What Does It Mean to Be “Conservative”?

 

One of the on-going questions this cycle is why so many self-professed conservatives support Donald Trump. The question offers plenty to think about because “conservative” is supposed to mean something in terms of ideology and policy prescriptions, and that doesn’t seem to match what Trump proposes. But first, the question of what it means to be a “conservative” in 2016 should be satisfied.

Recently, National Review’s David French had a piece that did a great job of explaining Trump’s support. French takes what he sees in his home state of Tennessee and extrapolates that to the rest of the country:

Tennessee didn’t change dramatically between 2004 (when Democrats were in total control of state government) and 2011 (when control flipped to Republicans), but national politics changed. And — as Donald Trump is proving — they can change again.

What politics is he talking about? He says that it is the often referred to as “Ronald Reagan’s ‘Three Legged Stool:'” patriotism, economics, and cultural conservatism.

In French’s estimation, Trump supporters see patriotism in terms of using the military only when the United States needs to and stemming the tide of illegal immigration. On economics, he argues that they are not so much for free trade in the abstract as they are for ensuring that they benefit from the free trade; if those benefits do not materialize, they oppose it. Culturally, he explains that they are not overly religious, but oppose the debauchery of the Left. As he puts it:

The GOP underestimated Trump in part because it overestimated the conservatism of its own southern, rural northern, and Midwestern base. It underestimated the extent to which many of its voters hadn’t so much embraced the corporate conservatism of the Chamber of Commerce or the constitutional conservatism of the Tea Party as much as they had rejected the extremism of the increasingly shrill and politically correct Left. And, yes, the size of this population calls into question the very process of building a national Republican electoral majority, but it also threatens Democrats who seem intent on drumming every blue-collar white male straight out of the party.

These characteristics are good descriptors of the type of “conservatives” supporting Trump, but what French does not do is take it the logical step further: that is, to consider that the definition of “conservative” is no longer what is was when National Review was founded in 1955 and Barry Goldwater’s lost in 1964.

The signs of this shift were evident in the mid-90s but no one took the time to understand it until people like Sean Trende began looking into it after the 2012 debacle. Trende explains that the largest drop in turnout was among white voters and these white voters had characteristics that comprised what he calls the Perot Coalition (as in Ross Perot:

The drop in turnout [in 2012] occurs in a rough diagonal, stretching from northern Maine, across upstate New York (perhaps surprisingly, turnout in post-Sandy New York City dropped off relatively little), and down into New Mexico. Michigan and the non-swing state, non-Mormon Mountain West also stand out. Note also that turnout is surprisingly stable in the Deep South; Romney’s problem was not with the Republican base or evangelicals (who constituted a larger share of the electorate than they did in 2004).

For those with long memories, this stands out as the heart of the “Perot coalition.” That coalition was strongest with secular, blue-collar, often rural voters who were turned off by Bill Clinton’s perceived liberalism and George H.W. Bush’s elitism.

[According to my analysis] a county’s vote for Ross Perot in 1992 comes back statistically significant, and suggests that a higher vote for Perot in a county did, in fact, correlate with a drop-off in voter turnout in 2012.

What does that tell us about these voters? As I noted, they tended to be downscale, blue-collar whites. They weren’t evangelicals; Ross Perot was pro-choice, in favor of gay rights, and in favor of some gun control. You probably didn’t know that, though, and neither did most voters, because that’s not what his campaign was about.

His campaign was focused on his fiercely populist stance on economics. He was a deficit hawk, favoring tax hikes on the rich to help balance the budget. He was staunchly opposed to illegal immigration as well as to free trade (and especially the North American Free Trade Agreement). He advocated more spending on education, and even Medicare-for-all. Given the overall demographic and political orientation of these voters, one can see why they would stay home rather than vote for an urban liberal like President Obama or a severely pro-business venture capitalist like Mitt Romney.

The Perot voters Trende describes sound an awful lot like the Trump supporters described by French. And, to further drive this point home, take a look at the map Trende provides showing where the voter turnout dropped in 2012 compared to 2008 (the bluer the area, the bigger the drop) and a map French provides showing Trump’s support:

Turnout6-20

tmp746104006610255874

The parallels are striking.

Ideological Conservatives — what I like to call Movement Conservatives — might say this analysis does not describe them, but they miss that their priorities and those of most voters who identify as “conservative” do not match. If they did, then Democrats would have a much harder time and and the great Leviathan could be slain forever. Unfortunately, the correlation between these two groups is only skin-deep. If Movement Conservatism is going to have any viability moving forward, it better understand who these people are and attempt to bring them into the fold.

