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The Post-Liberal Road Facing 21st Century Conservatives

Politicians on all sides of the spectrum have been moving in a post-liberal direction. As the traditional liberal values that defined Western ideology erode, conservatives will trend increasingly authoritarian or extremist.


When Joseph Schumpeter, a mid-20th-century Austrian political economist, outlined the process of “creative destruction” inherent in capitalist economies, the United States sat on the verge of a post-war economic boom that would eventually lay the foundations for Thatcherite neoliberal economics to dominate Western Conservatism. Creative destruction can be defined as “the incessant product and process innovation mechanism by which new production units replace outdated ones.” The Thatcherite revolution accelerated the process of creative destruction both economically and socially, upending decades of a Keynesian economic consensus in post-War governments of Western nations. Left-wing political ideologies have since sharply denounced the right-wing economic tilt of liberal parties in the neoliberal consensus. The denunciation of neoliberalism on the right, however, has been less explicit, and a post-liberal consensus on both sides of the aisle has accelerated during the information age.

According to Matthew Continetti, a journalist for the Washington Free Beacon, post-liberals on the right “say that freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice.” In an Aristotelian exaltation of virtues, post-liberal, right-wing ideology has placed moral duties ahead of freedom and individuality. Conservative politicians have increasingly advocated for the government to regulate and limit individual choice. Victor Orban of Hungary, for example, has increasingly used illiberal and antidemocratic statecraft to chip away at individual rights in the name of morality and the common good and has since become a darling of the American right.

In order to understand why both sides of the political spectrum are adopting post-liberal ideologies, it's important to understand the contemporary origins of both political parties. The ideologies of the two major American parties were formed in the hothouse atmosphere of the Great Depression. Britain’s Labour and America’s Democratic parties both believed in a relationship between increasing social welfare protections and national economic productivity rates. Conservatives and liberals alike shared a common understanding in keeping unemployment low, offering social services to maintain the family structure, and using experts to solve economic problems. The economic structures underpinning the formation of mainstream cultural attitudes about “family values” in the 1950s produced the breadwinner-homemaker family. Contemporary socially conservative attitudes about family structures, gender roles, and the prevalence of religion harken back to a 1950s white American suburbia long since past.

The economic factors that created the conditions necessary for this type of family structure were founded on the liberal economic consensus that supplied families with important economic social safety nets. The high supply and demand for jobs in manufacturing and industrializing sectors of the economy boosted national productivity and increased federal tax revenues. After gaining critical protections under the passage of the Wagner Act signed by President Roosevelt, unions and laborers worked to negotiate and arbitrate benefit packages and wage increases critical for the expansion of the middle class.

The social welfare state established by President Roosevelt thrived amidst governance by both parties but died under the Thatcherite neoliberal revolution. In 1952, Eisenhower came into power and cemented the Social Welfare consensus by adopting and expanding the social welfare state. The process of creative destruction and economic transformation, however, would stop industrializing sectors of the economy from growing in developed countries and destroy the social welfare consensus once and for all.

The Republican party eventually broke with the social welfare consensus after the election of President Reagan and moved sharply to the right. Democrats also moved to the right because the Overton window had shifted. Democrats started to talk more about efficient government and reforming social welfare.

The same pattern existed in Britain. The Labour Party favored huge social welfare programs and stayed in power for years. The New Consensus emerged among the Conservatives to keep the social welfare state in place, but the economic collapse of the 70s and demographic changes eventually led to the collapse of the Consensus.

Thatcher limited the monetary supply which drove up interest rates. Business interests called on Thatcher to print more money, but she believed that if an inefficient business needed to borrow money to pay for certain things they shouldn't exist, and thus she incentivized a “survival of the fittest” culture. Trade unions went on strike because many people were losing their jobs from businesses that shut down. Her greatest successor was Tony Blair, who moved the Labour Party from the left to the center to gain voters who were more conservative. Bill Clinton would also cement the new conservative neoliberal establishment in the Democratic Party of the United States.

