in Historical Perspective
The last 30 years have seen the American conservative movement achieve some of its greatest triumphs and some of its most profound failures. The 2008 presidential election victory of Barack Obama, although it initially threatened a long period in the wilderness both for the Republican Party and the conservative movement, at least drew a line under a Republican administration which had witnessed the emergence of deep fissures within the conservative coalition. The early period of the Obama administration saw the Republican Party itself and the American right struggling to interpret the meaning of the 2008 election and trying to navigate the uncharted new territory in which they found themselves. That territory had been made all the more intractable by the lethal combination of international problems and financial collapse, both of which gathered momentum under George W. Bush’s controversial two-term Republican presidency.
Since the inevitable and acrimonious inquest into what went wrong in 2008, there have been more recent developments which suggest that the obsequies for the conservative movement were perhaps premature. These developments, most notably the strong resurgence of grassroots mobilization on the right in the form of the Tea Party movement led to major Republican victories at the 2010 mid-term elections and the capture by the GOP of the House of Representatives, six Senate seats and several gubernatorial mansions as well as a clutch of legislative seats at state level.1 Cheering though these electoral gains were for the right, they also raise further questions about the future shape of American conservatism and its relationship with the Republican Party.
One way to try to understand the contemporary questions facing American conservatism and the Republican Party is to interrogate the historical record and to compare the condition of the right today with its state in earlier periods of American political history. By tracing the key changes of leadership, organization, and doctrine that have occurred in the recent past, we may be better able to assess the causes of weakness (or