Note, some of the below sections are very similar to the corresponding sections for the Democratic Party. This is by design to ensure that both political parties are described in a similar, nonpartisan manner. Because of this, we would encourage you to read our descriptions of both party platforms, not just one of them, as they were written in relationship to each other and not as standalone descriptions.
What is conservatism? Similar to liberalism, conservatism is one of those words that is difficult to define because it is an idea, or to be specific, it is an ideology, which is a group of inter-related ideas. Because ideas are abstract, and not concrete like an apple (that you can see, touch, quantify, etc.), ideas’ meanings tend to change over time. But define conservatism we must because it is impossible to truly understand American politics without understanding the two main ideologies that underpin it. The following definition was developed by Political Rankings in an effort to make it as compact, but accurate, as possible. In a sentence, conservatism is “the ideology that, more often than not, things should stay the same.” Advocates of conservatism generally love the phrase “if it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it.”
As you are probably thinking right now, sometimes that is a helpful way to look at the world but sometimes that is not. Exactly! That is where liberalism, with strengths and weaknesses generally opposite of conservatism, comes in to compliment conservatism. The fruit of this powerful teamwork is monumental. It has provided the sufficient environment for the United States of America to grow up to become the most powerful and prosperous country that has ever existed! In America conservatism is most closely associated with the Republican Party and the reasons for that will be elaborated in the following history section.
The following (brief) account of history will focus on the federal level of government as politics at the state and local levels of government can be quite different and would take much longer to recount. The Republican Party was officially founded in 1854 by opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, was elected in 1860 on a platform of opposition to slavery and economic reform. For the next 70 years after 1860 the Republican Party held most of the power at the federal level. During that time period there were only 3 non-Republican presidents (Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, and Woodrow Wilson), Republicans had majorities in the House of Representatives 60 out of those 70 years, and Republicans had majorities in the Senate 48 out of those 70 years. During this time Republicans oversaw the Reconstruction of the southern states after the Civil War, a huge surge in American economic power via the Second Industrial Revolution, and the geographic expansion of the United States to include Hawaii, the Philippines, and the Panama Canal. This time period was not without issues of course, including corruption within the Grant administration, overly protective tariffs in 1890, and the Teapot Dome scandal.
The Great Depression hit the Republican Party (which was in charge federally at the time) like a ton of bricks. For the next 50 years the Republican Party would only control the Presidency for 16 years, the House of Representatives for 4 years, and the Senate for 4 years. During this time there was a lot of reorganizing of the party platform to be more competitive as the various wings of the party battled out exactly what changes to make. Despite previously advocating for smaller government, the party moved that issue closer to the bottom of the priority list since the New Deal programs were so popular; the expanded power of the federal government by the 1950s was unavoidable. The shift in thinking that America was safest by being isolationist, to America was safest by being interventionist and trying to prevent bad situations from getting worse, had begun. In the power struggle between business and labor, the Republican Party was firmly behind business. Republican President Nixon’s Watergate scandal had a huge impact on American’s trust with the federal government and is still used to this day as a measuring stick for scandals.
In 1980 a more conservative Republican Party platform (than in previous years) and the cooperation of various wings of the party all propelled an up-and-comer named Ronald Reagan to a landslide victory in the presidential election (with an even bigger landslide to follow in 1984). For the next 40 years the Republican Party would split power at the federal level fairly evenly, controlling the presidency for 24 years, the House of Representatives for 20 years, and the Senate for 22 years. During this time, similar to the Republican Party shifted to become more conservative, similar to (but not to the same extent that) the Democratic Party shifted to become more liberal. Most of the southeastern, southwestern, and mid-western states became reliably Republican (red) while the western and northeastern states became reliably Democrat (blue). The shifts in the Republican Party have produced the one that Americans know today, which is built on the platform described in the next section.
To visualize a party’s platform, it is helpful to first visualize the foundation on which the platform is built. That foundation is ideology, and in the case of the Republican Party, that ideological foundation is conservatism. For a political party’s platform, the key parts of concern are the planks that are side by side and equate to the boards a person would stand on if the person was standing on a physical platform. These planks are the party’s stances regarding various political issues, and similar to a physical platform, candidates campaign (while running on) on a political party’s platform. Politically savvy candidates’ positions do not blindly match up with a party’s platform 100% of the time. Instead they typically make small changes they believe will be advantageous for their specific campaign because each candidate, district, and race is different. Below are some specific planks in the Republican Party platform, which is regularly updated by the Republican National Committee. For more information, please visit www.gop.org.
Social issues are those where the main focus is on institutions such as the family, American society, religion, etc. The premier plank in the Republican Party platform here is of course opposition to abortion, aka support of the pro-life position. This plank would also include the Republican Party desire to de-fund Planned Parenthood, the #1 abortion provider in America by volume. Another key plank is support of the right to bear arms, aka pro-2nd amendment, and likewise opposition to gun control laws. There is a clear plank in favor of businesses, which leads to advocating for free-trade and keeping the cost of doing business low, which generally leads to opposition to unions. This opposition of unions has led to the plank of generally favoring homeschooling, private schools, and charter schools instead of public schools since public school employees are generally represented by unions. The Republican Party has a plank dedicated to being as pro-military as possible, whether it be by advocating for increased military spending, encouraging youth to enlist, and increased reverence for military-related holidays. The Republican Party began the “War on Drugs” under Reagan, so there is a plank for higher law enforcement of drug crimes, stiffer legal penalties, and more laws against drugs. There is no plank in the Republican Party platform against LGBT people or rights, but planks in support of religion, traditional marriage, strict way of reading the Constitution, and more all point to a presumption that there is a plank opposing LGBT people or rights.
