This is from John Green’s Crash Course series on US History. It gives an account of the rise of modern US conservatism, but I’m not sure how conservatives and libertarians will agree with this account. I think it’s interesting because it’s useful in framing the current ideological divides. The video starts off with Goldwater and segues to Nixon. While many might argue that current conservatism owes its roots to the founders or that the video ignores the 1920s (as evident in some of the YouTube comments), I think that Goldwater and the 1960s represents a good point of departure for modern US conservatism, since it represented a deterioration of the Democratic “solid South” and sets up the current political landscape.
What’s instructive here is how it explains how policy and politics aren’t independent of popular opinion. So, not all of Nixon’s policies are “conservative” (e.g., The EPA), as the Nixonian conservatism was embedded in a particular historical circumstance. While the “Silent Majority” who elected Nixon wasn’t happy with the social direction of the country, there was hardly a wholesale reduction of the federal government to pre-WWI levels.
Going beyond the video, I think that there are three distinct eras in modern conservatism. The rise of Nixon in 1968 (who lost in 1960 to Kennedy in the general election) was a backlash against the counter culture, in all of its manifestations. The rise of Reagan (who lost to Ford in the 1976 primaries) was not only a backlash against Carter, but brought together the anti-Communist stance of Goldwater, a move towards laissez-faire economic policy, and a social conservatism. Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America” (which didn’t feature a social conservative stance) brought both houses of Congress under control of the GOP, but it signaled a divide: the “country club” Republicans versus the socially conservative populists. While George W. Bush managed to squeak by in 2000 with the help of the Supreme Court, he had a little more breathing room in 2004, winning with a “War on Terror” = “War in Iraq” messaging. He managed to keep together a coalition of social conservatives and fiscal conservatives, which fell apart by 2006 and evident in his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.
The fragmented state of the GOP is an interesting case because the party cannot contain the ideologies of its factions. Strong leadership may remedy this, but perhaps only to a point. What the conservative factions want and popular opinions on issues such as taxes, deficits, regulation, income inequality, minimum wage, abortion/reproductive rights, guns, entitlements, gay marriage, and immigration create too many possible failpoints for Presidential candidates and legislators.
While 2016 presidential election is a far off on the horizon, I’m not the first to point out that the Republican who wins (since 1968, after the South realigned) had his challenger come from the middle:
- 1968: Nixon, challenged by Nelson Rockefeller
- 1972: Nixon, challenged by Pete McCloskey
- 1980: Reagan, challenged by George Bush
- 1988: George Bush, challenged by Bob Dole
- 2000: George W. Bush, challenged by John McCain
I’m not sure what a 2016 “most conservative electable candidate” looks like, but looking at a likely rough primary fight and swing state math, they’re not in an enviable position.