Conservatives – mostly in the GOP, but also in other far smaller parties – are foundering. They may or may not do well this November, but that’s quite beside the point. The problem is, even if they do quite well, they will remain unable to actualize a conservative vision.
(From my point of view, this has been the case for my entire life. Even when their rhetoric wins, even when they convince enough of the American people they are right, that rhetoric is not translated into policy. Which is, of course, the only point of politics. Policy is all that matters – not on discreet issues but across the board. The fact is, there have been discreet issue policy changes, but the overall, across-the-board policy direction that is decidedly not conservative, continues basically unabated.)
No doubt conservatives will argue with this assessment. While progressives may also deny its truth – that is more for public consumption. The basic fact is that the country has been and continues to move in a particular direction. Attribute it to cultural evolution, to the tide of history, degeneration, to whatever framework appeals to you – but it is an overall truth.
Of late, conservatives, and the GOP in particular, has struggled more than usual.
This is not a product of a hostile media – though conservatives do have far fewer media allies than progressives. It is not a product of IRS and related government suppression of conservatives – though that is appallingly anti-Constitutional and an abuse of power. It is not the result of their failure to reach out to minority groups – though their efforts have been less than effective. It isn’t even the result of the great appeal of progressive arguments – they’re not markedly superior to conservative ones. All of these may be factors, but they’re minor factors.
The main problem is that conservatives suffer from big tent syndrome. I don’t mean here that conservatism is a big tent, but that there are four or five different types of conservative. These have conflicting goals and priorities. They have incompatible philosophies. For these reason, conservatives have been unable to select compelling national candidates; conservatives have been unable to articulate a clear point of view; conservatives have fought nasty and personal battles among themselves – that are, at times, as beyond the pale as anything progressives are able to throw at them; conservatives have singularly lacked the ability to unite around their common ground. And most importantly, conservative voters have faced the choice of voting for what they see as the lesser of two evils, or staying home.
I personally believe the GOP will continue to founder until it decides what it truly is. I notice that progressives have the same problem on paper – progressive subgroups want mutually exclusive policies – but when it comes to campaigns, they don’t seem to suffer from the same effect.
Among conservatives the prevailing philosophies or types are:
Social conservatives. These may or may not be religious, but they hold traditional values in terms of personal behavior. They favor personal responsibility, and they have no problem using government to encourage desirable behaviors; they will employ law, regulation, even target tax-cuts. They generally oppose things like gay marriage, promiscuity, easy divorce, abortion, drug use – even alcohol and tobacco. They often favor government funding for social programs that advance these priorities. They are often concerned about eduction. They, quite accurately, perceive the social aspects of education as attempts to change the culture – and even as attempts to alienate their children from their beliefs. Social conservatives tend to be ridiculed in the media, but a fair number (though by no means a majority) of Americans share their perspectives. Social conservatives tend to be antagonistic to limited government conservatives, and in some cases, their attitude toward government spending for social good pits them against fiscal conservatives.
Fiscal conservatives. These are people who recognize that the amount of money spent by the United States government, by state governments, and by local governments is simply unsustainable. They object to deficit spending; they consider the national debt at best a time bomb. Fiscal conservatives would sharply reduce government spending; in other parts of the world, we might call these “austerity measures”. They believe that the massive taxes necessary to service this debt will cripple the American economy – possibly for generations to come, that taxes will encumber ordinary people, and that excessive taxation will destroy the country’s standard of living. While realistic, their perspective is a hard sell for many Americans. Voters who pay taxes tend to oppose higher taxes, but austerity measures are not popular – because they tend to take benefits away from voters. Most people want to eliminate wasteful spending, but most people consider wasteful spending as a synonym for someone else’s program. And many people would rather continue down this road and hope the consequences fiscal conservatives warn about will never come to pass.
Big business conservatives. This is the stereotypical conservative. That stereotype is, in many ways, a myth generated by opponents to all types of conservatism. Nonetheless, there is a strong faction of conservatives that support big business uncritically. Just as there is a strong faction on the other side of the aisle that gets money from and provides support to big business (kind of deceitfully). These talk of making the US or various state or local communities attractive to business. These would use taxpayer funds to provide incentives to large businesses to locate in a particular area. These are the ones who have supported federal bailouts because certain businesses were “too big to fail” – on both sides of the aisle of course. These tend to support legislation and regulation that hinders competition against large businesses on the part of small and mid-size businesses – again on both sides of the aisle. These also tend to consult business leaders on issues like education, healthcare, etc.. Their ethos – e.g. the projection of economic prosperity via big business – has broad appeal to conservatives, but their policies tend to be in conflict with those favored by every other type of conservative. Big business conservatives’ policy interests also tend not to be harmed by GOP losses because these tend to be carried forward regardless of election outcomes.
Limited government conservatives. These regard government as a necessary evil. They are not anarchists – they do not favor zero government. But they see the potential for abuse of government – both as an overwhelming fact of history, and as a product of human nature. They tend to value the individual over the group – which makes them the antithesis of the progressive philosophy (though not necessarily of the self-identified progressive individual). As a result, they want the most freedom of action possible for the individual. They often view this as a natural right: rights are not granted by governments or documents (like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or even the Constitution). They exist whether the governments acknowledge them or not. The limited government conservative wants the government to be limited in size, wants the government to be limited in cost, and wants the government to be limited in intrusiveness. For every action taken by government – for every law, every regulation, every disbursement – a limited government conservative would ask, “What overwhelming need that cannot be met as well in any other way justifies this action?” Limited government conservatives can tend to get hung up on principle – at times more than individual policy choices.
Hawks. These favor a strong military. They believe in a pro-active stance in world affairs that is not limited to those things that affect the United States directly. They tend to view America as exceptional, and they therefore tend to believe America should be the dominant force in the world. (These occur on both sides of the political spectrum.) Hawks favor a strong defense, a large military budget, a large role for various contractors. Hawks tend to be more concerned with American prestige than necessarily with specific details. For example, a typical hawk’s response to the current situation in the Crimea would be to excoriate the U.S. administration for its failure to act in a way that prevents or discourages Russian aggression. This viewpoint would minimize the questions of, “What is the best outcome for the people of Ukraine, Russia, Crimea, etc.?” and, “What exactly can the U.S. Do about the facts on the ground?” Hawks do have a point that resonates with American citizens in that a strong defense can act as a disincentive for actions against American interests.
For my part, I have much in common with limited government conservatives, and I acknowledge the accuracy of the concerns of fiscal conservatives. The thing is, because these various conservatives groups have different, even conflicting, priorities, they really want very different policies. They are not necessarily natural allies. In fact, the only thing most of them have in common is that they are in opposition to the overall philosophy of progressives.
I don’t think that will be enough.