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.

There are 71 comments.

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  1. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

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

    -E

    Yes, that was my first thought too. There is, however, overlap in the Rust Belt, Upper Midwest, and some of the Plains states. It looks like the South turned out for Romney (other than Tennessee).

    This pattern corresponds to the Sean Trende analysis: in general, more traditional conservatives turned out for Romney, more Perotesque GOP voters stayed away.

    • #31
  2. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    Great post. IMO, this analysis points out the importance of the three-legged stool. However, it also points out how hard it is to hold together. It came together very naturally in Reagan, and he had the political chops to hold it together.

    Bush 43 came the closest to replicating Reagan’s appeal, but he had multiple stumbles. He would have almost certainly beaten Gore save for the late story about his DUI, which damaged his traditional values credibility and depressed evangelical turnout. Then, his reelect campaign reassembled the coalition, but it leaned heavily on the strong defense/nationalism leg. That leg collapsed when Iraq went awry, followed by the economic leg post-financial crisis: only the revived social conservative leg of Bushism remained.

    While I believe that Trump’s appeal is founded in that eternal desire for a strong “king,” he’s also cleverly melded defense and economic nationalism in a way that addresses the GOP’s perception issues. If he convinces enough social conservatives he’s at least sympathetic–if not repentant–then he’ll continue to be formidable.

    • #32
  3. Lazy_Millennial Inactive
    Lazy_Millennial
    @LazyMillennial

    Fricosis Guy:

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

    -E

    Yes, that was my first thought too. There is, however, overlap in the Rust Belt, Upper Midwest, and some of the Plains states. It looks like the South turned out for Romney (other than Tennessee).

    This pattern corresponds to the Sean Trende analysis: in general, more traditional conservatives turned out for Romney, more Perotesque GOP voters stayed away.

    First off, excellent post Robert.

    As for McCain, don’t forget what was going on in late 2008: the economic meltdown, and two wars. Neither Obama nor McCain had any convincing rhetoric about the meltdown, but McCain was and has always been strong on defense, and had war-hero bona-fides. Romney didn’t face two wars that had been in the news for 7 years daily. I’d guess the Trump/Perot voters valued McCain’s military background.

    • #33
  4. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    We need to figure out how to talk to them.

    Which means that we need to learn how to listen and not characterize widespread complaints about illegal immigration and  free trade negatives as populist claptrap.

    Superb thoughtful post.  Rarely is a fine article improved and deepened by a post.

    Another key difference between Perot/Trump (both tres commas) and Romney (dos commas):   Perot and Trump never speak about the owner of the brew pub,the general contractor or the investor in  dental office franchises  as if they are members of a species apart from the bartender, electrician or  dental hygienist.

    • #34
  5. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

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

    -E

    I think with the exception of Texas, they actually do. Even in areas where Trump’s support is moderate, Trende’s map of turnout decline appears to be pronounced (the “rust belt” states particularly). Keep in mind this isn’t a 1:1 overlap, but the similarities to where Trump’s support is coming from and where voter turnout declined from 08 to 12 are very obvious, again with the exceptions of Texas and the Southeast Atlantic coast.

    • #35
  6. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Mendel:[…..]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.

    I think you’re onto something here Mendel. In political philosophy the great divide seems to be between collectivists and individualists. I’ve come to view conservatism (outside of particular contexts) as “none of  the above” or “all of the above”. I think it’s natural to see the truth in both outlooks even without being particularly learned or even aware of the conflict. I think that’s the genius insight and providential general outlook of our founders.

    The crux is how to respond. I believe the conscious response has been that this isn’t a solvable equation and the best response is to contextualize and constrain as appropriate – i.e. subsidiarity, federalism, checks and balances, constitution. I believe that the unconscious response can resemble this, but at other times it can resemble the “what’s in it for me” approach you mention.

    Of course it never hurts to make the conscious arguments in terms of what’s in it for the voters.

    • #36
  7. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Mendel:[….]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.

    Erudite/timid, tomaytow/tomahhtow.

    • #37
  8. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Robert McReynolds: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…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.

    Yes, I completely agree and have been thinking along these lines myself.  What you and French leave out is the Tea Party.  Those are the Tea Party values.  The Tea Party has taken over the conservatism of National Review.  They are different, though they may overlap.  Ross Perot was a precursor to the Tea Party.

    Excellent post, Robert.

    • #38
  9. Tom Riehl Inactive
    Tom Riehl
    @TrinityWaters

    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”.

    You’re right.  Labels have limited utility as shorthand for complex ideas, and also have a shelf life.

