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A Turning Point for Modern Conservatism

Winter 2007 - Vol. 49, No. 1

Today, political conservatives face a host of challenges, some of which are of their own making. They must account for a war in Iraq that has dragged on longer and more costly than had been foreseen. They must confront massive government deficits and answer for lobbying scandals in Washington. The relentless criticism now being levied against conservative ideas and policies is in many respects the natural result of leadership. But in this setting it can be difficult to appreciate the nature of the conservative philosophy, which often gets intermingled with Republican politics, regardless of whether those politics accurately reflect conservative ideas. Certainly nothing in the conservative creed, for instance, envisions the kind of federal deficits that have arisen since 2001. Conservatism has also been tainted by the inevitable public backlash against those in power—a backlash continually fueled by an impatience with the slowness of progress.

Unquestionably, its rise to power in the latter part of the twentieth century demands that the conservative agenda be judged on its record. But this rise to power also affords another opportunity: that of judging the wisdom of the conservative cause during those not so distant decades when it was far from the pinnacle of power. Indeed, the most illuminating time to judge a belief is when it is out of favor, to see how it held up during periods of public criticism and condemnation. Values and beliefs, like people, can be best measured by adversity—because the strength of an idea can often be better tested when it is being condemned than when it is being followed.

Unlike its apparent strength in current times, conservatism not so long ago was a decidedly unpopular and much-derided philosophy. As recently as the late 1970s, conservatism was seen as a permanent minority philosophy in America; in fact, it was so much in the minority that there was a question as to whether the conservative cause would even survive. Within mainstream political culture, conservative ideals had been marginalized for half a century, since the late 1920s. Thus, for conservatives, the story of that long hiatus from popular embrace, which reached its peak in the 1960s, is a story of dogged perseverance—a story of unrelenting commitment to a set of ideals rooted in three centuries of American history.

Well into the 1970s, conservatism remained mired in the depths to which it had fallen nearly five decades earlier. But the absolute lows in popularity occurred during the 1960s, when the media tended to label all varieties of conservatism as “extremist.”1 So unpopular were conservative ideas and so absent were they from respected intellectual discourse that one of the few conservative policy institutes in the nation, the Hoover Institution, was on the verge of bankruptcy in the early 1960s. This conservative absence from the intellectual world had been going on for years. While liberals in the early 1950s had eight weekly magazines devoted to their cause, conservatives had only one— an eight-page newsletter titled Human Events. Academia was so pervasively liberal that a conservative foundation, the William Volker Fund, had to actively recruit scholars to receive its financial assistance.2 As Lionel Trilling wrote in The Liberal Tradition, published in 1950, “liberalism is not only the dominant, but even the sole, intellectual tradition” in America. A year earlier, he had declared that liberal dogmas had been ascendant throughout American culture since the 1920s.3

In 1964, more than twice as many Americans identified themselves as Democrats than as Republicans.4 President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s electoral victory, with 61 percent of the vote, was even larger than F.D.R.’s in 1936. In the House, Republicans faced the largest Democratic majority since 1936; in the Senate, they were outnumbered two to one; and in the state capitols, they held only seventeen of the nation’s fifty governorships.5 With this lopsided liberal advantage, President Johnson in 1965 sent to Congress his Great Society welfare-state agenda, ranging from public housing legislation to the creation of Medicare/Medicaid programs to a host of anti-poverty and Appalachian development proposals. Although conservatives warned that these programs would lead to inflation and a bloated federal bureaucracy, their warnings fell on deaf ears. As the journalist James Reston remarked, President Johnson was “getting everything through the Congress but the abolition of the Republican party, and he hasn’t tried that yet.”6

Conservatism was so marginalized during the 1960s that even Republicans shunned the label. In fact, party leaders like Nelson Rockefeller actually tried to purge the party of conservatives, while other Republicans like former president Herbert Hoover insisted on being called liberal.7 President Nixon, elected in 1968, adopted liberal positions on many issues. He was the first president to support affirmative action programs effectively requiring corporations, unions, and universities to establish racial quotas.8 He also expanded existing food stamp programs and even supported, through his Family Assistance Plan, a guaranteed income for certain groups.9

Richard Nixon not only refused to govern from a conservative perspective, but actually expanded the liberal agenda of the New Deal and Great Society. During Nixon’s presidency, federal spending and federal regulation grew faster than they had during the Johnson administration.10 Social spending overtook defense spending for the first time. The number of pages of the Federal Register grew by 121 percent under Nixon, compared with 19 percent under Johnson. The Nixon administration created new government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In 1971, the Cost of Living Council was established to control wages and prices, in what was the most concerted attempt at state control of the economy since the Second World War.

