term from a position of affiliation and even affection? Conservatives themselves have mostly rejected the assertion that conservatism is indelibly racist and overly beholden to forms of white nationalism. This tendency manifests in multiple ways: in assertions that slavery and Jim Crow segregation were not racist but an outgrowth of the natural inferiority of Black and other nonwhite peoples – a view updated in the twentieth century in assertions of cultural pathology; in claims that appeals to doctrines such as “state’s rights” have nothing to do with race or civil rights activism and everything to do with critiques of federal power; and in claims that conservatism is in fact “colorblind.”
In one especially provocative series of rhetorical moves, it became common by the 1990s to view conservatism – and not liberalism – as responsible for preserving and extending the values of the civil rights movement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (often labelled a “neoconservative”) describes this turn as “semantic infiltration,” that is, “the appropriation of the language of one’s opponent for the purpose of blurring distinctions and molding it to one’s own political position.” Hence legislation designed to dismantle affirmative-action and other race conscious strategies gets defined as a “civil rights” initiative, and racism is promoted without a direct articulation of race through a “dog whistle” politics (Haney Lopez 2015) – with the metaphor pointing to the ways in which seemingly neutral turns of phrase can confirm a speaker’s support for racist ideologies, though only for those in the audience attuned to those meanings. This compass of ideas reached an apogee in President George Bush’s hesitancy over signing the 1990 Civil Rights Act on the grounds that it was a “quota bill.”
In a less disingenuous vein, some definitions of conservatism have grappled more forthrightly with the degree to which the preservation of a social, political, and moral order structured by hierarchies will inexorably embrace racism and other forms of exclusion and discrimination. Calls to protect the southern “way of life” are indicative of this definitional tendency. In the preface to The Southern Tradition, Eugene Genovese (1994) addresses the race question head-on. “It is one thing to demand – and it must be demanded – that white southerners repudiate white supremacy… It is quite another to demand that they deny the finest and most generous features of southern life” (xiii). What Genovese values most are the communitarian aspects of a southern conservatism rooted in an organic, interdependent vision of the social order. This conservativism regards change as a necessarily slow process and seeks gradual improvement over sudden and therefore dangerous social engineering. It can include a belief that the past is better than the present as well as an emphasis on restoration over revolution. It is often religiously-inflected and informed by assumptions about the “right relations” of parts to the whole as ordained by God. These “right-relations” are, more often than not, unequal and hierarchical. But this is acceptable precisely because inequality is, in this understanding of conservatism, a positive good and an important wellspring of diversity. And it is this understanding of diversity – that we are born different, not equal – that renders egalitarianism at once perilous and impossible.
A century earlier, George Fitzhugh presented this argument in his two classic proslavery texts, South of the South (1854) and Cannibals All (1857). Fitzhugh held that nature makes some men fit to rule and command, and others most suitable to be enslaved and governed. Because of this, it is the duty of the strong to protect and defend the weak. Thus, slavery is understood as a form of protection for slaves unable to be fully self-governing, along with women (“the weaker sex,”) and children. With this argument, Fitzhugh did more than champion slavery in the South. He also denounced the society emerging around industrial capitalism in the North. Cannibals All was an especially sharp critique of the “wage-slavery” in the North, and offered a form of universal (i.e., non-racialized) slavery as a remedy for this “unnatural” form of inequality that unfairly penalizes those who are unfit to compete in a free market society.
In less extreme forms, these ideas can help us to understand usages of the term conservatism that are rooted in ideas about “natural” differences that produce “positive” inequalities. Consider, for instance, the ways of defining conservatism that stress fidelity to traditional gender and sexual norms that rest on binary notions that men and women are fundamentally different. Even when the sexes are viewed as complementary, it is typically clear that men rule and women serve. Books and articles that seek to understand the attraction of social and religious conservatism to women – and that reject easy claims of “false consciousness” – are the most representative of this framework. Kathleen Blee’s (1991) study of women in the KKK was groundbreaking in this regard. It has been followed by studies of women and the post-WWII right (Nickerson 2012), and the cultural logics of free Christian enterprise (Moreton 2009). Cumulatively, they offer a very different style of analysis from that of Frank, rejecting false consciousness as the reason why some people, especially women, embrace conservatism. In these studies, adherents are not being entirely duped by powerful and often unseen forces. They are not being wholly manipulated. They are being inspired.
