Since the end of World War II, American conservatism has been characterized by a three-pronged coalition. The first prong emphasizes the virtues of a free economy, the second a strong military, and the third a faith, family, and flag social conservatism. The three prongs endure today, but they are being redefined and renewed. That’s because the leading problems facing the United States have changed. In the postwar era’s defining decades, culminating in the Reagan presidency, conservatism faced down threats to freedom. As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, the greatest threat facing our nation is the erosion of solidarity.
At the height of mobilization for World War II, American industrial production was under the command of government planners. Even as this control was relaxed after the war ended, the government continued to play a large role in American economic life. In this context, the Republican party was the natural home for free-market advocates who wished to reduce regulatory control, cut taxes, and encourage the creativity and dynamism of capitalism. The Cold War made anti-communism a bipartisan consensus, but the most hard-nosed anti-communists gravitated toward the right. In the 1950s, ardent flag-waving and Main-Street moralism were bipartisan as well, but again the more outspoken tended to be on the right. As the cultural revolutions of the 1960s took hold, the Republican party became home for religious and social conservatives.
William F. Buckley launched National Review in 1955, aiming to strengthen all three elements of the conservative coalition. Inspired by figures such as Friedrich Hayek, movement conservatism, as it came to be called, advocated free-market principles. National Review editor James Burnham cast the Cold War as a fundamental struggle for the future of Western civilization and urged military resolve. Buckley’s Catholicism dovetailed with strong affirmations of moral tradition.