Conservatives Divided

That which divides us makes us weaker.

(Originally published 3/5/21)

On June 16, 1858 in a speech before the Illinois Republican State Convention, Abraham Lincoln said “A house divided against itself can not stand.”

He was of course talking about slavery. My intent here is to discuss a few topics, topics that tend to divide (to varying degrees) conservatives today.

The reader will no doubt recognize the names of some of those that supported the conservative coalition of my day: William F. Buckley Jr., Ronald Reagan, and Barry Goldwater. This coalition included supporters of free market capitalism, a strong American military, libertarianism, and social conservatism. There has always been tension within this coalition.

Much of that coalition is alive today. Some aspects are however eroding. As conservatives, we would be well advised to not only address them but to take steps to promote unity within our ranks.

Here are a few issues that are currently driving division.

Free Market Capitalism:

Traditional conservatives believe, rightly, that government should not meddle in the markets. Free markets allocate resources better than any other mechanism. History proves them right; government generally makes things worse (frequently much worse) when it interferes.

History has also shown there are limits. Markets completely unregulated can present risks. The COVID pandemic has shown that there are public health and national security reasons for some controls. We should not (for example) rely solely on overseas sources for medical supplies. During World War II, how would we have fared if all our rifle ammo came from Japan and our wheat from Russia? Farm subsidies (which many conservatives decry) originally were not a result of the overwhelming political influence of farmers (they are a rather small voting block), rather, it was felt necessary to look at food from the standpoint of strategic reserve – it was a national security issue (and frankly still is).

Many traditional conservatives were put off by President Trump’s trade policies and decisions. And I would agree that some went a bit too far (those that impacted steel supplies, for example, had immediate negative impacts on aerospace and automotive manufacturing here in the U.S.). My suspicion was (and is) that they were ploys to enhance our bargaining position and not intended to be permanent. But many of these policies and decisions were popular. 

It’s worth pointing out that if we take China for example, the transfer of manufacturing from the U.S. to China is not in every case driven by free market capitalism. I will use an example I am familiar with. Modern manufacture of items such as automotive and aerospace parts is generally not very labor intensive. A typical facility probably has 20% of its cost in labor, the other 80% in equipment, tools, tooling, and raw material. So, a transfer to China does not represent much cost savings. When you add back shipping costs, delays in customs, and the added product you need in the pipe to cover those, the “savings” is almost gone – if not gone entirely. This sort of transfer is driven by politics. U.S. company X wants to sell their product in China. In exchange for opening their market, China demands a piece of the action – that some products be made in China. This transfer is in fact driven by a lack of free market – it is driven by China’s political control and manipulation of the market.

I think traditional conservatives ought to allow some room on this topic – particularly where national security and public safety are concerned.

Social Conservatism:

“Social conservative” – I’m using a somewhat more modern term for what Bill Buckley would probably have called a “traditionalist.”

On most social issues, I think most conservatives today agree as follows:

We do not care what you do or who or what you identify as in your personal life.

We reject attempts to impose moral, religious, or “socially acceptable” views on others.

We are fine with “live and let live” provided everyone else is.

We reject the notion that every “protected class” is entitled to its own language, laws, and facts – indeed, we reject the notion that there should be such a thing as a protected class, unless that class is “United States Citizen.”

I think where conservatives begin to disagree is with the degree to which government (at any level but particularly at the federal level) ought to involve itself in such issues. One social issue in particular has driven passionate arguments for decades – abortion.

I hesitate to write about this topic. My purpose is not to discuss or suggest a moral, religious, or ethical “solution” or position, rather the political landscape as it appears currently.

A recent poll (January 2021) indicates that a substantial majority of Americans favor some restrictions on abortion. “Some restrictions” covers a lot of territory. On the extreme ends of the debate are these: that life begins at the moment of conception, and on the other end, that life begins at birth. The poll I’m referring to indicated that support for either extreme was in the single digits – basically no significant support for either. Support for restrictions after the earliest stages of pregnancy is significant.

I bring this up only to support the position that I believe conservatives ought not let our adversaries and the media paint us with the broad brush of “extreme”. A substantial number of independents and center democrats would probably support restrictions after the early stages, but would not support an outright ban.

What I have just proposed is sure to anger some that are further to the right on social matters but let me say this: what I have just suggested does not comport with my own personal views on the topic. It is simply what I see as politically reasonable. Conservatives would be ill advised, politically, to push an extreme position on abortion.


There is no escaping the fact that the Presidency of Donald Trump has fueled division among conservatives. He was not a part of – or even contemplated by – the coalition of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan, but he is certainly part of the equation now.

The term “populism”, depending on the context, has developed negative connotations. In a “mild” context it simply refers to someone that is “for the common man” – we look out for the “little guy” as opposed to the rich or the big corporations. FDR’s New Deal was populist. New Deal democrats – through at least LBJ and probably Bill Clinton were populists in the “mild” sense – claiming to be advocates for “ordinary” Americans. These are not the “negative” aspects.

Populism is also used to describe “strong man” politicians that promise to unite the country and provide for every need of the population. “I will provide food, housing, medical care, good jobs, education, and justice to everyone.” Think Castro, Hitler, Mao, and Lenin. Trump was labeled populist by the media, but of all the people in the 2016 primaries, Sanders wins the Oscar for Best Populist hands down. A little populism, wanting to appeal to the “ordinary American”, is not a bad thing – and indeed is to be expected from anyone wanting to win an election.

Populism is powerful, because it works universally – Sanders used it, so did Trump to a lesser degree. It’s a double-edged sword – if the person “over promising” fails to deliver, the cause will subsequently lose elections. If the person “over promising” succeeds, he or she has obviously acquired extraordinary political power. For these reasons, traditional conservatives are wary of populism. As close readers of the Constitution, traditional conservatives tend to reject too much power vested in too few hands.

On the other hand, Trump made inroads to “ordinary working folks” that previous Republican candidates did not. Populism can win elections. It must, for the sake of the republic, be moderated – it must be the “mild” version – no intellectually honest conservative would support a third world dictator.  

I think conservatives would be well advised to embrace a certain amount of “moderate” populism, politically. Taking a stand on principle can be expensive. Electability and ideological purity are at odds – but the fact is, if we don’t win elections the ideological argument is moot. 

We are all disappointed when we vote for a conservative, and that person wins the election, and then proceeds to act or vote in Congress in ways we did not want or support (RINO’s). But we should ask ourselves, which do we want – someone that votes with us 75% of the time, or not at all. Senator Romney has been the source of serious frustration for all of us, should he be challenged in the next primary? What if his challenger is too extreme to get elected and we lose his seat to a democrat?

If William F. Buckley Jr. were alive today, I believe he would counsel us to support and vote for the conservatives that have the best chance of winning elections – not for the purest ideologically – for the simple and eminently logical reason that, if we don’t win elections, we can’t do anything.

Some will argue that you don’t get what you want by compromising. True, you won’t get everything you want but you may get some of what you want. There are certain things we ought not compromise on. However, the fact is, our system of government is designed in a way that requires compromise and wide support in order to achieve any significant changes. Conservatives need to attract more voters from the center.


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