The term “conservative” exploded into mainstream media around the time that Ronald Reagan become President. Probably slightly before that, but it was not considered a prominent political ideology until around that time. It is a term that has been used mainly in a derogatory manner when referred to by mainstream “journalists” but a badge of honor by many others. Ultimately, the movement has become mainstream and, as most mainstream movements do, splintered into various sections and factions. Right now there is a huge ideological divide within the conservative movement and more than likely a generational one as well. But in general, there seems to be some distinct categories of the American right-wing despite some snowflakes here and there:
- The original conservatives are now considered paleo-conservatives. These folks believe in government being limited to its traditional constitutional role. Another term that could be used for them is “Constitutional Conservatives”. This group appeared around the time that the Progressives gained a lot of traction in the Federal government. Today they would be considered largely libertarian, or mistaken for libertarian, but they do believe that the several states have a right to pass whatever legislation they see fit so long as it does not interfere with the Constitutional requirements (Bill or Rights, 14th amendment, etc.). By and large, this group does not see military intervention in foreign nations or a massive Federal government security network as we have as a legitimate function of government. They take issue with everything that does not strictly adhere to the United States’ Constitution. They can find allies in libertarians because of their pro-limited Federal government stances. They are often shunned, however, by most of the other conservatives because of this.
- When William F. Buckley, Jr. first started his own conservative movement, he focused on stopping the spread of communism and saving the Christian (Catholic in particular) world from secular tyrants. His conservative movement was largely supportive of limited powers except when it came to defeating the Soviets, where a blank check was given and excuses were made. They were highly supportive of traditional family values as well, and many of them have pushed for social policies reflecting such. Buckley was instrumental in influencing later conservative pundits such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter. This is why I refer to this group as Mainstream Conservatives. They are the most significant group among the conservative movement, however, they often times lack a significance influence on the Republican party, who often pay lip service to them much like how the Democrats pay lip service to the black civil rights groups. Usually, this group is content with whoever is shoved in front of them by the Republican leadership because that person usually shares their views on foreign and social policy. In fact, this is largely how Republicans have been able to maintain their power and influence for the past couple of decades because of their ability to pretend to care about matters like abortion and gay marriage in order to rally this gullible group. It should be noted that before his death, William F. Buckley himself came out against the War on Drugs and the War on Terror as he believed that both were ineffective and against his own brand of conservatism. Many of his followers ignored him. Although I call this group Mainstream Conservatives, it is actually a dying breed now that the Soviet Union is long gone and because of the next group, which gained prominence during the Bush years.
- The final group of conservatives are the Neoconservatives. This is a distinct group as outlined by Irving Kristol and whose purpose is “to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy”. Neoconservatives are more concerned with getting government to work “right” rather than limit it. In general, this is the conservative rhetoric that dominates the mainstream political discourse. Even many of the Mainstream Conservatives openly support and rally around Neoconservative candidates and nominees, often resorting to fear tactics in order to discourage voting for your principle. They are often proposing plans to reform the tax code, redesign existing, archaic welfare programs to be more accessible, and a foreign policy program that extends the Mainstream Conservative one. They believe in spreading democracy across the world in order to make the world a better place, against the will of the people living in those nations of course. They have often been allied with Mainstream Conservatives because of their shared views on foreign policy and social policy, however, they have sharp disagreements in fiscal policies. But still, they consider fiscal issues to be much less important than other issues. Constitutional Conservatives often butt heads with this group and are often alienated as a result.
So the three groups of conservatives, as I see them, are the Mainstream Conservatives, the Constitutional Conservatives, and the Neoconservatives. While the Mainstream Conservatives have a significant influence within the media, especially on radio, Neoconservatives have a larger influence on the political class while Constitutional Conservatives are largely ignored by both only to be openly attacked when they step out of bounds (the boundaries being Hell in most cases). However, with the significance of Ron Paul’s CPAC wins, soundly beating neoconservative Mitt Romney two years in a row, and his consistent polling, as well as his significant fund-raising efforts, Constitutional Conservatives are making much more headway. Because many Constitutional Conservatives are Generation X and Generation Y while many of the Mainstream Conservatives are of the Baby Boom Generation, the significance of the influence of Constitutional Conservatism will continue to grow. In many cases, these young people, such as myself although I am not a Constitutional Conservative, have listened to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and have found contradictions in his and many others’ support for the Constitution. Because they will be saddled with the largest national debt in the history of mankind, they do not accept any 10 year plans for balancing the Federal budget nor do they expect to be collecting Social Security. As such, their concerns are more immediate and they view Ron Paul as the kind of wise grandfather who seems to know more about life, the universe, and everything than their immediate predecessors.
Note both the Mainstream and Constitutional Conservatives both claim to be adherents to the Constitution, where as the Neoconservatives often claim that they are not “backward-looking”. However, most Mainstream Conservatives will gladly abandon constitutional principles and the limits imposed by it in order to further their own agenda. The most significant of this are the modern foreign wars, so long as they were started by Republicans. They are a dying breed, though, largely because of the Neoconservative influence on the political class. They compromise their own principles in order to elect Republicans and use the excuse of voting for the lesser of two evils. Because of this, they are largely becoming extinct, as show by the growing lack of overall conservative voter turnout in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Unfortunately, there are still plenty of Neoconservatives who have influenced Mainstream Conservatism enough to blur the lines between them. This is largely because of President Bush’s own brand of Neoconservatism, which is still a major influence in the Republican party. The three “frontrunners”, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry have all expressed Neoconservative beliefs and attitudes which is to make government better and more efficient instead of cutting it down to its constitutional limits. It will be a while before the Constitutional Conservatives take back the movement. Even if Ron Paul wins it all, he will meet significant opposition from all sides, but I am sure he is used to it. In any event, this is the current state of the conservative movement.