By MichaelMH Published Nov. 07, 2022
The National Conservatism Conference in Miami (Sept, 11-13 2022) was a gathering of Republican politicians, right-wing thought leaders, and various party apparatchiks who articulated their vision of the conservative movement’s future. The National Conservatives are only one faction vying to define the Republican agenda, but in a brief period of time, they have sharpened their focus and expanded their influence. Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation and one of the conference’s speakers, recognized their triumph when he announced from the stage, "The conservative movement has never been stronger."
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However, as strong as they may be, the National Conservatives are not without their critics. In particular, some have accused them of promoting a brand of politics that is hostile, paranoid, and increasingly authoritarian. This path may lead American conservatism down a dark and dangerous road.
To understand how American conservatism has arrived at its current state, it is necessary to understand its history. American conservatism has its roots in the anti-Communism of the 1950s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These two forces created a coalition that came to be known as the "New Right." The New Right was defined by its opposition to expanding government power, whether it be through Communism or through Great Society programs like Medicaid and food stamps.
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The New Right also opposed what they saw as moral decline in American culture. They were particularly critical of the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide. This focus on cultural issues helped to create another key element of modern conservatism: evangelical Christianity. Evangelical Christians had always been politically active, but in the 1970s and 1980s, they became one of the most powerful voting blocs in the Republican Party.
Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 marked a turning point for American conservatism. Reagan was a committed New Right ideologue who set about implementing his vision for America with vigor. He slashed taxes, deregulated industry, and increased military spending. He also appointed several conservative Supreme Court justices who helped roll back many of the liberal achievements of previous decades.
Reagan's policies were remarkably successful in achieving their stated goals—but they also had some unintended consequences. In particular, they led to a rise in income inequality and an increase in racial tensions. These problems would come to a head in 1992 with the election of Bill Clinton.
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After suffering defeats in 1992 and 1996 at the hands of Bill Clinton, conservatives regrouped and formulated a new strategy for winning elections. This strategy came to be known as "movement conservatism." Movement conservatism focused on building up institutions, like think tanks and media organizations, which could help shape public opinion in favor of conservative ideas. It also relied heavily on wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage to mobilize voters on Election Day.
This strategy proved successful; with George W Bush being elected president in 2000, and Republicans taking control of both houses of Congress in 2002. However, movement conservatism ultimately proved to be unsustainable; by 2008, voters had become tired of wedge issue politics, and were ready for change. This paved the way for Barack Obama's election, and for the rise of Donald Trump.
The current state of American conservatism is a product of its history, a history that is full of both triumphs and failures. Today, conservatives find themselves at a crossroads; they can either continue down the path they have been on for the past few decades, or they can chart a new course. The choice they make will determine whether they remain a powerful force in American politics, or whether they fade into irrelevance.