Another measure of how the Nixon years did not reflect any kind of conservative revival can be found in the rulings and makeup of the Supreme Court. This was the period in which the Court tried to erect a high and impregnable wall between church and state, striking down even minor and indirect benefits received by religiously affiliated schools and social welfare groups. Indeed, Nixon’s appointment of Warren Burger as Chief Justice in 1969 made little difference in the overall direction of the Court set during the tenure of Earl Warren.

When William Rehnquist was appointed to the Court, the closest thing to another conservative on the Court was Byron White, a Kennedy appointee. Thus, it was a lonely time to insist on constraints on the power of the federal judiciary, or to resist the creation of new individual rights, or to oppose radical social engineering programs like court-ordered student busing. In 1970, for instance, the Court ruled that welfare benefits could not be terminated without according due process to the recipients.11 Earlier, the Court had overturned state laws requiring a year’s residence before people could be eligible for welfare.12 And in 1973, the Burger Court used the newly-created right of privacy to rule that women had a constitutional right to an abortion.13

In its acceptance of the New Deal welfare state, the Nixon presidency followed the example set by the Eisenhower administration. It was President Eisenhower who created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and extended the reach of Social Security more than Roosevelt or Truman ever had.14 More-over, Dwight Eisenhower was never able to give a wider reach to his personal political victories. Not only did Democrats triumph in the off-year elections of 1958, greatly increasing their numbers on Capitol Hill, but also a report by the Republican Senate Campaign Committee in March 1959 stated that eight million voters had abandoned the party between 1954 and 1958.15

Conservatism had sunk to such a low point in the 1960s that liberals were able to attack it with impunity. A common practice of moderates and liberals was to portray conservatives as “lunatics.”16 Conservatism was dismissed as a “paranoid” way of thinking, a “political pathology.”17 F.A. Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom (1944), the now-classic conservative critique of the ever-expanding welfare state, was branded a reactionary and extremist.18

Democrats opened the 1964 campaign by describing Goldwater’s supporters as fascists.19 After the election, Arthur Schlesinger predicted that if the Republican party was realigned as a conservative party and the Democratic party as a liberal one, Republicans would lose every election.20 As John Kenneth Galbraith remarked in 1964: “These are without doubt the years of the liberal; almost everyone so describes himself.”21 And out of this era came the candidacy of George McGovern, the most left-of-center presidential candidate of any major political party in United States history. Yet even though McGovern suffered a landslide loss in 1972, Democrats still gained one seat in the Senate.

For conservatives, the 1960s and 1970s were the darkest days before the light, the eve of their long-awaited revival as an embraced political philosophy. As such, these years reflect the dogged perseverance of conservative thinkers who continued to stand by their ideas no matter how much social ridicule they received. The late 1960s and early 1970s were to be the final test for conservative dedication to the cause. By the mid-seventies, the “Me Decade” had already begun to expose the fault lines of liberalism. Social order was being severely weakened, as reflected by the events in New York City: the Son of Sam murders, the 1977 summer blackout and ensuing riots, the deepening urban decay, the loss of 340,000 jobs between 1973 and 1976, historic crime rates, the increase in “pornographic institutions” from nine in 1965 to 245 by 1977; the city’s near financial bankruptcy, and the prevalence of swingers’ clubs like Studio 54 and Plato’s Retreat, which, according to Norman Mailer, marked the last great years of “unprotected, non-reproductive sex in the city.”22 All these were events about which conservatives had long warned.

But perhaps nothing legitimates the conservative philosophy so ridiculed during the 1960s and 1970s as the Clinton presidency of the 1990s. From the very start of his presidency, Bill Clinton began well to the right of where any of his twentieth-century Democratic predecessors had started. In his first budget, for instance, Clinton reduced spending by hundreds of billions of dollars and cut taxes by $351 billion over ten years.23 Clinton also adopted the conservative position regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement and his 1996 welfare reform package. Announcing that his aim was to “end welfare as we know it,” Clinton introduced in Congress a reform bill that was much more conservative in its work requirements than any that had ever been proposed by previous Democratic presidents.24 In fact, the Clinton reform bill relied largely on the California plan that Ronald Reagan devised a quarter of a century earlier.

If the test of an idea is its ability to persevere during times of greatest adversity, then perhaps the most appropriate period for judging the conservative creed is the 1960s and 1970s, for it was during those years that conservatives had the most reasons for abandoning their beliefs. And yet what opened the door for conservatism in 1980 was as much liberal failures as conservative promise.

