An Overview of Political Conservatism

Reagan At New York Primary
Reagan At New York Primary Former Governor of California Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) making a speech during the Republican presidential primary in New York, March 1980. Reagan won the New York primary and was later selected as the Republican nominee, before being elected President. Keystone / Stringer / Getty Images

Principles & Ideologies

Political conservatism is a term applied to people who believe in:

  • Economic liberty and the central role of free enterprise in American society
  • A small, non-invasive government
  • A strong national defense focused on protection and the fight against terrorism

The most influential national political organization for conservatives in the US is the Republican party, although the recent Tea Party phenomenon is perhaps the most tightly aligned with the ideologies mentioned above. There are also many advocacy groups that focus on the promotion of these initiatives.

Ancillary Principles & Ideologies

Conservatives are often wrongly equated with the Christian-right. For years, social conservatives held a firm grip on the Republican Party and by extension the entire conservative movement. For religious conservatives, the principles and ideologies mentioned above are ancillary to the wedge issues that threaten Christian culture. These include:

  • Traditional family values and the sanctity of marriage
  • A commitment to faith and religion
  • The right to life for every human being

While many mainstream conservatives agree with these concepts, most believe they are secondary to the core tenets mentioned previously.

Political Leaders

Most conservative political leaders tend to be Republican. In most cases, Republican politicians seek to gain the trust of the conservative community. President Ronald Reagan was perhaps the modern conservative movement's most important political leader. He ushered in a number of socially conservative initiatives and is widely regarded as the icon of political conservatism. The father of modern conservatism, who was known as "Mr. Conservative," was Barry Goldwater. Other conservative leaders have included notable figures such as Newt Gingrich, Robert Walker, George H.W. Bush and Strom Thurmond.

Conservative Justices, Media & Intellectuals

Outside Congress and the White House, the Supreme Court and the national media have a strong influence on US conservative politics and perspectives. Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and judge Robert Bork have all had a major impact on the interpretation of law. In the media, Rush Limbaugh, Patrick Buchanan, Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity are seen as the conservatives whose opinions have tremendous influence today. In the 20th Century, Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr. were perhaps the most influential and highly regarded conservative intellectuals.

Campaigns & Elections

To be an effective political leader, a conservative must first run an effective campaign. Perhaps no other campaign has been as important to the conservative movement as the one run in 1964 between "Mr. Conservative" Barry Goldwater and Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. Although Goldwater lost, the principles he fought for and the legacy he left have resounded with conservatives ever since. Nevertheless, conservatives who run campaigns today often appeal to social conservatives, using abortion, the second amendment, the sanctity of marriage, school prayer and the War on Terror as the key planks in their political platforms.

War on Terror

In the 20th Century, the Vietnam war stiffened the resolve of conservatives to never again suffer defeat at the hands of a foreign enemy. The War on Terror began with the attack on 9/11, and conservatives remain largely divided about what the battle parameters should be. Most believe the War on Terror must be won at all costs. The decision to invade Afghanistan to search for Osama bin Laden found favor with many conservatives as did the invasion of Iraq to find al Queda operatives. Despite liberal opposition, conservatives see victory in Iraq as the key front in the war against international terrorism.

Division of Church & State

Because conservatives have such a strong belief in small, non-invasive government, most believe the state shouldn't dictate morality or interfere with the church. Conversely, they believe that although government should be free of religion, it shouldn't be free from religion. To conservatives, school prayer isn't an exercise of the institution, but of the individual and should, therefore, be allowed. Most conservatives oppose the idea of a welfare state and believe the government should regulate standards, not appropriate funding, since private organizations are often better equipped to deal with social problems.

Abortion & Stem Cell Research

For social conservatives, no other issue is as important as abortion. Christian conservatives believe in the sanctity of all life including embryos and believe it is morally wrong to abort living fetuses. Consequently, the pro-life movement and the fight against abortion rights is often incorrectly equated with the conservative movement as a whole. While most conservatives are pro-life, the issue's gray areas make it as highly debatable inside the conservative movement as they do anywhere else. Still, most conservatives believe abortion is the same as murder and, like murder, should be against the law.

Capital Punishment

The death penalty debate is another very controversial issue among conservatives. Opinions vary and depend mostly on what type of conservative ideology the person espouses. Compassionate conservatives believe in the Christian concept of forgiveness and compassion, whereas other types of conservatives believe that when justice for murder is delivered, the punishment should fit the crime. In most cases, conservatives believe the well-being of the victim is more important than that of the criminal, and thus capital punishment is justified. Others believe in rehabilitation and a life of repentance and service to God.

Economy & Taxes

Libertarians and Constitutionalists are natural fiscal conservatives due to their desire to reduce government spending, pay off the national debt and shrink the size and scope of government. Although the Republican Party is most often credited with reducing government waste, but big-spending from the most recent GOP administration has hurt the party's reputation. Most conservatives identify themselves as fiscal conservatives because of their desire to deregulate the economy through lower taxes and incentives for small businesses. Most conservatives believe the government should leave the private sector alone.

Education, Environment & Foreign Policy

The most important education issue concerning conservatives has to do with how the theories of creation and evolution are taught in schools. Social conservatives believe that, at the very least, the biblical concept of creation should be taught as an alternative to the evolution theory. More radical creationists believe evolution shouldn't be taught at all because it undermines the notion of mankind being created in God's image. Another issue is school vouchers, which give parents the freedom to choose which school their children should attend. Conservatives are largely in favor of education vouchers, believing it to be their right to choose where their children receive their education.

Conservatives have traditionally argued that global warming was a myth, but recent scientific evidence has indicated it to be a reality. In the face of these overwhelming studies, some conservatives still cling to the idea that it is a myth and that the statistics are skewed. Other conservatives, such as crunchy conservatives, advocate for a cleaner, greener way of living and are in favor of providing the private sector with economic incentives to reduce pollution and develop alternative fuel sources.

When it comes to foreign policy, conservatives are divided on this issue as well. Paleoconservatives take a largely non-interventionist approach to foreign policy, but neoconservatives believe that failure to intervene in international affairs is tantamount to isolationism and as such, stokes the flames of terrorism. Conservative Republicans in Washington are mostly neoconservatives, who support Isreal and the War on Terror.

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Hawkins, Marcus. "An Overview of Political Conservatism." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Hawkins, Marcus. (2020, August 27). An Overview of Political Conservatism. Retrieved from Hawkins, Marcus. "An Overview of Political Conservatism." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 26, 2021).