Voters who call themselves “conservative” are typically not interested in F. A. Hayek or Russel Kirk. They don’t know why Whittaker Chambers wrote Ayn Rand out of the Conservative Movement, nor who either of them were, nor would they care much if informed. What they do understand is that Ronald Reagan was a strong president, that political correctness is gut-wrenching, and that someone needs to “make America great again.”

We need to figure out how to talk to them.

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There are 71 comments.

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  1. Mendel Member

    Great post Robert.

    I think the term “conservative” has outlived its utility.

    There are blocs of voters across America who label themselves conservative yet whose positions are so different that it is impossible for one single party or one platform to make them all happy. Some want higher taxes on the rich, others don’t; some want more Medicare and Medicaid, other don’t; some want us to have a more aggressive military policy in the Middle East, others don’t; some make abortion a litmus test, others don’t.

    There are too many contradictions among these views for them to be considered one harmonious movement. It’s time for everyone to accept that the reality of the American electorate is much more complex and unpredictable than just “red America – blue America”.

    • #1
    • January 22, 2016, at 12:44 PM PDT
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  2. James Madison Member

    One of the stark things about Tea Party people, many of whom might fit your definition of movement conservatives, is they began as a fiscal conservative / small government movement. Yet, when surveyed they were against cuts in everything except foreign aid.

    If they don’t understand F.A. Hayek and Russell Kirk, then maybe what they are is populists. People who want what is good for them as they see it. They are driven by their own hopes and fears and not ideology. Their lives are busy, their time short and their interests more granular.

    There are those who draw many parallels between Bernistas and the Anti-Establishment. I don’t know how fair this is, but there are similarities. People on both sides feel wronged, feel there are no consequences for the bad behavior of others, feel there is no fairness, and feel no one cares about them.

    Maybe Movement Conservatives might be Karma Conservatives – they want accountability and what they believe is their fair share? Payback.

    • #2
    • January 22, 2016, at 12:46 PM PDT
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  3. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds Post author

    Mendel:Great post Robert.

    I think the term “conservative” has outlived its utility.

    There are blocs of voters across America who label themselves conservative yet whose positions are so different that it is impossible for one single party or one platform to make them all happy. Some want higher taxes on the rich, others don’t; some want more Medicare and Medicaid, other don’t; some want us to have a more aggressive military policy in the Middle East, others don’t; some make abortion a litmus test, others don’t.

    There are too many contradictions among these views for them to be considered one harmonious movement. It’s time for everyone to accept that the reality of the American electorate is much more complex and unpredictable than just “red America – blue America”.

    Thank you.

    • #3
    • January 22, 2016, at 12:46 PM PDT
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  4. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds Post author

    James Madison:One of the stark things about Tea Party people, many of whom might fit you definition of movement conservatives, is they began as a fiscal conservative / small government movement. Yet, they were against cuts in everything except foreign aid.

    If they don’t understand F.A. Hayek and Russell Kirk, then maybe what they are is populists. People who want what is good for them as they see it. They are driven by their own hopes and fears and not ideology. Their lives are busy, their time short and their interests more granular.

    There are those who draw many parallels between Bernistas and the Anti-Establishment. I don’t know how fair this is, but there are similarities. People on both sides feel wronged, feel there are no consequences for the bad behavior of others, feel there is no fairness, and feel no one cares about them.

    Maybe Movement Conservatives might be Karma Conservatives – they want accountability and what they believe is their fair share? Payback.

    No I wouldn’t throw the “populist” label on them because what they are doing is very much in the American tradition. They don’t view things in terms of this is popular and we want it done. They truly think their ways are good for the country, but that they aren’t being listened to by the Political or Governing Class in Washington. It’s quite different from populism if you ask me.

    • #4
    • January 22, 2016, at 12:49 PM PDT
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  5. Mendel Member

    I think the missing link here is that most people probably aren’t very politically ideological, even if they claim to be.

    In my opinion, ideology means holding views which go against one’s own direct personal interests. Being for free trade when it helps me, but against it when it hurts me, is not an ideology, it’s self-interest. Same for those who complain about welfare spending in other parts of the country but want more for themselves.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong about placing self-interest above some lofty ideology. In fact, it’s human and much more natural. But the political commentariat (professional and amateur) gets too lost in assuming that large blocs of middle class voters are acting on some set of hallowed first principles. Much more likely is a combination of a) what’s in it for me? and b) who looks/sounds better on TV?

    • #5
    • January 22, 2016, at 12:50 PM PDT
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  6. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds Post author

    Mendel:We should also keep in mind that most people probably aren’t very politically ideological, even if they claim to be.

