Defusing the American Right

The global conservative movement is not a conspiracy, argues Mark Davis. Instead it is loose-knit and decentralised. "Ultimately what unites radical conservatives", he writes, "is the power of belief and the pursuit of common objectives, not the conspiratorial activities of shadowy organisations."

Davis is right about the loose-knit structure of the movement. But he overestimates the power of shared beliefs and objectives. In the latest issue of Policy magazine I argue that America’s conservative movement is becoming increasingly unstable. Libertarians and social conservatives are drifting in opposite directions.

The Policy article — Defusing the American Right — emerged from an online conversation I had with Andrew Norton in early 2008. It starts with a comment by Winton Bates:

Sinclair Davidson’s suggestion that the most formidable opponents of small government are conservatives rather than social democrats is interesting. I wonder whether this could lead to a realignment of Australian politics.

The discussion continues here, here.and here. And there’s also this post by Skepticlawyer.

But enough about that, let’s get back to Davis’ argument. In his 2008 book The Land of Plenty, he argues that America’s modern conservative movement grew out of the turmoil of the 1960s:

Determined to counter ‘godless’ communism, unsettled by the successes of the civil rights movement, flush with oil money and new wealth pouring into the southern Sun Belt state manufacturing (electronics, aerospace, munitions) because of the Vietnam War, and determined to shift the US centre of political gravity, wealthy southern conservatives reached into their pockets. Activists recognised that success relied on being able to forge alliances between disparate conservative constituencies — southern anti-segregationalists [sic?], evangelical Christian ‘heartlanders’, conservative business leaders, New York neoconservative intellectuals, ‘Chicago school’ free-market economists (p 21).

It’s interesting to compare Davis’ account with the argument in Brink Lindsey’s 2007 book The Age of Abundance (Lindsey is vice president for research at the libertarian Cato Institute):

The rejection of the liberal ascendancy brought together not just Sunbelt Protestants, but northern and midwestern Catholics as well. Not just middle-class suburbanites and office workers, but also small-town and rural residents in addition to blue-collar workers and ethnic urban villagers. And what did the combination of all these disparate groups produce? Not just a genuine conservatism that sought to preserve a usable heritage in the face of inevitable change, but a marriage of convenience between that conservatism and the forces of blind reaction (p 239-240).

Lindsey goes on to explain that the political realignment of the late 60s harnessed the resentment of working-class whites — particularly those in the south. And much of this resentment was directed at America’s educated elite. As Lindsey writes, "What, after all, was the chief source of all the cultural tumult? The universities, which also conferred the degrees that were fast becoming the most important status marker in American society — a marker, of course, that members of the working class conspicuously lacked."

Nixon was the first Republican candidate to take advantage of this realignment. But he quickly alienated economically minded libertarians by embracing Keynesian solutions to unemployment and inflation. Today’s conservative movement grew in the shadow of the Nixon presidency. It’s origins lie in the ‘fusionism‘ of William F Buckley‘s National Review and the remnants of Barry Goldwater‘s failed bid for the presidency. It was a movement which combined economic liberalism with social conservatism. The stagflation of the 70s created an opening for the ideas of economists like Milton Friedman.

According to Lindsey, with the rise of libertarian ideas "contemporary conservatism came full into its own: a paradoxical combination of promoting economic innovation while checking the cultural changes brought on by that innovation" (p 246). By the 1980s, the conservative movement included Chicago School and Austrian economists, the Moral Majority, and neoconservative intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Jean Kirkpatrick.

Davis sees the tensions inherent in this coalition. He argues that:

The glue that held often incompatible and sometimes sparring factions together was ‘umbrella issues’ in which all had a stake: opposition to communism and collectivism in all their forms, ‘big government’, New Deal’ economics, welfare, multiculturalism, abortion, affirmative action, ‘secular humanism’, feminism, 1960s permissiveness and their ‘new class’ representatives, coupled with support for libertarian economics, traditional (Christian) morality, ‘small government’, ‘states’ rights’ and individual freedom (p 22).

