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How Does a Traditionalist Vote?

An intelligent conservative's guide to the presidential election

I’ve said on Facebook that I’m tempted to cut out the middleman this November and write in a vote for Goldman Sachs. But if you’re a traditionalist conservative and you want to accept one of the offerings officially on your ballot, which do you choose?

For partisans, this is a no-brainer. For conservatives in the vein of, say, Russell Kirk, it’s anything but. Faced with the non-choice between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey in 1944, Kirk said no to empire and voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate. There was no Fox News to tell him a conservative couldn’t do that.

For all that Kirk didn’t like libertarians — “chirping sectaries,” he called them — if he were in search of a peace candidate today he might well consider the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson. Or, closer to Norman Thomas, the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

There’s even an anti-empire case — not a strong one, but one outlined by Justin Raimondo here — for Barack Obama. The incumbent is at least incrementally better than his Republican rival on foreign policy. It’s impossible to imagine Romney not having done every bellicose thing that Obama that did in his first term (from ramping up the drone war in Pakistan to participating in the Libya attack), and Romney has promised a great deal more: more brinksmanship with Iran, more baiting of Russian bears and Chinese dragons, more taxpayer dollars for Pentagon pork. For a smaller military budget and the prospect of fewer wars — according to both candidates themselves — a pragmatic anti-empire conservative might lean toward Obama.

A traditionalist who prioritizes the Supreme Court and the possibility of eventually overturning Roe v. Wade will lean the other way. Romney may or may not appoint reliably right-wing justices, but Obama would invariably appoint more justices like Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Just as there’s a chance of less war with Obama, there’s a chance of ending Roe — or moving in that direction — with Romney. Weigh the prospects.

Economically speaking, both major-party candidates are prisoners of outmoded ideologies. Obama, a Keynesian without gusto, has been remarkably short on proposals for reviving the economy: he offers just more of the same. Romney pins his hopes to “growth” stimulated by low taxes and lower interest rates, a recipe that notably failed to cook up a solution to the impending crisis during the Bush years. Where the economy is concerned, Obama has had basically nothing to say, and nothing Romney says can be trusted.

If immigration is your top concern, Romney again is clearly better than Obama, but may not be nearly good enough. For a symbolic restrictionist vote, there’s former Virginia congressman Virgil Goode on the Constitution Party ticket. Goode voted for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act (twice), so he’s no Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul. But he’s certainly a restrictionist’s restrictionist.

Then there’s Gary Johnson, the highest elected official ever to run on the Libertarian Party ticket, a two-term and quite successful governor of New Mexico. He’s a libertarian, not a traditionalist conservative, but he shares a traditionalist’s distaste for Wilsonian wars — though he gets intermittently squishy on humanitarian intervention. If ever the Libertarian Party seemed like a good idea, an experienced government-slashing governor running against the politicians who brought you Romneycare and Obamacare — the guy who promised to “double Guantanamo” and the guy who promised to close it but didn’t — would seem to be worth considering.

None of these contenders is a conservative in the traditionalist’s understanding of the world. Romney is a warhawk who belongs to the class of false conservatives that Robert Nisbet described in Conservatism: Dream and Reality as “Budget-expanding enthusiasts for giant increases in military expenditures,” but he might be antiabortion. Obama is less overtly hawkish but terrible on abortion and religious liberty. Gary Johnson is a libertarian, and Virgil Goode is Tom Tancredo.

There are two meta-considerations for a traditionalist. If Romney wins, he’ll have a Republican House and probably a Democratic Senate, which sounds exactly like the formula that gave us No Child Left Behind in the Bush years. (Once Bush’s party took the Senate, too, we got the Iraq War and Medicare Part D.) Obama would have a Republican House and probably a Democratic Senate, the formula that gave us the sequester and a far cry from the Democratic dominance that gave us the Affordable Care Act. Single-party control of the House and the executive branch has not, historically, been a path to smaller government. If Romney wants conservatives to buy what he’s selling here, he has to convince them of his own kind of “hope” and “change.”

The other thing to keep in mind is the long view: a Republican president means a greater likelihood of Democratic gains the House in 2014. A second Obama term means a good chance of a Republican picking up the White House in 2016, by which time someone much better than Romney might be on the ballot — or perhaps someone much worse. Once more, it’s a question of weighing the probabilities.

Then again, one could always do exactly what Russell Kirk did, and poke both Goldman Sachs and the empire lovers in the eye by writing in Norman Thomas.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative. Follow @ToryAnarchist