Presidential Politics Does Not Define Conservatism
Conservatism should be bigger and broader than the last election
Allow me just to repeat the title of this post: presidential politics does not-and should not-define conservatism. I will confess this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Every cycle many on the right seem to believe the GOP primary and then the general election results define conservatism. Folks are excommunicated for whom they support and the results are cited as proof of the life or death of the movement.
This is neither healthy nor effective. The conservative movement is a complex coalition of people and ideas that seek to impact popular culture, public policy and electoral politics based on its ideals and principles. To take something this complex and diverse and equate it with an election at the highest possible level is to both over-simplify and devalue it.
This it not to say that electoral politics never reflect the relative strength or weakness of this or that political component of conservatism or that election results shouldn’t impact or guide strategy and tactics. The movement and politics are not entirely separate either.
But they are not one in the same and when we conflate the two we make a mistake. Let me offer two examples of how this mindset is unhelpful. The first is in the near constant assertion that nominating moderate candidates (whatever and however you choose to define that) is what is causing Republicans to lose. This mantra is constantly put forward by a significant chunk of the Right. And instant abuse is likely for anyone who disagrees or in any way defends said moderates or offers more nuanced explanations.
The problem is that a presidential election is a complex and multifaceted (not to mention constantly changing) process taking place over the course of months and across the entire country. There are a great many variables that go into an election and ideology, or policy, as the end-all-be-all of winning or losing is simplistic.
It also fails to take into consideration the diversity of opinion as to what constitutes conservatism both within the movement and across the country. The broader movement rarely agrees on concrete policy solutions on a host of issues from foreign policy to economics and social issues. And in many areas historical consensus on what is “conservative” has been equally difficult. Let’s face it conservatives like to argue amongst themselves and always have.
Even if you take for granted some basic consensus on lower taxes, less government, a strong defense, etc. the perception of conservatives and conservatism varies wildly across the country. What is conservative in the Northeast is very different from what is conservative in the South, which is different from what is conservative in the Midwest or in the West.
And yet many continue to argue that if we just nominated a “true conservative” so many of our problems would go away. All the while ignoring that our inability to come to some consensus on just what a true and effective conservative looks like is at the root of what so often prevents the Right from uniting around any single candidate and thus securing the Republican nomination.
And then many continue to act as if nominating a more conservative candidate will bring only benefits and no negatives to the table; or that the net gain is overwhelmingly and obviously positive. The moderates are attacked as if moderation was the sole reason for any loss and that simply replacing squishiness with a spine equals immediate electoral victory.
Conservatives, in my opinion, too often assume that everything is about ideology because that is what they care about. They want to fight about principles because it is cleaner and feels more important. Messy, complex and difficult choices get shoved aside for one more charge at the establishment and their enabling of liberals who betray the party and the nation.
That is not to say there is not some truth to this shtick. Clearly, there are in fact liberals within the party who offer bad policy and political advice; and who lack the courage to do what it is best for the country and so trim their sails to whatever feels safe. And there are staff and institutions who care more about power and money than about ideas and ideals and who undermine the party and its candidates.
But a presidential campaign is not just about this never-ending battle between conservative heroes and establishment traitors; between the base who does the hard work and the moderates who sell them out. And frankly, this narrative prevents useful self-reflection and fresh thinking.
Thanks to a mostly lackluster field, conservatives were unable to come together and rally behind a Republican candidate for president. At the end of the day, Mitt Romney earned the nomination. Some conservatives thought he was the best of a bad bunch, others thought he was the worst, while a great many landed somewhere in between.
Romney’s loss or victory was never going to define the conservative movement’s success or failure. He was neither their standard bearer nor understood as such by the American people. He did not run an ideological campaign nor was the election framed as one.
The Romney campaign assumed the election would be a referendum on President Obama and that simply presenting their candidate as an alternative would be enough to get Americans to fire the president. They were wrong. A majority of Americans, in my opinion, were unhappy with Obama but not willing to replace him with Romney.
I personally believe that Romney’s unique background and flaws as a candidate played a critical role in his loss. He was successfully portrayed a rich jerk who couldn’t possibly understand the lives of middle and working class Americans. Enough white, urban and blue collar voters believed this and failed to turnout, which was a significant factor in losing the swing states that cost Romney the election.
I think this had little to do with his conservatism, or lack of it, or his specific engagement on any particular issues. And I think it unlikely that any of the serious contenders in the GOP nomination battle would have done much better because they would have different, but equally challenging, perception problems. They would have gained some voters and lost others. (This is not to re-litigate the nomination, but to be up front with my opinion)
The larger point is that by making the issue an ideological one conservatives are missing an opportunity to think about their own seeming inability to influence the GOP nomination process, the national public policy debate or even more fundamental issue like culture and the breakdown of the family.
In my opinion, much of the Right is too reactive, too focused on ideology or policy litmus tests, and too unwilling to listen to alternative opinions. And one of the factors in this attitude is a mindset that sees presidential politics, and electoral politics at large, as the defining element of conservatism. That to be a specific type of Conservative Republican is what it means to be conservative and that the movement succeeds or fails based on the last election.
This is not persuasion or communications but line drawing and wish casting.