October 21, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Creating a counter-conservatism

Make more room in the Democratic Party.


Share this article

Yesterday, I said the Republican Party isn’t conservative in the way it defined the term for 50 years. With exceptions, it meant opposition to “state intervention” in the economy, business and civil affairs. These days, however, Republican voters want elected officials to use the power of the state to ensure the superiority of white people. You can call that conservative, too. But that’s not how the GOP defined it. Until very recently, the party at least paid lip-service to political equality.

What about the Democrats? Well, they are more liberal than they have ever been in my lifetime. But the fact remains the party is very big — on account of Donald Trump chasing away people who really did believe in conservatism as defined for half a century, with privilege for private property, private enterprise and individual liberty. Those voters have to go somewhere, even if they call themselves independents. This is one reason the Democrats are now fighting among themselves.

My hope is that by characterizing a kind of counter-conservatism, we can, first of all, see the fuller breadth of human understanding. Second, give conservatives who might still be in thrall to right-wing propaganda a means of seeing there’s room for them in the Democratic Party as long as they commit to equality.

With so much attention paid in recent years to the liberal drift of the Democratic Party, there’s been less attention paid to its conservative character. That might be a blessing. After all, “conservative” as applied to the Democrats is not the same as “conservative” as applied to the Republicans. But because these modes of thinking are different and distinct, there’s an opportunity to redefine what it means to be a Democratic conservative. Or at least what it should mean by centering political equality. If the GOP can define it, why can’t the Democrats?

The following is my attempt to shake the dust off the term as it applies to only three controversial issues. My hope is that by characterizing a kind of counter-conservatism, we can, first of all, see the fuller breadth of human understanding. Second, give conservatives who might still be in thrall to right-wing propaganda a means of seeing there’s room for them in the Democratic Party as long as they commit to equality.

This one’s easier than you think. Lots of Democrats sit on the line between pro-choice and anti-abortion. Joe Biden has said for his entire career he’s personally opposed to it, because he’s a Catholic, but he supports the right of women to control their own bodies. I said the difference is a line, but I think it’s more than a gap. You can oppose abortion but simultaneously oppose state regulation of an individual’s very body. That’s conservative political equality. If you don’t think women ought to have such rights, well, there’s always the fascist party. As for the fetus being a person, any idiot can see a fetus is not a person until it’s born. Then it’s a person entitled to full rights and privileges.

This one’s not as hard as you think either. To a conservative, human beings are inherently evil. Evil people, even when occasionally good, should not be allowed to own serious firepower. The more guns around, the more likely someone’s going to get hurt. Case in point: every single shooting massacre. The government should ban AR-15s and the like. It should compensate owners by buying their guns at fair market prices. The only guns available to private citizens should be for hunting and home defense. As for open and concealed carry, why? We’re not trained peace officers. Let’s not make-believe we are. You can call this “state intervention,” but a conservative who believes in equality as well as the inherent evil of human beings might call this leveling the playing field so that no one has an unfair advantage.

Conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe their religion is the right one. But conservatives who center equality have not been as vocal as they should be about the need to maintain and defend the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The separation between church and state is not for the advancement of secularism, as some conservatives would have you believe. It’s for the advancement of religion itself, yours and everyone else’s. Some historians suggest the establishment clause is how the US became the most religious among industrialized nations. Without the thumb of government on the scales, religions had to compete in the marketplace of religions. For all religions to be equal in the eyes of the state is best for all of them.

I’ll talk about other controversial issues another time. In the meanwhile, why not give it a try? Explain as well as you can how you think a conservative who centers equality might approach a given issue. Or tell me I’m full of it. After all, maybe a conservative who centers equality isn’t conservative. Maybe they’re just liberal!


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Elly on October 21, 2021 at 2:00 pm

    Conservatives do not, by definition, center equality. That’s what makes them conservative. They believe that some form of hierarchy is natural and real and unavoidable. Yes, they may *value* equality, but it cannot be their top priority. If it were, they would be liberals. If a person only cared about abortion and no other issue, and their anti-abortion position kept them from being Democratic, I think your framing of it would be persuasive. But it’s never just that one issue that keeps an anti-abortion person from being a Democrat. As you said, those folks (like Biden!) are already Dems. The guns argument you make– I really doubt gun people could ever view the government buying back their guns as a way to even the playing field, or to value the concept of an even playing field. That idea requires them to understand and acknowledge socially/historically-produced power differentials among people. This (equity instead of just equality) is something they can’t or won’t accept.

    • Avatar photo John Stoehr on October 21, 2021 at 2:27 pm

      Thanks Elly.
      My deep belief in the equality of all people stems from my religious upbringing, which was conservative. Jesus brought God’s love to everyone. He was the way of entering the Kingdom of Heaven. You make great point, and I agree, just to be clear, but there is a way for conservatives to center equality if they choose to center it. Obviously, as you say, most don’t.

      • Avatar photo John Stoehr on October 21, 2021 at 2:39 pm

        I should add the kind of conservatism that won’t center equality is white. Black conservatism still has hierarchies but it’s different. JS

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.