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What Does Too Conservative Even Mean?

This Jonathan Rauch article has been making the rounds.  Rauch argues that the Tea Parties (which he usefully links to the phenomenon of conservative independents who operate as "debranded Republicans") are providing Republicans with a short-term jolt of energy, and a highly motivated voting base, but threatening to pull the Republican Party too far right for the long-term health of the party.  Rauch argues that these conservative independents are highly ideological and will abandon the party if it seems to be adopting policies aimed at winning over swing voters.  So the Republicans will face the lose/lose choice of either losing a large segment of its voting base or turning off swing voters. 

I'm not sure that is true.  For one thing, I'm not sure that conservative independents are moving the Republican Party in a more conservative direction - well not exactly.  I believe they might be moving the party in an identity politics direction in which the identity is "real conservative", but where the policy implications are hazy. 

Sharron Angle, with her talk of privatizing Social Security and Medicare and using "Second Amendment remedies" if her side loses, seems to be the ideal example for what happens when the Republican Party goes too far right.  But I'm not sure how much her distinctive opinions on the issues helped her win the nomination.  She seems to have won primarily by constructing an identity as the authentic, insurgent conservative rather than the servant of any political establishment. 

She didn't do this by highlighting any positions that would be clearly alienating to the majority. She didn't campaign on denying abortions to victims of incestuous rape or cutting off grandpa's Social Security check.  Looking at her television ads during the primary (I went on YouTube and might have missed some) I was struck by how identitarian they are.  They are almost entirely about how Angle in a "true conservative" and  "one of us."  It isn't that ideological appeals are completely absent, but they consist of "limited government, lower taxes, more freedom, reduce government" blah blah you hear from every Republican to the right of Scott Brown, and contain no explanation about how those principles would be applied to the real world.  When it came to the issues she emphasized in the campaign, Angle wasn't any more conservative than Bobby Jindal, Mitch Daniels or Paul Ryan.  When she was called out for her comments about privatizing Social Security and Medicare, she talked about how she supported the Ryan Roadmap.

In one sense Angle seems incredibly inarticulate, but she mastered a way of talking to an audience that considers itself conservative, is familiar with certain buzzwords, and is alienated from the Republican establishment.  The details of how or if private accounts are introduced into Social Security are less important than that the candidate be someone who will stay "one of us."  She didn't win a contest of policy or principle.  She won a contest of authenticity.  Her "Second Amendment remedies" comment can at least partly be explained not as a threat of violence, but as a hyperbolic gesture of solidarity.  The problem is that the candidate best positioned to win the conservative authenticity derby, isn't necessarily the candidate best able to speak intelligibly to people who don't self-identify as conservative.  Most people don't care if you are a real conservative and to the tens and tens of millions of Americans who don't consume much right-leaning media, many of the stock phrases drawn from the right-leaning media are either meaningless or vaguely threatening.  It isn't that these people disagree with this or that policy (though they might.)  It is that they don't know what the heck you are talking about.

Rauch presents a seeming dilemma.  The Republicans can move "right" and lose swing voters or move left and lose large numbers of conservative independents.  It is not obvious that there is a potential Republican majority without both groups.  The problem seems greatest when it is in its most abstract form.  Our current version of conservative identity politics can be a problem, but the problem is not that it is too ideological, but that it is that it is too identity-driven.  The best answer consists in finding ways of applying ideas like limited government, free markets, etc. to particular situations.  The challenge would then be to explain to self-identified conservatives how specific policies were drawn from conservative principles (free markets, greater family stability, etc.) and explain to swing voters how those policies will produce tangible benefits - and maybe increase the appeal of conservative politics in the process.       


Categories > Politics

Discussions - 19 Comments

When Republicans can articulate solid conservative principles, they win elections. When they go all wishy-washy on specific policies (i.e. they move left or appear to), they loose. When they support or espouse specific policies that are "more conservative" but consistent with their conservative principles (e.g., financial responsibility and privatization of social security), then they have to be sufficiently articulate to explain these policies in terms of the principles and "sell" them to the base (probably not too hard) and to the independent swing voters or more "liberal" conservatives on the basis that they are needed and will work. My experience is that Republican candidates often don't do the latter well enough, and end up on defense, rather than on offense.

You need a line editor.

Ad, I can't afford to hire one.