Under liberal policies, the economy had become mired in stagflation throughout the entire 1970s. The federal budget during Jimmy Carter’s first three years in office was four times as large as during Lyndon Johnson’s last three, and by 1980 Americans were paying more in taxes than on food, clothing, and shelter combined. Federal, state and local governments were taking nearly 50 cents out of every dollar of the national income.25 Whereas in 1961 nearly nine in ten Americans paid a flat tax of 22 percent, by the end of the 1970s only 55 percent had marginal rates below 23 percent.26

Conservatives had three main prescriptions for bringing the economy out of its stagflation: cut taxes, reduce government regulation, and impose sound monetary policies. President Reagan applied all three prescriptions when he took office in 1981. As a result, beginning in the fall of 1982 the economy began 60 straight months of growth—the longest uninterrupted period of expansion since the government began keeping statistics in 1854.27 Yet when Reagan proposed his 30 percent across-the-board tax-rate cut, his critics howled that this would lead to hyper-inflation. Indeed, Reagan’s actions laid the foundation for an economic growth that would last for the rest of the century. Since the early eighties, the U.S. economy has been in an expansionary mode 94 percent of the time, and in a recessionary phase only six percent.28

During the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives also warned that the expansion of social welfare programs would unduly burden future generations. As a result of substantial raises in Social Security benefits, total government outlays for social insurance jumped nearly three-fold from just 1969 to 1975. Consequently, state and local governments today have been driven to financial desperation by the rapidly rising cost of Medicaid, the government health plan for the poor.29 Owing to an expansion of eligibility, the number of people on Medicaid has grown dramatically, forcing counties and states to slash other services. County officials in New York describe Medicaid as “a constant, unmanageable burden that’s been absolutely and totally out of our control.” Indeed, the big government legacy of the 1960s has become so discredited that even today’s liberals reject it. Notwithstanding his sudden leftward lurch during the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore still did not want to return to the big-government liberalism of the 1960s. “I don’t ever want to see another era of big government,” he declared just weeks before the election.

The conservative foreign policy prescriptions of the 1960s likewise proved ultimately to be the correct ones. Unlike the Roosevelt-Truman policy of containment regarding Soviet communism, conservatives believed the Cold War to be a vital moral struggle, rejecting efforts to appease or accommodate the Soviet Union. During the 1980s, they undertook despite much public opposition a course of direct confrontation with the Soviet Union, culminating in President Reagan’s demand to tear down the Berlin wall. Only a deep moral belief in the evils of Soviet communism, however, could inspire the kind of courage and stamina needed to end the longest war (the Cold War) in modern history.

Aside from the areas of foreign policy and economic growth, the liberalism of the 1960s produced a host of social problems. For instance, even though federal expenditures for schools in 1968 rose by more than ten times the amount spent ten years earlier,30 and even though the federal share of total educational spending during the same period increased from less than three percent to roughly 10 percent,31 it was being openly acknowledged by the early 1970s that a great deal of federal educational money was failing to meet its goals.32 Starting in 1964, average scores on Scholastic Aptitude Tests went steadily down. This occurred because accompanying all the increased spending was a decline in educational standards and school discipline, as traditional standards of study and behavior were deemed an imposition of white middle-class values and a violation of students’ due process rights.33

Contrary to the liberal view, conservatives focus on individual behavior and cultural mores for the resolution of many social problems. The liberalism of the 1960s, on the other hand, argued that the only way for people to escape poverty was through political activism, or relying on the state, rather than economic activism, or relying on the entrepreneurial energy of individuals.34 In 1965, Sargent Shriver predicted that government would be able to wipe out poverty within ten years.35 But poverty never did significantly decline during the late 1960s and 1970s, despite all the Great Society social programs; in fact, it did not decline until the 1980s, when the private-sector economy began growing.

In contrast to the liberalism of the 1960s, which concentrated primarily on materialism and physical well-being, conservatism preached that the crisis of American life was more of a moral and cultural one than an economic one.36 And this message has been confirmed by events of the past three decades. Even though America’s wealth has dramatically increased, even though per capita income has risen steadily, social problems have intensified. Child abuse and juvenile delinquency are at all-time highs. Schools are under a constant state of disruption by anti-social behavior. Business ethics are being violated in notorious ways. The nation’s jails and prisons are jammed full, and consumer bankruptcies have exploded. Despite the liberal exultation of self-gratification and the argument that happiness inheres in material things, more people are taking medication for clinical depression than ever before. Indeed, this fact alone seems to undercut the liberal myth that the elimination of social constraints and duties would bring true self-fulfillment.