    In my opinion, ideology means holding views which go against one’s own direct personal interests. Being for free trade when it helps me, but against it when it hurts me, is not an ideology, it’s self-interest. Same for those who complain about welfare spending in other parts of the country but want more for themselves.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong about placing self-interest above some lofty ideology. In fact, it’s human and much more natural. But the political commentariat (professional and amateur) gets too lost in assuming that large blocs of middle class voters are acting on some set of hallowed first principles. Much more likely is a combination of a) what’s in it for me? and b) who looks/sounds better on TV?

    I think the American voter is more sophisticated than that. They are not immersed in this to the point that we are because they all have lives of their own and they all have desires beyond keeping up with what happens on a daily basis politically. They know this: they don’t want DC ruining their healthcare but they don’t want DC tinkering with Social Security either. They don’t mind free trade, but they don’t want to see their neighbors lose that factory job they have.

    • #6
    • January 22, 2016, at 12:54 PM PDT
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  7. James Madison Member

    Would they look like this?

    Conservative Map1

    • #7
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:06 PM PDT
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  8. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds Post author

    James Madison:Would they look like this?

    Conservative Map1

    No I think you would want to move your Non-Ideological circle between Minimal and Safety Net Government. I think you have them too close to Interventionist Government, at least as they would define it. The key to this is to not look at them through your eyes. Trust me, I am probably a “go back to the 1788 Constitution” Conservative, but I realize that the voters referenced by French and Trende are nowhere near that, but yet they would still consider themselves Conservative.

    • #8
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:17 PM PDT
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  9. James Madison Member

    So they are New Deal Conservatives.

    • Cut spending, but not my social security or most government spending.
    • Strong, robust defense, no boots on the ground.
    • End corporate welfare, but keep trade restrictions, minimize immigration and maintain ethanol and farm subsidies, And
    • Limit judicial activism, but allow intervention to restrict abortion?

    Does this work?

    • #9
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:30 PM PDT
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  10. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds Post author

    James Madison:So they are New Deal Conservatives.

    • Cut spending, but not my social security or most government spending.
    • Strong, robust defense, no boots on the ground.
    • End corporate welfare, but keep trade restrictions, minimize immigration and maintain ethanol and farm subsidies, And
    • Limit judicial activism, but allow intervention to restrict abortion?

    Does this work?

    I think you are on the right track. I think they would actually be for cutting spending on most government, but as you and I know it is entitlements that need to be looked at and they won’t touch it. They would be for boots on the ground if the US was under threat AND if there was a sense that we were in it to win it and not conduct warfare so as to not offend anyone. They are for corporate welfare in so far as it directly benefits them–like in French’s piece, they are fine with tax breaks to Honda if they are going to open a plant in their neighborhood, but don’t bail out Lehman. And to the extent that they would do anything regarding abortion, they would do it on the state level. They don’t care so much that state legislatures have various restrictions on abortion. They also don’t want to see bakers being sued for not participating in homosexual marriages, but they don’t care if homosexuals marry.

    • #10
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:36 PM PDT
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  11. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Great stuff, Robert. This deserves promotion to the main feed.

    • #11
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:37 PM PDT
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  12. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds Post author

    Actually they probably don’t care who is on the Supreme Court or any court as they never view themselves as being effected by what comes out of there.

    • #12
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:37 PM PDT
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  13. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds Post author

    Jamie Lockett:Great stuff, Robert.

    Thanks Jamie, that means a lot coming from you given our history.

    • #13
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:38 PM PDT
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  14. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Robert McReynolds:

    Jamie Lockett:Great stuff, Robert.

    Thanks Jamie, that means a lot coming from you given our history.

    Hey, a stopped clock can be right twice a day ;)

    • #14
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:41 PM PDT
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  15. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds Post author

    Jamie Lockett:

    Robert McReynolds:

    Jamie Lockett:Great stuff, Robert.

    Thanks Jamie, that means a lot coming from you given our history.

    Hey, a stopped clock can be right twice a day ;)

    I’m not stopped. I am just a bit ahead of the time you are set to.

    • #15
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:44 PM PDT
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  16. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    I thought conservatives were all about the past?

    • #16
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:45 PM PDT
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  17. Mendel Member

    Robert McReynolds:

    Mendel:Much more likely is a combination of a) what’s in it for me? and b) who looks/sounds better on TV?

    I think the American voter is more sophisticated than that.

    I’ll grant that last sentence of mine was a cheap shot.

    But I would still argue that most voters’ ideologies are neither well-thought out nor particularly consistent; I would also argue that most voters aren’t even aware of what drives their votes.

