"Republican" Does Not Equal "Conservative"

I was excited to hear The Fall of Conservatism on Radio West and to read the article being discussed. All through the show there was a concern lurking in the back of my brain. When I finally identified it as the unfortunate interchanging of the movement called conservatism with the political party called republican I was all the more anxious to read the original article to see if this same confusion was perpetuated there – it was.

Despite the blurring of terminology, I found the article very enlightening about both the Republican party and the Conservative movement. The first and most important thing to do in teasing apart the Republican brand from the Conservative label is to define what it is to be conservative. Defining Republican is easy because it is nothing more or less than an organized political party – the confusion is that this party has been the primary vehicle through which conservatism has had its political voice. The best definition I have seen of “conservative” comes from Chuck Muth in an email he got from Lyn Nofziger. Muth’s whole post is worth reading but it can be summarized as follows:

  1. Conservatives believe in the Constitution as it is written.
  2. Conservatives believe in small, limited government at every level – along with individual responsibility. (Government should be a resource of last resort.)
  3. Conservatives believe taxes should be levied for the purpose of financing the limited responsibilities of government.

George Packer spends a lot of time in The Fall of Conservatism talking about how the movement is dying because of the political maneuvering of Republicans. That is not killing, and cannot kill, the conservative movement (it just kills the conservative attachment to the party). Packer identifies two ways that conservatives can approach the challenge of getting the Republican party back in power – and I note the unspoken assumption that this is the only option for conservatives to have any political effect:

One is the purist version: Bush expanded the size of government and created huge deficits; allowed Republicans in Congress to fatten lobbyists and stuff budgets full of earmarks; tried to foist democracy on a Muslim country; failed to secure the border; and thus won the justified wrath of the American people. This account—shared by Pat Buchanan, the columnist George F. Will, and many Republicans in Congress—has the appeal of asking relatively little of conservatives. They need only to repent of their sins, rid themselves of the neoconservatives who had agitated for the Iraq invasion, and return to first principles. Buchanan said, “The conservatives need to, in Maoist terms, go back to Yenan.”

The second version—call it reformist—is more painful, because it’s based on the recognition that, though Bush’s fatal incompetence and Rove’s shortsighted tactics hastened the conservative movement’s demise, they didn’t cause it. In this view, conservatism has a more serious problem than self-betrayal: a doctrinaire failure to adapt to new circumstances, new problems. Instead of heading back to Yenan to regroup, conservatives will have to spend some years or even decades wandering across a bleak political landscape of losing campaigns and rebranding efforts and earnest policy retreats, much as liberals did after 1968, before they can hope to reestablish dominance.

I would suggest that the conservative movement does not need to do anything about the purist approach because the movement has not strayed from those principles – they lost influence within the Republican party. Any party which will promote the conservative vision of good government will have the political backing of conservatives – whether that alone is sufficient to gain political power is a question for a separate post.

Packer says:

Conservatives knew how to win elections; however, they turned out not to be very interested in governing.

It would be more accurate to say

Republicans knew how to win elections with conservative rhetoric; however, they turned out not to be very interested in governing according to conservative principles.

The reformist approach is really not an issue for the conservative movement to address – it is an issue for the Republican party to address. It is a sure bet that until they address this issue of adapting to new circumstances they will “spend some years or even decades wandering across a bleak political landscape of losing campaigns and rebranding efforts and earnest policy retreats” before they are able to regain any consistent political power. Essentially, until this problem is addressed the Republican are likely to be the opposition party just as the Democrats have largely been the opposition party since 1980. (The failures of the 2006 Democratic congress suggest that the Democrats still identify as anti-Bush more than pro-anything much like the Republicans lost much of their identity with the downfall of communist Eastern Europe. 2010 and 2012 are going to be races between the parties to see which can articulate a cogent political philosophy first – and the Democrats seem to have a head start in that process.)

The Republican party gained power by adopting and later exploiting conservative rhetoric but we have not really had conservatives in power since 1988 – just a lot of Bushes and Clintons. In 1988 many people assumed that Bush 41 would be conservative as Reagan had been. He did not pretend to be conservative so he lost in 1992 as an incumbent. In 2000 Bush 43 beat a sitting Vice President because he did pretend to be conservative. The elections of 1992 and 1996, when there was no candidate who used really conservative rhetoric, could not be decided by the polarizing tactics that have been employed by Republicans under the cover of conservative rhetoric since the 1960s. 2008 is likely to shape up the same way because, as David Brooks said to Packer:

“McCain, crucially, missed the sixties, and in some ways he’s a pre-sixties figure. He and Obama don’t resonate with the sixties at all.”

Is conservatism dying? I don’t think so. I believe that it is as alive as it ever was (which was always much less alive than the party it informed) – the only real change is that the movement is becoming almost completely disattached from a particular political vehicle. The conservative movement, like any social movement, is more than political maneuvering (unlike a simple political party which may well be nothing more than political maneuvering) and it is alive to the degree that the principles of conservatism are being passed to a new generation. How much those principles are being passed on is anybody’s guess. Whether the movement will gain political power is also an open-ended question. But to say that its dying because it is not connected with a political party is inaccurate. The truth is that the party is dying until it can regain its identity or adopt a new ideological identity.