The Soul of Conservative America. Understanding What Makes Conservatives Tick.

American Conservatives — you know them from newsbytes and soundbytes and from the seemingly pervasive longing across the many forms of conservatism for the return of Ronald Reagan.

You may think of conservatives as primarily Republican; the average conservative probably thinks of alliance with Republicans as merely a marriage of convenience.

Earlier this week I was reading a long discussion as to what makes conservative America tick. All good constructive thoughts. The criticisms were also thoughtful.

Yet as I read the comments it struck me that possibly, even probably, none of the discussion panel were conservative.

Below is my edited contribution to the conversation — my original was a stream of consciousness.


By the comments that I’ve read so far I would assume several things:

— most of the commentary is by individuals not born and bred, or living long in the South or Western USA, or the lower Midwest (Kansas, Missouri) or rural New Hampshire/Massachusetts or areas with homogeneous populations;

— knowledge of conservatives comes mostly from reading about them and not living with or daily discussion of ideas with them; and

— the names of Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Bertrand Russell are probably somewhat familiar, but what they believed is not. Also there is a very key figure that ties the aforementioned together, he being Thomas Jefferson — everyone knows Jefferson, but have you read Jefferson?! Jefferson is worshiped in modern conservative America.

I was born a conservative. Most conservatives just know that they are conservative. Conservatives feel no need to rationalize their existence or their beliefs. Somehow we intuitively understand and act on our beliefs.

I’m not saying that conservatism is the answer. Or has an answer. My point is that conservatism is not an active thought process. So it is a misdirected thesis to imply that conservatives can even agree on what they believe. Or ever agree.

Conservatism is more like a computer operating system than it is some piece of software that gets installed and then run. Software gives us predetermined functionality; operating systems give us whatever we create to run on them.

Conservatism enables rather than creates desired outcomes by design. Conservatism is more of a ‘background process’ than it is a ‘user interface’. Conservatism can be very user unfriendly to those desiring a program instead.

As one political scholar once put it: “To put conservatism in a bottle with a label is like trying to liquify the atmosphere … The difficulty arises from the nature of the thing. For conservatism is less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a mode of feeling, a way of living.”

So when a conservative ‘boots up’ their operating system they tend to focus on a few key functions that run in the background, not in the forefront:

Self-reliance: YOU are responsibile for you. YOU will succeed because of what YOU do and learn and achieve. Do not expect help. All help comes with a price. Never owe another.

Economic independence: See self-reliance; charity to another is to be encouraged; charity received is a shame. You are what YOU make yourself.

Family: You are your family. Your family is of you. There is no other entity other than God (or in Bertrand Russell’s case: some mutally satisfying blessing of greater good) and family. The family is the most meaningful organization of mankind. You have a responsibility to perpetuate and to protect your family. Family is responsible for taking care of other family members.

Community: Communities represent an aggregation of like-minded believers. There is a status quo which must be respected. You advance within the community and gain respect through self-reliance and economic independence, thus achievement.

Tradition: the status quo is exalted as proof that family and community are successful. Your actual traditions are less important than the fact that you have them.

Recognition of a higher power, but government isn’t it: government beyond the bounds of the community is a thing to be feared. It is not of your family. It does not respect and support your status quo. It does not honor your traditions. Government which governs least governs best is oft heard.


Conservatism as a coherent political philosophy outside of a community is almost an oxymoron.

Translating conservatism to politics at state and federal levels is a messy thing.

Until the 1950s conservatives were protected by living in a white Anglo-Saxon world framed in various essences of Anglo-Saxon Christianity — real or imagined. From Jefferson to Eisenhower there were only moments of intrusion of another world into the conservative world.

—>> Conservatism became primarily a white American philosophy only because the status quo and community failed non-whites so badly. There were nonetheless self-reliance movements among non-white Americans and the essence of how they functioned was hardly different than white conservatism.

The stress of changing times gave us Eisenhower (reassurance and continuity) and with the 1960s came revolution and Goldwater.

Goldwater’s greatest achievement, and challenge, was that he attempted to define conservatism when he ran for president in 1964. He had no choice. Nixon’s defeat in 1960 signaled the end of an era. America turned upside down.

Goldwater created a conversation about conservatism that forced it to seek status as a bona fide political philosophy — which gave us George Will, the late William Buckley and William Safire, all of whom spent the 60s, 70s, 80s, and the 90s attempting to define and to further refine.

Conservatism as software (defined outcome) is not possible. Conservatives do not want defined outcomes. We do not want menu choices as we run our lives. So 45 years later we are embroiled again in Goldwater’s great conversation.

Ronald Reagan, whom we all grew up with (if you were born before 1970), gave us in the 1980s what Eisenhower gave us: reassurance and continuity. What Reagan did not give us was doctrine. Reagan strode the earth as a natural conservative. God bless Reagan.

What came after Reagan were “reformed conservatives”, converts to conservatism. They tried to define conservatism through alliances of communities that either attracted or alienated. We got dogma instead of philosophy — the difference being that dogma demands acceptance and philosophy appeals to you or not.

Reformed Conservatism (I hate this term): Bush 41 and Bush 43 lucked out just by the good grace of having been associated with Reagan, by having stood in his shadow. Neither could lead conservatives because they talked about being conservative instead of being conservative. John Wayne didn’t explain. John Wayne just did it. Reagan just did it.

The conservative world has now crashed upon the rocks of an ethos (America today) that is without ethos.