But this list sounds more like a recipe for plastic explosive than for glue. The one issue everyone agreed on, opposition to communism, is now gone. And what’s left lacks any ideological coherence. For example, how does it make sense to argue for small government and individual freedom on one hand while spending billions on a war in Iraq and trampling civil liberties with wars on drugs and terror? Many of today’s younger libertarians happily combine libertarian economics with support for cultural diversity, feminism and permissiveness. Lindsey argues that libertarians should abandon the culture war and consider a new alliance with promarket liberals.

One response to this is the argument that neoliberalism is not a political philosophy but an arrangement designed to benefit a handful of large corporations. If fighting an intractable war in the Middle East means lucrative government contracts for corporations, then there’s no coherence problem at all. All the talk about liberty, free markets and small government is just convenient rhetoric. From this perspective it’s obvious why the corporations want a war on drugs. It means more privately operated prisons.

But what if right wing philanthropy is not the bite of a vampire. What if the people who work for free market think tanks and who write for right wing magazines have minds of their own and are not walking corpses for neoliberalism. If so, it might be worth starting a conversation. After all, today’s political alignments will not endure forever.

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Antonios Sarhanis
Antonios Sarhanis(@antoniossarhanis)
12 years ago

It was an interesting article, Don. I can’t help thinking that in a multi-polar “political world” or “electoral world” you could have a number of different focii – combinations of tendencies. But in a bipolar environment (which electoral politics generally is), the different combinations of tendencies is necessarily limited (unless some groups sulked outside).

US libertarians and social conservatives could divoce – and where would each go? Social conservatives could wink at the economic non-liberals – the Reagan coalition without the libertarians. Maybe some groups would prefer to live in splendid isolation.

I’m not sure about the possibility of these types of realignments in Australia – but it’s possible that the libertarians and social conservatives could split. There are plenty of conservatives on the “left” with whom social conservatives could become friendly.

12 years ago


I really don’t know why you think there is a huge crisis in the conservative movement in the US as I would think the current problems are cyclical rather than secular. A 71 year old has been senator still received (what was it) 46% of the national vote in the prez elections while Obama’s count was about 52% odd. In other words despite a fairly unpopular war, an intensely disliked administration the GOP did about as well as average for a party that’s been in power for 8 years. In other words it wasn’t a terribly bad result.

When you talk about libertarians in the US you really do have to be careful who you’re referring to. There are countless southern ‘god fearing’ folk that count themselves as libertarians and still go to church on Sunday. Think of the Ron Paul types vs the the Reason brigade. There is as much chance of those people swinging hard for the Dems (Ron Pual’s supporters) as there is Al Gore becoming a Republican. They can vote for the Dems from time to time but it will never be solid. The other grouping, Reason libertarians would amount to no more than 3% of the voters. Although they do swing either way you need to recall that the Daily Kos libertarian marriage lasted all of 5 Los Vegas minutes before it was annulled.

Also don’t think that the GOP hasn’t forgotten that Iraq and foreign adventures got them into this mess. In 8 years time they could easily reappear with policies and a candidate who looks positively isolationist as that seemed to be a pretty decent election gamble in 08 and perhaps a winner in 2012.. Reminding Americans in 8 years time of Bush’s follies could have absolutely zero impact in the electorates memory recall.

The party seems to be heading back towards the small government schtik and already the South Carolina Governor , Mark Sanford is making some pretty important inroads into the GOP’s senior ranks. He’s a small government, libertarian type Governor that could easily reform the party cut out the Bush types and get back enough Reason/ Ron Paul libertarians to reclaim the coalition.

As for social conservatism being a turn off to libertarians… Well yes that’s true to some extent but that also applies to both parties in a sort of way.

As for other issues watch the fireworks display if as seems likely the Dems try to impose the fairness doctrine.

And don’t forget that interesting piece of legislation proposed here where Conroy is trying to turn the web resembling China and Iran’s.

12 years ago

I agree with JC. Not being American, I’m surprised by how popular the conservative movement still is in the US, despite the absolute mess that they made in the last few years. I mean, if you can still get a reasonable share of the vote after bankrupting yourself to China and some of the OPEC countries, and after getting yourself stuck in intractable wars in places the average citizen can’t point to on a map, then you’ve obviously got pretty decent support. It seems pretty clear to me that there is a huge market for the war on drugs, the war on gays etc. and that these conservative internal issues are evidently important enough to people that other messes that have been made can be forgiven.

