John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


The Many Strains of Conservatism

Posted on April 12, 2010
The Republican Party has traditionally been seen as a party of two parts:  a moderate wing and a conservative wing.  But that view has become less and less relevant as the moderate wing shrinks to a party of basically two people (Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins).

It would be easy to then make the conclusion that the Republican Party is chiefly a conservative party – now that the moderates have fled – and that its views are monolithic and homogenous.  Of course, nothing can be further from the truth.

Indeed, the conservative movement speaks with many voices.  Here is a rundown of the many strains conservatism:

Sarah Palin Conservatism:  Palin is an anti-intellectual conservative, as Richard Hofstadter, the left-wing historian, might have put it.  Although she may not know it, she inherits a proud legacy of populist conservatives, those who disparage the East-Coast elite, who gain more energy by attacking the media, who don’t need to read books (other than the Bible) to gain wisdom.  In many ways, she is a conventional conservative in her embrace of traditional values, of gun-owner rights, of smaller government, lower taxes, and less regulations.  But what makes her unique is her ability to garner media attention, no matter what she says or what she does.  And the more the media attacks her, the more support she gains.

Dick Cheney Conservatism:  Cheney’s conservatism is one that melds national security with executive power.  Cheney is an interesting case.  He is actually pretty liberal on social issues, especially on the questions of gay marriage and homosexuals serving in the military.  He gains conservative credibility by being a hawk on national security questions, and his brand of executive power conservatism is unique to his personal experience.  His belief, formed through his experiences as Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff and as a former House member who saw first hand the excesses of Congressional dominance in the 1980’s, is one that believes fiercely in the idea that the Executive Branch ought to be the preeminent branch of government.

Ron Paul Conservatism:  Paul is the best known of the true libertarian conservatives, and his supporters are among the most intense despite some positions that are outside the mainstream of conservative thought.  He wants to get rid of the Federal Reserve, thinks we should go back to the Gold Standard, wants us to end the war on drugs, and believes that we should never have gotten involved in either Iraq or Afghanistan.   He wants Congress to authorize any military action, and is against torture.

Mike Huckabee Conservatism:  Huckabee’s philosophy melds Christian conservatism with economic populism.  As a former Baptist preacher, he believes that the government should reflect America’s Christian character, so he is in favor of prayer in school, and is a believer in Creationism, which he believes should be taught in school.  Huckabee was the first Republican to understand during the campaign that the economy was struggling, and he incorporated populist messages to appeal to those who were out of work.  Huckabee, who fought his own battle of the bulge, also made an issue of personal responsibility when it comes to health and nutrition.

George W. Bush Conservatism:  Better known as compassionate conservatism during his campaign for President and big-government conservatism after he left office, Bush believed that the government had a responsibility to provide for the general welfare, and thus he pushed for two big domestic initiatives (No Child Left Behind, Medicare/Prescription Drug Reform), which spent a lot of money.  He also believed in the essential power of democracy, and pushed a pro-democratic agenda in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in the Middle East.

Mitt Romney Conservatism:  Romney campaigned as a right-wing, anti-immigrant, Christian conservative in 2008, a theme which rang as inauthentic to most voters, who didn’t see him as right-wing (given his track record in Massachusetts), as anti-immigrant, as Christian (many evangelical Christians don’t view Mormonism as Christian) or as truly conservative (his health care plan in the Bay State).  This time around, he will likely take up the business conservative standard, running as a former CEO who can bring common-sense business practices to a broken federal government.   His book, “No Apology:  The Case for American Greatness” lays out his vision of conservatism, which in contrast to the populism of Sarah Palin, the social conservatism of Mike Huckabee, and the isolationism of Ron Paul, makes a case for an engaged government that responsibly regulates, is actively involved in the financial markets (he makes the case for TARP) and is otherwise working to promote America’s global role.

Teddy Roosevelt Conservatism:  Senator Lindsey Graham is the chief proponent of this trust-busting, pro-environmental brand of conservative thought in the modern era.  Like the man who founded the Bull Moose Party, Graham and his intellectual Godfather, John McCain, might sometimes seem to be outside the mainstream of conservative thought, they have inherited a proud tradition within the Republican Party of environmental activism and of small business sensibility.  Breaking up the anti-competitive trusts that restrained competition and bilked the American people during the turn of the last century have their modern corollary with Graham’s desire to work on climate change and immigration policies.

George Wallace Conservatism:  There is still a strain of conservative activists who hearken back to the race baiting of George Wallace.  They push for “states rights,” “nullification,” “secession,” and they use other code words that are meant to appeal to those elements who view the world through a narrow, racist lens.

Bill Kristol Conservatism:  Kristol is the principal advocate of neo-conservatism, an intellectual philosophy inherited from his father, Irving, who once famously said, “a neo-conservative was a liberal mugged by reality.”  Kristol was the perhaps the most aggressive advocate for the Iraq War, and consistently pushed for an escalation of troops in that war.

Pat Buchanan Conservatism:  Buchanan has evolved from being Richard Nixon’s most pugnacious defender to being the most articulate defender of paleoconservative principles.  He spoke out against both wars in Iraq, and has become much more of a protectionist on trade matters.

All of these different strains of conservatism have their own reasons to claim that they are the true heirs of the legacy of Ronald Reagan.  They all believe that they represent the best hopes for the future of this country.  And they all have their own deep concerns about some of the views of their rivals.

For example, neo-conservatives believe that the Pat Buchanans of the world are anti-Semitic.  The Bull-Moosers think that the George Wallacers are crazy.  The Mitt Romney wing of the party fear that Sarah Palin will be the death of the party.  Everybody else thinks that the Ron Paul wingers are nuts (except, of course, the Ron Paulers).

One thing they all agree on, however, is that the current President is taking the country in the wrong direction.  These different strains of the conservative movement (and I am sure that I missed a few) don’t have to agree on anything else, as long as they agree that the President needs to be stopped, or at least slowed down.

The hard work of reaching consensus about the future of the country and the future of conservatism will be done during the Presidential primary in 2011 and 2012.  In the meantime, conservatives of all types will have to unite if they want to effectively counter the President in the upcoming November election.

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