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The United States has a rich history of conservative civic activism, stemming from the rise of the post–World War II conservative movement and its restructuring of the Republican Party. Conservative civic groups currently appear to be enjoying a resurgence, contributing to a run of electoral triumphs that has seen the Republicans seize control of the presidency, both houses of Congress, and an overwhelming majority of state governments. However, the picture is also more complicated as President Donald Trump’s rise represented a changing of the guard within U.S. conservatism that, while empowering certain civic groups, dealt a serious defeat to other conservative organizations. The outcome of these internal struggles will determine how lasting and significant recent conservative activism is in the United States.

Origins

The modern U.S. conservative movement originated in the 1940s and 1950s, combining anticommunism, resistance to the New Deal welfare state, and opposition to social changes associated with the incipient civil rights and feminist movements. Much early activism was elite-led and intellectual, in reaction to the perceived acceptance of New Deal liberalism by both parties.1 The movement scored an early success when Republicans nominated conservative ideologue Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, following a prolonged campaign by groups like Young Americans for Freedom.2 William F. Buckley’s establishment of the National Review provided a nationally recognized outlet for the movement. Grassroots organizing was often dominated by conspiratorial groups like the John Birch Society (which claimed that former president Dwight D. Eisenhower was a communist sympathizer).3

With the continued progress of the civil rights and feminist movements, as well as controversial Supreme Court decisions legalizing abortion and banning organized prayer in public schools, social issues took on greater prominence than anticommunism and hostility to the welfare state. Emblematic of this phase was the campaign led by Phyllis Schlafly and other conservative women against the Equal Rights Amendment.4 The movement also continued to institutionalize and professionalize, as evidenced by the founding of the conservative Heritage Foundation and libertarian Cato Institute.

Gareth Fowler
Gareth Fowler was a 2017–2018 James C. Gaither junior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program.

Internal histories of the conservative movement cite former president Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 as the culmination of this multidecade struggle. The so-called Reagan revolution united elite conservative intellectuals with grassroots organizations, especially Christian conservatives dismayed by social upheaval. This time of internal harmony within U.S. conservatism appears unlikely to recur.5

Contemporary Trends

The current landscape of conservative civil society includes both newly established organizations and movements as well as older groups. It includes professional organizations focused on specific policy areas and mass grassroots movements, which often lack clear ideologies and have contentious relationships with longstanding professional organizations and advocacy groups.

Single-Issue Groups

Many of the most successful conservative civic organizations are professional bodies funded by corporations and the super-rich. Billionaires like the Koch brothers, Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch, as well as other Fortune 500 companies have funded a network of right-leaning think tanks and advocacy groups. Some of these advocacy groups helped to organize the 2009 Tea Party protests, while others grew out of the movement. While some of these have very broad conservative agendas, generally of a libertarian bent, many target specific issues.

One such group, the Federalist Society, has especially benefited from a cohesive ideology and narrowly focused program. The Federalist Society is a network of lawyers, judges, and academics seeking to push U.S. constitutional law toward originalism, the doctrine that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted according to the document’s original meaning. In practice, this manifests as a libertarian philosophy skeptical of federal power and supportive of individual freedoms such as religious freedom and freedom of contract. The Federalist Society’s student chapters in law schools across the country help to organize and train the next generation of conservative judges, attorneys, and scholars. Multiple current Supreme Court justices (including Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch) are members, and Federalist Society scholarship has influenced recent decisions on gun rights, campaign finance, and the limits of congressional power.6 Federalist Society Vice President Leonard Leo advises Trump on judicial nominations, leading to accusations that the government has “outsourced” this process.7 The Federalist Society receives funding from the Koch network and other big business groups, and has become so influential that it can be difficult to separate it from the Republican legal establishment in general.8

