Where Do Conservatives Go From Here?

I’m certain some of my fellow conservatives will be displeased with what follows here.  My apologies (and fair warning) in advance.

The conservative coalition I grew up with was to a significant degree assembled by folks like William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater.  This started in the mid to late 1950s and arguably saw its high point with the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  I now see this coalition referred to as the “old right.”

There were significant disagreements within that coalition.  Libertarians and the Religious Right made for uneasy allies, to say the least.  Traditionalists, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, constitutional conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives are not likely to agree on every issue.

The conservative coalition of today is somewhat different.  Though most of the “old right” groups are still represented, there are now populist/working-class factions and the relative prominence of the various factions has changed.

Just last month (November 9, 2021), Pew Research Center published what it sees as the current “Republican Coalition.”  In this evaluation, it appears much of the old Buckley coalition has been placed within two of the five groups described – i.e. “Faith and Flag Conservatives” and “Committed Conservatives” which together represent 38% of the current coalition.  The relative newcomer is the “Populist Right” comprising 23%.  The remaining 33% are, I suspect, best described as right-leaning moderates or centrists (though that is now how Pew describes them).  I was somewhat disappointed in the emphasis Pew placed on how these groups feel about Trump but given the current state of the coalition, this was unavoidable.

Current polling is encouraging for conservatives.  Biden’s poll numbers are down significantly and he and his supporters continue to push for legislation that does not address what most voters are concerned about (and in all likelihood would make matters worse).  No amount of political spin will counter the gas and food prices we see, the supply line issues, the empty store shelves, the rise in crime, or the 10 million unfilled jobs.  The immediate future does not look good for Democrats.

There is however a split among conservatives and this split revolves around Trump and the “Populist Right” noted in the Pew publication.  I refer, broadly, to the “Never Trump” conservatives.  And, referring to this group “broadly” is problematic.  Some object to Trump based on ideology, citing his past support for Democrats and his embrace of populism and nationalism (trade policy for example).  Others object primarily to his manner.  The conservative credentials of George Will (for example) are pretty hard to dispute.  Even Mr. Will concedes that Trump’s most successful policies (tax cuts, deregulation, judges evaluated by Federalist Society criteria) were nominally conservative (Mr. Will seems to object primarily to Trump’s manner).

While the immediate future may look good for conservatives, we need to decide how we are going to handle this split.

I’m in the minority within my circle of conservative acquaintances when it comes to a conservative that speaks, acts or votes in a way I disagree with.  I’m reluctant to use the term RINO.  I’m reluctant to suggest a primary challenge in most cases.  Members of Congress, in particular, are supposed to represent the voters of their state or district.  If they fail to do that, by all means, get rid of them.  But I would rather have someone in office that votes with me 75% of the time than one that votes against me 100% of the time.

William F. Buckley Jr. famously advised that conservatives “should vote for the conservative candidate most likely to with the election.”  I take this as an expression of pragmatism over pure ideology.  Many Democrat politicians are currently evaluating this very notion.  Pure ideology has a rather dismal record of winning elections and an even worse record of actually working if put into practice (the embrace of socialism and “defund the police” for example).  Given the diversity of the conservative coalition (old and new), pragmatism over pure ideology seems to me to be unavoidable if we intend to win elections.

I think Mr. Buckley would also have welcomed the “Populist Right” into the coalition.  Buckley was a “fusionist.”  He believed in adding to the coalition, not subtracting from it.  And today, as was the case a half-century ago, maintaining the coalition will require some compromise, some pragmatism, within the coalition.  Do we, right now today, believe in adding to the coalition or subtracting from it?

Should Trump run again in 2024?  In my opinion, this question should be approached from the most pragmatic standpoint we can muster.  To his credit, Trump governed largely as a conservative.  His 2016 candidacy also played a significant role in bringing the “Populist Right” into the coalition. 

On the other hand, his candidacy (and presidency) played a significant role in the split among conservatives (and continues to).  A pole I saw recently said Trump is viewed negatively by 60% of the population overall, not a good start for a national election.  Trump continues to insist the 2020 election was stolen and this is not doing the conservative brand any favors.

(Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Lin Wood, Mike Lindell, and Donald Trump have all had close to a year to present what they describe as “mountains of evidence” of a stolen election and have not.)

In my opinion, Trump should not run in 2024 if for no other reason than it seems quite possible to me that he may lose.

I believe conservatives would be better served if we focused more on what we agree on.  Expand the coalition.

The Heritage Foundation published 14 conservative principles that I believe most conservatives would agree with.  I suspect Donald Trump, George Will, Mitt Romney, and Kurt Schlichter would all agree on those 14 items if they could agree to stop (rhetorically) beating the shit out of one another long enough to read them.

I consider myself a blend of libertarian and constitutional conservative.  I’m at odds with some on the religious right on some issues.  Taken to the extreme, I suspect a few on the religious right fancy a Christian theocracy just like the extreme libertarians would fancy no government at all (anarchy).  Neither extreme represents the vast majority, it certainly doesn’t represent any Christians or libertarians I know.  The fact that I might be at odds with some of my fellow conservatives on some issues does not mean I reject their views and concerns out of hand, quite the contrary, I listen and try to arrive at some solution or improvement.  We all hold certain positions that we are not willing to compromise on, not ever.  For me, any politician that wants to tear down the Bill of Rights will never get my vote.  But this does not mean there are not a vast number of issues we can agree on.

Let me close with one other point in favor of building up the coalition, sustainability.  Earlier I stated that I do not think Trump should run again because of the danger that he might lose.  However, even if he won he would only be in office for four years, then what?  Biden won in no small part due to a backlash against Trump.  What would that backlash look like in 2028?

The conservative cause is not a battle we can win and have done with.  The battle will never end.  Right now, the mid-terms next year look like they may be a win for conservatives running on nothing more than not being Democrats (another backlash), but that is not sustainable.  We’re not hearing much about a conservative plan.  How about running for something – like energy independence and the rule of law?  How about revising the Republican platform to address some of the concerns of the “Populist Right” while keeping the rest of the coalition intact?  What is the plan beyond the next election cycle?

Build a plan, add to the coalition, embrace and work through our differences, promote those things we agree on, and win elections.


Leave a Reply