Modern conservatism is a patchwork of sects and ideas that is held together by three ideological threads—freedom, virtue and safety, historian and author George Nash argued during his Signature Lecture presentation March 22 in the Miller Learning Center.
People have the misconception that the 2016 election ushered in the demise of a splitting conservative movement, but history shows that conservatism in the U.S. always consisted of multiple groups with differing points of view, Nash said.
“Perhaps the most important thing to assimilate about American conservatism is that it is not, and has never been, monolithic,” he said. “It is a coalition built upon ideas, with many points of origin and diverse tendencies that are not always easy to reconcile.”
Beginning around the time of the end of World War II, there were three major sects of conservatism: the classical liberals or libertarians, who resisted the threat of the “ever-expanding” state to liberty in post-New Deal 1940s America; traditionalists, who promoted a rejection of moral relativism and a return to moral teachings “to reclaim and civilize the spiritual wasteland created by secular liberalism” in post-World War II America; and militant anti-communists, largely consisting of former communists and former socialists who warned of the perils facing the U.S., Nash said.
The growing distrust of communism served as a unifier for the sects of conservatism, holding together the formerly disparate groups.
As the decades progressed, newer forms of conservatism appeared, such as the neoconservative movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which saw former liberals slowly move toward conservative principles. In the 1970s, the religious right appeared, largely focusing on their opposition to legalized abortion, Nash said.
“On its face, the American conservative movement may appear to be an unstable alliance, especially in 2017 when the fissures have grown,” he said. “But for three generations, it has also proven remarkably resilient.”