Conservatism in America


conservatism, in politics, the desire to maintain, or conserve, the existing order. Conservatives value the wisdom of the past and are generally opposed to widespread reform. Modern political conservatism emerged in the 19th cent. in reaction to the political and social changes associated with the eras of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. By 1850 the term conservatism, probably first used by Chateaubriand, generally meant the politics of the right. The original tenets of European conservatism had already been formulated by Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, and others. They emphasized preserving the power of king and aristocracy, maintaining the influence of landholders against the rising industrial bourgeoisie, limiting suffrage, and continuing ties between church and state. The conservative view that social welfare was the responsibility of the privileged inspired passage of much humanitarian legislation, in which English conservatives usually led the way. In the late 19th cent. great conservative statesmen, notably Benjamin Disraeli, exemplified the conservative tendency to resort to moderate reform in order to preserve the foundations of the established order. By the 20th cent. conservatism was being redirected by erstwhile liberal manufacturing and professional groups who had achieved many of their political aims and had become more concerned with preserving them from attack by groups not so favored. Conservatism lost its predominantly agrarian and semifeudal bias, and accepted democratic suffrage, advocated economic laissez-faire, and opposed extension of the welfare state. This form of conservatism, which is best seen in highly industrialized nations, was exemplified by President Reagan in the United States and Prime Minister Thatcher in Great Britain. It has been flexible and receptive to moderate change, favors the maintenance of order on social issues, and actively supports deregulation and privatization in the economic sphere. Conservatism should be distinguished both from a reactionary desire for the past and the radical right-wing ideology of fascism and National Socialism.

See R. Kirk, The Conservative Mind (rev. ed. 1960); J. Habermas, The New Conservatism (1989); T. Honderich, Conservatism (1991); C. Robin, The Reactionary Mind (2011).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Conservatism in America: Selected full-text books and articles

Crisis of Conservatism? The Republican Party, the Conservative Movement and American Politics after Bush
Joel D. Aberbach; Gillian Peele.
Oxford University Press, 2010
The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History
David Farber.
Princeton University Press, 2010
A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism
Jonathan M. Schoenwald.
Oxford University Press, 2001
Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics
Ronnee Schreiber.
Oxford University Press, 2008
Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives
Amy J. Binder; Kate Wood.
Princeton University Press, 2013
What's Right: The New Conservative Majority and the Remaking of America
David Frum.
Basic Books, 1996
God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right
Daniel K. Williams.
Oxford University Press, 2010
Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right
Catherine M. Rymph.
University of North Carolina Press, 2006
The Conservative Tradition in America
Charles W. Dunn; J. David Woodard.
Rowman & Littlefield, 1996
Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism, from Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice
Christopher Alan Bracey.
Beacon Press, 2008
The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics
John A. Andrew III.
Rutgers University Press, 1997
The Greening of Conservative America
John R. E. Bliese.
Westview Press, 2001
Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate
George W. Carey.
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998 (Revised edition)
Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution
Michael D. Tanner.
Cato Institute, 2007
Unraveling the Right: The New Conservatism in American Thought and Politics
Amy Elizabeth Ansell.
Westview Press, 1998
American Conservative Thought since World War II: The Core Ideas
Melvin J. Thorne.
Greenwood Press, 1990
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.