Jonathan Rauch has an interesting article on George Wallace as the spiritual father of the modern conservative movement (though he’s at pains—implausibly—to say that race has nothing to do with it) which he claims is a kind of betrayal of “real” conservatism:
Conservatism is wary of extremism and rage and anti-intellectualism, of demagoguery and incoherent revolutionary rhetoric. Wallace was a right-wing populist, not a conservative. The rise of his brand of pseudo-conservatism in Republican circles should alarm anyone who cares about the genuine article.
This seems pretty strained to me. White supremacist southerners, often with some “populist” leanings, have always been recognized as integral elements of the midcentury conservative coalition. Strom Thurmond got the 1962 “Freedom Award” from Young Americans for Freedom. It’s true that modern-day conservatives don’t seem especially interested in reducing government outlays, but that’s always been the case. The idea that “small government” is the goal of conservative politics seems to me like a piety that’s never had much grounding in reality. The idea is to represent the interests of economic elites and the prejudices of the sociocultural majority and modern-day conservatives do this very well.
All the “populist” disdain for “Chablis-drinking, Brie-eating parties in San Francisco” in the world doesn’t stop John Boehner from raking in financial industry money in exchange for taking their lead on regulatory matters. Newt Gingrich is very comfortable running what he describes as a “trade association” for health care firms. Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks organization, the main institutional backers of the Tea Party movement, are basically an arm of his lobbying activities.
When the prejudices of the sociocultural minority clash with the interests of economic elites, as they do on immigration, then we see splits inside the movement. But ordinarily business conservatism and right-wing populism work together extremely comfortable and always have. Rauch, I think, really wants to see public expenditures reduced and is correct that the contemporary conservative movement is not a political movement driving toward that goal. But I don’t think any iteration of it has ever been or realistically ever will be.