    • #39
  10. Tom Riehl Inactive
    Tom Riehl
    @TrinityWaters

    Robert McReynolds:

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

    -E

    I think with the exception of Texas, they actually do. Even in areas where Trump’s support is moderate, Trende’s map of turnout decline appears to be pronounced (the “rust belt” states particularly). Keep in mind this isn’t a 1:1 overlap, but the similarities to where Trump’s support is coming from and where voter turnout declined from 08 to 12 are very obvious, again with the exceptions of Texas and the Southeast Atlantic coast.

    Wish the maps were constructed and weighted according to population density.  That might help with the comparison, but such maps are wild-looking.

    • #40
  11. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Robert McReynolds: 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.

    I think this is a really sharp observation.  I don’t think people self-identify well and so people don’t communicate well because we use the same terms to mean different things.

    I don’t mean to single any side out on the issue of self-identification either.  We know that “economically conservative and socially liberal” never means libertarian from a politician, even though it is a better fit for many libertarians than it is for senators from Maine.  I think any error by the average voter is more innocent than that.

    • #41
  12. Bruce in Marin Member
    Bruce in Marin
    @BruceinMarin

    Lazy_Millennial:As for McCain, don’t forget what was going on in late 2008: the economic meltdown, and two wars. Neither Obama nor McCain had any convincing rhetoric about the meltdown, but McCain was and has always been strong on defense, and had war-hero bona-fides. Romney didn’t face two wars that had been in the news for 7 years daily. I’d guess the Trump/Perot voters valued McCain’s military background.

    I’d have thought so too, but in that case why weren’t Trump supporters put off by “McCain is not a war hero. I like guys who don’t get captured”?

    • #42
  13. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Great! So the goal is to become the Democratic party of yesteryear. Why should I as a movement conservative then vote for this Republican party? Why not just stay home bemoaning the death of conservatism in the Republican party?

    • #43
  14. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Valiuth: Why not just stay home bemoaning the death of conservatism in the Republican party?

    We can have a wake and remember the good times.

    • #44
  15. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    I don’t think that the term “conservative” is meaningless. I start with the “three-legged stool,” which I think is best expressed in a Venn diagram:

    conservatism-venn-diagram

    This diagram shows the three major axes of political orientation.  Obviously, those in the middle of the diagram — myself included — are the most conservative, as we take the conservative position on all of the major issues. I don’t like the term “true conservatives” to describe this intersection, but I think it’s fair to label this group something like “core conservatives.”

    Presidential candidates should be drawn from this core conservative area, as they need to unite the party and, if outside, they will tend to alienate one (or more) of the major GOP constituencies.  We can, and do, afford more latitude in lesser offices.

    To win elections, the party needs to be able to appeal to voters outside the core .  This is the “big tent” approach.  In the core, we need to be sensitive to the idea that those who agree with us 75-80% of the tie are allies, not enemies.  On this issue Ted Cruz, for example, does less well than I would like.

    On the other hand, those outside the core need to be sensitive to the importance of ensuring that major candidates, especially for President, are in the core.  On this issue non-core conservative allies like Mona Charon, in her post this week, does less well than I would like.

    • #45
  16. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Valiuth: Great! So the goal is to become the Democratic party of yesteryear.

    The economic prudence, patriotism, and reasonable social attitudes of the Democratic Party of JFK are an utterly unattainable political goal of the GOP in 2016 unfortunately.

    • #46
  17. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Robert McReynolds: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.

    So true.  It is ironic that the Republican president that was most successful in getting those votes was interested in Hayek, etc.  He was also a believer in sound money, free markets and free trade.

    Why was Reagan successful?  He had a good product to sell and he knew how to sell it.  It helped that he stood up to the Russians and was vocal about American greatness.

    If we define conservatism the way Reagan did, we don’t need to change it to get those voters.  We need to sell it the way Reagan did.

    • #47
  18. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Speaking of cognitive dissonance among the apolitical, I knew a couple that really loved Ralph Nader and wanted him to be elected President in 2000.

    They also knew that Ralph couldn’t win, and that a vote for him was a vote thrown away.

    So they voted for George W. Bush.

    • #48
  19. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    Arizona Patriot:On this issue non-core conservative allies like Mona Charon, in her post this week, does less well than I would like.

    How is Mona non-core? As far as I can tell she’s pretty full spectrum.

    • #49
  20. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Fricosis Guy:

    Arizona Patriot:On this issue non-core conservative allies like Mona Charon, in her post this week, does less well than I would like.

    How is Mona non-core? As far as I know she’s pretty full spectrum.

    You’re probably right.  I don’t know her position on every issue, but she does seem solidly conservative in general.  The particular post that I linked was an example of a “non-core” argument.