Conservatism’s bedrock support is community of like-minded believers. Except for small regions, America is now 24/7 multicultural — even among conservatives.

There is no leader or heir apparent of conservatism because if there were we would know his or her name already. We would respect them for their self-reliance and economic or cultural achievements. And their very life would transcend the nuances of how we conservatives see ourselves.

Roosevelt and Eisenhower and Reagan walked among us long before they took the helm of nation.

Conservatives are not without prophets. Yet neither are there giants that walk among us.

So now we are left with a conservative movement that must try to define itself.

Yet how can (and why must?) we be forced to (re)define status quo, and tradition, and most of all family? These things do not require definition. Not to us.

Yet we try. We have no choice. Having no choice frustrates us and builds anger and divides us into combative camps (virtual communities) that lashes out at that which is not family and is not community and which challenges our very notions of self-reliance and economic independence and organization of our lives within our families.

Modern conservatism did not collapse from outside forces. It collapsed from its own weight, its own collection of baggage that was a patchwork quilt of alliances and dogmas and addictions, such as seeing profits and GDP as somehow equating to self-reliance and economic independence.

I believe that conservatism with survive and thrive. But first it must take its own hand from its own throat. Conservatism will thrive when it abandons ‘my way or the highway’.

Conservatism will thrive again when we refocus on community at the community level and compete outside those communities, at state and national level, as Americans that believe in self-reliance and economic independence, dropping all other preconditions for political cooperation.



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4 responses to “The Soul of Conservative America. Understanding What Makes Conservatives Tick.

  1. Forget, please, “conservatism.” It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    “[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    John Lofton, Editor,
    Recovering Republican

    PS – And “Mr. Worldly Wiseman” Rush Limbaugh never made a bigger ass of himself than at CPAC where he told that blasphemous “joke” about himself and God.

    • wdgoldenic

      Ultimately, left or right — or even being smack in the middle — we all have a responsibility to make our case to the American people and to heed its choices.

      We don’t have to like those choices. At state and national level I believe that only secular politics has a chance to build a lasting coalition.

      Within the next 12 months I expect the Republican party to split. Secular conservatives will stay. Social conservatives will mostly leave or drop out of politics.

      A test case for this proposition is New York’s 23rd District in which Republican Doug Hoffman is running under a Conservative Party banner (1). The 23rd district has been traditionally Republican and conservative in its choices.

      1 – New York Conservative Party Officially Nominates Hoffman For NY-23, Blasts GOPer Scozzafava

  2. trizzlor

    Not to play the rubber/glue game here, but in reading your analysis I could not get past the thought that perhaps you have not spent much time in the company ordinary liberals. I’ve got my moonbat bona fides covered: Obama voter, graduate degree, live in Manhattan, sip lattes, etc. and yet I too feel that the principles you mention – self-reliance, independence, family, community – are the underpinning of my political philosophy. Where I grew up, these ideals weren’t liberal or conservative they were just American, and to appropriate them for one movement or party is a bit insulting (I don’t believe that was your intent here, but it’s a habit I see quite frequently on both sides).

    I think we can all agree that people should be self-reliant; but the main difference between the two parties, as I see it, is the role which government should play in this equation. Classical conservatives see government as a necessary evil which should fulfill only the essential functions that cannot be done individually, they believe that government growth inherently leads to corruption and over-reach and that society as a whole functions better with limited restrictions (obviously setting aside social conservatism for a minute here). Classical liberals believe that, left unchecked, the power majority will inevitably coerce and abuse the remainder of society and try to monopolize such control in an increasingly unjust way. They see the role of government as the unbiased arbitrator who makes sure that no one has a thumb on the scale and that everyone has a fair chance at self-reliance and independence. Depending on how you look at it, the recent financial crisis can be a good example of a moneyed minority taking advantage of an unregulated system; surely the government does not negatively detract from your self-reliance by jailing the man who broke into your home.

    I have two theories on the failure of the modern GOP. The more philosophical/unlikely is that no party built on hatred of the government can actually succeed broadly in government. Practically, though, I think that Republicans just tried to incorporate both of these opposing ideas. Full throated support of state’s rights merged with federal intervention in social issues (Schaivo, DOMA); deregulating corporations while propping them up with contracts and bail-outs; taking on an aggressive foreign policy while ignoring the associated costs domestically in taxes and morale. This was what Bush called compassionate conservatism for a while, and it was meant to be a triangulation that would bring permanent majorities. It failed because it was a self-conflicted patchwork that promised so much for so little.

    Personally, I hope that Obama establishes a baseline of civil services (health-care, infrastructure, education, minority rights) that conservatives can then build off of in a way that promotes efficient government. Deep down, however, I’m pretty sure the big elephant in the room is a demographic shift, and no amount of realignment will put the GOP on the winning end of that battle.

    • wdgoldenic


      Actually, I agree with most or everything that you said, except not spending “…much time in the company ordinary liberals.” I am a two-sided coin: I am conservative yet progressive at the same time. If you take a moment and read my “Left – America – Right” thoughts you’ll see that I hold traditional liberals in high regard.

      As to liberals and other political creatures:
      “Liberals and Conservatives both have principles and represent what is best in America. They just disagree. And while they may see truth differently, they both try to put America first. America is not a victim when these two meet — preferably over a beer or some other wholesome American pasttime. America is blessed because at the end of the day we all, liberal and conservative alike, are challenged in our views and there is wisdom and answers from both — with compromise usually encouraged upon us by moderates and progressives.”

      I have no use for wingnuts, right or left.

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