Contrary to the liberalism of the 1960s, the conservative philosopher Leo Strauss argued that the measure of a healthy society was not how much freedom people enjoyed, but how virtuous its citizens were.37 He echoed the conservative conviction, growing since the 1950s, that the emerging crisis in America was not the lack of individual liberty but the destruction of individual virtue. And as predicted, this crisis of virtue epitomizes many of America’s current problems. A growing body of social science evidence suggests that destructive personal behavior like drug use, spousal violence and sexual infidelity, not income or economic status, are the most important cause of family breakup.38 Indeed, there is little evidence that governmental welfare policy can effectively promote marriage, reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing, or turn men into responsible husbands.39 Rather, it is those factors that lie outside the governmental realm—moral commitments, cultural norms, and individual choices—that best account for family health and stability.

During the 1960s, conservatives warned that the sexual revolution, with its elimination of behavioral standards and its glorification of sexual innovation, would end up causing much social chaos. Not only has this prediction come true, but the liberal-sponsored sexual revolution has hit the less-privileged much harder than the affluent.40 For the well-off, divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births remain relatively low; but for the poor, high rates of divorce and illegitimacy are sabotaging any chance of social progress. History has shown that personal restraint and sexual fidelity—all those values so belittled by modern liberalism—lead to orderly families who can then channel their energies into climbing the social ladder. This fact of life, however, is ignored by the liberal reluctance to label any behavior as self-destructive.

The social stratification of family life reflects an ominous trend: while the off-spring of the well-off grow up in stable and orderly homes, the less privileged suffer fractured and chaotic family lives. But this stratification did not develop during the Industrial Revolution, when large numbers of immigrants were crowded into urban slums; nor did it develop during the economic cataclysm of the Great Depression. In fact, it did not begin to take shape until the late 1960s, following the greatest period of economic growth the nation had ever seen. Yet liberals still claim, as they did during the 1960s, that family breakdown is all about economics, that the higher incidence in some social groups of divorce and out-of-wedlock births has nothing to do with individual behavior or cultural mores.

Sexual freedom for the advantaged has come at the price of broken families for the vulnerable, which in turn has resulted in a growing inequality in society. In fact, places of greatest liberal influence have become places of the greatest inequality. Compare, for instance, the congressional districts of House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In Hastert’s middle-class Illinois district, there is not the striking disparity between the very wealthy and the impoverished homeless that exists in Pelosi’s San Francisco district. Hastert’s district is composed primarily of families who send their children to the same schools and shop at the same grocery stores. In Pelosi’s, there is a noticeable absence of children; there are the very wealthy who live in multi-million dollar homes and condominiums, and then there are the struggling single people and immigrants who occupy crammed apartments. In Hastert’s district, the majority of people own their own homes; whereas in Pelosi’s, most are rent-ers. In Hastert’s, most jobs come from the private sector; whereas in Pelosi’s, most come from the government or non-profit foundations.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, conservatives argued that America’s drastic social changes—e.g., the sexual revolution and the anti-establishment rebellion against traditional authority—caused the nation to lose its cultural anchor. Unlike conservatives, however, liberals sought change for the sake of change, even when they could not foresee its outcome. They strove to accomplish a dramatic transformation in historical institutions and values, breaking sharply with the past. Because they saw American history as one of injustice and oppression, and believed that any change would be for the better, the Left did not care about the damage that might be done to American values and institutions. Conservatives, on the other hand, saw the past as providing the unique identity of America.

Adopting an extreme view of individualism, liberalism in the 1960s viewed community concerns and social values that for centuries had governed individual behavior as oppressive and outmoded relics of an unenlightened past. Contrary to these liberal views, conservatives did not agree that individual freedom trumped every other concern or issue. Resisting the prevailing dogma of the times, conservatives argued that it was ridiculous to think that the full potential of humanity could only be reached if human relationships were freed of all social obligation. To conservatives, exalting the notion of individual liberty to a single solitary absolute would only undermine civil order, which in turn would undo freedom itself.

Under the conservative world view, freedom is the easy goal; the discipline to build and maintain the social pillars that support freedom is the far more challenging one. By itself, freedom can inhibit a sense of obligation to a larger world beyond the individual. And as conservatives have long believed, if the social fabric of traditions and institutions is weakened, individuals can quickly return to a primitive state of violence, such as what occurred during the riots that engulfed Northern cities in the late 1960s and that were celebrated by many liberals as a legitimate form of protest.

The liberal individualism of the 1960s adopted the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that human beings were at their best in a state of nature, unbounded by society. This philosophy took a shallow and naive approach to human happiness: if all the rules and social constraints were simply eliminated, then humanity would flourish. It essentially dismissed thousands of years of civilization-building, asserting that people were better off in the cave than in the peaceful streets of an orderly neighborhood.