Some scholarship on conservatism among racial and ethnic minorities has also adopted this more positive framework (Dillard 2001). Similarly, in a study of working-class supporters of Thatcherism in Britain, Stuart Hall argued against any “theory about the world which has to assume that vast numbers of ordinary people, mentally equipped in much the same way as you or I, can simply be thoroughly and systematically duped into misrecognizing entirely where their real interests lie” (1988, 44). More often, however, researchers suggest that the social and religious right have manipulated ideas of gender and sexuality, particularly related to reproductive politics and policy-making. Some of the earliest critical analyses of conservatism and the New Right were written by feminist scholars seeking to understand – and undermine – conservative antifeminism in movements against abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment and for the rights of gays and lesbians (Petchesky, 1981; Luker, 1984; De Hart, 1991). They also explored the larger connections between these highly gendered ideologies and the ways that gender shaped thinking about the proper role of the state, nationalism, economic regulation, and moral “contamination” from communists and other subversives. This is arguably the dominant way that American studies and cultural studies have contended with the ascendency of conservative thought in general – and with the rise of Republican and rightwing women including Anita Bryant, Christina Hoff Sommers, Katie Roiphe, and Phyllis Schlafly. Susan Faludi’s Backlash (1991) is a key popular text in this genre.
Attempts to define conservatism can also draw our attention to Important debates about the meaning of freedom. Put in the starkest terms possible, those who view conservatism in positive ways have tended to define freedom in terms of liberty and individualism – the negative liberty not to be harassed or unduly controlled or limited. Conservatives eventually made an uneasy peace with notions of equality, but only as “equality of opportunity” as opposed to “equality of results” which, they maintain, can breed an egalitarian leveling downward. This libertarian streak can be seen most readily in the 1960 Sharon Statement, the founding document of Young Americans for Freedom. It held that individual freedom is a natural and God-given right; that political freedom is impossible without economic freedom; that limited government and a strict interpretation of the Constitution is essential; that the free market system is preferable over all others; and that Communism must be defeated at all costs. For this brand of conservativism, anticommunism served as the ideological glue that bound together traditionalists and Christian conservatives, advocates of laissez-faire economics and free market idealism, and Cold Warriors dedicated to defeating all vestiges of Communism, at home and abroad. In international relations, this bargain led to support of brutal regimes aligned with the “free world;” domestically, it grafted a fear of subversion at the hands of communists onto an aversion to race mixing, rock-and-roll, gender-bending, sexual liberation, and other “assaults” on traditional morality. The contemporary notion of “culture wars” between the left and the right date from this period (Hartman, 2015).
This usage of conservatism has been vigorously contested by what is, once again, a much darker and more skeptical rendering. One of the most useful – and sweeping – cultural studies critiques of conservative ideologies of freedom is Michael Rogin’s (1987) work on the “countersubversive tradition” of “political demonology” in U.S. political culture. These terms point to the “creation of monsters as a continuing feature of American politics by inflation, stigmatization, and dehumanization of political foes,” Rogin argues, from depictions of “savage Indians” to bomb-throwing anarchists to the Evil Empire, and more recently “Feminazis” and terrorists who allegedly hate our freedom and our way of life (xiii). At every turn, the world is split into good and evil and anything is permissible in the fight against evil. In the end, Rogin argued that the process of demonization allows the “countersubversive, in the name of battling the subversive, to imitate his enemy;” that is, to become terrorist-like and abridge freedom in the heroic fight against terrorism, variously defined (xiii). This powerful cluster of ideas has been informed by the rise of the New Right from the post-WWII era to the ascendency of Ronald Reagan and beyond. And American cultural studies, at least since George Nash (1976), has been puzzling over this fusion of seemingly incompatible and inconsistent ideas ever since (Perlstein, 2001, 2008, 2014; Kintz, 1997; Marable, 1999; Kruse, 2005).
In the early twenty-first century, debates over the proper usage of the term are complicated by the unexpected 2016 electoral victory of Donald Trump, and the degree to which Trumpism has come to define both the Republican Party and the conservative movement. With its stress on tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans, an overwhelming fidelity to the Second Amendment, and a desire to overturn Roe v Wade by remaking the Supreme Court, Trumpian conservatism is well in line with some past traditions. Yet there are “Never Trump” conservatives and other skeptics within the Republican Party and among Libertarians who judge his strategy to be indecipherable and his message a muddle. Trump’s embrace of reactionary white nationalism, anti-immigration policies augmented by closed borders and barrier walls, authoritarian pretentions, and global isolationism appear far from a direct evolution of a tradition once rooted in small government, fiscal responsibility, and a fear of disorder. A vindictive, mercurial, and erratic standard-bearer ought to be anathema to classical conservatism.
It is true that a retroactive interpretation of U.S. political history might find that Trump’s “America First” nationalism, with its toxic brew of governance by social media and constant insult, connects to some of the most disreputable episodes of the nation’s past. In particular, one can recall the anti-rationalist “know-nothing” politics of a Huey Long or a Joseph McCarthy or even a Sarah Palin, whose vice-presidential candidacy in many ways prefigured Trumpian conservatism. The perilous unpredictability of decisions and situations is why we lack a grand unified theory of conservatism. In the age of Trump, we are presented with protean usages of a term whose future consequences are impossible to predict.