What is a Conservative?

One question has become popular in this raucous and rowdy 2016 GOP primary: What is a Conservative? With too many candidates running for president in the party that lays claim to the ideology, attacking one’s ‘conservative’ credentials has become a common tactic.

The history of the term pre-1950 is too long and arduously detailed to fully explain here. The modern conservative movement was born in the 1950’s and was championed by several influential thought leaders. Over the years some of these movement leaders explained conservatism extensively in writing. Others, mostly politicians, have defined the ‘conservative’ ideology through their platform.

Consider this brief recap of those views, followed by a summary of what the word means as of today.

RUSSELL KIRK – Author of the Conservative Mind (1950) 

Kirk’s contribution is dense and philosophical. As time goes on and new characters contribute to the ideology the ideas become more specific and practical.

Kirk’s Six Truisms:

  1. A Transcendant Moral order. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.
  2. Reject uniformity, logicalism, and the utilitarian and egalitarian aims of most radical systems.
  3. Classes are necessary for an orderly society. Strive for equality in judgment before God and in courts of law, but equality in condition  means equality in servitude and boredom.
  4. Freedom and private property are closely linked.
  5. Distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators and economists (planned economy).
  6. Do not change just for change’s sake. Maintain traditions.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR. – Founder of National Review in the inaugural issue, 1955

  1. It is the job of centralized government to protect the lives, liberty and property of its citizens. The growth of government must be fought relentlessly. This is the libertarian angle.
  2. There exists a social conflict between engineers who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of truth, who defend the organic moral order. This is the social conservative angle.
  3. The centuries most blatant force of satanic utopianism is communism, to which we find ourselves irrevocably at war and shall oppose any substitute for victory. This is the National Defense angle.
  4. The competitive price system is indispensable to liberty and material progress, threatened by Big Brother government and union monopolies. This is the Free market capitalism angle.

BARRY GOLDWATER– Arizona Senator and Presidential Candidate in 1964 


“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Signature issues: States’ rights, labor union reform, anti-communism, free-market principles and staunch fiscal conservatism. Libertarian on social issues (abortion and civil rights) which alienated him from the republican elite. In an interesting twist, he was a strong supporter of the environment, supporting legislation regulation corporations’ pollution of the air and water.

IRVING KRISTOL – Founder of the Neoconservative Movement

“The political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.” His own words

Signature issues: Cutting taxes to stimulate economic growth (but very little focus on reduction in spending). In neoconservatism, republicans join democrats in their embrace of big government. “The growth of the state is natural, indeed inevitable”.

Neocons share some common ground with traditional conservatives on issues of morality.

Perhaps chief among the neoconservative ideas is the infiltration of the concept that our ‘national interest’ extends beyond our borders. The might and power of our military backed up by our strong sense of American exceptionalism places upon us the duty to defend any democratic nation from attack by nondemocratic forces.

In something less than coincidence, the popularity of this brand of foreign policy would coincide with the creation of Israel and the ensuing wars between the Jewish state and their Arab neighbors.

George W. Bush would later greatly expanded on neoconservative foreign policy, and broaden the goal from defense of democratic nations, to actively spreading democracy throughout the world.

REAGAN ERA CONSERVATISM – Platform of President Ronald Reagan 1980-1988

Tax cuts, greatly increased military budget (in contrast to Carter-era spending), deregulation, a policy of the rollback of communism, and appeals to family values and conservative morality.


So-called Reagan conservatism emphasized the libertarian angle less, and incorporated the neoconservative trend of heavy military spending, while introducing the term “family values” to encompass judeo-christian influence on the moral order concept.

TEA PARTY (No official leader)

The Tea Party, due to its informal nature and scattered organization, brought both positive and arguably negative developments to the conservative movement.

First the positive. The tea party reintroduced the constitution as the standard by which all brands of conservatism should be measured. The party ‘platform’ indicates a strong belief that judeo-christian values were embedded in, and inseparable from, our founding documents. Refreshingly the party re-emphasized the need to limit not only the size, but the scope of the federal government, arguing persuasively that a large central government is necessarily an oppressive one. The party emphasized the bill of rights including the second amendment right to bear arms and religious liberty, while conveying the sometimes exaggerated view that both of these liberties are under attack.

