“The outside pressure of Communism” helped unify the American Right during the Cold War—that’s how Matthew Continetti put it, as we spoke in the dining room of the American Enterprise Institute, where he serves as director of domestic policy studies. Existential struggle with the Soviet Union, that is, led various factions within conservatism—free marketeers, social traditionalists, foreign policy hawks—to put aside their differences and fight the common enemy. After the Cold War, many Republicans and conservative thinkers settled on a consensus characterized by deregulation, expanded global networks of trade and migration, and investment in national security, with some endorsement of conservative moral positions on family life and civil society. The unraveling of George W. Bush’s presidency and the rise of Donald Trump shattered that consensus, leading to an intensifying debate about the future of the Right.

That debate is reflected in rival mission statements by conservative organizations. In 2022, the Edmund Burke Foundation, led by Israeli American political theorist Yoram Hazony, released “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles,” which declared: “We see the tradition of independent, self-governed nations as the foundation for restoring a proper public orientation toward patriotism and courage, honor and loyalty, religion and wisdom, congregation and family, man and woman, the sabbath and the sacred, and reason and justice.” A year later, a group of “Freedom Conservatives” produced as a rejoinder its own “Statement of Principles,” contending that “individual liberty is essential to the moral and physical strength of the nation.”

The signatories of each document include accomplished figures: former National Review editor John O’Sullivan, Modern Age editor Daniel McCarthy, and First Things editor R. R. Reno were among the drafters of the “National Conservatism” manifesto; spearheaded by policy wonk Avik Roy, the “Freedom Conservatism” platform was signed by current National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and conservative luminary George F. Will.

The role of state power is a major point of disagreement between the two camps. Many national conservatives believe that the Right should “realign” around a politics of working-class solicitation and proactive government intervention in the economy to help achieve the common good. The freedom conservatives, by contrast, maintain that this approach could result in a corrosive statism and American decline.

Confronting Soviet Communism, twentieth-century conservatives grappled with similar questions about the state. Their approach to state capacity might suggest a basis for common ground among today’s warring conservatives.

In January 1952, a young dissident journalist named William F. Buckley, Jr. took to the pages of The Commonweal to reflect on the trajectory of the American Right. Buckley had yet to found National Review, but his essay, “The Party and the Deep Blue Sea,” prefigured conservative debates about state power during the Cold War. As Buckley saw it, “ideally, the Republican platform should acknowledge a domestic enemy, the State,” and champion individual liberty. Yet the struggle with the Soviet Union, he cautioned, may require “Big Government for the duration—for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged . . . except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.” Conservatives who took the Soviet menace seriously would need to “support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington,” he contended.

The essay illumined the fateful tension within Cold War conservatism. The concentration camp and the nuclear weapon were the two most horrific modes of state power in the twentieth century; movement conservatives embraced the second to avert the first. Far from demanding a small state, the Cold War Right endorsed the government development—and potential use—of unprecedented force.

In the postwar era, the dark spectacle of the state’s capacity to exterminate, brainwash, and maim—from Auschwitz to the gulag to the killing fields—inspired a broad political emphasis in democratic societies on rights and liberties. Nuclear warfare presented its own terrors. Tens of thousands died when the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the hydrogen bomb and nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles threatened greater carnage. At the end of Christopher Nolan’s 2023 blockbuster, Oppenheimer, which portrays the dawn of the atomic age, Manhattan Project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer confesses his fear to Albert Einstein that he has unleashed a chain reaction that would ultimately destroy the world. Social traditionalists and religious conservatives were haunted by the idea of nuclear warfare. In the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien likened the One Ring to the atomic bomb.

Nevertheless, many on the right saw nuclear weapons as essential to American geopolitical strategy. In “The Difference Is Atomic,” a November 1956 cover story for National Review, the academic Medford Evans pilloried Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson for pledging to suspend tests for the hydrogen bomb. Evans lamented that contemporary politicians lacked the “courage” to use atomic weapons, arguing that “one question we shall be deciding on November 6 is whether we want some buck-feverish egghead to freeze on the controls of our defense when the Soviet Bisons [bombers for nuclear-weapons delivery] come in for the kill.”

