November 16, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

What does ‘conservative’ even mean anymore?

Ronald Reagan wouldn’t recognize today’s GOP. Or would he?

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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One of the lessons I try to instill in my students is the one about meanings of words. They are not fixed. We use them as if they were fixed, of course, because if we didn’t, communication might be damn-well impossible. 

But the meanings of words are not fixed, no matter how practically necessary it is to presume that they are. They change according to who’s using them, when and where they are used, why and how. They change according to intended audiences and intended purposes. 

This is especially true when talking about political orientation. For instance, what makes someone a “conservative”? It used to be an attitude toward government – less of it there was in our lives, the better. But that might have been pretext for another kind, this one preferring a sexist-racist social order to be maintained at all costs. This “conservative” can get what he wants by talking about “limited government” free of the consequences of talking like a sexist-racist.

“‘Conservative’ might describe the party’s position on taxes and some social issues, but it does not capture their orientation towards power, especially after a majority of the conference signed the Texas amicus brief that sought to overturn the results of the 2020 election.” 

The first kind of “conservative” is largely associated with President Ronald Reagan and his rhetoric, which dominated debate for decades. The second kind will probably be associated with Donald Trump and his rhetoric, which will probably dominate debate for years to come. 

The difference is that, under Reagan, these two schools of conservatism could co-exist more or less harmoniously, while under Trump, they can’t at all. Trump is running less a presidential campaign than a vengeance movement that promises to use government to take away the freedoms of anyone who displeases him. There’s nothing “conservative” about that – unless we mean “conservative” in the sense of doing whatever it takes to maintain a sexist-racist social order.

Karyn Amira is a professor of political science at the College of Charleston, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her research specializes in political ideologies. For The Conversation recently, she explained why “conservatives” in the old Reagan mold, such as outgoing US Senator Mitt Romney, can’t operate in today’s “conservative” Republican Party.

JS: “Conservatives” of the kind who are now supportive of Donald Trump used to be satisfied by the status quo until the status quo evolved over time to become broadly multiracial. Principled conservatives, such as Mitt Romney, could probably adapt to those inevitable changes, but not these “conservatives.” Thoughts?

KA: US Senator Mitt Romney, a former governor from a blue state, could probably adapt to some liberal changes we’ve seen in the last decade, particularly social changes. The video of him marching for Black lives in 2020 provides a window into that mentality. 

I cannot say the same for the Trump-style Republicans, many of whom market themselves as fighters against “woke” culture. However, it is possible that some of these lawmakers would adopt more liberal economic positions, even though they would not frame them as such. 

For example, some Republicans during Trump’s presidency spoke out against “Big Tech” companies. This was sometimes due to self-interest about perceived censorship of conservatives. However, interfering with powerful, private organizations – something that is more associated with left-leaning politics – does have a populist-like appeal to it that some Trump Republicans could embrace. 

At one point, former Congressman Madison Cawthorn- a Republican who openly embraced Trumpeven stated that “social media is our generation’s public forum. It ought to be subject to the same protections provided to all public forums. I am calling for First Amendment protections to be applied to this New Town Square.” 

Whether he knew it at the time, this sounds like he is arguing for a private industry to be socialized, which is a leftist position. 

JS: “Conservatives” moved away from the constitution as means of protecting individual liberty from the abuses of the state. They are now using the state, in patchwork cases, to abuse individuals. Conservatives have always played footsie with fascists, but the balance is tipping, no?

KA: There has undoubtedly been a change in the Republican Party’s ideology over the last 10 to 15 years – at least what we can see publicly. 

“Conservative” might describe the party’s position on taxes and some social issues, but it does not capture their orientation towards power, especially after a majority of the conference signed the Texas amicus brief that sought to overturn the results of the 2020 election. 

Those signatures allow us to quantify how many lawmakers are willing – for whatever reason – to violate the election procedures of state governments and the liberty of the citizens who voted in those states. 

There has also been evidence that officials like Ron DeSantis will use the power of the state to punish demographic groups, such as people who identify as LGBTQ. There is much debate among comparativists, historians and the pundit class about whether these behaviors are authoritarian or fascist. I will leave that assessment to them. 

However, the party does seem to be influenced in some direction by public movements that are fascist in nature. John Podhoretz, a conservative writer, once cleverly referred to the neo-Nazi and militia groups that marched in Charlottesville for the 2017 Unite the Right Rally as the “nucleolus of Trump’s support, the tiny machine inside the atomic machine that forms the core of the Trump base.” 

Republican lawmakers are aware that these people are active in politics. They cannot risk angering them even though they are a small portion of the electorate. Yes, I do think the scales have tipped such that far-right groups have much more influence on the party’s direction, whether that direction is authoritarian or fascist or something similar. 

JS: Reagan’s view of “conservative” seems to have run into trouble because of the covid pandemic. Reagan said one’s level of liberty was proportional to the level of government involvement in one’s life. Well, without the government, we’d all be deader or poorer. Thoughts?

Reagan’s view of conservatism has run into many problems, most of which began before the covid pandemic. After 40 years, many Americans are not convinced that trickle-down economics works. Even self-identified Republicans show division on this point. 

There are also legitimate questions about what inspired his vision. It could indeed be a real fear of government overreach and belief in the private sector. But recently revealed audio recordings of Reagan using racist language, coupled with the fact that he chose to launch his presidential campaign where civil rights workers had been famously murdered in Mississippi, raise the question of whether his ideology was fueled by a desire to protect existing hierarchies. 

As for the question of whether lack of government would leave us dead or poor: most conservatives of the Reagan brand wouldn’t advocate for no government like the anarchist might. Rather, they advocate for smaller government (usually at the state level) and voluntary, local community support and knowledge to fix problems. 

You can hear the latter articulated in Senator Mike Lee’s speech about what principled conservatism stands for here. You can even see it in tweets about the covid pandemic by Justin Amash, who was arguably the most principled member of the Republican caucus before he left the party. They believe those more localized systems are what allow citizens to flourish. Not everyone agrees, of course.  

JS: Relatedly, the Biden administration is the first Democratic administration in my lifetime to be transparent about its intention to use the power of government to benefit individuals and rebuild what 40 years of conservative economic policy has damaged. That’s probably got something to do with Republican support for Donald Trump, no? 

It’s hard to know the Biden administration’s exact motivations, but my guess is some of it relates to the realities of Republican Party as an increasingly antidemocratic force that’s trying to consolidate power. 

Moreover, some of it likely relates to the reinvigorated progressive faction within the Democratic Party. There have always been Democrats who are further to the left than the majority of the party. But Bernie Sanders’ ability to elevate serious economic concerns into the national dialogue in 2016 and 2020 has reinvigorated that faction. 

Even though Sanders’ supporters were obviously not Biden’s base during the 2020 Democratic nomination primary, Biden knows he cannot ignore that group of voters and their very real concerns about the issues that touch many American citizens: wealth inequality, the cost of college, the cost of medicine and healthcare, and so forth.


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

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