The anti-immigration movement includes a collection of megadonor-funded think tanks and advocacy groups, such as the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Critically, however, it also includes NumbersUSA, a powerful grassroots organization with more than one million members.9 Their successful defeat in 2007 and 2013 of attempts to grant amnesty to existing undocumented immigrants—a reform backed by libertarian billionaires like the Kochs—presaged the success of Trump’s later immigration-focused campaign.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), a gun rights organization commonly described as one of the most influential groups in U.S. politics, shares this combination of generous funding and millions of grassroots members.10 Although the NRA was founded in the nineteenth century as a sponsor of shooting clubs without any particular political program, in the 1970s, it transformed into an advocacy group deeply opposed to virtually all gun control measures.11 The NRA’s ideology is an unusual mix of libertarianism and “law and order,” both accusing the federal government of tyrannical overreach in seeking to limit gun ownership while calling for the stationing of armed police officers in schools to prevent shootings.12

Mass Movements

Conservative mass movements can be highly influential but also face major structural obstacles in seeking to maintain an autonomous presence outside of the Republican Party. In practice, these movements often become largely passive vote banks, although their activism can and does move politics in unexpected directions.

The Christian Right

The struggles of the Christian right, made up largely of evangelical Protestant churches, since the 1980s are emblematic of these difficulties. The conservative Christian movement of the 1970s and 1980s was one of the largest civic groups in U.S. history, with organizations such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority raising millions of dollars and delivering two to four million votes for Ronald Reagan in 1980.13 However, despite the evangelicals’ lobbying, the Reagan administration prioritized tax cuts and confronting the Soviet Union over Christian objectives like a federal abortion ban.14 These failures led to internal struggles over whether to move even closer to the Republican Party (the choice of Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition) or withhold support unless the Republicans took steps toward Evangelical priorities (advocated by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family).15

Ultimately, the former strategy won out, and the Christian right essentially merged with the Republican Party under former president George W. Bush, himself a devout Protestant. During the 2004 election, Christian activists reacted to a recent state court decision endorsing gay marriage by placing gay marriage bans on the ballots in many states. Networks of church leaders and activists were also the backbone of Bush’s reelection campaign, and evangelical voters turned out to support the president and the proposed gay marriage prohibitions.16 However, despite Bush’s record support from evangelical voters, they again failed to persuade Republicans in Congress to pass a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.

Since 2004, white evangelicals have become the nation’s most reliable Republican voters, without forming any notable independent civic groups. Mormon Mitt Romney and questionably pious Trump both equaled or surpassed Bush’s record evangelical support in 2004.17 Opinion polls show that, since 2011, white evangelicals have gone from the group most likely to say that personal morality was necessary for the “ethical performance of official duties” to the group least likely to say so, demonstrating their uncritical embrace of Trump.18 The new generation of Christian right leaders, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., have called Trump their “dream president.”19 With gay marriage legalized nationally by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, there are few remaining religious wedge issues to drive mass mobilization. Overall, the Christian right appears finished as an independent political force.

The Tea Party

The Tea Party protests of 2009 reinvigorated a conservative movement demoralized by the election of president Barack Obama. Sparked by opposition to government bailouts and stimulus spending following the 2008 financial crisis, the first protests were organized by veteran conservative activists, including some from the Christian right, and funded by advocacy groups.20 The movement was promoted by conservative media organizations like Fox News, whose celebrity pundits made frequent appearances at demonstrations.21

It is difficult to specify the political ideology behind the Tea Party. The libertarian-leaning billionaire funders advocated lower taxes and the curtailment of existing social programs. However, the protesters themselves tended to be older white Americans who, while very conservative, focused on Obama’s plans to expand health care coverage and cultural issues like illegal immigration. A common sentiment among protestors was that they had earned their government benefits through a lifetime of work while the government was attempting to subsidize the undeserving, such as the unemployed or illegal immigrants.22

Parts of the Tea Party’s program could also be described as nationalist, given the opposition to (largely Hispanic) immigrants, widespread anti-Islamic sentiment, and the criticism of Obama and his policies as “un-American” and a betrayal of the country’s heritage. Leftist critics preferred to describe the Tea Party as a racially resentful backlash to Obama, noting the popularity of conspiracy “birther” theories alleging that Obama was a foreign-born Muslim.23 In this way, the Tea Party may have represented a precursor to the more explicitly white nationalist elements of the alt-right and the Trump campaign. Indeed, Trump first came to political prominence as the most notable advocate of the birther theory.

