JOHN HOOD: Movement Isn't Same as Political Party
The 2006 electorate repudiated Republican control of Congress but not the conservative movement or the case for limited government.
This statement has already been repeated so much as to become a clich -- in part because prominent conservative leaders, commentators, and think-tankers were stating it long before Election Day. But is the clich nevertheless true? In my opinion, the proper answer is "sort of."
As to the electorate repudiating the conservative movement, the word "repudiate" is inapt. Self-identified conservatives have never been a majority of Americans or North Carolinians. They outnumber liberals, but that's not the same thing.
National exit polls found little ideological difference in the electorate this year compared to 2004; the number of self-identified conservatives dropped two points (34 percent in 2004, 32 percent in 2006) and the number of self-identified liberals dropped one point (21 percent to 20 percent).
Nor has the "conservative movement" been repudiated by voters, because movements aren't on the ballot. Candidates and parties are. Public intellectuals, be they Left or Right, no doubt prefer that their ideas influence debate and get implemented in some form. But that doesn't make them politicians or partisans.
A plurality of voters nationally, and a significant share in North Carolina, identifies as moderate, which has varied meanings. Some moderates are conservative on fiscal matters but not on social or foreign policy. Others are cultural conservatives who favor government growth in the economic sphere (populists). Still others are security-oriented voters who only embrace conservative ideas on fighting crime or fighting terrorism.
Thus, individuals or institutions in the modern conservative movement -- representing free-marketeers, cultural conservatives, or hawks -- aren't necessarily hoping to convince most Americans to become ideological conservatives, much less to endorse a particular party or candidate. They are attempting to identify, justify, and promote discrete ideas.
So when these conservative intellectuals and activists look at the 2006 election returns, they see a complex picture, not an ideological referendum. For example, they see a number of Republican candidates on Election Day as having lost because the GOP disappointed its base on issues ranging from federal spending to moral values. Some conservatives also see the passage of conservative legislation by direct democracy, such as property-rights protections in numerous states or a racial-preferences ban in Michigan, as ratifying their ideas.
They look at polls that confirm a continued voter preference for limited government. A good example is an interesting survey by the Club for Growth in 15 battleground House districts. A majority of these districts went Democratic on Election Day. But most of the responding voters said they favored a smaller federal government and lower taxes. Asked which was the "party of big government," 39 percent said the Republicans and 28 percent said the Democrats. Nearly two-thirds agreed with this statement: "The Republicans used to be the party of economic growth, fiscal discipline, and limited government, but in recent years, too many Republicans in Washington have become just like the big spenders that they used to oppose."
Finally, many conservatives look at the Democratic newcomers to the U.S. House, and notice that 16 were endorsed by centrist groups such as the New Democrat Coalition or the Blue Dog Democrats. These centrists embraced at least some recognizably conservative ideas. That doesn't make them conservatives. What it makes them is evidence for the proposition that the policy debate remains shifted somewhat to the right of where it was a quarter-century ago.
That's not the whole story, I hasten to say. For example, while most Americans are philosophically opposed to a big-spending government, they often endorse a lot of specific spending programs that add up to big budgets. In addition, some non-conservative ideas were endorsed by the 2006 electorate, too, such as minimum-wage hikes on the ballot in six states.
My point is simply that when conservatives distinguish the validity of their ideas from the performance of the Republican Party, they are sincerely expressing a reasonable proposition -- just as liberals have often defended the validity of their ideas during periods when Democrats have lost major elections.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal. com
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