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Conservatism’s Origins and Prospects

books and culture

Conservatism’s Origins and Prospects

A new anthology covers the movement’s many divergent strands. October 3, 2014
Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

Big Tent: The Story of the Conservative Revolution—As told by the Thinkers and Doers who Made it Happen edited by Mallory Factor and Elizabeth Factor (Broadside Books, 464 pp., $26.99)

In politics, the notion of a “big tent” calls to mind a loose coalition of factions with divergent priorities. FDR won the votes of northern liberals, southern segregationists, and union members. Ronald Reagan tapped tax cutters, foreign policy conservatives, and pro-lifers, among other disparate interests, to earn two landslide victories. While chairman of the Republican National Committee, the late Lee Atwater popularized the “big tent” usage; Big Tent, edited by Mallory and Elizabeth Factor, applies the term not to political parties but to a philosophical movement—that of conservatism in America over the past 50 years.

A professor of international politics and American government at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, Mallory Factor has been a leader and fundraiser in conservative circles for decades. In New York, he cofounded the Monday Meeting and then the New York Meeting—gatherings that invite elected officials, candidates, and other right-leaning speakers to give talks, ten Mondays a year. With his editor wife, Elizabeth, he has assembled an impressive collection of essays from 15 conservative “thinkers and doers,” a foreword by departing Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner, and an afterword by former RNC chairman and Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. Those seeking to understand the conservative movement better would do well to read Big Tent.

The book’s 17 contributors are remarkably diverse. David Norcross, former chairman of the New Jersey Republican State Committee, highlights the British roots of American conservatism, focusing on the wisdom of Edmund Burke. Author and publisher Al Regnery notes that the “two most perfect conservative documents in the world” are the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. Longtime activist Phyllis Schlafly details her early, lonely efforts before her success in defeating a national Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Former U.S. attorney general Edwin Meese stresses the importance of Ronald Reagan for the conservative movement, focusing on how Reagan “synthesized” all aspects of conservatism and brought them into a winning coalition. Washington Times opinion editor David Keene explains the indispensability of William F. Buckley, Jr.

The Factors offer contributions that will please both the libertarian and traditional wings of the conservative movement. Economist Daniel Mitchell presents the Rahn Curve, which, though much less known than the Laffer Curve, may be equally profound. The Rahn Curve demonstrates that as the size of government expands, the growth in our Gross National Product shrinks. Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld defends the Bush Doctrine and argues for updating NATO and other international organizations. The Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Ralph Reed offers data showing that evangelical voters comprised 27 percent of the electorate in the presidential election of 2012. They need to be included in any credible Republican coalition. Former undersecretary for defense Douglas Feith writes about the many neoconservatives who departed their liberal, suburban Jewish roots to support Reagan. He suggests that “neocon” is no longer a useful term, mostly because of how it has been distorted by critics.

A “significant portion of the libertarian movement believes in anarchy,” writes Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute. “Anarchy” here does not mean chaos and Molotov cocktails in the streets; rather, it connotes a political philosophy favoring the absence of government. Brook favors the more moderate approaches of Nobel Prize-winning economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who understood the need for limited government. The collection closes with U.S. senator and potential presidential candidate Rand Paul’s persuasive case for a more libertarian conservative movement. “If the GOP is the party of smaller government,” writes Paul, “we must also be the party that is suspicious of government at every juncture.” Paul believes that a pro-privacy, anti-foreign adventurism approach for conservatives and Republicans will be a winner electorally, especially among young people. But would libertarian conservatives lose support among moderates and national security voters?

Barbour’s afterword offers some perspective. The former Mississippi governor made a career out of winning elections, and he understands that conservatism in Mississippi has different emphases from conservatism on West 77th Street or in Boston. He invokes Reagan in trying to get all conservatives and Republicans to focus on winning. “The fellow who agrees with you 80% of the time,” Reagan once said, “Is your friend and ally; he’s not some 20% traitor.” Barbour also endorses William F. Buckley’s suggestion that right-leaning voters and leaders select the most conservative candidate with the best chance to win in November. Republicans should remain the party of ideas and principles, but they must be willing to compromise when necessary to achieve important gains for a conservative agenda.

Big Tent is a readable and enlightening volume and one of the best anthologies of conservative thought since Buckley’s Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? Buckley’s tome was more tilted to the philosophical underpinnings of conservatism, offering chapters by the likes of Milton Friedman and Russell Kirk. Big Tent is more geared to “thinkers and doers,” so the reader gets philosophy and some lessons in practical politics.

Much has changed, too since the publication of Buckley’s volume in 1970. The most dramatic developments include the election of Ronald Reagan and his successful presidency; the dissolution of Soviet Communism and the rise of a new threat, that of Islamic extremism; the election of a conservative Republican House majority in 1994, and its early successes in forging a balanced budget and other achievements; and the reemergence of libertarian thought within the conservative movement and the Republican party. Big Tent looks back on these events while also looking forward.

One of the volume’s prevailing questions is whether libertarian ideas, currently ascendant in some quarters, will wind up attracting more voters than they repel. And that question takes us back to the big tent concept: Ronald Reagan managed to synthesize the aspirations and concerns of a diverse conservative coalition, but where is the next Reagan?

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