There have always been several conservatisms, including the social, fiscal and foreign policy conservatives who made up the triad of Reagan’s conservative coalition.
The modern conservative movement was always a coalition of disparate groups often more united by what they opposed than by what they affirmed. These fault lines were camouflaged by their implacable opposition to Soviet communism. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the fissures in American conservatism became more visible.
Contemporary American conservatives can be divided into two groups. First, you have the hard conservatives of the Goldwater and Buckley variety who are more libertarian in their beliefs and would share the convictions that government is a necessary evil and you should have no more of it than is absolutely necessary, thus keeping its power to restrict individual freedom to a minimum.
Second, you have the soft conservatives represented by former President George W. Bush. These “compassionate conservatives,” while certainly advocates of free-market capitalism, see government not as a threat to religious liberty but as a force than can be used to empower people to make decisions to improve their lives. They point to the World War II GI Bill as an example of a government program that transformed the nation. The GI Bill’s investment in World War II veterans fueled the subsequent economic and social expansion of the middle class.
Hard conservatives believe the government should be minimally intrusive, let free-market forces work and oppose any attempt to use the tax system as social engineering to encourage or discourage certain behaviors.
Soft conservatives promote tax breaks for families, believing that parents are doing something essential for the society’s future, which is raising children.
Hard conservatives oppose the social conservatives’ pro-life, pro-traditional-marriage agenda. They find Ayn Rand’s ideas attractive. Soft conservatives, while accepting the Niebuhrian assessment of humankind’s flawed nature, see selfishness as a reality to be dealt with, not a virtue.
Hard conservatives oppose the idea of American exceptionalism that sees America as a worldwide defender of freedom and human rights. Soft conservatives embrace the idea that America has an obligation to promote and share freedom.
President Reagan had a foot in each side of conservatism, believing in minimal government but also believing in American exceptionalism and speaking out on social issues.
Soft conservatives were junior partners in the Reagan and first Bush years and equal partners in the second Bush Administration. The struggle between hard and soft conservatives will continue for the foreseeable future.
Land is the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The views expressed are solely his own.
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