Don’t Call Me a True Conservative

The issue is not who is conservative, but who is willing to gamble his own power to achieve a result beneficial to everyone. 

In the power struggle between the DC Establishment and grassroots, labeling of the two sides often conceals the battle lines.  Language frames the debate, and I am still not completely comfortable with the labels “establishment” and “grassroots”.  I’m even more uncomfortable with the labels “true conservative” and “RINO”, as they don’t describe at all what the fuss is about.

I am a conservative. Well, I’m really a libertarian. Actually, I’m just interested in pursuing American ideals. I like to do what works. I know people have to get elected to implement their policies.

Did that paragraph make any sense? Each of the sentences was true, on some level, but none of them fully describes me, and I suspect none of them describes you completely either.

We are each amalgams, mixtures of ideologies. We each have a different makeup, a different reading list of foundational literature, a different story to tell. Each of us values adherence to our own ideology — whatever it is — with a different weight. We are each willing compromise on some policies, but not on others.

There are many ways political beliefs can be categorized. The poles we generally use in the US — whether we say left vs right or we say statist vs libertarian — are themselves complex, made up of the summation of myriad policy preferences. Your beliefs, your priorities, and your willingness to compromise on what you do and don’t care about are unique to you, and can change even for you over time. 

There is seldom a binary, yes-or-no answer to any of these questions. It’s almost always a matter of degree. 

We have to expect, therefor, that conservatives are going to differ with others who call themselves “conservative”.  Extending the label with “true conservative” just doubles down on the fact that you’re willing to take on the undefinable label. You may even stray into the No True Scotsman Fallacy, so tempting is it to believe that everyone thinks the way we do.

The label “true conservative” began to be applied when grassroots activists noted that politicians of both parties were campaigning as conservatives, especially in Republican primary elections, but weren’t actually all that conservative when they got into office. Politicians love to campaign as social conservatives in rural areas, for instance, using the power of projection to allow voters to believe they are also fiscal conservatives.

By contrast, the name “RINO” is an acronym for “Republican In Name Only”, and came about describing politicians such as longtime US Senator from Pennsylvania Arlen Specter, who actually changed his party affiliation twice. But quickly the term began to be applied to anyone who strayed from the Republican party line on any issue, and then for any moderate Republican. Ironically,  while still connoting moderate views, it became shorthand for any politician whose positions were based on party loyalty rather than conservative ideology. 

Beware when someone uses the Fallacy of Ambiguity to say that there are two establishments, or to ask what it is that a conservative wants to conserve. Words are just labels for concepts, and such trickery is designed to conceal rather than to enlighten.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)  is a conservative:

Boehner attributed the suspicions to the younger members in the Republican ranks who are not familiar with his voting record in the years before he took the Speaker’s gavel.

“Some of our members don’t realize that while I may be a nice enough guy, and I get along with people, when I was voting I had the 8th most conservative voting record in the House,” he said. “But a lot of our newer members – they don’t know that. And so, you know, they think I’m some squish, that I’m ready to sell them out in a heartbeat, when obviously, most of you in this room know that…”

The Speaker does in fact have a 88% lifetime rating with FreedomWorks and a 90% rating from the American Conservative Union.

The trouble for the Mr. Boehner has come since his election as Speaker in 2011. Before then, his votes — except for a tendency to favor earmarks and his votes for TARP  — were exempliary. Since then, he has led a path of sacrificing principle on the altar of the retention of power.

The vast majority of those in the Republican establishment, like Mr. Boehner, are conservative or libertarian by ideology. None of them is a screaming Marxist. The question is whether they vote their ideology and construct bills around that ideology, or whether they maneuver and connive to give the appearance of favoring their ideology while their true intent is acquiring and retaining political power for themselves.

We’ve all heard, “You have to win to implement your policies.” The trouble is that you’ve never fully won. There’s always the next election, the next poll, the next press conference.  

Do you want to gain power to further your ideology, or do you use your ideology to gain power? Again, it’s a matter of degree.

The distinguishing question between establishment and idealists is whether someone thinks it’s more important to get elected or to represent his ideals. Almost everyone has a set of policy positions they would not change or back away from to get elected. People with a larger number of strongly held such positions are idealists, and people with a smaller number of more weakly held beliefs are establishmentarians. 

The battle is not between “RINOs” and “conservatives”. The battle is over the question of retaining power versus clinging to ideals at all costs. If you argue that you must avoid the conflict to live to fight another day, you are arguing that your own power and position are more valuable than using them to defend what you believe.