However, as history has shown, democracy is a much more demanding form of government than liberals led us to believe in the 1960s. Democracy cannot survive if it simply doles out rights to selected groups of individuals; it also requires the imposition of duties. And to fulfill these duties, individuals need all the help they can get from religion, cultural traditions and social institutions, which together act as a civilizing force that trains individuals to lead self-disciplined, public-spirited lives. But these civilizing forces are not free or automatic; they exist only if individuals are willing to pay the price necessary for their existence.41 As Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism (1978), a healthy society requires citizens who are capable of fulfilling certain moral responsibilities to democratic culture; but a culture obsessed with individual freedom inspires only a narcissistic preoccupation with the self that precludes attention on anything beyond the individual.

Although Western culture began with the idea that each individual in society would subordinate his own behavior to the understood conventions and restraints of community, the liberal preoccupation with rights has been repudiating that notion since the 1960s. Indeed, the unrestrained self-expression fostered during the 1960s has spawned a kind of human decadence—including pornography, violence, and incivility—that has undermined the social foundations of democracy. This was reflected in the 1965 “filthy speech movement” at Berkeley, advocating the open expression of profanity in American life.42

The obsession with elevating individual rights over social order was evident in the liberal war on “the establishment.” Police were likened to the gestapo, and any attempt to impose order was likened to totalitarianism. This same hostility to social authority could be seen forty years later in the liberal opposition to the Patriot Act. Indeed, liberals seem more fearful of a police state being created by law enforcement officials trying to protect a community than of the death and the destruction that suicidal terrorists are determined to bring to the United States. Although liberals make every presumption of innocence in favor of suspected criminals and terrorists, they give just the opposite treatment to society’s law enforcement officials, presuming them constantly guilty of human rights abuses.

Coinciding with an individualistic rejection of social authority and community values, liberals in the 1960s adopted a moral relativism that similarly rejected the moral standards of the past. As Irving Kristol said, a liberal is someone who thinks it is all right for an 18-year-old girl to perform in a porn film so long as she is paid the minimum wage. But with the rise of moral relativism, socially destructive behavior has escalated since the 1960s. William Bennett’s “index of leading cultural indicators” showed that from 1960 to 1993 there was a 560 percent increase in violent crime, a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes, and a drop of seventy-five points in the SAT scores of high school students. Divorce and illegitimacy rates, which had been stable since the late 1940s, increased sharply after 1963.43 In 1965, 7.7 percent of all births were out-of-wedlock, and nearly 73 percent of all households were made up of married couples. By 2000, however, only 52 percent of all households were made up of married couples, and out-of-wedlock births amounted to over 33 percent of all births.44 Among blacks, illegitimacy rates jumped more than 50 percent in just seven years, from 23 percent in 1963 to 36 percent in 1970.45

Rates of drug abuse and alcohol consumption, especially among young people, rose sharply after 1963.46 And serious crime, which had remained stable throughout the 1950s, began to rise at a rate of almost 20 percent a year in the mid-1960s. But liberals had no solution for the problem of rising crime, other than to accuse the police of brutality and racism. Nor did they have a solution for the breakup of the family, other than an increase in welfare payments.

Besides denigrating community values in favor of extreme individualism, and traditional moral values in favor of a moral relativism, liberals in the 1960s also promoted a kind of national guilt that undermined faith in the integrity of American cultural and political institutions. In their assault on these traditional institutions, liberals resembled the French revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century who were willing to destroy all existing social institutions in order to “reform” society. Since destroying the old was the first step in creating the new, the revolutionaries tried to undermine the moral customs and cultural institutions that characterized the social order they wanted to transform. However, the undermining of society’s central institutions in 1798 France, just as in 1968 America, created nothing but a balkanized society of cultural groups agreeing on no central values.

By attacking traditional values and institutions—patriotism and religion being two of the most prominent—1960s liberalism undercut the foundations of American society. Contrary to the liberal belief that the state alone could direct society and that America was a function solely of its government, conservatives believed that only cultural forces like patriotism and religion, not politics, could unite a society of diverse individuals toward common goals.

In their push to create a society of victims and rights, liberals emphasized the national guilt America should feel about its past wrongs. This emphasis sought to downgrade existing cultural values and institutions, since victims can only be superior if the culture that produces them is unjust. Regarding social welfare programs, for instance, liberals depicted the recipients as aggrieved victims who had to be compensated for past injustices inflicted by an oppressive society. This outlook, however, incorporates a distinct adversarial assumption about the nature of society, with increasingly strident accusations of discrimination and injustice leading to increasing social polarization.

