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The Distinctive Characteristics of American Conservatism

The modern conservative movement in the United States emerged in the 1950s as a response to the national expansion of government capacities and responsibilities during the New Deal era. From the movement’s earliest days, conservative politicians, interest groups, and intellectuals attacked the mainstream media for being part of a liberal ruling class that favored and protected the newly enlarged domestic state. Conservative activists funded their own networks of print and broadcast media as part of their larger efforts to gain organizational control of the Republican Party and to build a broader social movement. They rooted their appeals in the popular principles of social traditionalism, limited government, and American national strength, largely uniting the mass constituencies associated with each of these causes. The movement rapidly ascended within the Republican Party between the 1960s and 1980s, with media figures such as William F. Buckley Jr. playing important roles in connecting party' activists and politicians with the conservative electoral base.

The key contribution made by conservative media to the resurgence of the American right over the past several decades reflects a larger asymmetry between the two major parties. The Republican Party' is uniquely aligned with a symbolic ideological movement premised on a fundamental political conflict between left and right, whereas the Democratic Party is best described as a coalition of diverse social groups with distinct and practical policy interests (Grossmann & Hopkins, 2015, 2016). As a consequence, only the Republicans provided an opportunity' for the rise of a consciously ideological media to unite their party's voters, define their shared concerns, and advance their agenda. The conservative media ecosystem has further reinforced the existing differences between the parties, becoming a cause as well as a consequence of Republicans’ distinctively ideological self- definition, symbolic predispositions, and aggressive political style.

Conservative media thus represents a key component of the broader cultural character of the Republican Party, reflecting the historical influence of the modern conservative movement in the United States. This movement has a number of important characteristics that have remained fairly consistent throughout its history and are not equally prevalent on the American left. Among them:

  • 1. Conservatives, at both the elite and mass levels, view themselves consciously as members of a single political cause and principled tradition that extends over time and across specific policy issue domains.
  • 2. Conservatives regard the Republican Party as their natural political home and conservatism as the sole proper doctrine of the party. But conservatism and Republicanism are not equivalent in practice; Republican politicians are often judged by critics within the movement as having unacceptably betrayed conservative principles, fueling recurrent efforts to “purify” the party'.
  • 3. American conservatism is fundamentally oppositional in nature, responding to and defining itself in relation to a “liberal establishment” that it views as having captured many of the nation’s most important social institutions, including government bureaucracies, the educational system, and the mainstream news media. Much of the organizational energy of the conservative movement has been devoted to discrediting these institutions in the eyes of the American public while building a parallel network of conservative alternatives. The perception of a formidable and entrenched liberalism accounts for the rhetoric of conservative leaders and media figures, who frequently portray themselves, their followers, and their ideas as besieged by hostile forces perpetually advancing in power. Preoccupation with a menacing left is therefore a perennial characteristic of conservative rhetoric in America even during periods of Republican electoral ascendance.

Conservative media content draws upon these long-standing attributes, adapting them to the specific issues, leaders, and events of the moment. Writers and speakers on the right routinely use ideological terms and concepts to evaluate political developments, bestowing a rhetorical seal of approval on individuals and ideas deemed faithful to the tradition of American conservatism and its patron saint Ronald Reagan. But much of their time is spent on the offensive, repeatedly expressing outrage at conservatism’s many perceived apostates and opponents— from insufficiently faithful Republican Party leaders to liberals both in and out of government. The conservative media’s persistently negative tone and penchant for sharp attacks on a familiar series of targets are in part an effective strategy for holding and mobilizing a loyal audience, reflecting the power of anger as a motivating force in politics. But this approach also has the advantage of activating the deep well of symbolic conservatism in the American electorate, uniting and rallying citizens who identify as conservatives against a common set of ideological enemies.

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