Other prominent conservatives acknowledged the dangers inherent in this approach to atomic weapons but believed that they had to be faced. In his seminal 1960 manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, Republican senator Barry Goldwater argued that U.S. foreign policy should be anchored by the principle “we would rather die [in a nuclear holocaust] than lose our freedom.” While National Review editor and Cold War intellectual James Burnham wrote in his 1967 book, The War We Are In, that nuclear war “threatens—and by no means remotely—unimaginable destruction,” he, too, believed that living with the threat was the price for protecting freedom and civilization from Communism.

“How do you stop the advance of Communism? How do you secure the free world if you’re not going to have these direct military confrontations? That’s going to require diplomacy. It’s going to require covert operations. It’s going to require nuclear deterrence,” observes Daniel McCarthy about this period. George Will was more pointed: “nuclear weapons kept the peace and they did it on the cheap. That is, it was better to have nuclear weapons than to have to match the standing army of the Soviet Union.”

Cold War conservatives, then, accepted a state with a greater capacity for annihilation than even the despots of old commanded. Responding to this tragic compromise, Ronald Reagan would evoke the dream—at once idealistic and sane—of a world without nuclear weapons. Yet for Reagan, the route to realizing that dream ran through high-stakes nuclear brinkmanship and the missile shield of the Strategic Defense Initiative—indeed, through the massive deployment of state resources.

Forging a global alliance against Communism required a transformation of the American constitutional order. One of the through-lines of Continetti’s The Right, a sprawling history of American conservatism published in 2022, is the emergence of an “engaged nationalism” among conservatives, characterized by backing a strong executive and robust international commitments. This approach replaced many conservatives’ traditional ideal of noninterventionism in foreign affairs.

Such measures as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, and the Trade Act of 1974 dramatically increased the president’s unilateral ability to set trade and tariff policies, with the broad intention of creating an integrated global trading system. At times, Republicans sought to temper such executive discretion: Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, for instance, proposed a failed amendment to reduce the term of the Trade Expansion Act from five years to three. But many conservatives nevertheless signed on to these bills, even when moderating amendments failed. Only one Republican senator voted against the Trade Act of 1974, which set up “fast track” trade negotiations. New York senator James Buckley—brother of William—voted in favor.

The president’s prerogatives for national defense under Article II similarly expanded. Republicans came to defend the executive’s right to enter international conflicts, and even launch civilization-destroying weapons across the globe. The War Powers Resolution of 1973, an effort to restrain executive warmaking capacity, became anathema to many conservatives. Even freedom-minded Goldwater and James Buckley opposed the bill, which Congress passed only by overriding President Richard Nixon’s veto. Conservative legal theorists defended presidential latitude in foreign affairs.

To appreciate the significance of the conservative turn toward “engaged nationalism,” consider a political road not taken. Before the Cold War–era fusion took shape, a prominent critic of the New Deal, Albert Jay Nock, enjoyed major influence on the right. A friend of William F. Buckley, Sr. and a beacon to many other conservatives, Nock outlined his political program in Our Enemy, the State, a 1935 book. War, Nock believed, was the occasion for some of history’s most dramatic expansions of the state, to the detriment of liberty. He criticized U.S. involvement in both world wars. He viewed the American Civil War as state-sanctioned mass murder. “Why be astonished when the German or Russian State murders its citizens? The American State would do the same thing under the same circumstances,” Nock wrote. “In fact, eighty years ago it did murder a great many of them for no other crime in the world but that they did not wish to live under its rule any longer.” Americans should focus on weakening the state, Nock advised, not on using it to confront perceived international enemies.

Had the United States followed Nock’s way, the nation would have been far more isolationist. Its governing infrastructure would have remained closer to the Articles of Confederation. It would have built no “arsenal of democracy.” It would not have fought the Nazis or led a global alliance against the Soviets. It would not have invested in a vast nuclear weapons program. This would have been a conservatism consistently opposed to the state, but it wasn’t the direction that U.S. history, or American conservatism, took, even if skepticism about executive influence and the entanglements of overseas commitments persisted within parts of the Right.

The libertarian desire for a space to be left alone and to launch new collaborative endeavors with others is one of the great inheritances of the American political tradition. The Cold War, however, led conservatives to construct a broader geopolitical universe that was clearly in tension with that libertarian current. The “liberal international order” depended upon the conservative embrace of state power.

The Cold War led conservatives to construct a broader geopolitical universe. (Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

What are the lessons of this history for today’s conservatives? According to Continetti, the Cold War “helped revive . . . the American Right.” Not only did it allow the formation of a reinvigorated conservative coalition; it also gave new electoral viability to Republicans. He added, “I think primarily we should look at the ideological component of the Cold War: freedom versus tyranny.”

