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.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    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.

    The problem is that the conservative primary candidates say “Vote for me.  I’m a conservative and my opponent isn’t.”  They put all of the selling efforts into proving that they are conservative, instead of selling conservatism itself.

    It would be better just to be a conservative and sell the benefits.  Reagan never felt the need to prove he was conservative.

    It’s true the electorate isn’t very conservative, but I think we should assume they are willing to listen.

    • #61
  2. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    accidental double post

    • #62
  3. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Robert McReynolds: …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.

    That’s not far off the original American Populist movement, however, which sought free silver, for instance, because it would be beneficial to the farmers…

    • #63
  4. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    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?

    […..]

    We can only vote for whoever is running.

    1992: Bush, Buchanan, David Duke, “comedian Pat Paulsen”, Harold Stassen, “retired engineer Jack Fellure”. And Perot as a 3rd party.

    1996:Dole, Buchanan, Alexander, Forbes, Dornan, Gramm, Keyes, Lugar, Specter, Pete Wilson.

    2000: Bush, McCain, Keyes, Forbes, Bauer, Hatch, Buchanan, Alexander, Kasich, Dole (Liz), Quayle.

    2008: McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee, Paul, Romney, Keyes, Thompson, Hunter.

    2012: Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul, Perry, Huntsman, Bachmann, Cain, Johnson.

    Of the core conservatives there I don’t see any salesmen or people known for their popularity. Of the others, well, if one of them had been a good salesman then they may have had a chance to overcome the next in line campaign of Dole or the inertia and safety campaign of Bush or the straight talkin campaign of McCain or the wrong man/wrong time campaign of Romney. Plenty of these people might have made a decent president, but none of them have what the Republican electorate has been hungering for. Bush, at least, gave us two wins….. and a lot of weight tied around our necks. I’m just not sure there’s much the electorate could do about these unappealing slates.

    • #64
  5. Freesmith Inactive
    Freesmith
    @Freesmith

    We’re called American nationalists. Talk to us with that understanding and you’ll do fine. Appear to have an agenda at odds with this nation’s and you’ll turn us off – or make us oppose you.

    • #65
  6. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Freesmith – the problem is that what you define as at odds with this nation and what the your opponents do is not always aligned.

    • #66
  7. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Ed G.:1992: Bush, Buchanan, David Duke, “comedian Pat Paulsen”, Harold Stassen, “retired engineer Jack Fellure”. And Perot as a 3rd party.

    1996:Dole, Buchanan, Alexander, Forbes, Dornan, Gramm, Keyes, Lugar, Specter, Pete Wilson.

    2000: Bush, McCain, Keyes, Forbes, Bauer, Hatch, Buchanan, Alexander, Kasich, Dole (Liz), Quayle.

    2008: McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee, Paul, Romney, Keyes, Thompson, Hunter.

    2012: Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul, Perry, Huntsman, Bachmann, Cain, Johnson.

    Of the core conservatives there I don’t see any salesmen or people known for their popularity.

    I think this is only part of the problem. The other part of the problem is that the pitch of the salesman does not match the product being pitched. In 2000 and 2002 the pitch was Conservatism and limited government, but the product sold was expansion of Medicare and No Child Left Behind, among other non GWOT related expenditures. So aside from there not being a good pitchman, we also had the added problem of hiring snake oil salesmen to be our standard bearer.

    Since the post-war era, the US has had two committed salesmen of Conservatism, one of them winning. Since then there has not been one whose sales pitch and product matched. Over time this has served to define in the heads of the People what “Conservatism” means when spoken of by the Political class. I think it is this that has caused the definition to be shifted, as explained in my piece.

    • #67
  8. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Robert McReynolds:

    Ed G.:[…..]

    I think this is only part of the problem. The other part of the problem is that the pitch of the salesman does not match the product being pitched. […..]

    Agreed. I was just responding to Mendel’s point that the voters selected these poor candidates. That’s true, but I think it has more to do with the menu we’ve been given than with making poor selections from that menu.

    It’s like when it’s 9:30pm and you have a taste for….. something. So you have a candy bar. Nah, that wasn’t it. How about a handful of salted peanuts? Nah, that’s not it either. Later that night in bed the realization strikes: salted caramel! Mmmmm. Should I get up to have it right this second, or should I wait until normal hours like a sane person.

    Except that in this case we know what we’ve wanted all along; it’s just that nothing that’s been available has really satisfied the crave.

    • #68
  9. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Ed G.:

    Robert McReynolds:

    Ed G.:[…..]

    I think this is only part of the problem. The other part of the problem is that the pitch of the salesman does not match the product being pitched. […..]

    Agreed. I was just responding to Mendel’s point that the voters selected these poor candidates. That’s true, but I think it has more to do with the menu we’ve been given than with making poor selections from that menu.

    It’s like when it’s 9:30pm and you have a taste for….. something. So you have a candy bar. Nah, that wasn’t it. How about a handful of salted peanuts? Nah, that’s not it either. Later that night in bed the realization strikes: salted caramel! Mmmmm. Should I get up to have it right this second, or should I wait until normal hours like a sane person.

    Except that in this case we know what we’ve wanted all along; it’s just that nothing that’s been available has really satisfied the crave.

    Yes but what do you do when you find out that the people offering you the candy bar and the peanuts were actually withholding from you the breakfast burrito? You’d be pretty upset when you found out. I think that is the sentiment of the French/Trende voters here.

    I think that the ideas of Conservatism have never been faithfully sold to the people and thus the people have been left with, well, peanuts.

    • #69
  10. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Ed G.: Agreed. I was just responding to Mendel’s point that the voters selected these poor candidates. That’s true, but I think it has more to do with the menu we’ve been given than with making poor selections from that menu.

    I think I’d add that usually the more experienced candidates tend to be about one generation behind where the party is when they run.  Bob Dole was probably perfectly adequate in 1976, but not so much in 1996.  Part of this is because the party itself changes.  The Heritage Foundation at one point supported an individual mandate on health care but it’s not longer considered a conservative position and it no longer does.

    The funny thing is that the politicians get held accountable for changing their positions and the voters do not.  “But I cast the vote you wanted me to cast at the time of the vote” is not a winning argument, but it’s sometimes completely true.

    • #70
  11. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    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.

    I think one of the key aspects of conservatism is an appreciation for human nature. We realize as David Mamet puts it so well that everyone wants to get ahead and get along, and that the tension between these two desires drives much of what we do. The conservative vision of government is to create a constructive channel for this conflict to keep it from devolving into chaos. Doing this actually requires that we embrace a certain level of “getting along”. There needs to be give in the system or it will become fragile and collapse. The great sin of the Democrats is that they are slowly removing any avenue of decent from the popular culture. This will lead to conflict. Trump is that conflict, but meeting rigid dogmatism with opposing rigid dogmatism is not a restoration of the flexible system of positively channeling human nature.

    • #71
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.