Margaret Thatcher’s conservative revolution allowed privatization and social darwinist economic policies to spread like wildfire in the West. She felt that giving poor people money to buy food, clothing and shelter would only stimulate the production of these goods which would hurt industrialization. She believed that production in technology and manufacturing would stimulate the economy. She, like Reagan, advocated supply-side economics. She used the money saved from decreasing spending to cut taxes so that rich people could invest that money in long-term economic growth (new stocks, companies).

Thatcherite economics ushered in a new era of creative destruction in manufacturing and the Information Age of the late 20th century. The processes of ever-increasing production, innovation, invention, and recreation shifted Western economies from industrial to service-oriented ones. Creative destruction could thus be found in the financial service sector with financial products being created, packaged, sold, destroyed, and then recreated to keep up with the ever-expanding industry.

Could there have been a correlation between the accelerating pace of creative destruction ushered in by Thatcherite economics and the rising tides of socially liberal cultural attitudes? Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame believes so, and he outlines why in his book titled Why Liberalism Failed. “In its quest to liberate the individual, it has turned the things that traditionally constitute the self—family, community, religion—into arbitrary impositions from which we seek to be freed. Some of the most important economic thinkers on the right today say that liberalism’s knee-jerk reliance on the supposed wisdom of markets has caused conservatives to betray their moral principles.”

The reign of free market economics ushered in an era of creative destruction to American cultural attitudes, beliefs, and norms. Fewer Americans want children, marriage, or homeownership. Conservatives, though, have failed to adopt the benefits of small “l” liberalism’s social advancements, including on abortion, gay rights, and religious liberty. In some European countries, Conservatives have even adopted liberal economic practices to socially engineer protections of the traditional family by paying people to have children.

In a post-liberal Conservative world, the merits of individualism (crucial to the philosophy of neoliberalism) would be scrapped for the advancement of moral principles on behalf of the “common good.” Conservative legal scholars have started to abandon “textualist” readings of the Constitution and are starting to rely on “common-good constitutionalism” to advance these conservative moral principles in courts. Adrian Vermeule, a distinguished professor at Harvard Law School, has denounced conservatives’ reliance on originalism and is the founding father of this new legal doctrine. Originalism, he argues, was used in the “Warren and Burger Court precedents that expanded sexual freedoms and limited the power of majorities to enforce morals and hierarchies.” Vermuele believes that constitutional originalism failed to preserve the virtues of social conservatives and lost too many civil liberties and rights battles.

The promulgation of common good legal doctrines has seeped into recent state legislative maneuvers aimed at restricting civil rights. Vermuele believes that conservatives should use the apparatus of the state to enforce moral codes and practices, thus “offering a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality.'’ At the heart of the doctrine lies a stark anti-libertarianism driving many Republicans to adopt anti-transgender, anti-abortion, and anti-drug decriminilzation policies anathema to individualist conservatives’ views. Victor Orban’s authoritarianism serves as a vivid painting of what societies might transform into under this type of social revisionism.

Economic postliberal conservatism served as a driving factor of the Brexit movement and rising isolationism in the United Kingdom. Neoliberal conservatives had previously sought to adopt and advance the cause of the European union, NATO, and the Union Nations. Post-liberal conservatives denounced globalization as they scraped through the wreckage brought by deindustrialization and creative destruction economics that brought about the service economy. The rising economic nationalism, however, stands in stark contrast to the neoliberal consensus erected by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Economic nationalism runs directly counter to libertarian free market ideology in the sense that it requires state power to enforce anti-trade laws and tariffs. In a similar vein to common-good constitutionalism, economic nationalism relies on anti-conservative governing doctrines to advance conservative virtues through state action.

Most political analyses of current post-liberalism fail to account for the future of post-liberalism and how it might realign both parties' views of state power. Conservatives will increasingly adopt and rely on state power to advance common good constitutional laws and economic nationalism. These two doctrines working together are toxic for democracy and explain what a postmodern America may look like. Will a libertarian politician rise up, powerful enough to stop these trends and divide the Republican party? If not, the trends taking the party into a post-liberal conservative order might signal an ideological realignment that will alter the course of American political culture and governance once and for all.

Jack DiPrimio is a first-year Political Science major at the School of Public Affairs. He is a Staff Writer at the American Agora.

Image courtesy Michael Vadon, Creative Commons

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