What is the American Right?

This essay is the Foreword to The Great Purge, a Radix Journal volume edited by Paul Gottfried and Richard Spencer. In the light of #NRORevolt, it's worth revisiting.

For those who are part of it, and for those who feel represented by it, the postwar American “conservative movement” has been a roaring success. More Americans openly identify themselves with “conservative” than any other political ideology.[1] There are more magazines, webzines, and publishing imprints that advocate the conservative cause than ever before. FOX News, the nation’s most-watched cable news channel, advertises itself as “fair and balanced,” but has long served as a platform for conservative journalists and opinion-makers. Underneath this edifice are innumerable bloggers and social-networking stars who echo the message. Estimating the total annual budget of “conservatism” would be a monumental task; it is certainly in the billions, comprising the election and management of Republican candidates, publications, networks, think-tanks, and lobbying efforts. Put simply, there is more “conservatism” now than there has ever been in American history.

Moreover, conservatives have achieved something that all movements and political parties lust after—consensus. From policy organizations to unpaid activists on Twitter, there is broad agreement on a constellation of issues and principles, including but not limited to the following:

  1. Free-market capitalism (or at least low taxes) as a moral and empirical good for all.
  2. Generic Christianity (with gestures towards other, presumably compatible, monotheistic faiths) as the foundation of patriotism, liberty, and human rights;[2]
  3. Staunch support for the U.S. military, with occasional
    criticisms of Washington’s foreign policies;
  4. Staunch support for the state of Israel, with unconditional support of its foreign policies;
  5. A “Values”-based conception of American history and identity.

This fifth element of the conservative consensus is likely its most peculiar and perplexing. For unlike conservatives and nationalists of other nations, American conservatives adamantly reject any ethnic component to their identity. American ideals, they profess, are universally applicable.[3] But at the same time, America is “exceptional,” which means that it is endowed with special responsibilities and abilities (which are not shared by other countries) to act in the name of its ideals.

The reader might detect a certain ironical or jaundiced quality to the presentation of these conservative essentials. Nevertheless, most every major conservative journalist and politician would endorse what is written above.

This is not to say that there are not intramural disputes within the movement. The Tea Party and Constitutionalist wing of conservatism will often buck the GOP establishment, or even openly attack it. The Ron Paul movement’s positions on foreign and monetary policies are such that they will never quite fit in. Finally, a left-libertarian strain exists that differs so strongly with conservatives on issues like gay marriage, sex, and drug policy that perhaps they should not be considered part of the grouping at all.

Nevertheless, what is important is that, to a remarkable extent, conservative disputes are over rhetoric, tactics, and emphasis and not over ideology. In the 1964 Republican Convention, one could say that the gap between the ascendant Goldwater conservatives and the mainline Party leaders (denigrated as the “Eastern Establishment”) was unbridgeable. This is simply not the case today. And fittingly the nominating Republican convention and major conservative activists gatherings resemble pageants. However heated a political rivalry might be—and however stridently the Tea Party might rage again “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only)—the interlocking, complementary parts of conservatism constitute a political movement in an almost idealized form.

This volume was not conceived as a history of the postwar conservative movement. the nature of an essay collection is inherently perspectival: It privileges insights and themes over any single narrative or interpretative through-line. One could say that the history of conservatism has been written again and again . . . and not at all. Over the past three decades, dozens of tracts have been published chronicling the last 50 to 75 years of the movement. Most of these have come from within conservatism.[4] Whatever valuable information and insights they might provide, they remain history as cheer-leading or, in the case of biographies of the late William F. Buckley, history as eulogy and hagiography. Some histories of the movement have been critical, in the sense that they were issued from conservatives’ adversaries “across the aisle,” the Democratic Left. But these suffer from the same limitations of the former, only in reverse.[5]

The question remains: What is this movement, which has, for some half century, defined what is called “the Right”?

Conservative advocates frequently claim that in 1955 Buckley and the founders of National Review “invented” conservatism and rehabilitated a term that had become something like a slur. There are kernels of truth to this tale. Certainly, “conservative” could be a term of opprobrium, and it could also be used in surprising ways: Adlai Stevenson, the two-time Democratic nominee for the presidency (1952, ’56) referred to himself as a “conservative” in a quite positive sense.[6] What’s certainly true is that “conservatism” did not exist in its current distinctive form until the mid-20th century.

Self-described conservatives have offered little help in in reaching a definition. Much of this probably has to do with their professed allergy to ideology, a term they associate with European communists or fascists. Russell Kirk—the author of The Conservative Mind and a man who was featured in a 1956 Time cover story as one of America’s leading intellectuals[7]— defined “the conservative idea” in a self-consciously fuzzy manner:

“Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law.” “True politics,” Kirk wrote, “is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.” (From there, Kirk lists an additional “affection,” “conviction,” “persuasion,” “faith,” and “recognition.”)[8]

Kirk is frequently referenced as America’s arch “cultural conservative” and “traditionalist.” Kirk is a man, as the story goes, who seeks wisdom in Edmund Burke, not Richard Nixon, and is thus forever out of step with the “pragmatists” in Washington or on FOX. Such a characterization is apt in many ways. But on a deeper level, Kirk expressed something important and essential that would define all postwar conservatives, from intellectuals to media personalities to those at the center of political power. Kirk’s conservatism was, as he defined it, “values conservatism.”

