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American politics
07.23.04
Politics and Economy:
The Roots of Conservatism
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What is Conservatism?

1. The inclination, especially in politics, to maintain the existing or traditional order. 2. A political philosophy or attitude emphasizing respect for traditional institutions, distrust of government activism, and opposition to sudden change in the established order.
— The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Although the dictionary definition above doesn't capture all the facets of modern-day American conservatism, it does reflect the origins of the philosophy and the basic platform on which the movement has taken hold.

The U.S. has never had a "Conservative Party" but the term entered American politics in full force in the middle of the 20th century, invoking European antecedents which, in the words of THE OXFORD COMPANION TO UNITED STATES HISTORY, focused on "tradition and the mystique of history to countervail any present generation's fascination with newness and change."

In the United States, this reading of conservatism initially competed with other forms. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Gilded Age, conservatism came to be associated with minimal government principles — laissez-faire — and found its major voice in the judicial branch of government as it became a bulwark against state regulation of business activity.

With the Cold War, anticommunism became part of the conservative philosophy. And in the later twentieth century, a new kind of conservatism became dominant: populist conservatism. It was the momentum of this movement that helped Ronald Reagan win office. A new group of "neoconservatives," made up of former leftists, were unhappy with liberalism for its stand on issues such as affirmative action. They directed their anger at liberal elites for what they saw as dominance in the spheres of higher education, the media, and government.

The OXFORD COMPANION explains:

Reagan combined important strands of American conservatism in a significant new way, employing populist rhetoric while working in the interests of corporate America and the wealthier classes. Insisting that 'the problem is government,' he saw a great economic future for America once business enterprise was liberated from government restraint.

The collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War set the stage for a rise in American conservatism. Current President George W. Bush has embraced the term in his slogan "compassionate conservatism." Learn about the origins of this concept and find out what compassionate conservatism is all about.

Sources: THE OXFORD COMPANION TO UNITED STATES HISTORY; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language


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