12 years ago

I do wonder why we worry so much about who libertarians align themselves with, given they make up such a small percentage of political thinkers. It is a question of some personal interest, because much as I personally believe in the need for personal and economic freedom to be the basis for a modern, successful nation (*), I seem to find myself the most frustrated with the extreme views of libertarians who consisently baulk at any apparent broach of either, and virtually unfailingly manage to find a way to blame society’s current woes on “something the government did”. This became especially apparent when trying to tease apart causes of the financial crisis, a topic which seemed to unite conservatives and libertarians fairly consistently in their determination to pin nearly all the blame on interventionist government policy (especially if it was Democrat government policy).

(*) and note by any measure, both Australia and the U.S. already have very high levels of economic freedom, and generally reasonable levels of personal freedom.

12 years ago

Again Don? The innovation this time is ‘promarket liberals’ – probably not a group that exists (on your pretty specific definitions) anywhere outside of clubtroppo!!

12 years ago

I’d suggest most economists who classify themselves as liberals would also consider themselves pro-market. Krugman in particular has written quite extensively against the anti-market rhetoric of some liberals.

12 years ago

“Ultimately what unites radical conservatives”, he writes, “is the power of belief and the pursuit of common objectives, not the conspiratorial activities of shadowy organisations.”

and precisely the same can be said for the so-called radical left, which effectively nullifies this left -v- right dichotomy.

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
12 years ago

The debate goes on, where do people on the non-left go after anti-communism is not available to provide a common cause? This is an early (1980s) contribution to the debate, suggesting that economic rationalists need to get involved in the culture wars and conservatives need to left their game in economics.

12 years ago

Actually what I really find interesting at the momentum is just how the so-called neo-conservative foreign policy permeates through the elite levels of both parties.

The hold over of Gates at the DoD and the Clinton appointment to State is a pretty good indication that the differences are basically cosmetic. There is also talk that a Bush holdover from the intel services will get the role of national security adviser or an aligned position.

Even the potential appointment of Leon Panetta is in that direction. Leon is basically a middle of the road Dem.

The point I’m making is that libertarians aren’t going to get much comfort from the O’man’s foreign policy grouping if they were looking for huge changes from the Bush Administration, as that isn’t looking like it’s going to happen.

12 years ago

I think we’ll inevitably see all sorts of realignments. The old class argument isn’t central anymore and the importation of neoliberalism into the mainstream left parties has changed them forever.
Then you’ve got an oxymoron like ‘radical conservative’ (which I think means reactionary) and various other absurdities too numerous to count. The environment is one issue obviously, the effects of globalization another.
Still another is ‘traditional values’. Sections of the left are beginning to assert notions normally associated with these. The radial conservatives are essentially reacting to the changes wrought over the last 40 years top society which see a great deal of diversity of lifestyle, of standards of ‘conventional behaviour’ of modes of family life. Understandably they reject that. Libertarians don’t think it’s the government’s business and many endorse the post-60s world.
Likewise many on the Left are moving away from socialism either because that’s not where the fight is or because they realize they were wrong.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
12 years ago

I read your Policy article. You need to be careful relying on Haidt. You have:

Haidt asks us to imagine two societies, one organised according to John Stuart Mills idea of the social contract, and the other based on mile Durkheims idea of an organic community.


The Durkheimian society is different. Haidt writes that in this kind of society the basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy. Durkheimian societies value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to ones groups over concerns for outgroups.

That is total rubbish.

Organic Solidarity – Social cohesion based upon the dependence individuals in more advanced society have on each other. Common among industrial societies as the division of labor increases. Though individuals perform different tasks and often have different values and interests, the order and very survival of society depends on their reliance on each other to perform their specific task.

Of course one paragraph is not the complete Durkheim but it proves the point. Actually, inasmuch as you can classify Durkheim, his organic solidarity is more LIKE the libertarianism (exaggeratedly) attributed to Mill.