The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History

The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History

The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History

The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History


The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism tells the gripping story of perhaps the most significant political force of our time through the lives and careers of six leading figures at the heart of the movement. David Farber traces the history of modern conservatism from its revolt against New Deal liberalism, to its breathtaking resurgence under Ronald Reagan, to its spectacular defeat with the election of Barack Obama.

Farber paints vivid portraits of Robert Taft, William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, Phyllis Schlafly, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. He shows how these outspoken, charismatic, and frequently controversial conservative leaders were united by a shared insistence on the primacy of social order, national security, and economic liberty. Farber demonstrates how they built a versatile movement capable of gaining and holding power, from Taft's opposition to the New Deal to Buckley's founding of the National Review as the intellectual standard-bearer of modern conservatism; from Goldwater's crusade against leftist politics and his failed 1964 bid for the presidency to Schlafly's rejection of feminism in favor of traditional gender roles and family values; and from Reagan's city upon a hill to conservatism's downfall with Bush's ambitious presidency.

The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism provides rare insight into how conservatives captured the American political imagination by claiming moral superiority, downplaying economic inequality, relishing bellicosity, and embracing nationalism. This concise and accessible history reveals how these conservative leaders discovered a winning formula that enabled them to forge a powerful and formidable political majority.


In early 1936, Robert A. Taft, a president’s son and almost always the smartest person in any room, thought that he was a liberal. Then he heard President Franklin Roosevelt explain to the American people that he and his administration were redefining liberalism. in 1776, the president said, liberals had “sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy.” Now, Roosevelt continued, liberals demanded not freedom from political tyranny but “against economic tyranny”— and in this fight, “the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government.”

“The President has sought to appropriate to the New Deal,” Taft fumed, “all the ideals of liberalism, and to brand his opponents as Tories, and tools of entrenched greed.” Taft clung for a brief period to the L-word, but by 1938, running for the Senate, he used, for the first time, another word to describe his politics: conservative. (The term had been used episodically before, but never regularly by American politicians of note.) Taft, modern conservatisms first major figure, understood that the New Deal had forced a new divide in American politics, one that pushed the politically minded to ponder two new disciplinary political orders, master categories that would for decades transcend party or region. in the late 1930s, politicians and their constituents began to sort themselves out as liberals or conservatives. What follows is a short history of political conservatives’ evolving and contingent disciplinary order and the constituencies who embraced it, from the time of Robert Taft through the presidency of George W. Bush.

My central argument is that modern American conservatism is a disciplinary order generated by hostility to market restraints and fueled by religious faith, devotion to social order, and an individualized conception of political liberty. New Deal liberalism, in its most enduring form, insisted that the state needed to discipline the . . .

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