McCarthy calls the Cold War “the greatest achievement of U.S. statecraft in our 250 years, maybe the only exception being independence.” In a 2021 Modern Age essay, he wrote: “If liberal democracy won the Cold War, it was a victory made possible only by faith and country: by Polish solidarity, by Czechs who longed for spiritual freedom, by Russian dissidents who would not abandon their old faith.” He elaborated on these points in conversation, arguing that the Cold War should be seen not only (or even primarily) as a clash between Communism and liberalism but one pitting Soviet “ideology versus the traditional roots of a political and social religious order.”

The Cold War locked the United States in combat with an ideologically disciplined antagonist. The world split into blocs; the specter of nuclear holocaust loomed. Conditions nowadays are different. Many suspect that rivalry with the People’s Republic of China is unlikely to be a similarly total, unifying concern. The Chinese and American economies are interwoven. The globe is not so cleanly split. Will suggested that the PRC had already “passed its apogee.”

Today’s challenges might require a focus on the right on maintaining civic sustainability. “In the Cold War,” McCarthy said, “we basically used entropy for our benefit” by letting the internal contradictions of the Soviet regime help break it. Entropy, though, could also be a lens for thinking about contemporary American problems. Entropic forces include mutual distrust between the victors of the “meritocracy” and the public at large; the widespread discrediting of major American institutions; and economic sclerosis in sectors of society. Escalating conflict threatens domestic stability, as well as the ability of the United States to adapt to a changing global landscape.

Conservative Cold Warriors built a system for the protection of the market economy, personal liberties, and the democratic order. Could adapting its approach for contemporary challenges highlight common ground for today’s national conservatives and freedom conservatives? Despite tendencies to draw a rigid distinction between the two groups, it’s worth noting that the signatories of the rival manifestos aren’t always opposed. “I don’t think there’s much I would have objected to” about the Freedom Conservatism statement, said John O’Sullivan, who helped draft the National Conservatism principles. The Hungary-based Danube Institute that he heads stands for both social traditionalism and “the broad classical liberal tradition in economics.” For O’Sullivan, the “classical liberal” position is compatible with some economic policy interventions. A former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, he has been involved in transatlantic debates over conservatism for decades.

Seeing it as an important “counterpunch” to the National Conservatism statement, George Will said that the Freedom Conservatism manifesto was the first document of that kind he had ever signed. Yet he, like O’Sullivan, does not think that the differences between the groups are “too stark.” The national conservatives, in his view, were “quite right to resist whatever cosmopolitan temptation exists in liberalism.”

The Republican electorate itself seems to share sympathies with both groups. A New York Times poll in July 2023 found that 47 percent of Republican voters would prefer a presidential candidate who raised tariffs to protect jobs, while 43 percent would instead want a candidate who cut taxes to make it easier for businesses to flourish. (Theoretically, of course, someone could do both.) A September 2023 poll by the “new Right” think tank American Compass found that cultural issues were of particular importance to Republican voters, who tended to be more divided on economic questions.

Even on certain economic issues, concord between the groups is possible. Expanding domestic energy production could appeal to free marketeers and nationalists alike, for example. Making energy cheap and reliable promotes industrial production, helps balance working-class checkbooks, and protects American national interests. And though freedom conservatives and national conservatives might not see eye to eye about the desirability of free trade generally, they would likely agree that further entwinement of the American and Chinese economies is not desirable. The Freedom Conservatism manifesto tellingly endorses only “free trade with free people”—not autocracies. Though skeptical about industrial policy, Continetti (who characterizes himself as a “Reaganite” sympathetic to freedom conservatism) notes that he backed export controls targeting China and believes that the U.S. should “try to be less dependent on Chinese sources for our own advanced technologies.”

Other areas of economic policy agreement might include passing certain kinds of tax cuts (especially those favoring economically struggling families) and supporting vocational education. Oren Cass, director of American Compass, sees continuities between the more interventionist economics that he advocates and Cold War conservatism in a desire to expand “the economy’s productive capacity.”

Even disagreements between the conservative camps suggest possible affinities. The struggle to supply a steady flow of armaments during the Ukraine conflict and shortages of equipment during the pandemic have reminded policymakers of the importance of supply chains. Promoting supply-chain resilience may include “friend-shoring”—the promotion of industrial production in allied nations. But securing a domestic capacity for production, especially for key strategic goods, could also become an area of consensus on the right. After all, the tremendous industrial base that the United States had developed prior to 1945 was a key ingredient in Cold War strategy. A lack of sufficient domestic infrastructure for defense matériel and advanced technologies could imperil American ability to maintain its international commitments.

