The ongoing debate in the comments of this post has spurred me to make a few points that I think have tended to get lost in much of the post-election quarreling and recriminations on the right. One of the remarkable things about the Gallup poll I was commenting on in the initial post was the GOP’s remarkable ability to retain conservative identification with the party. Rather, I should say that this is conservatives’ remarkable ability to continue to identify with a party that they simultaneously claim represents them less and less. This continuing identification with the party has happened despite what most long-time conservative critics of the party would insist is its failure to practice the sort of principled conservatism that most conservatives say that they want. Populist and dissident conservatives have raised objections for years, indeed decades, that the party has never governed as they would wish it to, but over time the label conservative, emptied of meaning as it has become, has increasingly become a more common label for reliable Republican voters to apply to themselves. The two identities have become harder and harder to extricate from one another, and the insistence from mainstream conservatives that it was the GOP that failed them, and they were more or less blameless, has become ever more difficult for a skeptic to accept.

It is not the case, on the whole, that these reliable Republican voters who call themselves conservatives have come around to adopting a strict version of the principled conservatism that either marginal critics or mainstream conservatives have in mind, but rather that the label has become a marker of belonging and evidence of one’s good sense as defined inside the movement and party. In other words, it has become a word on the right, like the word diversity in other contexts, that people use to show that they are bien-pensant people. Indeed, the less meaningful the label is, the better it is to accommodate all those voters whose actual views, or rather inclinations, on policy may have little in common with those of the activists. To some extent, even the populists and dissidents are stuck inside this framework, and we have tended to spend a great deal of time in emphasizing our claim to be more consistent or principled conservatives while pointing out how much of what passes conventionally for conservatism has gone awry. Those arguments have their place, they have been vindicated on more than a few fronts, and I’m sure that we’ll keep making them in the future, but here I’d like to do something different. It would be useful to remind ourselves and also to demonstrate that we understand that most of the public sees all of this very differently.

Ironically, the political center of the GOP is significantly farther to the left today than it was thirty years ago, in keeping with general shifts in popular opinion and cultural changes, but there are far more people inside the party who claim to be conservatives than was the case just 12 years ago. This has created the bizarre disconnect between those inside and those outside the party, as those inside see accurately that there has been no “move to the right” by the GOP in the last decade (on the contrary, there has been a move in the opposite direction), but those outside see for the most part the strong identification between Republicans and conservatives, and the largely unflinching support the latter give to the party in good times and bad, and they conclude that the GOP is conservative and becoming more so all the time. This perception will tend to be strongest among the least informed and therefore least ideological voters, and it will not matter that this perception is based in a manipulative electoral strategy that has little policy substance behind it (see Palin, Sarah). They then look at the outcomes of Republican governance, which marginal critics have been correctly lambasting for years or decades as un-conservative or even anti-conservative by more traditional defintions, and conclude that all these people running around calling themselves conservatives should not be trusted with power.

If they hear conservative complaints after an election to the effect of, “the country rejected Republicans, not conservatism,” these less ideological voters likely put this down to scapegoating and buck-passing. Even when it is true, for example, that the Republicans eventually lost the country because they failed to heed conservative wisdom (e.g., by abandoning prudence, restraint and caution and invading Iraq to the detriment of the national interest), it is very difficult for those outside the party to credit the idea that the antiwar conservative represents Real Conservatism, not least because most people who call themselves conservatives even now back the war and believe it was the right thing to do. They may be more likely to conclude, along with Bill Kauffman (subscribers only), that “for half a century, “conservative” has been a synonym for–a slave to–militarism, profligacy, the invasion of other nations, contempt for personal liberties and an ignorance of and hostility toward provincial America that is Philip Rothian in its scope.” The dissident conservative naturally wants to say that all of this is an abuse and perversion of the meaning of the word, and it is, but I think it is fair to say that most people are not going to investigate things that deeply. Why would they? It is not their responsibility to discover how the word has been abused–it is up to conservatives to stop embracing policies that encourage the distortion and abuse.

A non-ideological voter might wonder why self-styled conservatives remain more loyal to the Republican Party than practically any other group in the country if it is as lacking in conservatism as they claim it to be. The conservatives have plenty of answers: they have no other viable political vehicle, it is better than the alternative, etc., but this is the language of the relatively engaged and politically active person, and it does not carry that much weight with those who do not use it regularly. (The entire “lesser of two evils” argument usually assumes a fairly extensive knowledge of both parties’ platforms, records and proposals, all of which non-ideological voters tend not to have.) What this means in practice is that non-ideological voters and “weak” (i.e., not reliably attached) Republicans, who also tend to be “moderates,” drift away from the GOP as policy failures and adverse conditions mount, and these voters associate the party they are rejecting with the conservatives who cling to the wreckage. This creates a condition in which self-styled conservatives become an even larger percentage of the party’s membership, which in turns makes claims about the party’s insufficient conservatism even harder for outsiders to take despite being true on many, if not most, issues in practice. Non-ideological voters would normally be skeptical if they were told that conservatism had nothing to do with Republican woes, but when the overwhelming majority of conservatives backed a failed President and many of his most unpopular policies to the bitter end they are bound to be incredulous when they are told that the solution that conservatives are offering is some vague “return to principles” (which usually turns out to mean taking positions on fiscal and economic policy with which even many Republican voters are not necessarily all that sympathetic–see the Fabrizio survey for details). As a result, they unlikely to be inclined to support the conservatives’ preferred party, and they are very likely to link the word conservative to all of the things that the last administration did. This is a misunderstanding that needs to be corrected, but the far more important thing that needs correction is the conservative movement itself. If the word is not going to be tied to any of the things that Kauffman mentioned, the bulk of those who call themselves conservatives will have to stop endorsing policies and rhetoric that reinforce those associations. In other words, they will have to start acting like conservatives, rather than simply calling themselves that. None of this necessarily promises to bring about a political revival for the Republican Party, which may be a long time in coming, but at this stage the restoration of the credibility of most conservatives is more pressing and more important.