As writer Jonah Goldberg has written on multiple occasions, it is difficult to define conservatism as a whole. It’s not a clear-cut ideology, but a frame of mind with many layers and influences. Conservatives can refer to Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke, or even Aristotle to give an account of conservatism; or, more commonly, they can reference their parents or South Park episodes.
Because of this multitude of influences, conservatism comes in many forms. Anyone who exhibits conservatism in any of these forms, and is not obviously progressive, is immediately labeled “conservative.”
By contrast, progressivism is much better unified and easier to define than conservatism because (1) unity (or conformity) is one of the central pillars of progressivism, and (2), as I mentioned in my other article, it does not reside in an intellectual ghetto like conservatism and does not need to defend itself against rivaling factions. Conservatism, on the other hand, is deeply divided and uncomfortably situated in the close hostile quarters of their ghetto.
Because the conservative ghetto is imposed both from outside by powerful progressive voices and within by conservatives themselves, the first step to changing this situation is to identify all the main factions that make up conservatism. Only then can they unite as a whole movement to oppose progressivism while still maintaining the differences that help them advance the happiness of all Americans.
It is towards this end that I make this list, imperfect as it will inevitably be. I have determined that conservatism splits into five main factions with two offshoots: neoconservatives and their offshoot of classical liberals, paleoconservatives and their offshoot of traditionalists, the alt-right, and libertarians.
Neoconservatives (or Neocons)
Neocons are the most moderate of the conservative factions. They embrace conventional conservative ideals like limited government, Judeo-Christian morality, free markets, and a democratic world order. They spend the most time defining what constitutes true conservatism and consequently set the standards for conservatism overall.
Bolstered by think tanks, prominent publications, and rich benefactors, neocons are more visible and influential than the other factions. They have the most informed wonks, the most talented writers, and the most charismatic spokespeople. Consequently, they have the best websites, speak on the most issues, and are usually the ones who appear on Fox and other outlets.
Social Conservatives also play a role in neoconservatism, opposing abortion and supporting family values. They support religion and its role in building communities and teaching virtue. On whole, most neocons are Catholics, Jews, or mainline Protestants and will speak out when it serves the occasion.
Because of the neocons’ outsized influence and direct political connections, most Republican politicians ascribe to their agenda: they support free markets, a strong military, following the constitution and founding fathers, and upholding the rules of civility.
Due to their superior savvy and eloquence, neocons unfortunately tend to be elitist and out of touch. They scorn populism, and care more for respectability than effectiveness or principles. They endorse establishment candidates like Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain. And they usually see the world’s richest people more as virtuous wealth creators rather than overpowered monopolists.
Since they naturally side with power and wealth, neocons sometimes neglect the immediate needs of the little people and continually play it safe in conflicts. Eager to please others, they become mealy-mouthed when arguing tougher issues like immigration, globalization, or political corruption. This behavior, coupled with the fact that many of them are lawyers, leads to them often looking like shills.
It is no surprise then that neocons frequently become prey to Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS). He won the presidency by precisely exploiting their snobbery and cowardice, and consequently has sent many neocons soul-searching. Some have come back from their journeys stronger and more in tune with the world, while others have renounced the world altogether and decided to talk about the Enlightenment.
This latter group are the classical liberals, the offshoot of neocons. They define freedom in terms of Locke and the founding fathers, and purportedly aim towards some abstract truth. What they discuss and write about eludes a general audience (since they’re the fools who voted for Trump), but it does have a great influence on neocons and supplies many of their arguments. As a rule, they usually place freedom as the greatest good, even at the cost of tradition and personal virtue—which, in turn, incites traditionalists (see below).
Paleoconservatives (or Paleocons)
Paleocons are the counterweight to neocons. In general, they are the Main Street Tea Party conservatives that oppose both big business and big government. They usually focus on local and state issues and take a jaundiced view of globalism and foreign intervention. Like neocons, there are good portion of social conservatives among paleocons who will bring life, family, and religious issues to the fore, though usually more so. Because of their nostalgic tone that yearns for the values and patriotism of the past, and because their opposition to neocons, they have earned the “paleo” prefix.
In terms of influence, paleocons do not have the resources, the talent, or the prestige of neocons. They are proudly grassroots and deplore corporate influence. The successes of the Tea Party movement and Trump’s election have changed this dynamic somewhat, giving more weight to those who were formally dismissed as rank populists.
This rise of paleoconservatism has been key to bringing up controversial issues that neocons would explain away and largely ignore, like immigration, cronyism, localism, and cultural values. Respectively, paleocons oppose immigration and believe it should be controlled; they are critical of the establishment and tycoons dabbling in politics; they wholeheartedly endorse small businesses and building up local communities; and they want to restore Christian values in place of the prevailing multiculturalism, LGBT ideologies, and materialism.
That said, paleocons pay a price for supporting the common man and are still outmatched by neocons in many arguments. Paleocons may sometimes be on to something, but they lack the data, the words, and the logic necessary to hold sway. All too often, they come off as narrow-minded, poorly informed yokels yearning for a golden age that never was.
Moreover, they can alienate their audiences by attacking other conservatives more than progressives. George W Bush, especially during the Iraq War, seemed to elicit far more venom and anger than Barack Obama who bumbled in the Middle East while ISIS went rampaging. Even Ted Cruz, originally a Tea Party candidate, takes flak from paleocons for his perceived selling out to neocons.
As one might expect, President Trump inspires mixed, yet strong, feelings in paleocons, who appreciate his stance on immigration and promoting American interests, but despise his sleazy business background and immorality.
True to their counterweight nature, Paleocons also have their own luminaries and purists who mount an opposition against classical liberalism. These are the traditionalists, who take a much more doubtful view of the Enlightenment and modernism overall. They bemoan the replacement of civic and religious virtue with self-interest and constitutional mechanisms. They expound on the virtues of Distributism and even Monarchism as though they could still happen today. While their counterparts cite the Federalist Papers, they cite Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle.
Traditionalists, the majority of them traditional orthodox Catholics, are also big proponents of the Benedict Option (moving off the grid to keep uncorrupted from modernity) and classical education. Like the classical liberals, they are a small group, but supply many arguments for paleocons.