In her The Authoritarian Dynamic, political scientist Karen Stenner has been a great help in clarifying the landscape of American political ideology. On p. 138 Stenner wrote that "the way in which the notion of 'conservatism' is typically employed in American politics... hopelessly entangles... three dimensions we have so far striven to distinguish: authoritarianism, status quo conservatism and laissez faire conservatism.... In contemporary U.S. politics, 'conservative' does tend to mean, all at once, intolerance of difference, attached to the status quo, and opposed to government intervention in the economy."
Stenner correctly distinguishes these three ideological stances and argues that they can be largely independent of one another; one can endorse laissez faire and be quite critical of the status quo (say you were a bourgeois for laissez faire in Louis XVI's pre-revolutionary France), one can support the status quo and be opposed to laissez faire (say you were a loyal Communist under Brezhnev), and, most important of all for my purposes, being a 'conservative' who wishes to avoid radical or abrupt changes in the status quo does NOT make you an authoritarian (say you are a moderate Republican critical of the Bush-Cheney administration's super-patriotism, hyper-nationalism, moral intolerance, and subversion of political dissent).
Stenner, with characteristic conceptual care, differentiates 'status quo conservatism' from authoritarianism (p. 151): to status quo conservatives “a stable, institutionalized, and authoritatively supported respect for diversity should always be preferable to dismantling those well-established protections and moving toward an uncertain future holding out prospect of greater uniformity of people and beliefs, yet at the cost of intolerable social change and uncertainty.” In other words, if you want to preserve the status quo and you in fact exist in a society respecting diversity, then that’s the status quo you’d wish to preserve; however, if you’re an authoritarian existing in a diverse society you might wish for even abrupt radical changes in the status quo if they promised more uniformity of people and beliefs. A 'status quo conservative' presumably would support whatever status quo existed in his/her society; an authoritarian is predisposed to want uniformity of people and beliefs in whichever society he/she lives and may be willing to risk change to increase uniformity.
Let's parlay this into a clarification of American political ideology.
1) As both of the two patron saints of laissez faire doctrine, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek believed, those supporting laissez faire should not be called ‘conservative’ at all, but ‘classical liberals’ (here I depart somewhat from Stenner in that I agree with Hayek and Friedman that 'laissez faire' and 'conservative' designate different views). If contemporaries won't take the word of Friedman and Hayek that 'conservative' is an inappropriate term it's because ideologues like William F. Buckley wished to 'fuse' disparate and often contradictory ideological traditions for their own intellectually inconsistent political purposes. Buckley and those around him in the 1950s put together a witch's brew of 'conservatism' that still confuses American political discourse today. A true conservative, like Edmund Burke, refers to someone who opposes abrupt and/or radical changes in contemporary social institutions but supports temperate evolutionary changes as needed. (Two qualifications: 1) in the U.S., with its longstanding and widely held commitment to less government and more 'free' market, a Burkean respecter of the status quo would also tend to support laissez faire, but this is a culturally and historically specific association; historically specific because there were times in American history when leaders who were in many ways staus quo conservatives advocated more government intervention in the economy: e.g., Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay; 2) since capitalism is always a force for innovation, change, and "creative destruction", it is difficult to be consistently pro-capitalist, i.e., laissez faire, and be a Burkean respecter of the status quo. Go figure. I suspect laissez faire and status quo are too often contradictory.)
2) Classical liberals, like Friedman and Hayek, are opposed to undue interference in the economy, and in society more generally (they would oppose legislating morality), by the central government. The libertarian (see U.S. Libertarian Party) of today tends toward the beliefs of the classical liberal, but also strives for consistency in pursuing liberty by supporting strong civil liberties, opposing government legislation of morality (support for women's rights to abortion), and opposing a meddlesome, interventionist foreign policy requiring the central government to have a huge 'defense' and 'national security' establishment.
3) So what's a 'liberal'? The ‘modern liberal’ or ‘progressive’ believes that the rise and growth of modern corporations in the America of the 19th century has interfered massively and significantly in the 1825 (pre-industrial) world of the classical liberal; this growth has enabled corporations to interfere with the ‘free market’, enabled representatives of corporations to exercise excessive influence over government and elections, and enabled the ‘collectivism’ of the corporation to exercise undue influence over most social decisions (environment, health care, retirement, unionization of workers, development of law, popular tastes, favored entertainments, use of the broadcast airwaves, etc., etc., etc.). Thus the modern liberal believes that government--as the only institution within modern capitalist society having adequate power to regulate the corporation as well as being under some popular control through democratic elections--that this central government must be supported in its role of corporate regulation. Other than this, and with some notable backsliding (McCarthyism, the Cold War, the 'war on terror'), the modern liberal probably agrees with the libertarian on many issues. That the three examples of 'backsliding' that came to mind concern foreign policy is no coincidence; probably the biggest problem for modern liberalism is that 'liberals' support aggressive, 'idealistic' foreign policies in which the U.S. brings its 'superior' values to the poor and benighted of foreign lands. I believe such interference in the affairs of sovereign countries contradicts liberal principles of freedom, equality before the law, and self-determination for all peoples.
4) What is an "authoritarian" or pseudo-conservative? As Stenner argues, an authoritarian is someone who likely has an innate disposition to strongly favor uniformity of beliefs for all members of society, and sameness of characteristics of all members, and thus tends to be racially, politically and morally intolerant of diversity and dissent; the authoritarian when threatened or challenged by a perceived excess of diversity and/or dissent responds with an aggressive, coercive punitiveness aimed at suppressing unwanted difference and enforcing uniformity upon others. Thus, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, along with many of their most fervent supporters, are more accurately considered authoritarian pseudo-conservatives and should never have been labeled 'conservative' at all. Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower, Senator Robert Taft (1889-1953), and George H. W. Bush might more accurately be considered 'conservative'.