Scott Brown ran as a conservative, an "identarian" campaign, and won in Massachusetts(!!). His voting has been much more compromising than his candidacy indicated it would be. When he next runs, will he stress the conservative identity or the voting record? If and how he wins will be valuable information in answering your question, Pete.

I think Jim's right.

Kate, Brown ran as at a tax cutter, opponent of Obamacare, and opponent of civillian trials for terrorists. He was also a pro-choicer who stressed his willingness to work with both parties and supported the Massachusetts health care system of coverage mandates, purchase mandates, and subsidies that has such a resemblance ot Obamacare. Brown has pretty much been the guy he promised to be. He crafted a persona that seemed conservative enough for Massachusetts conservatives (more of us than you would think) and (along with the issue environment and the state of the economy) appealed to usually Democratic voting white suburbanites

You are right that Brown's campaign had identitarian aspects ("I drive a truck.") but not of the real conservative variety.

Pete, maybe my point is that if even in Mass. there are more conservatives than people think, that is true all over the country. If true, then Jim is correct and a consistent conservative message will be a winner. "Even Massachusetts" has numbers of conservatives that come out to vote and will work for a candidate when they have hope in a way they do not when there is no even putative good choice for them.

Hummm...Move right and pick up the base or move left and loose the base.

Didn't you notice what happened in the last presidential election?

No Base = No Win

Get a clue, stop whining and stand on principles for once. Geezze, you're starting to sound like a liberal.

I agree with "The Hat". We lost the last election, not because John M. was not conservative enough to get his base motivated. Even though Palin did her best, you could see JM wasn't really on board. If McCain had refused to sign on to the stimulus package, we might have seen a different outcome.

Sorry, remove the first "not" in "not because John M. was not conservative... (should read election, because John McCain was not....).

Jim, so since each of the 2008 GOP frontrunners were each, in their own way, of questionable conservative authenticity, would the GOP have done better if they had run Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul or Tom Tancredo? The narrative that Republicans win when they nominate articulate conservatives is problematic. Were George Allen and Jim Talent not conservative enough when they lost? One could point to circumstances, but it does rather complicate the narrative. The narrative can be partially rescued by arguing that Republicans lost in 2006 because of spending too much money. When looking at the exit polls for 2006 that doesn't seem to be born out. You could argue that those polls didn't include those conservative s who didn't vote. Fair enough, but are we to conclude that conservatives went on a voting strike in 2006 over policies enacted in 2001-2003 (NCLB, Medicare Part D) after voting at high rates in 2004? Simply being conservative or supporting a certain mix of policies (as opposed to being able to sell those same policies to nonconservatives) isn't enough. You are right that Republicans should be able to articulate conservative principles but that is different from the assertion of having conservative principles. It is also different to being able to sell policies derived from conservative principles to the various subgroups of swing voters (or potential swing voters) who don't care what is conservative or what isn't.

Kate, there are more self-identified Massachusetts conservatives than you would think from looking at the Massachusetts delegation to the House of Representatives, but we are nowhere near a majority. That doesn't mean that a candidate with a conservative message can't win. It means having to win over lots of people who don't consider themselves conservative but who are willing to listen. Scott Brown is an interesting case and there are some real lessons to be learned. He picked a group of high salience issues (taxes, civilian trials for terrorists, health care reform) and made arguments (his ad on taxes was especially effective) for his position. He hardly ever called himself a conservative never in the Scott Brown campaign ads that I saw. Thats okay. When talking to the general public (rather than assemblages of conservatives) Reagan usually didn't call himself a conservative either. He was too busy making arguments for his policies and principles in ways that would easily be understood by the swing voter.

Pete Spiliakos articulates very well the challenge facing the Republicans. But, if the solution is to run candidates (and campaign teams) sufficiently informed and verbally and intellectually agile to explain conservative principles to the electorate and how they apply to the problems we face, isn't that just another way of saying that conservatives are (in the long run) politically check-mated? How many potential candidates and campaign professionals are intellectually equipped to fill that role? Moreover, how can one overcome years of brainwashing by the schools, universities, media, the entire unwritten status system etc., and essentially reeducate vast swaths of the electorate - all through 30 and 60 second commercials, news soundbites, and silly pseudo "debates"?

