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Journal of Policy History 14.3 (2002) 321-330

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Toward a History of the Conservative Movement

William Rusher

A review of Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, by Lisa McGirr (Princeton University Press, 2001). Pp. 395.


The birth and growth of the modern conservative movement is surely one of the most remarkable developments in American political history. Most political movements arise spontaneously and rather haphazardly, in response to some felt need that is not being adequately addressed by the regnant political forces. They grow, combine, divide, and eventually wither, as the exigencies of politics take their toll and their founding impulse weakens or is co-opted by one of the major parties. Quite often they have an important, even a lasting impact on the political scene; but the movements themselves rarely survive. One can think of dozens of examples in American history: the abolitionists, the "free silver" movement, the Progressives, the Prohibitionists, and Ross Perot's Reform Party, to name just a few.

But the modern conservative movement was a development so major, and so sweeping in its consequences, as almost to require categorization in a different order. In 1950 Lionel Trilling could say, with considerable justification, that "in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation."

But it was in that very decade of the 1950s that a handful of conservative intellectuals set to work to change that state of affairs. Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" was published in 1953; [End Page 321] William F. Buckley Jr. launched National Review, a weekly (later fortnightly) journal of opinion, in November 1955; and Kirk founded Modern Age, a quarterly, in 1957.

In the beginning, therefore, was the Word, but by 1960 a large number of political activists, most of them young, were flocking to conservatism's banners. Young Americans for Freedom, the youth arm of the movement, was founded in 1960; the Conservative Party of New York, designed to counter the ultraliberal Republicanism of Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, and John Lindsay, came into being the next year, to field a candidate against Rockefeller in the gubernatorial election of 1962; and in October 1961, twenty-two veterans of the Young Republican wars of the 1950s met quietly in a Chicago motel and formed the nameless committee that, less than three years later, delivered the Republican presidential nomination to Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater's crushing defeat by Lyndon Johnson that November was, of course, a bitter blow, but it fell far short of ending the conservative movement. Many thousands of grass-roots political workers had been activated, and continued to participate in politics for decades. The machinery of the Republican party had been captured, and was never recaptured (as many expected) by its previous Eastern masters. Perhaps most important of all, a televised talk by Ronald Reagan in the last weeks of the Goldwater campaign captivated millions of Americans and launched the actor on a momentous political career.

During the late 1960s and the decade of the 1970s, the conservative movement grew almost exponentially. Think tanks, led by the Heritage Foundation, appeared and began providing conservatives with a constant flow of new ideas. Committees devoted to almost every conceivable issue were formed. Training schools for candidates, campaign managers, and journalists appeared. Direct-mail methods of raising money and whipping up support were developed, with the help of computers, to previously unattainable levels of sophistication. Conservative spokesmen were at last able to break into such previously liberal bastions as television and the opinion pages of newspapers and magazines. Whole new segments of the American electorate, from blue-collar and hard-hat workers (the "Reagan Democrats") to Jewish New York intellectuals (the "neoconservatives") and fundamentalist Christians (the "Religious Right"), joined the movement. Just thirty years after Trilling's dismissive observation, Ronald Reagan was nominated for president by [End Page 322] a Republican party still under conservative control, and elected in November 1980 by a...


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