Conservatism – from Goldwater to The Tea Party and Beyond
E. J. Dionne Jr. (2016)


E. J. Dionne is an American journalist and political commentator, and a long-time op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, whose early work was characterized as “radical centrist” by Time magazine. He is also a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a University Professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at the McCourt School of Public Policy, a Senior Research Fellow at Saint Anselm College. Dionne holds an A.B. summa cum laude in Social Studies from Harvard University, and earned a DPhil in Sociology from Balliol College, Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.



What follows is a summary of his book, with only minor edits for readability.

[text in square brackets are editorial interjections or clarifications.]


“What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness…”

– Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.


For a half century, conservative politicians have made promises to their supporters that they could not keep. They described a small government utopia that was impractical and politically unsustainable because it required wrenching changes to government that most Americans didn’t want. They denounced decades of change, pledging what amounted to a return to the government and the economy of the 1890s, the cultural norms of the 1950s, and, in more recent times, the ethnic makeup of the country in the 1940s. Most Americans – including a great many who were neither very liberal nor radical, and especially the young – did not want to go back.

For the rank-and-file, the sense that their leaders had failed them and the political system had shortchanged them created a cycle of radicalization. We are living with its fruits today.

“The Republican Party created Donald Trump because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them.” – Erick Erickson, editor of the right wing blog RedState.

Since 1968, no conservative administration – not Richard Nixon’s, not Ronald Reagan’s, and neither of the Bush presidencies – could live up to the rhetoric conservative politicians deployed to rally their supporters. Their appeals were rooted in the aspirations of the Goldwater movement that began reshaping American politics 50 years ago. The hopes Goldwater inspired were regularly frustrated. In response, movement conservatives advanced an ever purer ideology.

Consider the steady march rightward. The collapse of the Nixon presidency led to the rise of Ronald Reagan. The defeat of George H. W. Bush led to Newt Gingrich’s revolution. The reelection of Bill Clinton pushed Republicans to impeach him. The second term of George W. Bush led to the rise of the Tea Party.

The rise of cultural and religious conservatism, along with the emergence of the white South as the central pillar of the Republican Party, led middle-of-the-road and progressive Republicans outside the South to flee the party.

Between January 1995 and January 2015, the proportion of Republicans who called themselves “very conservative” nearly doubled, from 19% to 33%. The breakdown in American government and the dysfunction in our politics are the result of the steady radicalization of American conservatism.

The condition of today’s conservatism is the product of a long march that began with a wrong turn, when first American conservatives and then the Republican Party itself adopted Barry Goldwater’s worldview during and after the 1964 campaign [Goldwater lost by one of the largest margins in history]. The Tea Partiers are the logical consequence of the ideology that Goldwater preached. Goldwaterism, in turn, was rooted in the reaction of large sections of American conservatism to the New Deal in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and a revolt against the efforts of more moderate conservatives.

The road not taken was laid out by Dwight Eisenhower in what he called Modern Republicanism. When the right was at its turning point in the 1950s and 1960s, [Cornell political scientist] Clinton Rossiter said that conservatives have the obligation to “steer a prudent course between too much progress, which throws us into turmoil, and too little, which is an impossible state for Americans to endure”.

As it has developed in the years since Goldwater, conservatism has come to operate almost exclusively on behalf of older, culturally conservative whites and a new class of wealthy Americans who see any impositions upon them by government as the work of a “taker” class intent on tearing down capitalism. That worldview is reinforced by an increasingly closed right-wing media system that disciplines those who depart from the orthodoxy and screens out dissent, and also by an increasingly powerful donor class that the conservative writer David Frum called “the radical rich”.

The Republican Party is no longer the broad coalition it once was and has become what the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Orstein have called “the insurgent outlier in American politics”. Compromise becomes impossible when it is equated with selling out principle.

In a two-party system with separated powers that frequently produces divided government, the radicalization of the right produces a zero-sum game. If it cannot take power, the GOP is committed, on principle, to preventing it adversaries from governing successfully.

It is one of history’s ironies. The civil rights, cultural, and moral revolutions of the 1960s created the backlash that helped the conservative movement grow between 1964 an d1988, prompting the shift of white southerners to the GOP, the rise of the Reagan Democrats, and the birth of the religious right. Now conservatives are paying a price for these earlier victories. A conservatism defined by the events and the arguments of fifty years ago is a losing battle for the loyalty of the young. The Millennials are the only generation in which polls consistently find self-identified liberals matching or outnumbering conservatives, and they are driving a growing social liberalism among all Americans.

The conservative movement is aging rapidly. In 1987, the Pew Research Center found that only 39% of conservatives were over fifty; in 2014, 53% were. The dominance on the right of a sharp-edged ideological conservatism is also out of step with a fundamentally moderate country. Republicans called “moderate” today are, with very few exceptions, quite conservative.

But demographic trends have also harmed the Democrats. The combination of GOP gerrymandering and geographic factors allowed Obama to beat Romney by 5 million votes but carry only 209 House districts to Romney’s 226 [this same effect allowed Trump to win the electoral race while losing to Clinton by nearly 3 million votes]. And the demographic groups that the Democratic Party relies on – the young, African-Americans, Latinos – are far less likely to turn out for midterm elections than for presidential contests.