    And frankly, I think that’s a very normal human condition. As I said in the other thread today, even the authors at NR probably let emotion subconsciously drive much of their opinions. And our Constitution was written with the notion that most citizens would probably vote for their own parochial interests first.

    • #17
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:47 PM PDT
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  18. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds Post author

    Mendel:

    Robert McReynolds:

    Mendel:Much more likely is a combination of a) what’s in it for me? and b) who looks/sounds better on TV?

    I think the American voter is more sophisticated than that.

    I’ll grant that last sentence of mine was a cheap shot.

    But I would still argue that most voters’ ideologies are neither well-thought out nor particularly consistent; I would also argue that most voters aren’t even aware of what drives their votes.

    And frankly, I think that’s a very normal human condition. As I said in the other thread today, even the authors at NR probably let emotion subconsciously drive much of their opinions. And our Constitution was written with the notion that most citizens would probably vote for their own parochial interests first.

    On that I would agree. I like to say that the voters are schizophrenic when it comes to politics. I think French and Trende prove that.

    • #18
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:51 PM PDT
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  19. James Madison Member

    Robert, thanks for the response in #10.

    Interesting. New Deal Conservatives….

    • #19
    • January 22, 2016, at 1:51 PM PDT
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  20. Mendel Member

    Robert McReynolds:And, to further drive this point home take a look at the map Trende provides marking where the voter turnout dropped in 2012 compared to 2008 (the bluer the area, the bigger the drop) and where French says Trump’s support is coming from:…

    I find this interesting: so the prototypical Trump supporter apparently voted for McCain but not for Romney. But why?

    Politically and ideologically, McCain and Romney were nearly indistinguishable: squishy moderates who liked bipartisan compromises but were quite hawkish on foreign policy. So why would these putative Trump supporters get off their duff for one but not the other?

    There are certainly numerous explanations, but I suspect the most likely is yet again: temperament. Whatever his other faults or background, McCain certainly came off as a much scrappier, everyman-type than the erudite Romney.

    • #20
    • January 22, 2016, at 2:10 PM PDT
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  21. Red Fish, Blue Fish Inactive

    Robert McReynolds: Trust me, I am probably a “go back to the 1788 Constitution” Conservative, but I realize that the voters referenced by French and Trende are nowhere near that, but yet they would still consider themselves Conservative.

    Great post Robert. I see myself this way (the 1788 Constitution type) as well and agree with your analysis. I said this in another post somewhere, but worth repeating here. Trump drives me nuts, but I have learned more from him than any other politician in the past decade. I have begun to shift my understanding of who the people are who consider themselves “conservative” and like the original post, I think that group is more like multiple groups.

    I am old enough to have voted in the Perot elections. So I remember the wedge he was creating first hand. It’s strikingly similar to Trump’s appeal. By the way, Perot had a massive ego too. People liked it.

    One of the things I am struggling with is understanding whether the type of conservatism I like is at all electorally possible without hitching to the Perot/Trump supporters. I am leaning towards thinking that we need them or the math just won’t work.

    • #21
    • January 22, 2016, at 2:15 PM PDT
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  22. Sabrdance Member

    1.) As I tell my students, American voters are ideologically non-ideological. Drives me nuts. But no, they do not think in terms of size of government or abstract rights and freedoms -they think in terms of “what does this mean for me.” Hence, they don’t really care about abortion -they consider “if you don’t want one, don’t have one” to be a sophisticated position, but they don’t want to be forced into it, and they don’t want to be forced to look at it or think about it. Repeat this analysis on a thousand policy topics.

    2.) Populist strikes me as a fair description of this, but I’m perhaps more solicitous of populism than you, nor do I think populists don’t have the good of the country in mind -it’s just that they think of the good of the country and their own personal good as intrinsically linked.

    3.) McCain was the great screw-up. I’m thinking about a post on this. McCain came from the populists, though he was not one himself. He plucked from their number Sarah Palin. He was an opportunity to speak to these people about how the GOP would continue to protect a world for them, and that conservative policies would help them. It was blown entirely by McCain’s erraticness and failure to properly prepare Palin. No wonder they want revenge.

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    • January 22, 2016, at 2:56 PM PDT
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  23. James Madison Member

    Red Fish, Blue Fish: Great post Robert. I see myself this way (the 1788 Constitution type) as well and agree with your analysis.

    Too bad you guys missed the Bill of Rights! They did not pass until 1791.

    • #23
    • January 22, 2016, at 4:33 PM PDT
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  24. James Madison Member

    Sabrdance: As I tell my students, American voters are ideologically non-ideological.

    Very keen observation. As are your other comments above.

