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Friday Interview: Conservatism and Politics

JLF President John Hood discusses the state of the conservative movement

Today, Carolina Journal Radio’s Donna Martinez discusses the conservative movement and politics with John Locke Foundation President John Hood. (Go here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Martinez: John, it seems like conservatism really means something different to every person you ask about it. How do you define it?

Hood: Well, I think that it has to do with accepting unchangeable realities. I know that’s a really exciting phrase…but what I mean is, you’re right, lots of people who call themselves conservatives call themselves that for different reasons. We can’t assume that everybody has the same views on every subject who say they are conservative, or liberal. In the partisan context, these might be political coalitions, and, outside of elections, they’re sort of ideological coalitions. They’re people who generally agree on a take of the world — how does the world work, what is freedom. They may disagree about the application, but I think that conservatism in today’s world — modern conservatism — really stitches together at least three different groups. And there is certainly nothing unique to what I’m telling you — this is a fairly traditional read of conservatism — that you have economic conservatives, and social conservatives, and foreign policy conservatives. Well, I think a better way to think about all three of those groups is that they indeed accept reality as it is, rather than dreaming that you can rewrite human nature, or rewrite the laws of economics, or make the rest of the world love us. That’s really what it comes down to — is that conservatives recognize that there are unchangeable moral truths. And if you respect those truths and you try to act morally — it will sometimes be very difficult, you have to restrain yourself, you have to withhold gratification from yourself, you have to save for a rainy day — these are painful things, but they’re reality. Similarly, economic conservatives, free marketers, recognize that consumers ultimately make the decisions on what’s going to be made and what’s going to be sold and what happens, even if it’s disruptive, and even if you don’t like the outcome, that’s the way the market works. It represents the collective wisdom of millions of people, and you can’t just wave a magic wand and make them stop. Similarly in the foreign policy area, foreign policy conservatives recognize correctly that the world is a dangerous place, full of bullies and pirates and fanatics, and we can’t just wish our way to a happy “hands across America, hands across the world” kind of place — that sometimes you have to be prepared to fight for your freedom and for your values. So, conservatism defined in that way is not in trouble; lots of people believe that. I don’t think the sentiment has changed very much. There are about twice as many self-identified conservatives as there are self-identified liberals. In fact sometimes it’s a little bit more than two to one, sometimes it’s a little bit less than two to one. Right now it’s more than two to one, so in terms of conservatism as a movement and as a philosophy that people believe in America, it’s very strong.

Martinez: Yet there is quite a ruckus, so to speak, going on around the country on talk radio, which is dominated with conservative talk show hosts.

Hood: Sure.

Martinez: Many who seem to believe that, for some reason, they aren’t being heard in the political process right now. Is it just a fact that not enough people voted for a conservative-leaning candidate in the primaries in this country so far?

Hood: Well, there wasn’t one conservative-leaning candidate. I mean, the conservative vote was split between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, and even a little bit for [Rudy] Giuliani, who was appealing to conservatives on some things. And so McCain, who didn’t get much of the conservative vote, ended up getting essentially the nomination. Now, does that mean McCain is a liberal? No. I think those hosts who have overstated their case are not helping themselves by saying McCain is a liberal. He’s not that ideological. I guess what I’m saying is that he hasn’t really thought enough about it to be a liberal. He is, I think, temperamentally conservative. His roots are conservative, but a lot of his issue positions in recent years have certainly deviated significantly from what most conservatives believe. But that’s a different problem than saying “McCain is a liberal, he’s no different from Hillary Clinton, and the world’s about to end.” None of that is true. But it is true that conservatives did not congeal around a single alternative to McCain. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee both had problems making that happen — personal characteristics that didn’t necessarily tie in well. Conservatism and Republican Party politics are not the same thing.

Martinez: Exactly.

Hood: And conservatism has weathered many storms. It has won and lost in the electoral sense, and conservatism has still grown. Conservatism grew during the Clinton years. Conservatism grew during the Nixon years; Nixon was hardly a conservative. Conservatism grew during the Jimmy Carter years. So just aligning conservatism as a movement, as a philosophy, with the election returns coming up in November, or happening last November, I think is a big mistake.

Martinez: Ronald Reagan, of course, is really the standard bearer for many conservatives. They view him as the ideal and seem to be looking for another Ronald Reagan. One of the interesting things, I think, about Reagan was that he was able to bring Democrats into the Republican Party. Is that type of coalition gone?

Hood: No. John McCain, whatever his faults are, probably has the best chance of any of the other Republicans to pull independents and some Democrats into a winning coalition. So if you were just about winning elections, and you were a Republican partisan, I’m not sure you should be all that upset about McCain as the nominee. You might be upset if you’re less worried about winning than you are about holding fast to principle. So I think that’s really more of the issue. But Republicans have been pining for Ronald Reagan for a long time. Democrats have been pining for John F. Kennedy for a long time.

Martinez: That’s true.

Hood: People are constantly disappointed by comparing today’s real people with yesterday’s imagined people. People think about John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, looking back in time, in ways that do not necessarily comport with reality.

Martinez: In fact, with Ronald Reagan, with immigration being such a huge issue right now — illegal immigration — it was Ronald Reagan who really did support amnesty.

Hood: Oh, yes. He signed a bill to extend amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. John F. Kennedy cut taxes and fought the Cold War. I don’t know why current Democrats think he’s some great liberal paragon. At the time, many liberals didn’t like him, didn’t think he was progressive on Civil Rights and so forth. So again, we tend to invent these images from the past that comport with what we hope is true or wish was true, and I think we have to accept reality as it is, which takes us back to the original point: What is conservatism? It’s accepting reality. Conservatives in 2008 ought to accept the reality that, for a variety of reasons, Democrats are more likely to win in November than Republicans are — any Republican versus any Democrat. It’s just the way the wind is blowing. And it’ll blow differently in the future. And while all that electoral stuff is happening up top, down below, one has to argue for freedom, argue for virtue, argue for security, argue for the basic ideas of the conservative movement, since World War II, which has grown, and I suspect will continue to grow.