Economic issues are those where the main focus is on taxes, trade, finances, etc. The first key plank for economic issues is that lower taxes are better. The belief is that the lower the taxes, the more money people and businesses will have in their pockets, the more likely they will spend that money and generate economic growth. Republicans are advocates for supply-side economics and laissez-fair economics, which make up another key plank in the party platform. This leads to a plank of minimizing the role of government in the economy, which means reducing transaction costs of businesses because government compliance is a huge factor for businesses. The belief is that money saved by businesses by reducing transactions costs will be put back into the economy and generate more economic growth. There has emerged an important plank in the Republican Party platform to oppose increased government intervention into the healthcare market specifically, especially Obamacare, a “Medicare-option,” and “Medicare-for-all.” There is a plank for support of restructuring or replacing Medicare and Medicaid with less expensive options (which are still in development). There is a (sometimes forgotten) plank of advocating for a balanced budget at the federal level, reducing the federal deficit, and reducing waste related to government spending. Even though there is no plank against the environment, other planks of minimizing transactional costs (in the form of environmental regulations) and minimizing the size of government presume that there is a plank opposing environmental advocacy.
Political issues are those where the main focus is on the role of government domestically, the role of government internationally, interpretation of the Constitution, etc. In keeping with other planks related to minimizing government intervention in the economy, reducing the federal deficit, there is another (sometimes forgotten) plank that governments should be as small as possible. The belief is that the smaller government is, the less it can interfere in its citizens’ lives, and the more freedom citizens will have. The party platform has a plank for being strong supporters of police (a responsibility specifically spelled out in state/national constitutions) and likewise being tough on crime/legal punishments for criminals. Immigration is no exception, so there is a key plank in the platform for enforcement of existing immigration laws to combat illegal immigration, reforming immigration laws to close loopholes, and a preference for merit-based immigration over needs-based immigration. Related to other planks to reduce government size/spending, there is a plank to reduce/eliminate foreign aid as much as possible. The Republican Party platform advocates for the use of military force abroad, when necessary, to protect America’s interests; typically after diplomatic options have been exhausted. Lastly, there is an important plank in the platform in support of states’ rights vs federal/national government rights.
The planks and political issues mentioned above are in no particular order but you will notice that some of them were described as key or important planks. These are the planks that somewhere between a majority and all of the Republican Party support/agree on. The lesser important planks are more likely where there is variation in agreement. Some common and well-communicated variations, or combinations of variations, of agreement on planks in the party platform lead to wings (aka factions) of the party. These wings typically jockey for control or maximizing influence within the party instead of forming their own party due to the heavy disadvantages third parties or independents have in the American political system.
The conservative wing makes up the majority of the Republican Party. Likewise, this wing’s views generally line up with the Republican Party Platform described above. There are multiple factions that make up the conservative wing, beginning with the Christian Right. This faction’s focus is on maximizing the social subranking (along conservative lines) of the Republican Party and includes people who are both Protestant and Catholic. Neoconservatives (aka neocons) are another faction that number many people who were previously liberals but changes parties as the Democratic Party shifted farther toward liberalism. They are popularly known as being more interventionist with the military than other factions. Paleoconservatives focus on maximizing the social and economic subranking of the Republican Party. Traditionalists are a faction that focus on maximizing the political subranking of the Republican Party.
The moderate wing of the Republican Party are also generally referred to as the Establishment Republicans. As the name suggests, they are generally not focused on maximizing any subranking of the Republican Party. While they are also generally known as the “business Republicans,” they are not as focused on maximizing the economic subranking as other factions. It is difficult to specify which planks of the Republican Party platform moderates break with the most because the breaks are so inconsistent. What is consistent is that moderates are typically geographically located in less “red” areas of America; typically more “purple” areas. The inconsistencies regarding which planks moderates are willing to break with also make it difficult to clearly identify factions within the moderate wing. Some say that the moderation is a response mechanism to the more politically diverse areas where moderate Republicans live.
The libertarian wing of the Republican Party claims historical roots with the Jeffersonian Republicans of the 1790s. Overall, this wing focuses to maximize the political subranking, specifically as it relates to making government as small as possible, beyond the average Republican goal of limiting the size of government. The libertarian wing is moderately concerned about the increasing the economic subranking and mildly concerned about increasing the social subranking as side-effects of their focus on making government as small as possible. Libertarians are typically not as religious as their other conservative colleagues. The Tea Party movement is a visible faction within the libertarian wing, which came about in 2009 calling for lower taxes, balancing the federal budget, and decreasing government regulations, but in 2019 has largely decreased in size/influence with many members moving on to be part of the House Freedom Caucus. Log Cabin Republicans are another faction which focuses on LGBT issues.
Thank you for taking the time to read this party platform description. By design it was not intended to include every single part of the party platform because that would take dozens and dozens of pages to do. Our goal here was to provide a shorter description while still being comprehensive. In the interest of transparency though, if you do want to read the actual Republican Party Platform, here is the link:
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