The liberal war on American values and institutions during the 1960s can be seen in its encouragement of or acquiescence to the violent protests of the time. As they vandalized draft headquarters and burned draft cards, anti-war protestors openly taunted policemen and other uniformed symbols of authority. In October 1967, some 20,000 demonstrators took part in a siege of the Pentagon. In 1968, students at Columbia University seized five university buildings and vandalized the president’s office. In 1969, protestors at Cornell held university administrators at gunpoint, vandalized libraries, and disrupted classes—and yet none of those demonstrators were ever disciplined.

Urban riots constituted another form of liberal-encouraged protest. One hundred sixty-seven such riots occurred in just the first nine months of 1967, 33 of which required the intervention of the state police, and eight of which necessitated the National Guard. The two biggest riots, in Newark and Detroit, each lasted for almost a week, leaving 23 and 43 dead respectively.47 An almost carnival-like atmosphere pervaded those riots, which were rife with looting, stealing, and burning. In October 1969, a leftist group called The Weathermen staged “Four Days of Rage” in Chicago that ended up injuring 75 policemen.48 Between September 1969 and May 1970, at least 250 bombings linked to radical leftist groups occurred.49 Favorite targets were ROTC buildings, draft boards, and other federal offices. In February 1970, bombs exploded at the corporate offices of Socony Mobil, IBM, and General Telephone and Electronics.

Given its legacy of sanctioning “political” violence during the 1960s and early 1970s, the left has never been able to confront effectively later manifestations of such violence, including terrorism. Indeed, the effects of the leftist rejection of traditional values and institutions have persisted to this day. After calling police officers “pigs” in the 1960s and 1970s, and after relentlessly accusing them of racism in the 1980s and 1990s, liberals should hardly be surprised today that, despite increasing bonuses, police departments across the country are attracting fewer recruits.50 After having long condemned the United States as an imperialistic evil in the world, liberals should not be surprised that American voters do not trust them now to defend the national security. Nor should liberals be surprised that new immigrants are not flocking to the Democratic party. Since the 1960s, there has been a stark contrast in attitudes between immigrants and liberals. Contrary to the liberal view, most immigrants see America not as a land of oppressors but as a place of opportunity and fairness.

The liberal assault on community has exerted a destructive effect on families that continues to worsen. Even though liberals try to diminish the importance of families by arguing that “it takes a village” to raise a child, in truth the village has become so desolate of commonly held moral values “that parents now feel their job is not to rely on the village but to protect their children from it.”51 Exemplifying the decline in popular culture over the past thirty years has been the way rap music containing violent and sexually explicit lyrics has slipped seamlessly into the households of many responsible American families.

Another comparison between liberals and conservatives can be seen in the way they have conducted themselves when out of power. For conservatives, this period of outcast lasted from approximately the 1930s to the 1980s. For liberals, their hold on the American mindset was challenged in 1980, and then severely weakened in 1994, the year that Republicans gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Throughout the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies, Republicans had tried to adopt bipartisan positions with Democrats; but just days after losing the House in 1994, Democrats vowed to use every device possible to stall the Republican agenda. They declared a “two-year war” on the Republican majority, condemning their Republican colleagues as “supply-side terrorists.” Even though President Clinton’s Supreme Court nominations of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer sailed through the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, Senate Democrats under President George W. Bush have been much more obstruction-ist, denying hearings to numerous judicial nominees. Indeed, during the Bush administration, Democrats became the first party in the history of the Senate to use the explosive device of the filibuster to prevent a vote on judicial nominees who would otherwise have been confirmed by a Senate majority.

Under the Clinton presidency, Republicans fully supported the war in Kosovo; but during the Bush presidency, Democrats have thrown unrelenting criticism against every aspect of the war on terror. Democrats discredited America to the entire Arab world when they shamelessly claimed that the U.S. military routinely and brutally tortured its prisoners. Democrats even said the world would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power than with the American military securing the first ever democratic elections in Iraq. Indeed, it often seemed as if no one in the world wanted America to fail in Iraq more than the Democrats.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, faced with losing the presidency, Democrats in a last ditch effort to win the election attacked the long-standing rules and institutions governing the election process. Indeed, just as during the Clinton impeachment when the Democrats fouled the office of the presidency by dredging up all the rumored sins of Clinton’s predecessors (so as to argue that Clinton had done nothing his predecessors had not done), and just as Bill Clinton corrupted the judicial system with his perjury and subsequent obstructions, Democrats during the 2000 election tainted the entire electoral process by arguing that Gore lost only because the process was somehow discriminatory toward Democratic voters. Just as Clinton trivialized the office of the president by arguing about the definition of “is,” Gore trivialized the electoral system with arguments over “chads” and “dimples.”