Industrial strategy is not confined to command-and-control centralized models, moreover. As economic analysts Dan Breznitz and David Adler documented in a 2020 American Affairs essay, much contemporary industrial policy is decentralized and leverages market-oriented principles. For instance, Asian countries often use shared production facilities to provide an institutional home for startups. The Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative represents one prototype for providing grants and other incentives to nurture innovation. Another such program, the BRIDG initiative, located outside Orlando, is a collaboration between government agencies, educational institutions, and private businesses for developing semiconductors and other advanced technologies. More federal investment in basic research and in realizing its benefits could also address contemporary needs. During the Cold War, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency famously helped lay the foundation for the digital revolution.

Polling indicates the continued salience of culture for Republican voters. The controversies may have changed somewhat, but cultural issues have long been a part of conservative politics. Religious believers were a bedrock of the Cold War coalition. The GOP platforms of 1980 and 1984 called for restoring voluntary prayer in public schools—a measure that Ronald Reagan also endorsed. Support for restricting abortion and pornography was a mainstay of conservative politics during the Cold War era, though a source of tension with libertarians. Buckley and some other prominent conservatives backed drug legalization, but many others (including most elected Republicans and Republican voters) wanted to keep most drugs illegal for recreational purposes.

These days, conservatives worry about the rise of identity politics—a key factor, they believe, in the entropic weakening of the nation’s civic life. Public institutions that promote racial essentialism, in their view, are incompatible with the demands of a diversifying, pluralistic society. When public schools demonize “cultural appropriation” and insist on segregated “affinity spaces,” they counter the heterogeneous mixing that has done so much to strengthen and renew the United States over its history. How to cope with large private corporations that promote divisive doctrines may be a controversial issue on the right, but addressing how government-run institutions can better serve the aims of pluralism and achievement is not. Ensuring that schoolchildren are not denied advanced math classes in the name of some supposed “equity” agenda, for example, is something nearly everyone on the right would agree on.

Donald Trump’s political influence over the last decade can be seen through a cultural lens. Continetti noted that Trump communicates on a “psychological” level. He speaks to the widespread alienation of many Americans—to a loss of faith in the federal government, major institutions, and the American political system more broadly. Trump’s brawls with the “deep state” have helped make him a tribune of the alienated. That might explain why his various criminal indictments have, at least in the Republican primaries, tended to enhance his appeal; they reveal for his supporters the profound hostility of the American political establishment to him—and, they believe, to their values.

The diminished credibility of our governing institutions in the eyes of many Americans (not just conservatives) is a deeply troubling development. Cold War conservatives promoted an executive branch strong enough to manage a global battle with Soviet Communism. Today’s demand might instead be cultivating networks of governance flexible and accountable enough to secure public legitimacy. Encouraging local empowerment could give some communities a renewed sense of agency. Federal reforms—from expanding the House of Representatives to changing the primary process—have been proposed partly in response to such widespread political estrangement.

Throughout American history, critical moments have led policymakers to bolster government institutions to safeguard democratic freedom. When the Articles of Confederation threatened de-consolidation, American leaders embraced the Constitution. The Federalist Papers’ authors emphasized the Union’s role in protecting against external threats and reducing domestic turmoil. Abraham Lincoln, rather than allowing national disintegration, unshackled federal power to foster a “new birth of freedom.” In the world wars and in the Cold War, leaders from both parties championed the Union as a bastion of personal liberty and democratic practice.

The entropic challenges of the present might prompt a similar reform moment, though one aimed not at coping with an external emergency, as during the Cold War, but at averting an internal one. Democratic governance and civil liberties not only depend on cultural foundations but also on a state robust and competent enough to safeguard sovereignty and public welfare. Yet a too-powerful state can become a threat to freedom. The tensions here are unavoidable. In the shadow of global ideological conflict, movement conservatives once struck a balance between government power and individual freedom. A new synthesis awaits.

Top Photo: “Ideally, the Republican platform should acknowledge a domestic enemy, the State,” National Review founder and editor William F. Buckley wrote in 1952, but the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union could require “Big Government for the duration.” (Fairchild Archive/Penske Media/Getty Images)


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