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Conservative Ideas and Social Policy in the United States


Address for correspondence: Alex Waddan, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester, Leicester, LE1 7RH. Email:


This article explores social policy development in the United States since the beginning of the George W. Bush presidency. Starting from an analysis of the discourse about compassionate conservatism at the centre of the 2000 presidential campaign and proceeding to a discussion of the meaning of the more recent ownership society blueprint, it underlines the fragmented nature of the conservative policy agenda in the United States. Yet, the article suggests that, despite this fragmentation, the ideological dominance of the right and the related absence of needed reform in key policy areas are of great significance for the future of federal social policy. Overall, the article shows how paying close attention to the nature of conservative ideas improves our understanding of social policy development in the United States. As argued, the old liberal and the traditionalist sides of American conservatism have inspired distinct yet related blueprints and reform proposals that both promote a scaling-down of existing federal social programmes and a return to traditional forms of economic security (i.e. charity and personal savings). The article underlines the relationship between these blueprints and policy drift.