Much of the Tea Party’s energy went into attacking Republican officeholders that they regarded as traitors for supporting increased spending and amnesty for illegal immigrants. Tea Party activists succeeded in defeating several incumbents in primary elections. The Tea Party has also produced a number of civil society groups, ranging from networks of small grassroots organizations (such as Tea Party Patriots) to the aforementioned elite advocacy groups.24 However, these have largely faded from the limelight since the end of the large-scale protests. Although many early organizers sought to keep the Tea Party independent, it has, in practice, become a wholly incorporated (albeit rebellious) wing of the Republican Party.

The Alt-Right

The most publicized recent trend in conservatism activism has been the rise of the nebulous alternative right, or alt-right. Online activism on the news site Breitbart—called “the platform for the alt-right” by former executive chairman Steve Bannon—and other forum-hosting websites like Reddit and 4chan has been central to the movement. Breitbart described the alt-right as a mix of “dangerously bright” white nationalists like Richard Spencer, “natural conservatives” advocating pro-white politics and traditionalism, ideology-free online trolls trying to shock the establishment, and a small rump of committed violent white supremacists.25 Alt-right political thought leans toward an isolationist form of largely white nationalism. It frequently attacks Democratic and Republican opponents as “globalists” under the sway of multinational elites advocating open borders and the weakening of the United States.

The alliance between the Trump campaign and the alt-right was orchestrated by Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire, and his daughter Rebekah. Before 2016, Bannon and the Mercers (who own a stake in Breitbart) had discussed a plan to leverage widespread anti-elite sentiment to elect an outsider and rip up the political establishment.26 The Mercers convinced Trump to make Bannon his campaign manager and hire the data science firm Cambridge Analytica to target voters online—notably, the Mercers had previous investments in Cambridge Analytica, which also employed Bannon as vice president.27 As the alt-right has yet to form significant civic groups along the lines of the Christian right or Tea Party, the Trump campaign itself and the accompanying rallies may be considered its civil society manifestation.

A Shift in Conservative Activism

The United States is witnessing a change in the nature of conservative civil society. The “Never-Trump” doctrinaire conservatives appear to be generals without armies, as Trump continues to enjoy enormously high support among ordinary Republicans. Professional groups like the Federalist Society certainly benefit from having a sympathetic ear in the White House, but have not noticeably expanded as civil society organizations. The Christian right and Tea Party have largely been absorbed into the Republican Party at the cost of their capacity for independent activism, while the alt-right has yet to demonstrate a substantial civil society presence outside of Trump-affiliated rallies. Violent white supremacist demonstrations like the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally have attracted heavy media coverage but have failed to draw popular support on anything resembling the scale of previous conservative mass movements. Following a short stint as White House chief strategist, Bannon attempted to further organize a nativist and populist movement against the Republican establishment, but this effort was dealt a likely fatal blow when the Mercers withdrew their support for Bannon after anti-Trump remarks he made went public.28 Indeed, some analysis suggests that Trump was actually the anti-civic-activism candidate, who performed worst among veteran activists and best in areas without a strong civil society.29 However, this can also be interpreted as a testament to his success in inspiring a new form of conservative political activism separate from previous sources.

What is apparent is that the tenor and ideology of U.S. conservative activism has changed. Libertarian and anti-state elements remain highly influential, especially in areas like gun rights and a general hostility to “job-killing regulations.” However, traditional conservative priorities like free trade, cuts to social spending, personal piety, and assertive global leadership have been replaced by an explicitly nativist and nationalist hostility to immigration, protectionism, and strong suspicion of international engagement. Like its predecessors, this new activism is enormously partisan and politicized, inseparably tied to the internal dynamics of the Republican Party. Given that so much recent activity has revolved around the personal image of Donald Trump, its future progress and ultimate impact remain uncertain.

Notes

1 William Rusher, “Toward a History of the Conservative Movement,” Journal of Policy History 14, no. 3 (2002): 321–30, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/17603.

2 Matthew Dallek, “The Conservative 1960s,” Atlantic, December 1995, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1995/12/the-conservative-1960s/376506/.

3 Lisa McGirr, “A History of the Conservative Movement From the Bottom Up,” Journal of Policy History 14, no. 3 (2002): 331–9, https://doi.org/10.1353/jph.2002.0020.

