Yet a funny thing has happened this primary season. Conservative voters have not followed their conservative leaders. Conservative voters are much more diverse than the image you’d get from conservative officialdom.
The intense reaction against Huckabee in particular seems to show an inability among movement leaders to accommodate the diversity of the political coalition with which they have allied themselves. Dissident conservatives from the right have long complained of the tendency to over-identify the conservative movement and the GOP, and in this election cycle we have seen a continuation of this, albeit somewhat in reverse. The identification between the party and the movement institutions has become so complete that the institutional movement leaders react against candidates in the GOP primaries as if the eventual Republican nominee were the de facto leader of the movement as well. A fairly strict, meaningful definition of conservatism would not be a problem if it were not considered an absolute requirement that every major elected Republican describe himself as a conservative. Currently the GOP voting coalition is arguably much less conservative, by the standards of what that term meant in 1980, than it was just ten years ago, and yet far more Republicans describe themselves with this term than was the case just a decade ago. This does not represent the triumph of conservative principles so much as it represents the dilution of the term’s meaning. The name has become a marker and proof of your right to belong, but it has consequently become much less significant. We are currently experiencing the confusion that inevitably follows the overuse of a term that empties it of all meaning.
Movement leaders have some significant, legitimate objections to the records of Huckabee and McCain, many of which I happen to share, but they have opted to treat them as they have treated rightist dissident conservatives in the past: they do not simply reject this or that policy position for certain reasons, but take the departure from an official line as proof that a person is not just possibly mistaken on policy but must also be excluded from the realm of conservatism all together for raising the question in the first place. At the very least, this response makes a mockery of the pretensions that Republicans and establishment conservatives entertain and value intellectual diversity. Very little creative or valuable thinking can be done if conservatives are constantly made to feel as if any unconventional proposal threatens to dynamite the entire movement and endangers the proposal’s author with exclusion. If the conservative movement is not going to be an appendage of the GOP in the future, its leaders will need to recognise that the outcome of the Republican nomination contest does not have to define the future of the movement, and that the movement’s support for a given Republican administration is not foreordained or guaranteed. That, in turn, may yield some better results on policu, since it makes it harder for the party to take movement support or acquiescence for granted.
If conservatives allow their priorities to be dictated by transient political needs of the GOP, they will find themselves increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of their movement and will also find themselves incapable of having an independent voice that will have credibility when it speaks out against Republican follies and failures. Without that independence, they will find themselves, as they do today, complicit in the errors of the party and unable to do much about them. This independence from the party cannot simply be rhetorical or a scapegoating tactic when things go wrong, but must be a consistent strategy of keeping a healthy distance from a party organisation that may have common goals in certain cases but which has its own interests that do not always align with those of conservatives. If conservatives took that path, there would be much less anxiety every four years about the dangers of “redefining conservatism” for political ends. An important step in the direction of independence would be the decentralisation of conservative movement institutions away from Washington and the East Coast. As with every kind of decentralist approach, this would make conservative institutions better aware of different conditions around the country, it would reintroduce them to local and regional perspectives and would remove them to some degree from the proximity to and influence from party leadership. Perhaps most importantly, instead of developing think tanks and institutes focused on national policy there would be a greater focus on local and regional concerns, which would of necessity eschew the sort of homogenised, uniform responses on matters of policy, and it would allow the kind of flexibility and ability to challenge assumptions. This decentralisation of the movement would then also give the movement greater incentives to pursue and defend actual political and economic decentralisation, so that they would have a practical reason to advocate devolution of power back to states and localities. When movement institutions have no concrete interest in devolution and localism, they will tend towards acquiescing in centralist policies that are ostensibly pursued for “conservative ends,” but which everything we know about consolidated power tells us will not achieve those ends and will actively subvert the natural affinities and remaining local institutions that are actually much more fundamental to realising those “conservative ends.”