    • #50
  21. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    BastiatJunior:[….]If we define conservatism the way Reagan did, we don’t need to change it to get those voters. We need to sell it the way Reagan did.

    Agreed. Who is doing that? We’ve ignored our customers since the Contract With America. That’s 20 years ago already.

    • #51
  22. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Arizona Patriot:

    Fricosis Guy:

    Arizona Patriot:On this issue non-core conservative allies like Mona Charon, in her post this week, does less well than I would like.

    How is Mona non-core? As far as I know she’s pretty full spectrum.

    You’re probably right. I don’t know her position on every issue, but she does seem solidly conservative in general. The particular post that I linked was an example of a “non-core” argument.

    It’s not that she isn’t a Movement Conservative, it’s that she is advocating a DC perspective to solve our problems. That is something completely different from what this piece is about, at least that is my estimation. There is a battle within Movement Conservatism too, but it has nothing to do with ideology.

    • #52
  23. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Robert McReynolds:

    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.

    You guys should get a room.

    • #53
  24. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    Robert McReynolds:

    Arizona Patriot:

    Fricosis Guy:

    Arizona Patriot:On this issue non-core conservative allies like Mona Charon, in her post this week, does less well than I would like.

    How is Mona non-core? As far as I know she’s pretty full spectrum.

    You’re probably right. I don’t know her position on every issue, but she does seem solidly conservative in general. The particular post that I linked was an example of a “non-core” argument.

    It’s not that she isn’t a Movement Conservative, it’s that she is advocating a DC perspective to solve our problems. That is something completely different from what this piece is about, at least that is my estimation. There is a battle within Movement Conservatism too, but it has nothing to do with ideology.

    Now that I think about it, she’s a bit of an immigration squish.

    • #54
  25. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Glad to see this thread on the Main Feed.

    Some of the more recent comments seem to reflect another mistake in defining conservatism: confusing stridency with ideology.

    Going by the “three legs” definition of conservatism, Trump is much less conservative than many oft-maligned commentators (like Mona Charen) or Congressmen (like Paul Ryan). Yet he portends to stand behind his views 110%, while the latter are always looking for the next opportunity to compromise.

    Being strident has a great value – perhaps even more important than ideology in certain circumstances – but it does not, by itself, make one conservative.

    • #55
  26. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Ed G.:

    BastiatJunior:[….]If we define conservatism the way Reagan did, we don’t need to change it to get those voters. We need to sell it the way Reagan did.

    Agreed. Who is doing that? We’ve ignored our customers since the Contract With America. That’s 20 years ago already.

    That’s just it.  All efforts by elected people to sell conservatism came to a stop on January 20th, 1989.  Having two presidents named Bush didn’t help.

    • #56
  27. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    BastiatJunior: That’s just it. All efforts by elected people to sell conservatism came to a stop on January 20th, 1989. Having two presidents named Bush didn’t help.

    I think it ended with the shutdown of 1995-6.  I think Republicans were surprised that they didn’t get more support for reducing the size of government and I don’t think they have been the same since.  And I think we have only allowed ourselves to lose ground in the last 20 years.

    • #57
  28. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Quinn the Eskimo:

    BastiatJunior: That’s just it. All efforts by elected people to sell conservatism came to a stop on January 20th, 1989. Having two presidents named Bush didn’t help.

    I think it ended with the shutdown of 1995-6. I think Republicans were surprised that they didn’t get more support for reducing the size of government and I don’t think they have been the same since. And I think we have only allowed ourselves to lose ground in the last 20 years.

    I think we can agree it’s been a long time.

    In Gingrich’s time, I though he was a little too squishy.  After seeing the kind if leadership we’ve had since then, I’m beginning to appreciate him more.

    That said, I still won’t forgive him for attacking Romney for being a capitalist.

    • #58
  29. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    BastiatJunior:That’s just it. All efforts by elected people to sell conservatism came to a stop on January 20th, 1989. Having two presidents named Bush didn’t help.

    Which raises the question: why didn’t Republican primary voters nominate candidates who could do a better job selling conservatism?

    As long as the people have the last say in the voter-politician relationship, politicians will cater to the voters, not the other way around. So this discussion will always have to return to the fundamental question of how “conservative” the electorate itself really is.

    And I don’t think the American electorate is particularly conservative, including the portion which regularly votes Republican. This fact alone explains most of why our politicians have disappointed us.

    • #59
  30. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    BastiatJunior:In Gingrich’s time, I though he was a little too squishy. After seeing the kind if leadership we’ve had since then, I’m beginning to appreciate him more.

    That said, I still won’t forgive him for attacking Romney for being a capitalist.

    Ditto on both points.  Erratic. He could alternate between brilliant and foolish so quickly.

    • #60
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