(above: Nelson Rockefeller, former Republican governor of New York)
In his book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Dr. Seymour M Lipset argued that:
“What Europeans have called “liberalism,” Americans refer to as “conservatism”: a deeply anti-statist doctrine emphasizing the virtues of laissez-faire. Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman, the two current names most frequently linked with this ideology, define conservatism in America.”
This is commonly cited as the reason that America has never developed a social democratic system similar to that of Europe; in essence, a unique developmental pattern that distinguishes it from other countries. A key flaw with this commonly held notion is it is historically inaccurate. The people Lipset mentioned, Reagan and Friedman, were radical neoconservatives, an ideological departure from traditional paleoconservatism. As in the UK, the conservatism movement divided into two broad camps in the late ’80s with the traditional “High” Tories/paleoconservatives such as Edward Heath and Richard Nixon and right-libertarian Thatcherites/neoconservatives such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The spectrum of political discourse moved far the the right during this time in these two countries, but as always, more so in the US.
In fact, in Britain, as in Germany, the conservative party is the one who began social insurance. While this may not be true in the US, there was a post-war consensus on welfare, education, labor unionization, and other common social policies. In fact, President Dwight Eisenhower actually favored expanding medical care, by providing government support for local healthcare plans. President Rutherford Hayes, a Republican, supported universal education, not a far cry from the socialist’s low-tuition higher education.
So what is American conservatism? The answer is that it is just a center-right ideology. It supports national development, tactical non-interventionism, and multiculturalism. America isn’t exceptional, so much as the American intellectual is uniquely unaware of American history.