A similar disrespect for the integrity of America’s electoral process occurred during the 2004 presidential campaign. Throughout the campaign, vandalism and assaults against Republican headquarters and officials occurred frequently— an offshoot of the liberal promise to do “whatever it takes, by any means necessary” to win the election. In Orlando, Democrats stormed the local Bush-Cheney headquarters, causing physical injuries to several Republican campaign workers. In Knoxville, Tennessee, and Huntington, West Virginia, shots were fired into the Bush-Cheney headquarters. The Republican office in Gallatin County, Montana was vandalized twice in less than a week. Republican headquarters in Seattle, Spokane, Canton, Ohio, Fairbanks, Alaska, Madison, Wisconsin, and Edwardsville, Illinois, were burglarized or vandalized. In Gainesville, Florida, police arrested a Democratic activist for assaulting a local Republican committee chairman. On election day morning, nearly 30 cars and vans to be used in the Wisconsin Republican party’s get-outthe-vote effort in Milwaukee had their tires slashed. Condemning Democrats for the way they sabotaged his 2004 presidential campaign, attempting to deny him a place on the ballot in many states, third-party candidate Ralph Nader said he had “underestimated the mendacity of the Democratic Party.”52

But liberal acts of anger and intolerance for their opponents are not confined to the political arena. In the realm of higher education, for instance, leftists have violently attacked conservative speakers. A leftist protester threw his shoe at former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle during a debate with Howard Dean. Another protester at Western Michigan University doused Pat Buchanan with salad dressing. Similar attacks were made against David Horowitz at Butler University, Bill Kristol at Earlham College, and Ann Coulter at the University of Arizona. Even liberal faculty members engage in active intolerance against conservatives, believing that their moral mandate is to deny tenure to conservative colleagues.

What inspired conservative perseverance throughout the height of liberalism in the 1960s, despite near overwhelming opposition and ridicule, was the wisdom of the past. Although liberals often believe that abstract ideals unconnected to America’s cultural heritage should direct social policy, the experience of the 1960s showed that only the beacon of the past can guide America through the tumult of changing times. Only a sense of history can yield an appreciation of the long and painful process through which America developed into something worth defending.53 And as Clinton Rossiter observed, “Only if America is a failure can we say that the men on the Right were a failure too.”54

The defining characteristic of American conservatism is its desire to preserve the unique cultural heritage that has provided such continuity and stability in the past.55 To conservatives, change must be accommodated to custom, history, and tradition—and not imposed from some abstract ideological scheme.56 Conservatives are not averse to change; they simply believe it should be made in accordance with accepted principles in society. Change should be sure-footed and respectful of the cherished institutions and values that have stood the test of time.57 This was the real destructive aspect of 1960s liberalism—the way it tried to demolish traditional values and institutions in pursuit of its political agenda; the way it tried to refashion a society by destroying its past.

Liberals are constantly on the search for new schemes and policies, but the real truth of life is that there just are not that many new ideas out there. For this reason, conservatism strives to examine and elaborate on old truths, rather than in scrounging for new ones. Conservatives strive to preserve civilization—a task with which modern liberals have not much troubled themselves. Moreover, conservatives take the broader view of culture and civilization; they know that “culture” is more than a matter of subsidized art-festivals, more than just an event to which one can buy a ticket. As conservatives argued during the 1960s, Western culture is the possession not of individuals but of communities. It is a holder of all of humanity’s inherited spiritual possessions, including art, morality, science, and learning. And as this cradle of humanity, it is not something to be ransacked by revolutionaries seeking change for the sake of change.

But as the George W. Bush presidency has shown, it is difficult to maintain a conservative posture. Once conservatives achieved power under Ronald Reagan, and after conservatism became a much more popularly accepted creed, conservative politicians became seduced by the easy lure of centralized government and social welfare benefits. Perhaps it is for this reason that a Republican-controlled government has taken such a giant step toward federalizing public education through the No Child Left Behind Act, added a major new un-funded entitlement to Medicare, and expanded the federal deficit to record levels. Perhaps the present challenge to conservatives is to rekindle that courageous dedication to principle that sustained them throughout the 1960s.

Such courage is vitally needed, since modern liberalism seems capable of governing only during periods of peace-and-prosperity, like the 1990s. Without an intense commitment to American values and institutions, which can only be formed through an attachment to the past, liberals lack the conviction to make the courageous sacrifices that times of crisis demand. Only the conservative creed is capable of providing real leadership when the nation’s interests and institutions need real defending; for America today faces the same basic challenge that it faced in 1952, when Whittaker Chambers proclaimed that the national crisis was one not of politics or economics, but of faith in itself and its past.