    • #24
    • January 22, 2016, at 4:34 PM PDT
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  25. Mendel Member

    James Madison:So they are New Deal Conservatives.

    My understanding (which may well be wrong) is that WFB’s and National Review’s brand of conservatism was initially a counterweight to Eisenhower’s style of big government Republicanism, which would seem to be the prototype of “New Deal Conservative”.

    I find it interesting that Eisenhower was an absolute electoral powerhouse, while the prototypical WFB candidate (Goldwater) suffered one of the worst defeats in history.

    And while we can always point to Reagan as the big success story of WFB conservatism, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case – he talked a great game and hit it out of the park where all sides were united (i.e. against Communism), but in fiscal policy Reagan did nearly nothing to upset the New Deal.

    In other words, perhaps New Deal conservatives have actually comprised the majority of the right-of-center sector of the electorate since WWII up to today?

    • #25
    • January 22, 2016, at 4:40 PM PDT
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  26. James Madison Member

    Sabrdance: But no, they do not think in terms of size of government or abstract rights and freedoms -they think in terms of “what does this mean for me.”

    Here is a case in point: one of my college students told me, he was really, really liberal – like Bernie liberal. Hillary was too mainstream. Then he said, “But I would vote for Kasich over Sanders.”

    Huh? Their impressions are very interesting. His relative positioning of Kasich was that of a more acceptable person and further left than Hillary and preferable to his really, really liberal candidate Bernie. Sorry. Kasich is kind of conservative too – maybe a compassionate one, but conservative with serious bona fides. Kasich has done more to balance federal budgets, address defense, and actually run things for a rather large state than any other candidate. He and Gingrich worked arm and arm.

    Cruz, the one true conservative, served not quite 2 years in the Senate and made enemies far and wide. He can’t work with anyone. His positions are clever revisions of what he said. Yet, the populist Anti-Establishment is sure, just like my college student is sure, that Cruz is the one true whatever.

    Draw that chart for me.

    • #26
    • January 22, 2016, at 4:44 PM PDT
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  27. James Madison Member

    Mendel: Eisenhower’s style of big government Republicanism

    Is this true? Was Eisenhower big government?

    Is this due to the Interstate Highway Program?

    Reticence over defense spending?

    Space exploration spending?

    • #27
    • January 22, 2016, at 4:48 PM PDT
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  28. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds Post author

    James Madison:

    Mendel: Eisenhower’s style of big government Republicanism

    Is this true? Was Eisenhower big government?

    Is this due to the Interstate Highway Program?

    Reticence over defense spending?

    Space exploration spending?

    No, it is my understanding that he solidified the drastic changes accomplished by the New Deal era. The massive intrusion by the government at the federal level was supposed to be dismantled under Ike’s White House coupled with a Republican Congress (gee that sounds familiar), but instead it was basically entrenched forever by the continued funding most of it received. This is what prompted WFB to start National Review because he did not think Conservatism was being well represented by elected officials and there was nowhere else to turn in the media. This also gave rise to the Birchers’ insistence that Ike was a closet Communist, causing WFB to write them out of the movement and Kirk to quip that Ike wasn’t a Commie, he was a golfer.

    • #28
    • January 23, 2016, at 8:52 AM PDT
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  29. Emerson Member

    I’m enjoying the post and the comments, but I do have one quibble. Those maps do not have a lot of overlap.

    -E

    • #29
    • January 28, 2016, at 7:02 AM PDT
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  30. I Walton Member

    Let’s not confuse history, the history of ideas, constitutional history, the constitution, Federalist papers, the actual ideas on paper with the organic process of society. The former helps us shape laws and institutions so that the latter can flourish. We inherit ideas through a long organic Darwinian process of success and failure. Some things work some don’t. What we inherited and put in place was a particular combination of neoclassical liberalism with a limited decentralized government. When we use the term conservative most of us mean neoclassical liberalism as established by our founders. The term conservative as we use it today doesn’t have ideological content if separated from that history. Even Burke was merely making the argument that we exaggerate our ability to fix things because we don’t understand why habits, institutional, mores etc. evolved, we overestimate our cleverness, and interests warp our reasoning and our actions. That’s not conservatism, it’s just accurate reporting. So if people who support trump want to call themselves conservative, fine, but they do not mean neoclassical liberalism under the rule of law. And when and if they win an election and establish a government it doesn’t change the meaning of that history or of those ideas. We’ve elected a string of governments that call themselves conservative, but they have not embraced the founding ideas and the results have not been felicitous. Looks like we may be doing it again.

    • #30
    • January 28, 2016, at 7:17 AM PDT
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