The constitutional construction of the Senate, with equal representation from each state, tilts strongly toward rural interests and conservative regions of the country. This means that Democratic majorities are not synonymous with liberal majorities, as Democrats must nominate moderate-to-conservative candidates to secure seats in more conservative states. Republican senators are pushed farther to the right because, in the more conservative states, they fear primary challengers more than general election opponents. Comparable pressures are felt in the GOP House.

While the rhetoric of the right paints Democrats as “left-wing” or “socialist”, the truth is quite different. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that, among Republicans, 67% called themselves conservative; while, among Democrats, only 34% called themselves liberal. The Republicans are an unapologetically ideological party; the Democrats are not. In 2013, a Pew poll found that 59% of Democrats preferred elected officials who “make compromises with people they disagree with”, compared to only 36% of Republicans. Fully 2/3 of Republicans who consider themselves consistently conservative think of Democrats as “a threat to the nation’s wellbeing”.

The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham noted that, beginning in 1975, “the Republican Party sharply turned away from the center line and hasn’t looked back”. Ingraham also noted that the ideology scores computed by the political scientists Kenneth Poole and Howard Rosenthall in the spring of 2015 showed that in the most recent Congress nearly 90% of Republican House members are not politically moderate, compared to 90% of Democratic members who are.

As Hacker and Pierson demonstrated in their 2005 book, Off Center, on issue after issue Republican leaders and their rank-and-file alike have moved much farther to the right of the median American view than Democrats have moved to the left. In their influential book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Mann and Ornstein describe the GOP as “ideologically extreme”, “scornful of compromise”, and “dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”.

David Frum, the former speech writer for George W. Bush and the author of the president’s “axis of evil” line, became a conservative apostate, writing in the summer of 2014 that “over the last five years, the American right has veered toward a reactionary radicalism unlike anything seen in American party politics in modern times”.

Corey Robin [professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College] argued in his critique, The Reactionary Mind, that conservatism at its worst is primarily interested in preserving the power of existing elites at the expense of “subordinate classes”. At its best, as Philip Wallach and Justis Myers have written, conservatism is a “disposition” that “has the most to offer societies that have much worth conserving” and offers “incremental adaptation” as an alternative to radical change. Conservatism of this sort tries to pull us back, as Edmund Burke wrote, from “rage and frenzy” and prescribes in their place “prudence, deliberation and foresight”.

Goldwater & Reagan

The Barry Goldwater campaign was the seedbed of Reagan’s career and, for the contemporary right, the theme of disappointment was present at the creation. Goldwater’s victory was built on the conviction that the Republican Party’s establishment had betrayed its conservative loyalists for a generation. Much of what we regard as the new right was pioneered in the 1960s, and the conservative rebellion was aimed at least as much at Eisenhower’s “Modern Republicanism” as it was at liberals and Democrats.

Laid out in his bestselling The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater set a standard for the movement that future Republican presidents would be unable to live up to, even as they nodded to many of his themes.

Goldwater’s emphasis on moral decay sowed the seeds of the religious right, with which he later became impatient. He spoke of crime and law and order, broke the party’s historic alignment with the interests of African-Americans, and created a new Republicanism in the South built on the backlash against the civil rights movement (Eisenhower received 40% of the vote of non-white voters in 1956).

The Goldwater creed undercut assumptions that took hold during the New Deal about the need for regulated markets, the efficacy of active government, the benefits of redistribution, and the importance of state-provided social insurance. It made the state anathema, and with it high taxes.

Yet, if the country moved right ideologically, it remained operationally moderate and, in many respects, liberal. It is this stubborn fact that set the conservative movement up for frustration. There was a large disconnect between promise and achievement, between ideological affirmations and the actual behavior of conservatives in office. America did not want to destroy what the New Deal and the Great Society had built.

Government remained large because the things it spends most of its money on – retirement and health care programs for the elderly, national defense and security at home, social insurance against unemployment – are broadly popular, even among many who are part of the conservative movement. Conservatives could not cut taxes and balance budgets without undermining the government functions that most Americans support. And even the “intrusive regulations” that the right attacked won strong support when voters considered the concrete purposes: to keep the air and water clean; to protect Americans, particularly children, from unsafe products; to prevent injury and death in the workplace; and to regulate an economic system that can go off the rails at great cost to tens of millions, as the Great Recession showed. These policies were largely irreversible, because they came up from below.

The Goldwater campaign did not only create a powerful new ideology, but also pushed out moderate and liberal Republicans and rendered illegitimate all alternative understandings of conservatism.

Moderate white Republicans – in the Northeast especially, but also in the Midwest and the West Coast – steadily abandoned the party, became Independents or joined the Democrats. Once-loyal suburbs became purple or blue. In 1960, of the 174 Republican House seats, 35 represented districts in New York and New England and only 8 hailed form the eleven states of the Old Confederacy. Among the 178 Republican House members in 2008, only 3 came from New England and New York, while 73 represented the Old Confederacy.

