The Conservative Coalition
I have argued often in the past the liberalism isn’t a coherent political philosophy, but rather a loose collection of interest groups, such as feminists, environmentalists, and minorities. This lack of theoretical underpinning helps explain the lack of really popular liberal media figures (Keith Olbermann’s ratings are as good as it gets for liberals, and his ratings are only about half of those of his arch-rival Bill O’Reilly) and much of the absurdity and immaturity found on the Left.
However, the Left was not always this way. When liberalism first became a coherent political philosophy, it had a firm philosophical foundation. (This foundation is a bit complicated; liberalism has its origins in the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and maybe even in the works of Karl Marx, and evolved from there). But over the years, liberalism embraced one interest group after another: blacks (the Left deserves credit for its early civil rights work; however, it has since embraced the grievance theory of racial relations), feminists, environmentalists, gays, and the list goes on. Now, liberalism is simply a theory of government that preaches that government exists to help the needy, minorities, or any other Democrat voting bloc.
This could happen to the Right as well, if conservatives forget their roots. Modern conservatism is founded on three primary principles: traditional values, a strong foreign policy, and fiscal minimalism.
I say “modern” conservatism because these three main beliefs are not mutually inclusive—it is quite possible to support both abortion and fiscal responsibility, or an assertive foreign policy and the welfare state. Modern conservatism works because it has managed to keep these groups united, without favoring one to detriment of another. Together, these groups form a unified, coherent movement.
These groups came from very different traditions. The foreign policy hawks are the oldest element of conservatism—they owe their existence to the Soviet threat. Many, perhaps most, liberals favored appeasing Communism, and some even found elements to admire and emulate in it. Early conservative thought centered around opposition to this concept.
The libertarian movement formed shortly afterwards. Many Republicans were aghast at the changes wrought by the New Deal; unfortunately, they were hopelessly ineffectual in their opposition. A new brand of fiscal conservative arose in response to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs. Whether it was because of the ineffectiveness of big government, because they were better organized, or for some other reason, they had much better luck than the opponents of the New Deal. They didn’t roll back many government programs, but they have been successful in slowing their growth.
Social conservatives were the group that put the GOP into the majority. They believe that traditional values should be preserved, even if that means government must get involved. This group was the latest to join the conservative coalition, and probably the most underrepresented among the party elite.
There is nothing to keep these groups unified. In a way, the conservative movement’s dilemma is much more difficult than the one the Left faced—the Left simply kept adding pressure group till the philosophy collapsed into a confusing mess; the Right must, in order to survive, keep its component constituencies from tearing the movement apart.
This could happen so very easily—the different branches of conservatism have many potential contradictions. For example, social conservatives often support government action to preserve traditional values; this could be considered inconsistent with libertarian wing of the movement. (I say “could be” since many libertarians—for example, me—believe that the right to life from conception outweighs many concerns about the dangers of big government). Libertarians support a small government; foreign policy hawks support an aggressive government, and the two are not often found together. Conservatism has given the GOP a sturdy majority—but it is a fragile coalition. Conservatives must do everything possible to ensure that this coalition endures.