New Right

Many in the US and beyond were shocked by Donald Trump's march to the White House in 2016. Trump's appeal to religious conservatives and libertarians alike, together with his espousal of American exceptionalism on the world stage - all through emerging new digital media - was, in many ways, American conservatism with a contemporary twist.

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Many in the US and beyond were shocked by Donald Trump's march to the White House in 2016. Trump's appeal to religious conservatives and libertarians alike, together with his espousal of American exceptionalism on the world stage - all through emerging new digital media - was, in many ways, American conservatism with a contemporary twist.

The Donald Trump phenomenon shows clearly how conservatism is not simply a static, old-fashioned political ideology, but rather a political tradition that is capable of constantly reinventing and updating itself. In the late 20th century, Conservatism revamped itself to great effect, bringing to power a generation of leaders - referred to collectively as the New Right - whose legacy is still felt today.

New right definition

The New Right refers to a trend in conservative politics that emerged in the 1980s and which represented a shift from some of the traditional values and ideas of traditional conservative politics. When looking at a New Right definition then, we need to look at two main characteristics; economic neoliberalism and neoconservatism.

Economic neoliberalism

Neoliberalism describes the economic policies of the New Right. These policies are in favour of minimal government intervention, arguing that active management of economic affairs by the state can't achieve market efficiency. New Right governments advocate for unrestrained free market capitalism, arguing that deregulation, competition, and individualism could create prosperity for all.

Neoliberalism is influenced by the free-market theory of eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith. Smith believed that an 'invisible hand' guided free markets towards equilibrium and efficiency, arguing that global economies would flourish only when free from state interference.

In the 1970s, economists advocated for a return to the free-market economics inspired by Smith and developed by other economists. The resurgence of free-market, neoliberal economics was a response to the interventionist capitalism of the post-War years when Western states had played an active role in trying to rebuild their economies. Neoliberal economists considered the market's 'central nervous system' as guiding free markets toward balance, productivity and wealth.

For more on this check out our articles on Neoliberalism and Adam Smith.


Neoconservatism looks to restore moral order and authority in what the New Right views as an increasingly 'permissive' society. The New Right promotes the traditional nuclear family, arguing that it provides a natural education in hierarchy, discipline and structure. This idea was reflective of the New Right's economic ethos because it meant that the state could largely delegate the diffusion of traditional values to the nuclear family. Neoconservative politicians promoted the traditional family structure, with the husband as the 'breadwinner' in the public sphere and the wife as the 'homemaker' in the private setting.

Neoconservatism also aims to have moral authority on the world stage. For the New Right, the nation-state represents a group of self-serving individuals united by a shared moral code and cultural identity. In the United States, this bred a form of exceptionalism which justified numerous military interventions during the Reagan administration. These campaigns were motivated by the idea that the United States was a morally superior political entity with a unique mission to spread democracy around the world.

US Exceptionalism is the belief that the US has a history, culture, and political system which makes it distinct in human history. Under Reagan, this idea was cultivated for political gain.

New Right Conservatism

The greatest division between New Right Conservatism and classical Conservativism is that the New Right represents a dogmatic ideology. Classical Conservatives sought to preserve the status quo through pragmatism, leading to the belief that 'the wise Conservative travels light'. The New Right, however, had rigid commitments to certain ideals, such as faith in the free market and belief in a minimal state. This adherence to dogmatic principles is one aspect that distinguishes the New Right from traditional forms of conservative politics.

Take the New Right's denunciation of the state, for example. In the Conservative tradition, there has always been scepticism towards the idea of active state involvement in citizens' lives. Nevertheless, Conservatives historically accepted liberal-democratic rule, assuming that it guaranteed order and property rights.

Under the New Right neoliberalism, however, citizenship belonged more to the market than to the state. Individuals who manage to enrich themselves through entrepreneurship are regarded as positive examples of the value of hard work and intelligence, and there is no moral obligation placed on them to assist the less well-off. The New Right, therefore, blurs the lines between Liberalism and Conservatism, as it grounds individual freedoms within the dynamics of the free market.

New Right Margaret Thatcher in 1981 StudySmarterFig. 1Margaret Thatcher pictured during a visit to the Netherlands in 1981

New Right theorists

The new right is therefore defined by its economic liberalism, as well as its conservative approach to social policies. Let's look at some of the key New Right theorists in both these fields!

Friedrich Hayek

Born in Austria in 1899, Hayek was an economic theorist and proponent of free-market economics. A member of the Austrian School of economics, his work focused on how information about price changes helped consumers to shape their own economic plans, providing a tangible link between individual behaviour and abstract economics. In 1974, Hayek won a Nobel Prize for this work. Hayek believed that the market was;

The only way in which so many activities depending on dispersed knowledge can be effectively integrated into a single order.1

Robert Nozick

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1938, Nozick was a twentieth-century Libertarian philosopher whose works were influenced by Hayek's economic thought. In Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), Nozick frames the most desirable state as one that acts as a 'night watchman' - fulfilling only the most basic duties.

For Nozick, the state serves to protect citizens against violence, theft, and fraud but little else. Nozick contends that any other function enacted by the state, such as economic management or wealth distribution, is unjustifiable.

“The minimal state treats us as inviolate individuals, who may not be used in certain ways by others as means or tools or instruments or resources... How dare any state or group of individuals do more. Or less.” 2

Nozick justifies his stance using the arguments of Classical Liberal John Locke, who wrote that each individual has an inalienable right to life, liberty, and property. In Nozick's conception of Utopia, which is also based on John Lock's thought, the state guarantees physical safety whilst individuals are free to pursue their aims through voluntary contractual agreements. For New Right politicians, Nozick's work was the foundation for their concept of the state.