4 Kristina Marie Graves, “Stop Taking Our Privileges! The Anti-ERA Movement in Georgia, 1978-1982” (master’s thesis, Georgia State University, 2006).

5 Matthew Continetti, “American Conservatism, 1945–2017,” National Review, August 5, 2017, https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/08/american-conservatism-teaching-movement-history-millennials/.

6 Amanda Hollis-Brusky, Ideas With Consequences: The Federalist Society and the Conservative Counterrevolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

7 Lydia Wheeler, “Meet the Powerful Group Behind Trump’s Judicial Nominations,” Hill, November 16, 2017, http://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/360598-meet-the-powerful-group-behind-trumps-judicial-nominations.

8 Ibid.

9 Jason DeParle, “The Anti-Immigration Crusader,” New York Times, April 17, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/us/17immig.html; and Molly Ball, “The Little Group Behind the Big Fight to Stop Immigration Reform,” Atlantic, August 1, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/08/the-little-group-behind-the-big-fight-to-stop-immigration-reform/278252/.

10 Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, “The Money Powering the NRA,” CNN Money, October 15, 2015, http://money.cnn.com/news/cnnmoney-investigates/nra-funding-donors/index.html; and Scott Hingham and Sari Horwitz, “NRA Tactics: Take No Prisoners,” Washington Post, May 18, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/nra-tactics-take-no-prisoners/2013/05/18/4e48aad8-ace6-11e2-a198-99893f10d6dd_story.html.

11 Adam Winkler, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).

12 See David Welna, “Some Gun Control Opponents Cite Fear of Government Tyranny,” NPR, April 8, 2013, https://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2013/04/08/176350364/fears-of-government-tyranny-push-some-to-reject-gun-control; and David Nakamura and Tom Hamburger, “Put Armed Police in Every School, NRA Argues,” Washington Post, December 21, 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/put-armed-police-officers-in-every-school-nra-head-says/2012/12/21/9ac7d4ae-4b8b-11e2-9a42-d1ce6d0ed278_story.html?utm_term=.e0e09ed5bfb2.

13 Charlotte Saikowski, “Religious Right Throws Its Weight Behind Reagan Reelection Effort,” Christian Science Monitor, October 3, 1984, https://www.csmonitor.com/1984/1003/100335.html.

14 Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017).

15 Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

16 FitzGerald, The Evangelicals.

17 Ibid; and Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” Atlantic, April 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/04/the-last-temptation/554066/.

18 William A. Galston, “Has Trump Caused White Evangelicals to Change Their Tune on Morality?” FixGov (blog), Brookings Institution, October 19, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2016/10/19/has-trump-caused-white-evangelicals-to-change-their-tune-on-morality/.

19 Gerson, “The Last Temptation”; and Leinz Vales, “Evangelical Leader Franklin Graham Says Trump Is a ‘Changed Person,’” CNN, January 24, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/24/politics/graham-evangelicals-support-trump-don-lemon-cnntv/index.html.

20 Lo, “Astroturf Versus Grass Roots.”

21 Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

22 Ibid.

23 Charles Postel, “The Tea Party in Historical Perspective: A Conservative Response to a Crisis of Political Economy,” in Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, ed. Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 25–46.

24 Devin Burghart, “View From the Top: Report on Six National Tea Party Organizations,” in Steep, ed. Rosenthal and Trost, 67–97.

25 Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” Breitbart, March 29, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/tech/2016/03/29/an-establishment-conservatives-guide-to-the-alt-right/.

26 Jane Mayer, “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency,” New Yorker, March 27, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/27/the-reclusive-hedge-fund-tycoon-behind-the-trump-presidency.

27 Ibid.

28 Rosie Gray, “Bannon, Alone,” Atlantic, January 5, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/the-fall-of-house-bannon/549785/.

29 Mark Blumenthal and Ariel Edwards-Levy, “We Polled True Activist Grassroots Republicans, and Here’s Who They’re Backing,” Huffington Post, July 23, 2015, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/republican-activists-primary-poll_us_55afd500e4b0a9b9485352ad; and Bob Davis and Gary Fields, “In Places With Fraying Social Fabric, a Political Backlash Rises,” Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-places-with-fraying-social-fabric-a-political-backlash-rises-1473952729.