Most voters do not think in philosophical terms. This is not to say they don’t have political philosophies. It’s just that they arrive at their politics—first and foremost—according to which politicians they like most.
This phenomenon is perhaps easiest to observe at the moment in Obama Democrats, who’ve seen so many liberal policy promises ignored or rejected now that their guy has become president. If the Left once hated the Patriot Act and our Middle East wars with a passion, under Obama that hatred and passion has evaporated as quickly as the antiwar movement. What liberals really despised was George W. Bush. Now that a Democrat continues with the same policies, the Left magically doesn’t find them so terrible anymore.
Sarah Palin is the new George W. Bush. This is not to insult the former Alaska governor, only to note that Palin has replaced the former president as a focus of Left hatred. Just ask the average liberal their opinion of Palin. The venom spewed in your direction won’t have much to do with any particular policies, it will instead be an immediate and emotional rejection of her very person, combined with some snarky tidbits about her accent or intelligence.
Palin is adored by conservatives for the same—if extreme opposite—personality-driven reasons. Ask the average conservative what they like about Palin and you will hear very little if anything about policy or philosophy. You will hear is that she’s a good mother. You will hear that she’s all-American. Maybe they’ll mention that she’s a good hunter.
Much like Obama Democrats and their hero—conservatives love Palin first and foremost because they recognize her as one of their own. Palin is the purest example of what I like to call “identity conservatism” in that “who” she is—a self-identified and widely recognized conservative—is far more important than “what” she believes specifically.
The best current opposite example of Palin on the Right is Ron Paul. Ask the average Paul fanatic what they like about him and all you will hear nothing but specific policies: “Follow the Constitution!” “End the Fed!” “End the War!” Paul is the purest example of what I like to call “philosophical conservatism” in that what he believes—strict adherence to limited government and Constitutional principles—is more important to him and his followers than how his party perceives him. In fact, the problems Paul has had with Republican voters at the national level have always been to what extent identity conservatives have welcomed him as one of their own.
And the party today is now far more welcoming. If the philosophically-based Paul never changes his positions, the Republican Party that surrounds him now shifts due precisely to the current conservative identity crisis. The pro-war rhetoric conservatives loved Bush for, and John McCain led with in the last election, now firmly belongs to President Obama. Some conservatives decided this meant they should try to talk more “tough” and portray Obama as “weak.” No doubt this has worked for some. But far more dominant is this narrative: Faced with a $14 trillion dollar debt, a highly questionable decade-long war in Afghanistan and a demonstrably stupid war in Libya—can we continue with our current foreign policy status quo?
Conservatives now ask this question regularly and it’s become especially pertinent amongst the majority of 2012 Republican presidential candidates. When I noted this GOP shift towards Paul’s politics in my last commentary (“Ron Paul Won the Debate”) more than a few Paul admirers were quick to say that this shift wasn’t truly philosophical, but opportunistic. They’re right. But their first mistake is to assume that most Republican voters—or any voters for that matter—are primarily philosophical in their politics. They’re not, they never have been, and they likely never will be.
It is a fact of politics, however frustrating or unfortunate, that most voters and candidates in both parties are driven by identity first. If Paul supporters are characteristically dismissive of a Michele Bachmann because she supports the Patriot Act or a Herman Cain because he worked for the Fed—the vast majority of voters are looking first at who to “like” or who “seems presidential.” To such voters the individual policies of the candidates are indeed important—but typically not as important as the overall package. In fact, most of these conservatives like Paul’s individual limited government policies—it’s the strident philosophical package that sometimes troubles them. Likewise, most conservatives never bother to examine Palin’s individual policies too closely because they are already madly in love with the package.
This is not to say that identity voters are dumb. In fact they simply behave the way most voters—and indeed most people—behave. Ask yourself this: How many of your family members or friends begin political discussions with a substantive examination of policies? Now ask this: How many start political discussions first with the personalities involved, who they “like,” who seems “weird,” who is a “nut” and who is not? Are these family members and friends necessarily “dumb”—or merely human? Most people, in their personal and public relationships, look for other people they think they can trust and then generally give them the benefit of the doubt. Also very few normal people let politics dictate their daily lives—something so many hardcore politicos (including this writer) often forget.
Few voters are driven purely by identity and few are driven purely by philosophy, but in politics the former will always outweigh the latter. Likewise, philosophical candidates can also become identity candidates or vice versa: Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were philosophers who eventually personified conservative identity. Palin, along with her party, now reexamines her own conservative identity as it relates to foreign policy. Said Palin this month of Afghanistan’s president: “If President Karzai continues with these public ultimatums, we must consider our options about the immediate future of U.S. troops in his country… (including) the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the suspension of U.S. aid.”
Needless to say, Palin’s old running mate McCain does not agree with this consideration.
It is highly improbable that the masses will one day become purely philosophical in their politics. But to encourage Republican voters to finally identify more closely with true philosophical conservatism is more than just possible—it’s happening. To what degree is still in question. To what end no one can currently answer. But a truly savvy minority of philosophical conservatives certainly wouldn’t discourage mainstream Republicans who begin to question the status quo—much less dismiss them when they finally give the Right answers, however impure or opportunistic they may be.
Philosophical conservatives shouldn’t just mock the Right’s current identity crisis—they should be trying to commandeer and command it.