Nozick and Libertarianism: Nozick subscribed to Libertarianism, a philosophy that developed out of Classical Liberalism. Libertarians believe that individual liberty is best served by a minimalist state which does not intervene in the individual's pursuit of freedom, so long as each person is able to exercise equal liberty.

Irving Kristol

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1920, Irving Kristol was a journalist and essayist who had an impact on neoconservatism and, therefore, the New Right. Unlike Hayek and Nozick, Kristol's major works were concerned with the perceived moral degradation which had taken place in the post-War Western world. Kristol observed that secular liberalism, which had become the accepted standard in Western nation-states, had bred a "counterculture" which was damaging the moral fabric of American society.

As a proponent of some degree of state intervention in the economic sphere, Kristol did not subscribe to the neoliberal model of unrestrained capitalism. Instead, Kristol's influence was in the neoconservative conception of authority, tradition and order. His view of a family-orientated society in which democracy served to protect private citizens in their pursuit of personal gain was very influential. So too was his argument that the US had an obligation to bring this democratic model onto the world stage, which laid the foundations for US exceptionalism during the Reagan administration.

The New Right UK

The UK had several social democratic governments in the post-War period. During these years, the state was committed to public spending, public ownership of key industries, and the maintenance of the welfare state.

In 1979, with the election of the Conservative Party and its leader Margaret Thatcher, this would all change. Thatcher's manifesto launched an attack on the social democratic governments of the post-War years, stating that by;

enlarging the role of the State and diminishing the role of the individual, they have crippled the enterprise and effort on which a prosperous country with improving social services depends.3

Privatisation and De-Regulation

Under Thatcherism, national industries such as British Gas, BP, and British Airways were privatised. Thatcher's administration sold shares in these state-owned companies to the general public, often at below market price.

The government also de-regulated the 'monopolised industries' of gas, electric, and telecoms, where state-run institutions had previously had total control. Private companies were invited to bid for contracts in these sectors, whilst enjoying the use of state-run infrastructure.

Unemployment and Trade Unions

Due to their faith in the market, New Right governments saw no reason why unemployment should be viewed as problematic. It was, they argued, a consequence of an economic model that worked efficiently and without the need for excess labour. Unemployment reached a high of 12% of the national workforce in March 1981 during Thatcher's premiership.

Thatcher's administration targeted the trade union movement, due to its association with collective labour power and the goal of full employment. The Employment Acts of 1980 and 1982 limited trade union power to strike. In 1984, Thatcher faced off the National Union of Mineworkers as mines were closed across the UK. After a year of strikes, the NUM was forced to concede defeat.

New Right Miners Strike 1984 StudySmarterFig. 2 Miners striking in London during the national action which took place over 1984 - 1985

The New Right politics

The New Right, particularly neoliberal theories developed by Hayek and Nozick, would change the political landscape for the subsequent fifty years.

New Right neoliberalism has shaped Western governments' responses to economic crises. After the 2008 financial crash, the UK government-imposed austerity measures: cutting public spending and freezing wages in the public sector. In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that we were living in the "age of austerity". His party aimed to reduce the role and size of the state, encouraging grassroots organisations in the charity sector and allowing private companies to deliver public services.

In the USA, the neoconservative principle of American exceptionalism developed by Irving Kristol also had a lasting impact. Throughout his election campaign, Donal Trump used the neoconservative rhetoric of Western superiority to appeal to his electoral base. His promise to 'Make America Great Again' (a phrase first used by Reagan in 1981) was based on the idea that America had somehow departed from traditional Christian values and free market economics. Furthermore, Trump was openly xenophobic during this campaign, framing refugees and economic migrants as a group of 'others' who threatened the 'American way of life'.

New Right No to Trump protests  StudySmarterFig. 3 No to Trump protesters in London, England, in June 2019

New Right - Key takeaways

  • The New Right is a political ideology which combines economic neoliberalism and social neoconservatism.
  • Economic neoliberalism was influenced by the work of 19th-century economist Adam Smith and his theory of the 'invisible hand'.
  • Neoconservatism was centred on a return to law and order in what New Right politicians saw as an increasingly 'permissive' society.
  • The New Right movement was at its peak during Thatcherism (UK) and the Reagan administration (US), both in the 1980s.
  • The New Right's influence can be seen in the neoliberal Austerity measures in the UK and the neoconservative language adopted by Donald Trump during his election campaign.


  1. Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Vol. 1, 1973
  2. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, 1974
  3. 1979 Conservative Party Manifesto - CONSERVATIVEMANIFESTO.COM
  4. Fig. 2 Miners' strike rally London 1984 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miners_strike_rally_London_1984.jpg) by Nick (https://www.flickr.com/people/34517490@N00) licensed by CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons

Frequently Asked Questions about New Right

The New Right is a form of conservative politics which is centred on belief in free-market economics, family values and the promotion of Western democracy abroad. In the UK, it was adopted by the administration of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1989). In the US, its chief advocate was Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

The New Right perceived unrestrained capitalism as the vehicle for economic prosperity. It chief economic policy, neoliberalism, advocates for a minimal state which does not intervene with the personal affairs of citizens and promotes private enterprise. 

The New Right's two key components are economic neoliberalism and social neoconservatism 

Both the New Right and the Functionalist philosophy give a great deal of agency to the notion that function is at the heart of human interactions and thought. The societal vision of the New Right was one of atomistic individuals pursuing their own goals, with each goal becoming a function of the broader society 

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