In contrast to these firmly grounded constitutional principles, the Tea Party muddied the waters by taking the ‘exceptionalism’ idea of neoconservatism, and molding it into a new form of nationalism hostile to all forms of immigration, free trade and diversity. As a result, rallies of constitutional conservatives were overshadowed by bigoted symbols and chants from those with no political views other than hatred for President Obama.

ugly tea party sign


Foreign Policy/National Defense – Early anti-communism conservatives and later neoconservatives translated ‘strong national defense’ into a policy of intervention and spreading the cause of freedom through nation building. Liberty-minded conservatives believe intervention and skyrocketing military spending are incompatible with fiscal conservatism, as well as ineffective and immoral, making the nation less safe.

Social Issues/Family Values – “Traditional” or “Moral Order” conservatives are willing to use the power of the state to enforce a judeo-christian view of morality, while liberty-minded and millenial conservatives leave morality to God and argue the state should distance itself from all judgments of virtue.

Size/Scope of Government – Neoconservatives and the most recent modern conservatives  propose liberal tax cuts with moderate or nonexistent reductions in spending. Liberty-minded conservatives prioritize reductions in government spending over tax cuts framing the issue as more than just a fiscal matter, but as consistent with reduction in the scope of the federal government’s role.

Nationalism – This conflict has only recently taken shape, and is illustrated perfectly by divisions in the current GOP primary race. The dividing lines are still being drawn. This is a topic all its own, which I will be writing about within the next week (What is Nationalism, and is it Compatible with Conservatism?). For now, I’ll just conclude that this is a hot topic of conflict among those calling themselves conservatives.

All of the forks in ideology described above follow a similar pattern: Virtue vs. Liberty.

What is a Conservative today? 

The movement has taken a long and windy road. As can be seen by the thorny conflicts described above, there are not only shades of conservatism, but incompatible factions. This may be how the republican party has ended up in the civil-war-like predicament in which it is currently mired.

Kirk and Buckley might be called the philosophical conservatives. Goldwater might have set the stage for the liberty-minded conservatives. Irving Kristol clearly drew up the vision for the neoconservatives, and arguably Ronald Reagan may have formed his own blend by walking the line between Goldwater and Kristol’s world view. Under the banner of ‘compassionate conservatism‘ George W.Bush ceded complete ideological sway over the conservative movement to the neocons, in what might be referred to as Neocon Turbo, which resulted in eight years of transformational liberalism through President Barack Obama, and finally, the Tea Party.

Now the many tribes of conservatism want their movement back, but they can’t agree on what it is. I believe there is a prevailing majority view that was explained quite well by Senator Marco Rubio in a recent debate.To be clear, this is not my view of what conservatism should be, nor do I believe Senator Rubio is as good at walking as he is at talking. However, he summed up very well what a conservative is widely accepted to mean in 2016:


  1. Limited government. If it’s not in the constitution, it doesn’t belong at the federal level.

  2. Free enterprise. The only system that can make poor people richer without making rich people poorer.

  3. A Strong National Defense. The world is safest when America is the strongest nation in the world.

2016 Mainstream Definition of ‘Conservative’ as told by Senator Marco Rubio

Personally, I identify most with the Goldwater libertarian brand of conservatism. I don’t object to Marco’s modern definition of the movement, with the possible exception of the third prong. If it were my movement to define I would stop the statement in the third prong immediately after “Strong National Defense.” The emphasis on World Safety and the US responsibility for the same smacks of the global neoconservatism which has dragged the party away from the fundamental principle of limited government.

In my view, ALL definitions of conservatism must contain the following basic elements:

Limited government is a both a financial and a moral imperative. Limited Government means holding to the powers granted to the federal government by the constitution. It MUST involve drastic reductions in SIZE (headcount and dollars) and SCOPE (the breadth of issues the federal government controls). Standing alone, tax cuts are meaningless

Free markets create jobs. Risk takers and producers build things, not presidents or senators.

We are created (or born if you prefer) with individual rights. These rights are not granted by government. The government has no role in ensuring fairness or equal outcomes, only equality under the law. Individuals do not owe their labor or property to any greater good or cause.

We must have the strongest National Defense in the world, but we must put the capital D back in defense. The only objective should be to protect the mainland and overseas interests from imminent threat of harm.

In response to accusations of ‘not being a conservative’, I have heard some respond “what good have conservatives done for us?” Based on my definition, I would simply respond: “We haven’t tried one yet.”

Maybe the term is changing as we speak. I just want to be notified once it all shakes out.  If ‘Conservative’ comes to mean anything other than the my simple definition above, then I am eager to align myself with another word.