“Real” Conservatism Redux
Jonah Goldberg has an insightful take on the intra-conservative debate spawned by the Harriet Meyers nomination:
What is remarkable about the Miers nomination is that the pro-Miers side managed to define the debate as one between elitists and “heartlanders” or some similar nonsense first.
I actually think this is a profoundly significant signal in the ongoing — and at times somewhat lamentable — transformation of the GOP into a populist party. For example, I’ve written many times about how liberals don’t understand that Fox News’ popularity has had less to do with conservatism and more to do with populism than they are prepared to see. Liberals think they’re the party of the people, so they tend not to understand populism when it comes from non-liberal quarters. But it is Fox’s anti-elitism which pulls in the ratings more than its conservatism. This has been hard to see in the past because Fox’s anti-elitism has generally been aimed at liberal institutions — the New York Times, the ACLU, Harvard, etc. But anti-elitism and conservatism are not and never have been the same thing. And I do think this will be more obvious in the months and years to come. I think this new “elites” versus “heartlanders” trend is only going to grow within the ranks of the GOP. I can’t say it’s all bad or all good. But it is a major sociological change if the arguments within conservatism are now going to be about “loyalty” to our people (trans: our Party) instead of loyalty to our ideas.
Quite right. Like Goldberg, I’m much more ideologically conservative and elitist than mainstream Republicans. I find Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter incredibly annoying; indeed, much more so than intellectual liberals like Michael Kinsley.
Like it or not, though, Goldberg and I are in a decided minority of the party. Almost by definition, when a catch-all party becomes the majority party, it becomes a hodgepodge of differently motivated groups that tend to have sharp disagreements. The Democrats found out the hard way in the 1970s and 1980s that catering too much to the base may be ideologically satisfying but is electoral suicide.
In Political Science 101, we talked about the tripartite division of political parties into the institutional, governmental, and electoral pieces (often referred to in the literature as “party-as-organization,” “party-in-government,” and “party-in-electorate,” respectively). The institutional party is the tiny elite that provides professional management of the party apparatus. They tend to be highly ideological and think about politics mostly at the abstract level. The governmental faction consists of current officeholders and those seeking office. They tend to be more practical and less ideological than their institutional counterparts. The vast majority of a party, though, consists of ordinary citizens who identify with and hopefully fund and vote for the party’s candidates. Only a few of them are particularly ideological, focusing mostly on general feelings about how the party in general and the candidates in particular will serve their interests.
George W. Bush is more of a true believer than any Republican president or presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan. But neither he nor Reagan are as conservative as the professional pundit class or party elites that back them. That’s very frustrating to the elites but very necessary when building a broad governing coalition.