A point that deserves more emphasis is that the "identity" component of candidates like Angle or, for that matter, Palin, may be a double-edged sword. I suspect that many Americans of middle class or working class background aspire to, or have achieved, what could be called "gentility," and, regardless of their views on particular political issues, may not be attracted to Angle/Palin types. The Democrats are skilled at playing on swing voters' status anxiety to keep them voting for Democrats notwithstanding doubts they may have about specific Democratic policies.

djf, I suspect that the answer to your first question is no in the determinist sense. Sure it is possible that Republicans won't rise to the challenge of winning more than just short-term victories under very favorable circumstances (as in 2010, but they well might. The Left seemed not so good at talking to nonliberals in 2004. Howard Dean's communicative problems were about more than just his scream. A liberal friend of mine recounted with disgust his experiences with the furious, insular, and barely articulate moralism of Deaniacs. I think that lots of people are less firmly committed to the liberal policy agenda than one might think (that is a personal observation) and might be won over if one can bring to their attention an intelligent and relevant policy agenda in language they understand. How to do that? Well if I knew THE answer I would be a millionaire, but there are lots of potential smaller answers. To give one very small example: I was watching the 6:00 PM FOX News show and there was this thirty second commercial on cap and trade. There wasn't enough time to tell you anything about it. It was just buzzwords and atmospherics (I think it involved rodeo clowns.) Maybe one two minute ad in the right time slot (Colbert Report?) might do more good that fifty 30 second ads. I try to never underestimate how little people who don't follow right-leaning media know about the better conservative ideas and critiques.

As Angelo Codevilla notes, "former Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev tells us that in 1987 then vice president George H. W. Bush distanced himself from his own administration by telling him, "Reagan is a conservative, an extreme conservative. All the dummies and blockheads are with him..."

The establishment never accepted Reagan.

For an example of the "status anxiety" I mentioned as working for the Democrats, there's a post on (the blog of a conservative law professor) entitled "It's getting embarrassing to be a conservative," and listing 10 reasons for such embarrasment. I don't endorse everything on his list as embarrassing, but he illustrates how Angle/Palin/Tea Party types can alienate even committed, self-identifying, knowledgeable conservatives.

I doubt Prof. Bainbridge manifests a segment of the population with any demographic weight.

I think I would take Prof. Codevilla's tale with a large hunk of rock salt.

Of course, when I said that conservatives win when the espouse conservative principles and can articulate policies that are consistent with these principles they win, I was generalizing. One can always point to specific elections or polls that are the exceptions to the rule. However, I suspect that there were specific local issues involved that may have shaded the outcome - e.g., why the "Girls from Maine" keep getting elected as Republicans.

Scott Brown may be an example, as you point out the three or four conservative principals he supported (and the corresponding liberal policies he opposed) were key to his election. His voting record on conservative principles in other areas is mixed. Now it is up to him to defend his position to his voting, and not necessarily solidly conservative, base.

This is a short answer to a long answer, but I am off on vacation for a while and will temporarily withdraw from the political scene.

I think that status anxiety doesn't matter nearly as much as djf thinks. There were some self-conscously urbane liberals who had an immediate, and hysterical reaction to Palin as the embodiment of all their bigotries against "red state" Americans. But if that had been Palin's biggest problem, she would have been fine politically. Liberal partisans (of varying levels of overtness) will always try to paint significant conservative figures as either the Scarecrow or the Tin Man. It is the job of conservative political figures to have policy answers and communications straegies that gets to most of the country in language intelligible to nonconservatives.

The comparison between Palin and Angle is problematic. On the surface is seems convincing. Both are conservative women who aren't policy wonks, but there are big differencesl. Palin's appeal was more background-oriented. The first part of her 2008 RNC speech was a defense of small towns (and by implication suburbanites who identify with small towns) rather than on any particular hot button issue (she had some stuff on energy, but it is the same stuff as most Republicans.) Her comments on being a hockey mom were more memorable than anything she actually said on abortion, Social Security or whatever. Both liberals and conservatives tended to impute more policy content (and more policy radicalism) to Palin's persona than was justified by the things she tended to say. Angle has crafted a more explicitly ideological persona (privatizing Social Security and Medicare) but she her ideas seem scary to some and can't seem to defend or explain her ideas except in the most friendly environment. Palin and Angle both have identitarian appeals, but they are different in subtle but important ways and each have somewhat different weaknesses in appealing to nonconservatives.

and I'd add that if you want just as good an example of how some conservatives can make themselves look unserious on issues and unintelligible to nonconservatives, you could just as well look at J.D. Hayworth and Jim Deakin's answers on health care policy in the Arizona senatorial primary debate.

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