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Americans didn’t always think of themselves as conservatives. Our country has a revolutionary history, after all, and for much of the 19th century Americans could fairly have been described as classical liberals. “Conservative” was a label for the backward and authoritarian, the most hidebound elements of Old Europe. As late as July 1950, a witness reported of a man causing a public disturbance, ”He was using abusive and obscene language, calling people Conservatives and all that.”
A people only begins to discover conservatism when it becomes aware of something it has lost. By the mid-20th century, Americans knew they had lost their independence from the wars and intrigues of the Old World, and they increasingly felt the loss of the habits that had defined their form of self-government. Now America was a nation of big business and even bigger government. It was perpetually armed for war, and to finance the armaments and the bigness of everything required tremendous economic stimulus – growth at all costs, whether following the formulas of John Maynard Keynes or those of his neoliberal opponents.
The themes that run through the works of the first prominent figures to call themselves conservatives — thinkers such as Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, and Robert Nisbet — are peace, community (which means self-government was well as civil society), and fiscal restraint. Today, many politicians and pundits who call themselves conservatives seem to stand for something else: war, every man for himself, and endless deficits and debt.
What wrecked the good name of conservatism? Success. The conservative critique of the liberal welfare-warfare state was so powerful that special interests (such as those that President Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex) and opportunistic politicians began to adopt the label and offer fame, money, and power to conservatives who would admit them to the fellowship. As well, there was another reaction against the new age of ideology and bigness, a populist reaction. Combining populist anger with the name of conservatism proved a winning formula for fundraisers and office-seekers. But instead of making the populist uprising more conservative, the effect was to remake conservatism as populism. Thus the principle conservative values of peace, community, and economic responsibility came to be lost amid wars and rumors of wars, military Keynesianism and promises of perpetual, debt-fueled growth.
The original conservatives—and some of their libertarian and even liberal friends, those who were more conservative than they knew—had it right. Today the country pays the price for the left-wing ideologies that ran rampant in the 20th century and the right-wing, but not conservative, reaction that has only exacerbated the destruction wrought by the left. To solve the country’s seemingly intractable—and, in the long-term, lethal—strategic, economic, and socio-cultural problems requires a rediscovery of traditional conservatism.
That’s the mission of of the American Conservative.