Four Heads and One Heart: The Modern Conservative Movement

9 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 21 Sep 2010

See all articles by James W. Ceaser

James W. Ceaser

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: 2010


It has been said in jest that the conservative movement in America today is held together today by two self-evident truths: Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Like many such comments, this one contains a kernel of truth. Much of the unity that exists among conservatives stems from their shared antipathy to liberalism. It serves as the common heart that beats in the breast of the conservative movement's diverse and often fractious components. If by some strange dispensation liberalism were to cease to exist tomorrow, conservatism would begin to break apart on the next day.

No shame attaches in politics to relying on the adhesive properties supplied by a common antagonist. America is a vast country in which it is only by coalition that a movement can hope to win a majority. Conservatism is such a coalition. In its theoretical composition, it is made up of four heads that draw their lifeblood from the same heart: traditionalism, neo-conservatism, libertarianism, and the religious right. Conservatism is a movement characterized by what was once known - before multiculturalists took the term hostage - as diversity.

Liberalism, too, is a kind of coalition. It has today its more militant core that has adopted the name of "Progressive," and a smaller and more moderate wing of "blue dogs." Dislike of the opposition has also been vital to liberals in sustaining their movement, as shown by their healing antipathy George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. But there is an important difference in the two coalitions. Conservatism is intellectually more heterogeneous than liberalism. Conservatism's heads or parts came into existence at different times and under different circumstances, and they have never claimed to be guided by the same principles. Liberals, by contrast, prefer at least to think that they are inspired by the same set of ideals. To the extent that "blue dogs" deviate from Progressives, it is not because they articulate a different theory but because they are responding to a different set of political pressures.

One consequence of this difference between the two coalitions appears in how they handle disagreement. When conflicts spring up among liberals, the Progressives regard deviation as heresy, since there is only true liberal path. Conservatives are not schismatic in the same way, and this for the simple reason that they have never operated under the illusion of ultimate agreement. Older parts of the conservative movement accuse newer ones of trying to usurp the movement, or of not being genuinely conservative. But they rarely charge them with heresy or breaking faith: Their sin is never to have possessed the right principles in the first place.

Critics of conservatism often depict its heterogeneity as a grave weakness. How often today does one hear liberal commentators, particularly those of a certain intellectual pretentiousness, trotting out a classic conservative source from one of its camps in order to try to embarrass the position taken by conservatives from another camp? This ploy invariably follows the same smug formula: “I should have thought that conservatives, above all, would follow their own great thinker X (Burke or Hayek, etc) and be especially mindful of Y,” where Y could be: a scrupulous protection of civil liberties and privacy (as if safety and national security were not also a concern of conservatives), or abjuring any kind of foreign occupation or exercise in nation building (as if a need to battle new kinds of challenges by new responses had never been recommended by any school of conservatism). In the view of its liberal critics, the four heads of conservatism make it into an obvious monster.

But conservatives, when they are able to step back a moment from their internecine quarrels and reflect on the matter, see the creature in a different light. The ongoing debate among the talking heads sharpens thinking and avoids intellectual complacency, which is the death knell of any party. Better four heads than none!

Suggested Citation

Ceaser, James W., Four Heads and One Heart: The Modern Conservative Movement (2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

James W. Ceaser (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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