The Confused Student's Guide to Conservatism - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

The Confused Student’s Guide to Conservatism

Americans today are understandably confused about what it means to be a conservative. Our president, for example, doesn’t seem to be one. And the conservative movement seems to be as fractured as our republic. Conservatives are going to have rethink who they are and what they’re supposed to do.

Who will be there to lead the rethinking and realigning? Here’s a list of nine conservative factions or modes of thought around today. Consider this your beginner’s guide to understanding the rivals on the right and the issues that animate them. It goes without saying that this list isn’t complete, and you might identify with more than one group. That issue of identity has become bigger than ever over the past year. The advantage of living through startling and unprecedented events is that we conservatives have no choice but to reflect deeply once again about who we are.

1. Growth Conservatives

They are associated with the Wall Street Journal and the so-called big donors. They think the main reform America needs today is to cut taxes and trim regulations that constrain “job creators.” On one hand, they think that America is on “the road to serfdom.” On the other hand, they often think this is a privileged moment in which conservative reform—such as the passing of right-to-work laws—is most likely to succeed.

2. Reform Conservatives

These conservatives think that growth is indispensable and that it’s unreasonable to believe America could return to a time when global economic dominance and lack of birth dearth made possible unions, a mixture of high taxes and unrivaled productivity, and a secure system of entitlements. So they’re for prudent entitlement reform. They’re also for a tax policy that treats Americans not only as free individuals but also as, for example, struggling parents who deserve tax credits. In our pessimistic time, reform conservatives are also characterized by a confidence that nobody should ever bet against America, that we’re up to the challenges we face. Their intellectual leader is the think-tanker Yuval Levin, and they have the ears of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio.

3. Tea Party Conservatives

They’re constitutionalists devoted to the rollback of the welfare state, and they’re rather contemptuous of establishment Republicans who complacently accept the status quo. They want to push government back so that they can live as they please as homeschoolers, church members, and citizens safely embedded in local communities. In other words, they favor “libertarian means for nonlibertarian ends.” In a sense, Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign was predicated on the mistaken judgment that 2016 would be the Tea Party moment in American politics.

4. Neoconservatives

Their main issue is continuing the tradition of aggressive American exceptionalism rooted in both American military power and confident ideological leadership. Their model, they say, is Ronald Reagan. And their main concern is the isolationist current in the Republican Party and the internationalist current in the Democratic one. They’re unapologetic about the second Iraq War, remaining confident about the mission while being critical of its implementation. Prominent neoconservatives include Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and Senators Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton.

5. Libertarian Originalists

They are mainly concerned with the pursuit of liberty through judicial engagement. A new birth of freedom is emerging, they hope, through the Supreme Court’s increased willingness to follow the “presumption of liberty” model in judging the constitutionality of laws, especially with regard to economic regulations and property rights. Some of them go further and embrace the autonomy precedents following from Roe v. Wade. The best public intellectuals in this camp are Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett and columnist George Will. Many libertarian originalists favored the presidential candidacy of Rand Paul.

6. Classical Liberals

They tend to be less libertarian than libertarian originalists. Classical liberals favor a free economy and embrace the continuing truth of Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek, which means they see the place of virtue in forming productive citizens. They typically separate themselves from the heroic selfishness of Ayn Rand’s heroes and are open to working with traditional conservatives (in a partnership often referred to as “fusionism”). They also separate themselves from liberationist trends that have produced “left libertarianism” and the “lifestyle libertarianism” of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

7. Natural-Law Conservatives

These thinkers combine a constitutional devotion to a free economy and civil rights with a concern for the preservation of the culture of life, beginning with the right to life and the family. They think that American constitutionalism, rightly understood, is part of the tradition of natural law that includes Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke. Their intellectual leaders are Princeton’s Robert George and Amherst’s Hadley Arkes. Many or most of these conservatives are Catholic, but their number increasingly includes Evangelical Protestants and Orthodox Jews.

8. Traditional Conservatives

These conservatives are concerned about the effects of both the modern economy and big government on “social ecology,” which sustains dignified relational life rooted in particular communities. Some, including the poet, novelist, and cultural critic Wendell Berry, defend American agrarianism against industrialism. Others, including Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen and the followers of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, criticize the more intrusive Lockean tradition in American thought, calling for the recovery of neglected strands in our tradition that point back to the Greek polis and the medieval village. The traditionalists are often devoted to our southern tradition as a kind of Stoic antidote to modern commercialism.

9. Populist Conservatives

Unlike members of many groups mentioned above, populists tend to be less concerned about limiting the size and scope of the federal government. Many of them are attracted to Donald Trump’s message that stronger and smarter leadership is required to protect the dignified lives of ordinary Americans. For Trumpism, conservatism means conserving the jobs, culture, and shared way of life we have as American citizens. Its followers embrace populism as an egalitarian remedy to the elitism they believe is deforming both parties—the globalist oligarchy of Wall Street and Silicon Valley as well as the detached cosmopolitanism of “Obama, citizen of the world.” Hence the message of “putting Americans first.”


So what can we expect from the future of conservatism? None of these factions is going away. Victory will go to whoever does best in putting back together elements of the diverse coalition—even the fusionism—that conservatism has been at its best.

Peter Augustine Lawler was Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia and the author of Allergic to Crazy, Modern and American Dignity, and other books.

Complement with Frank Meyer on what all conservatives can agree on, Russell Kirk on the six core beliefs of conservatism, and George Carey’s student guide to American political thought

If you ignore thinkers on the right, you won’t understand how certain core ideas like individual liberty and free enterprise shaped America. And you won’t fully grasp the heated debates that dominate our culture today.

This eBook introduces you to 11 essential conservative thinkers spanning three centuries and hailing from several countries. They often disagree with each other. You’ll disagree with some of them too. But in getting to know them, you’ll get the education you deserve. 

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