One of my readers, a professional pollster for Democrats, e-mails the following, and allows me to quote it with permission. Here is his take on the word “conservative”:
This used to be a huge problem for the left with people feeling distance from the word “liberal”. Say what you like about whether these terms are actually bijective, but the left spent a long time building “progressive” as an alternative to describe a secular, epistemologically rationalist socially democratic politics. For years there was an interesting split in people who would identify as “progressive”, but not “liberal”, and vice versa. Over time the differences were mostly ironed out so you hear people say things like, “You could call me pretty liberal or progressive, I guess.” The same things have now happened to the words “Republican” and “conservative”. They’ve become *poison*, and nobody wants to associate with them.
I’ve always joked that 90% of “libertarians” were “Republicans who want to smoke pot”, 5% were “Republicans too ashamed to admit it” and the rest of them could actually be libertarians. As for “conservative”, well, you guys have been fighting over that one for years, and the end result of it is that whatever it was that the intention was, the polling and focus group tests show that it’s come to mean “authoritarian”, “hypocritical”, “war happy” and all the other things nobody likes. What’s happened is that the word itself is poison, but more importantly, there’s a disjunction, as you’ve directly experienced, between what the main participants in the movement and the rest of the population want that word to mean. I don’t know what your out is, in that there’s so much invested in that very word, “conservative” that I cannot imagine an alternative being feasible, but it seems like that’s the only path.
You’ve lost the war for “conservative”: what’s next?
Here is The Pollster on politics:
Something happened along the way on your side. You guys were once the masters of the universe when it came to understanding issues and how they related to people’s lived daily lives, and their experience thereof. I think that things started to go south in the Clinton years, where superficial successes with things like “Who killed Vince Foster?” and “What’s on the White House Christmas Card List?” led Republicans to think that motivating a state of perpetual outrage was an actual governing strategy. My take on politics has always been that politics is the social practice of collectively determining how society should be ordered – people are looking for not just particular stances on issues that check off items on a list, but a thematic view of the world into which these issues fit as part of a natural whole. This is what made Clinton so effective as a politician, actually. He was able to tap into broad themes by which people think life should be lived, e.g., “Work hard and play by the rules.”, even though he wasn’t able to get much done as President, and what makes Obama so dangerous to your side. We talk about culture shifts frequently, but the thing to recognise is that for many of us, not only does Obama speak to the root ideas in the new culture, but he very much so embodies them. To me, this is what gives him the possibility of truly being our Reagan. Reagan not only spoke to the grievances and aspirations of the American people, but he was able to embody them in a way that made him truly formidable. A small town boy from Illinois who went to a no-name college, but worked hard his whole life and became a massively successful actor, head of a union and then finally entered politics… These things resonate with people.
I spend all day reading response to survey questions from people, and what’s more devastating to the GOP side is that we keep hearing over and over again, even from Republicans, that nobody knows what the GOP are for. What is the vision of twenty-first century life that this party is offering? How will they accommodate the realities of newly developed and developing nations who are able to compete with their former colonial masters? How can a blue collar guy in Southeast Houston hope to make a living that’ll send his kid to college or trade school? What’s does Rand Paul have to say to a suburban housewife who’s desperate for healthcare, but can’t get insured because she’s had breast cancer before? There are no answers.
It is my sense that this fundamental lack of vision of the good life and the path to get us there is the most devastating thing to Republicans and conservatives today. There’s just no possibility of comparing two visions of the world and choosing whose you’d like to see implemented when one side has nothing. What makes Huntsman, I think, utterly devastating as a general election candidate, as Huckabee would have been in 2008, is that they have these complete visions and are able to articulate them. It’s not just charisma – Huntsman’s about as charming to be around as cold crawfish shells from last night’s boil.