  1. Mary C. Brennan, Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1995), 50.
  2. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (New York, 2004), 43.
  3. Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Movement: Then and Now” (The Heritage Foundation, Lecture Number One) at
  4. Mark Gersh, “Battlefield Erosion,” Blueprint Mag., Dec. 13, 2004, at
  5. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 57.
  6. Eric Goldman, The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (New York, 1969), 334.
  7. Tom Reiss, “The First Conservative,” The New Yorker, October 24, 2005, 38.
  8. Paul Marcus, “The Philadelphia Plan and Strict Racial Quotas on Federal Contracts,” 17 UCLA Law Review 817, 817-24 (1970); Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (Oxford University Press, 1997), 723.
  9. Daniel P. Moynihan, The Politics of a Guaranteed Income, 121-22 (1973); James T. Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty (1994), 197.
  10. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 70.
  11. Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 618 (1969).
  12. Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S.618 (1969).
  13. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
  14. James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations (New York, 1996), 272.
  15. Brennan, 24.
  16. Ibid., 16.
  17. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 380.
  18. Piereson, “Investing in Conservative Ideas,” 49.
  19. Brennan, 78. 20. Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York, 2001), 516
  20. James Piereson, “Investing in Conservative Ideas,” Commentary, May 2005, 46. Indeed, during this era, liberalism “stood as the foremost ideology in American politics.” Charles Dunn and J. David Woodard, The Conservative Tradition in America (Lanham, Md., 1996), 1.
  21. Jon Meacham, “That 70’s Show,” The New York Times Book Review, April 24, 2005, 1.
  22. Howard Jacob Karger and David Stoesz, American Social Welfare Policy: A Pluralist Approach 238 (2002).
  23. William Clinton, “Remarks by the President to Officials of Missouri and Participants of the Future Now Program” (June 14, 1994), available at 1994 WL 258369, at 3.
  24. Forrest McDonald, A Constitutional History of the U.S. (Malabar, Fla., 1986), 237.
  25. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 89.
  26. Lee Edwards, “The Origins of the Modern American Conservative Movement,” Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 811., November 21, 2003.
  27. “Still Morning in America,” Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2006, A14.
  28. Richard Perez-Pena, “As New York Medicaid Grows, Swelling Costs Take Local Toll,” New York Times, December 23, 2005, A1.
  29. Patterson, 571.
  30. Sundquist, Politics and Policy, 216-17.
  31. Matusow, Unraveling, 223-25.
  32. Ibid., 225-26.
  33. Irving Kristol, “Forty Good Years,” The Public Interest, Spring 2005, 5.
  34. Patterson, Grand Expectations, 542.
  35. Clinton Rossiter, Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion (New York, 1971), 260.
  36. Micklethwait and Woodridge, 75.
  37. Amy L. Wax, “Too Few Good Men,” Policy Review, December 2005, 69, 72.
  38. Ibid., 74.
  39. Ibid., 77.
  40. Rossiter, 36.
  41. Patterson, Grand Expectations, 449.
  42. Diane Ravitch, The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 (New York, 1983), 321-30.
  43. E.J. Dionne, Jr., “Why the Culture War is the Wrong War,” The Atlantic Monthly, January 2006, 130.
  44. Patterson, Grand Expectations, 671.
  45. Stephen Ruggles, “The Transformation of American Family Structure,” American Historical Review, 99 (Feb. 1964), 103-28; James Q. Wilson, Thinking About Crime (New York, 1983), 23-44, 224-27, 238-40, 253-58; Charles Silberman, Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice (New York, 1978), 3-6, 31-33, 424-55; and Charles Easterlin, Birth and Fortune: The Impact of Numbers on Personal Welfare (New York, 1980), 106.
  46. Patterson, Grand Expectations, 663.
  47. John Diggins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left (New York, 1992), 231.
  48. Patterson, Grand Expectations, 716.
  49. Timothy Egan, “Police Forces, Their Ranks Thin, Offer Bonuses, Bounties and More,” The New York Times, December 28, 2005, A1.
  50. Caitlin Flanagan, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Monica,” The Atlantic Monthly, January 2006, 177.
  51. Scott Shane, “Nader Fires Election Day Salvo at Democrats,” The New York Times, November 3, 2004, P2.
  52. Rossiter, 10.
  53. Ibid., 241.
  54. Dunn and Woodard, 30.
  55. Ibid., 41.
  56. Rossiter, 12.