With the end of World War II in 1945, the United States looked forward to a future that promised prosperity and peace for all Americans. Liberals predicted the coming of a new era of freedom in American politics and society based on the principles of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. They believed that the lessons of successful government intervention in the economy during the Great Depression, and the bureaucratic controls that built the industrial war machine and won the ‘Good War,’ could be applied in post-WWII America. Liberals believed there was a consensus among Americans supporting their view that the State should become more involved in resolving problems in domestic and foreign affairs.
Largely unnoticed, however, was the growing opposition to this liberal consensus in the early Cold War years; which by the presidential election of 1964, at least in terms of recognition by the American media, had evolved into a coherent adversarial political ideology known as conservatism. Interestingly though, within this American Right there existed no such coherency of vision or purpose. It consisted of disparate—sometimes contradictory—modes of thought, usually defined as libertarianism or traditionalism. Yet, the fact remained that they all shared enough common ground to distinguish themselves from liberals. The question naturally followed, what makes a conservative?
Historians of early Cold War conservatism have tended to use anti-communism as the ‘cement’ that bonded traditionalists and libertarians into one recognizable intellectual movement. But they have overstated the importance of the transitory nature of the perceived threat of communism at the expense of other norms of conservatism that united a wide range of thinkers. While anti-communism certainly fueled the development of conservativism, it by no means was the definition of conservatism or even the most important aspect of its ideology.
By stressing more than anything else the anti-communist position conservatives held, historians fail to appreciate the larger themes which unified conservatives. Disconnected from any one manifestation such as anti-communist sentiment, conservatism is an impulse, a feeling, more than a political ideology (or opposition to one). A central component, if not the central component, was an unadulterated respect for the differing abilities of humankind and a distaste for those who attempt to deny such disparities by attempting to force individuals into a ‘common mold.’
Murray Rothbard, intimately involved with the post-WWII conservative intellectual movement, argued that the “congeries of opponents of the New Deal,” and the modern conservatism that arose in the Cold War, had “one theme linking them all: opposition to egalitarianism, to compulsory leveling by use of state power.” It was the use of state power that encouraged Herbert Hoover, on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1954, to remind an audience in Iowa that, the “greatest strides in human progress have come from uncommon men and women” such as Washington, Lincoln, and Edison.
Conservatives unite around the same opposition to forced conformity that compelled the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in 1957 to release an advertisement entitled, ‘The Century of the uncommon man!’, an advertisement that extolled the contributions of Ford and Edison, Bell and Westinghouse; because these “uncommon men” of “ideas, ability, initiative, and courage … have given us more progress in one century than the world knew in the previous fifty centuries.” Until a better term than the clunky expression ‘anti-communism ’ can be found, it may well be as good a description as any of the unifying conservative impulse to oppose ‘compulsory leveling by the state’ and the desire to preserve, and expand, the existence of a ‘natural aristocracy.’
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