In writing his justly famous diatribe against the French Revolution, Edmund Burke defended a people, a social hierarchy, and way of life he saw under threat. Kirk’s “Burkeanism,” on the other hand, was notable for being unencumbered by reality. Indeed, in defending the “values” of 18th-century British social classes, one wonders what exactly Kirk felt was at stake. In another way, Kirk’s “Burkeanism” was quite democratic, albeit in a way heavily disguised with ancient titles and garb: When it’s all about “values,” any American could adopt “Burkeanism” and become an aristocrat.[9]

Dialectically, the cloudiness of the “conservative idea” has been the source of its pragmatism and potency. “Values” conservatism has been flexible; it has been able to be repackaged and redefined in order to accommodate different social and political forces.

Buckley’s conservatism was a child of the Cold War and thus driven by the necessity of defining a “Christian West” in an all-or-nothing conflict with Communism. It was this necessity that, in the mid-‘60s, drove him to purge from the movement those who rejected America’s military involvement in Southeast Asia. (Later on, after even Buckley began to regret the Vietnam War, this was falsely remembered as an attack on “racists” and “anti-Semites.”[10])

From there, “conservative values” went for a ride. After Communism faded, conservatism could be used to justify Zionism, as well as the War on Terror or even the forced democratization of the entire globe.[11] In the 1950s, Buckley and National Review had sought an alliance with southerners, going as far as editorializing for segregation (at least by indirection).[12] By the 1980s, National Review could endorse Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights struggle as a stridently conservative cause.[13] By the 2000s, conservative values could be cited as a basis for gay marriage.[14] Und so weiter. . .

A central crucible in this strange evolution of the American Right has been “the purge”—that is, the expulsion, often in an explicit fashion, of views or individuals deemed outside the boundaries of the official Right.

This volume does not constitute a full chronicling of these purges, nor is it a collection of sob stories from the losing side, still less is it a plea for toleration of each and every viewpoint. It is, instead, an attempt at a phenomenological history of conservatism. It seeks to understand how its ideology (often euphemized as “timeless principles”) functioned within its historic context and how it responded to power, shifting conceptions of authority, and societal changes.

Through the purges-specifically, through the logic of the purges—we can glimpse what conservatism is not, those aspects of itself it has attempted to deny, mask, leave behind, and forget, and the ways in which memories can be reconstructed around new orthodoxies.


  1. According to a Gallup telephone poll, 38 percent of the public self-identify as “conservative”; 34 percent consider themselves “moderate”; and 23 percent, “liberal.” In the early ‘90s, “conservative” achieved a popularity of 43 percent. In turn, “liberal” has, over the past 20 years, advanced from 17 to almost a quarter of the population. Jeffrey M. Jones, “Liberal Self-Identification Edges Up to New High in 2013,” Gallup January 10, 2014, accessed January 15, 2015, http://www.gallup.com/poll/166787/liberal-self-identification-edges-new-high-2013.aspx.
  2. From George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address (Washington, DC, January 20, 2005):

    That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people. Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before—ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Accessed January 15, 2015, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4460172.)
  3. From George W. Bush’s First Inaugural Address:

    America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens.” (Accessed January 15, 2015, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25853.a.)

    From The Heritage Foundation’s report, “Why Is America Exceptional?” October 1, 2010:

    Every nation derives meaning and purpose from some unifying quality—an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history. The United States is different. . . . As the English writer G.K. Chesterton famously observed, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” That creed is set forth most clearly in the Declaration of Independence, by which the American colonies announced their separation from Great Britain. The Declaration is a timeless statement of inherent rights, the proper purposes of government, and the limits on political authority. (Accessed January 15, 2015, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/09/why-is-america-exceptional.)
  4. See, for instance, Linda Bridges and John R. Coyne Jr. Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (New York: Wiley, 2007); Donald T. Critchlow, The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History (Cambridge, MA, 2007); Lee Edwards, The Conservative Revolution: The Movement That Remade America (New York: Free Press, 1999); George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th Anniversary Edition (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute 2006 [1976]).
  5. See, for instance, Carl T. Bogus, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism; John Judis, William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives (New York: Simon Schuster, 1988); Sam Tanenhaus, The Death of Conservatism: The Movement and Its Consequences (New York: Random House, 2009).
  6. Steveson proclaimed: “The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country—the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on these foundations.” See Richard Hofstader, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” The American Scholar, Winter 1954-55, accessed January 15, 2015, https://theamericanscholar.org/the-pseudo-conservative-revolt/#.VMlwaUKMlKY.
  7. Time, June 11, 1956. See also, Newsweek, 28 March 1955, Time, 13 August 1955.
  8. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2001 [1953]), 8-9.
  9. See Paul E. Gottfried, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 8-23.
  10. See Gottfried, “The Logic of the Conservative Purges” in this volume.
  11. See Lee Congdon, “Wars to End War” in this volume.
  12. See “Why the South Must Prevail” August, 24, 1957, National Review. See also James P. Lubinskas, “The Decline of National Review,” American Renaissance, accessed January 15, 2015, http://www.amren.com/ news/2012/04/the-decline-of-national-review/.
  13. See Matthew Spalding, “King’s Conservative Mind,” February 7, 2002, National Review Online, accessed January 15, 2015, http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/civil-rights-and-wrongs; William Bennett, “The Conservative Virtues of Dr. Martin Luther King,” The Heritage Foundation, November 5, 1993, accessed 15 January, 2015, http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/the-conservative-virtues-of-dr-martin-luther-king.
  14. See Theodore B. Olson, “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage,” Newsweek, January 8, 2010, accessed January 15, 2015, http://www.newsweek.com/conservative-case-gay-marriage-70923; Jon Huntsman, “Marriage Equality is a Conservative Cause,” The American Conservative, February 21, 2013, accessed January 15, 2015, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/marriage-equality-is-a-conservative-cause485/.
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