Friday, December 2, 2011

How Conservatism Gets Defined

The unfortunate reality is that political movements are quite often built on demographics rather than on a coherent political philosophy. Ronald Brownstein from the National Journal has an excellent piece on how demographics changes within the Republican Party could cause fissures in the future. His conclusion from looking at polling is that Republicans are relying more heavily on older white and non-educated voters for victory.

A perfect example of how demographics affect policy positions is in the area of free trade. Republicans have traditionally supported the concept of free trade. Among economists there is near unanimity that free trade is good policy. Yet, within the GOP, the non-educated electorate is more likely to disagree with free trade than the more traditional white educated portion of the Republican base. Currently, almost all Republican leaders support free trade, but that trend is unlikely to continue if these party-wide demographic changes continue.

The non-educated are also more likely to take anti-immigration stances and to have unfavorable opinions about cutting entitlement spending. Interestingly, uneducated voters are more likely to think that raising taxes on occasion is preferable to reducing Social Security or Medicare benefits. Indeed if one were to brim through the historical canon of conservative thought, one would find few objections on par to the current outrage over the slightest hint of modestly raising taxes. Conversely, reducing Social Security and Medicare have been consistent conservative policy choices.

My point is that conservatism (as well as liberalism) tends to get collectively defined by party leaders and establishment figures whose main focus is putting together a winning coalition amongst various and sometimes competing socio-economic groups. As someone who is philosophically oriented towards conservatism, I would prefer to see a GOP that is focused on philosophy and policy rather than pleasing a constituency. And with the current demographic trends, I fear that free trade and cutting government spending will be the casualties. Nevertheless, coalitions need to be built in order to win. For this reason, I do fear that the current coalition is unsustainable given that America is becoming less white and better educated. There are positives to the current Republican coalition, however. For example, a more sound tax policy may be possible. Nevertheless, the overall future is rather bleak.

Regardless, my purpose for this post is to point out the way in which conservatism gets defined. Let me be clear. I am not against naked politics for the sake of coalition building. Only winners get to implement their policies. I just want to warn against assuming that such coalition building is conservatism. Those of us who care about politics ought to be more thoughtful regarding the historical approach of conservative political thought rather than allowing an establishment to define for us conservatism based upon the need for better ratings.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Anti-immigration" policies and "Anti-illegal-immigration" policies are not the same. Somehow, it seems like those who view themselves as educated refuse to acknowledge the difference. I hope you understand the difference, as well.