William Rusher

In talking about politics, people often move back and forth quite casually between references to "the Republican Party" and to "the conservative movement." Sometimes they are treated as almost synonymous, and, then again, they may be regarded as very different things -- almost rivals. Worst of all, many people seem to consider them a single big ball of wax, sharing the characteristics of both the party and the movement. For the sake of clarity, let us analyze them and distinguish them from one another.

The Republican Party is the much older of the two, having been founded in 1854 and fielded presidential and lesser candidates in every election since. The conservative movement, which is often and quite rightly defined more precisely as the "modern American conservative movement," didn't get under way, as a self-aware entity, until a century later, over a period of several years in the early 1950s. Among its early manifestations were the publication of Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" in 1953 and the launching of National Review by Bill Buckley in 1955. There had been earlier manifestations of conservative opinions in American politics right from the start, but they rarely added up to a coherent body of related thoughts, and none managed to survive over a significant period of time.

The Democratic Party, of course, was even older, having emerged from the congeries of political alliances that characterized the nation's first quarter-century or so. And there have been leftist movements of one sort or another in American politics almost from the start. By the end of the 19th century, those of a socialist stripe were most prominent, and they have remained so ever since.

The two political parties have, at one time or another, encouraged many of these movements to seek fulfillment in supporting them. (Before the Civil War, for example, the Democratic Party was, in addition to much else, the political instrument of the slaveholding interests.) From their start -- but, above all, from the launching of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal onward -- the leftist movements (to the extent that they have not founded parties of their own) have tended to support the Democratic Party. And from its inception the conservative movement has found its home with the Republicans.

What, exactly, is the relationship of the Republican Party to the conservative movement? I have found it useful to think of the Republican Party as a bottle, and the conservative movement as the wine it contains.

The bottle has little significance on its own; its importance lies in its contents. It is the vehicle for its contents, which could not maintain or promote themselves on their own. The party and the movement, in other words, need each other badly.

William Rusher

William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and author of How to Win Arguments .

Be the first to read William Rusher's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.