The “old guard” is the more conservative, often older, branch of any political grouping.
The old guard of a party might not be politically more conservative than other members of the same party; “conservative,” here, refers to the old guard’s tendency to stick to the party’s earliest platform and ideals.
Old guard can also refer to an ethos, and a way of doing things. An old guard party member might be old fashioned and is likely to be in sync with the more old fashioned voters. Ideally, a member of the old guard should combine style, background, and values together, as was apparently the case for the well-loved senator from Indiana, Jim Watson.
Here’s how the Senate’s own history pages describe Watson:
Who is more a ‘real Republican’ than Jim Watson?” asked a writer for Collier’s magazine in 1931. The answer to the question was obvious: “no one.” Indeed, the Senate’s second official majority leader had all the credentials necessary for membership in the Republican “Old Guard”–a family history in politics, seniority in the House and Senate, and a devotion to every plank in the Republican platform. But unlike his notoriously abrasive “Old Guard” colleagues, the Indiana senator was charming and amiable, though often dismissed for his “thin” legislative record. While his four-year term as majority leader cannot be considered a success, he remained extremely popular until his death in 1948.
Journalists love the phrase “old guard,” often using it as a short-hand for describing divisions and changes within a political party. Writing about the 2020 Republican National Convention, for example, the New York Times noted that “the old guard that led the Republican Party from 1980 until 2016 has been conspicuously absent from this year’s convention, representing the final signature on the party’s bitter divorce.”
In 2019, Boston Magazine argued that politics in Boston was changing dramatically; the magazine claimed that voters were getting tired of the white male politicians who had dominated the city until that point, and that they were moving toward a different kind of representative:
Today, the dam has burst. A more anarchic and progressive politics has rushed in, with a wave of younger, more progressive, and more diverse candidates bulldozing past the remnants of the old guard, as it tried in vain to hold back the deluge. As the city itself has grown, gentrified, and professionalized, its voters are increasingly unfamiliar with the kind of politics that ruled it for a century.
A few years earlier, the Washington Post was fretting that the Democratic Party was getting to be too full of elderly representatives. “Is it time for the Democratic Party’s Old Guard to Step Aside?” wondered an editorial in 2017, which focused on the age of Demcratic party leaders like Nancy Pelosi.
By the time of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, though, the party’s old guard seemed to be firmly in command. “The old guard is still in charge at the Democratic convention,” announced NBC, adding, “Joe Biden’s campaign is sending the message that this is no time to test our new leaders or theories.”