Goldwater’s defeat was Nixon’s victory. Conservatives regarded Nixon as a friend and an enemy at different times. Nixon brought the party’s Southern Strategy to fruition and began creating the “New Majority” that Goldwater conservatives thought would be their legacy.

Yet Nixon was an instinctive moderate who signed a large stack of regulatory and environmental legislation that laid the basis for the new liberal state conservatives would rebel against. The Goldwater cycle of disappointment had begun.

If Nixon proved to be no conservative hero, Reagan was the conservative hero who, like Nixon, understood the limits on what he could achieve. As president, he sanded some of the rough edges off the movement and pushed it away from conspiracy-mongering and intolerance. He left intact many legacies of the New Deal, the most important elements of Johnson’s Great Society, and large parts of the regulatory state that grew during the Nixon years. But conservatives ignore this history and focus on the 1964 Reagan who had insisted that the battle was against those whose goal it was “to impose socialism”, and they have been fighting “socialism” ever since.

The rebellion against George H. W. Bush’s decision to sign a tax increase in 1990 created a new norm within conservatism: opposing all tax increases became the single most important test of philosophical loyalty.

While Carter, everybody’s second choice, tried to introduce a more centrist-leaning progressivism, his own party largely sidelined him. But when Clinton did the same, pursuing the policies of Eisenhower Republicanism, he was accepted by his party as a necessary reformer who could realign the base through his “third way”. His success at that energized a new hard-line Republican leadership under Newt Gingrich which created a polarized atmosphere which made Clinton’s impeachment inevitable. But the Clinton years saw the conversion of many Republican moderates, who remembered Eisenhower fondly, into Democrats and staunch opponents of Gingrich’s brand of conservatism.

Clinton’s presidency is now more often remembered primarily as a golden age of peace and prosperity, and both George W. Bush and Karl Rove, the architect of Bush’s political career, understood the need to come to terms with the new, moderately progressive political center that Bill Clinton had begun building. This became the attempt at a “compassionate conservatism”, severely constrained by the philosophical commitments of the larger conservative movement.

But the attacks of 9/11 fundamentally altered the Bush presidency and the collapse of the economy in 2008 left the Bush-Rove project in ruins. Fox News became the leading cable news network, and under Bush, the cleansing of the Republican Party of all moderate and progressive influences was nearly completed. The Tea Party would do the rest.

The bitterness amongst conservatives deepened at the end of Bush’s term when he pushed for and then presided over a massive federal bailout of the banking system to prevent financial collapse. Conservatives fell into full rebellion.

Thus did American conservatism come full circle. Having made a variety of adjustments after Goldwater’s landslide defeat [Goldwater won 52 electoral votes to Johnson’s 486 and 38.5% of the popular vote to Johnson’s 61.1%, winning only five deep South states and Arizona] under Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes, many conservative activists returned in frustration to the unvarnished and uncompromising version of their creed preached not only by Goldwater but also by groups on the farther reaches of the right, such as the John Birch Society. The Tea Party and its allies have regularly recycled ideas, charges, and conspiracy theories from the 1960s and late 1950s, or even earlier.

The fierce battles of the Obama years are the outcome of this return to conservative radicalism. The ensuing politics of deadlock will be broken only by a fundamental change on the right.

To end the cycle of disappointment and betrayal, conservatives will have to stop making promises they can’t keep. They will have to accept in practice what many acknowledge in theory: that to be successful and grow, a market economy requires a rather large government and a significant commitment to social insurance. They certainly don’t have to embrace all cultural change uncritically, but they will need to accept its inevitability if they wish to preserve what is most valuable in our national tradition. And they would do well to acknowledge that the business of running a competent government in a racially and culturally diverse nation requires tolerance and compromise.

Doing these things is not antithetical to conservatism. On the contrary, these imperatives are in keeping with conservatism’s historical mistrust of ideology and with the advice of Edmund Burke, who said that those who aspire to statesmanship must combine “a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve”.

Conservatives must recover the idea that extremism in pursuit of political goals is actually a vice, and remember that moderation in approaching the problems of governing is a virtue.


“Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.” – Eisenhower’s farewell address, 1/17/1961

“We have come to reward the expression of resentment and anger more than the mastery of public policy.” – Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review

In The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, by Yval Levin, editor of National Affairs and a former aide to both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President George W. Bush, writes that today’s left “could learn from Paine’s insistence on limits to the use of power and the role of government”. Today’s conservatives, Levin insists, are “far too open to the siren song of hyper-individualism,” and “could benefit by adopting Burke’s focus on the social character of man”.

National Review in January 2016 declared Trump “a philosophically unmoored opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus with the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones”. Its editorial concluded: “If they [the GOP] cannot advance a compelling working-class agenda, the legitimate anxieties and discontents of blue-collar voters will be exploited by demagogues.”

“Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” – JFK, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961



 by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page

See also: It’s Even Worse than it Looks Was: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas E. Mann & Norman J. Orstein

%d bloggers like this: