Will the Real Conservatives Please Stand Up? | David Thornton

I like to listen to podcasts, as I’ve mentioned in the past. A few days ago, I was listening to the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast, which a good source for learning about polling and public opinion on the top issues of the day, when they discussed the politics of political identities. 

I’ve also been doing polls for YouGov for years and a frequently recurring question is how I identify politically. The question gives the options “very liberal,” “liberal,” “moderate,” “conservative,” and “very conservative.” For a long time, I simply clicked off “very conservative” and didn’t give it much thought. Since 2016, I’ve had to put more consideration into answering what used to be a simple question.

On the podcast, a listener had written in because he wondered whether his views should be considered “liberal” or “very liberal” for polling purposes. In his view, leftists and socialists wouldn’t fit well into the “very liberal” category because they are far to the left but don’t fit well into the traditional definitions of liberalism, despite what some people on the right think. It’s tempting and easy to view Democrats and the left as monolithic, but as we are seeing in the budget reconciliation battle, they really are not. 

My problem is similar but from an ideologically opposite viewpoint. I still have almost all of the same political viewpoints that I used to have when I easily clicked “very conservative,” but in the intervening years, the connotations that go along with the word have changed. I might not have changed, but the perception of what it means to be a conservative has changed around me. 

Let’s consider what the word “conservative” means politically for Americans. While looking online at definitions, I found a pretty good synopsis of what conservatives believed a decade ago in an Atlantic article from 2012. I don’t agree with all of the author’s 21 points (Woodrow Wilson only needed 14 to describe his Great War peace plan), largely because many are self-contradictory. I mean, how do we reconcile the “belief that America should export its brand of democracy through force of arms” with “the belief that America shouldn’t intervene in the affairs of other nations except to defend ourselves,” non-interventionism in foreign policy,” and “realism in foreign policy?” 

Wikipedia distills the definition down to one sentence, saying, “American conservatism is a broad system of political beliefs in the United States that is characterized by respect for American traditions, support for Judeo-Christian values, economic liberalism, anti-communism and a defense of Western culture,” while also noting that, “The meaning of ‘conservatism’ in the United States has little in common with the way the word is used elsewhere” and that, “what Americans now call conservatism much of the world calls liberalism or neoliberalism.”

Encyclopedia Britannica contributes the one-liner, “political doctrine that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices.”

A really good definition would probably encompass elements of all of these sources. If I were defining American political conservatism, I would distill it down to: 

  • limited government with power concentrated near the local level
  • respect for the Constitution and the rule of law, including the First and Second Amendments
  • strong national security 
  • Judeo-Christian principles and morality, including respect for life
  • free-market capitalism
  • respect for traditions and institutions
  • belief in America as the “shining city on a hill”
  • not given to flighty conspiracy theories or wild political fantasies 

My conundrum is that while I subscribe to these ideals, no political party does. The Republican Party is at best about half conservative these days, but polling shows that a large majority of self-described conservatives in the GOP support Donald Trump for yet another run in 2024. To me, it seems that if conservatives are backing a man as unconservative as Donald Trump when there are plenty of more conservative and electable choices, then the phrase means something different now than what it meant just a few years ago. 

So, when I answer the polling question, I have to wonder what definition of “conservative” is being used. If we’re talking about the traditional, limited government definition of the word, then I’m very conservative. If we’re talking about the new, Trump-centric understanding of conservatism, however, then there really is not an option that is appropriate for me. 

I’m not a liberal, despite what some Trump supporters think. That line of reasoning entails a new definition of liberalism as well, which is basically the idea that “liberal” now means “anyone who doesn’t like Trump.” The FiveThirtyEight listener would probably have plenty to say about that expansion of liberalism as well. 

I’m not a moderate either. I frankly don’t like either party, sometimes for the same reasons and sometimes for different ones, but that doesn’t mean that I land in the No Man’s Land between them when it comes to policy. In reality, my views are more traditionally conservative than the Republican Party’s are today. I’m moderate only in the sense of not being a bomb thrower dedicated to owning the other side. 

So, how should I answer the question? None of the above? 

I think that a big part of the problem is that America is undergoing a political realignment. The old labels no longer fit. The ideological lines have become blurred. 

I don’t think that we’ll stop using the words “liberal” and “conservative,” but I do think that the terms are going to take on new meanings and that the redefining of American political ideologies will outlast Donald Trump. “Conservative” is likely to be synonymous with “Republican,” regardless of the GOP platform.

The populist, big government-from-the-right, unconservative outlook of the GOP is not going to go away. There are simply too many Republican politicos who are waiting to pick up the mantle when Trump leaves the limelight and Republican voters have shown that conservatism is not what they really want.

What we might have to do is coin a new term for those of us who continue to subscribe to the old traditional conservative and Republican beliefs. Some people use the “classical liberal” or “libertarian” labels, but I don’t think that either of these really fits the conservative remainder. 

“Classical liberal” is too easily confused with “liberal” and the word “libertarian” has been ruined by the craziness of the Libertarian Party. In 2016, when the Libertarians had the chance to save the country from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the party’s most memorable stories were Gary Johnson’s “Aleppo moment” and a candidate for party chair stripping on stage at the convention. I’m not sure that serious libertarians can overcome the Libertarian Party’s reputation. 

At any rate, I’m not really fully libertarian anyway, although I do have some libertarian tendencies. I believe that government does have a role in many aspects of modern life, albeit one I prefer to minimize except when necessary, and I don’t believe that all taxation is theft, although again I prefer to minimize it. If that’s not enough to get me drummed out of a Libertarian Party meeting, I also part ways with them on a lot of social issues and drug legalization. 

So, what am I going to put when the political ideology question comes up again on another poll? I guess I’ll keep putting “very conservative” since that’s what I was before the big Republican ideological shift. As I’ve said before, it wasn’t me that changed, it was the party. 

If the pollsters don’t want me skewing the statistics, they should write better questions.

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