Conservative Evolution in the United States

Up until the 1950’s, the American Conservative magazine's brand of conservatism was the establishment point of view.

Born out of pre-World War isolationism, the first conservatives were libertarian, distrustful of big government and anti-Communist. After World War II, the old isolationists died out and the movement became more willing to secure peace and democracy on an international scale.

The burgeoning strength of the movement -- with the help of the rise of the Young Americans for Freedom on college campuses and the founding of William F. Buckley’s National Review, a beacon for conservative policy watchers -- gave conservatism a solid foothold in American politics in the 1950’s and '60’s.

After the election failure of 1964 presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater, who embodied conservative principles, yet failed to reconcile them with practical political solutions, neo-conservatives started dominating the debate.

That’s when New York intellectuals and former liberals like author Norman Podhoretz and NYU graduate professor of social thought Irving Kristol helped the movement establish political gravitas, reaching the pinnacle of its success with the presidential election of Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.

“The neo-conservatives embraced Reagan, his anti-Communism, his international policies,” said Gregory Schneider, author of Cadres for Conservatives: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise for the Contemporary Right.

Reagan's desire to pursue an anti-Communist American "empire" through beefed-up militarism and free trade was emblematic of the neo-con movement, but it still lacked a social agenda. From that vacuum came another form of conservative; the "New Right" or Christian Conservative, who also focused on a pro-life, social policy that stretched its predecessors' ideologies.  

“New Righters are with the old Right on the scope of governmen,t but closer to the neo-cons on the role of America in the world,” said activist Paul Weyrich, who calls his flavor of conservatism the true "grassroots" movement.

While the three worked in harmony for many years, even being credited with helping the Republican Party take over Congress in 1994 -- and some say, getting President George W. Bush elected in 2000 -- a post-Cold War, post-Sept. 11 landscape has revealed the cracks in the once-harmonious conservative veneer.

“Conservatism has gone through an identity crisis and in the last decade, you can see the deep divisions within it,” Schneider said.