Getting It Right

Writing a history of recent American conservatism is not like writing a history of baseball or the Social Security system. There is fairly wide agreement about what constitutes baseball and Social Security; at issue are specific details. But there is little agreement about what American conservatism is. Not merely the rocks and bushes, but the very terrain remains undefined.

There have always been "conservatives" in America—Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about "the conservative" in the 1840's. Throughout the 20th century there has been a recognizable right wing in American politics that included such figures as the late Ohio senator Robert Taft and Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. But until the late 1950's there never was a self-identified "conservative movement."

American conservatism was invented, not discovered. The politics of this movement were not simply borrowed from foreign models like the British Conservative Party, but were developed out of existing and sometimes obscure strands of American politics. And the different parts and tendencies of The Conservative Movement were held together not by a common essence, but sometimes frayed family ties. Thus, to define conservatism remains not simply a historical but a political act, and venturing out on this darkling plain even well-traveled scholars like Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming can become lost.

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