Conservative purity derangement syndrome?

Lord help me. I just went out for a short drive and made the mistake of turning on Laura Ingraham. Rarely have I heard such biased vitriol directed against anyone as she directed towards John McCain this morning.

(To think that I imagined things might calm down!)

Now, she obviously defines conservatism as agreeing with her. I don't know what conservatism is, but to Ingraham, McCain's 82% ACU rating obviously isn't that. All I know is that if I thought conservatism meant agreeing with the views of Laura Ingraham, I'd know that I am definitely not a conservative, and I'd know that I did not like conservatism.

Perhaps it is unfair of me to judge conservatism as meaning agreement with Laura Ingraham. Or is it? They want the label to apply only to themselves; should they get it?

(Far be it from me to defend to the death the definition of a label to which I do not aspire.)

This goes beyond Ingraham, who is by no means alone , so I'm forced to ask, what is conservatism? Obviously, they think it means something. But what? According to what Laura Ingraham just said, the recently promoted Mike Huckabee and her favorite Mitt Romney are conservatives, but McCain is not, never has been, and never will be a conservative, no matter what he ever says or does.

I have a lot of questions.

Is Mike Huckabee a conservative?

How does his conservatism compare with McCain's?

Is this really a war over the definition of conservative? Or has McCain simply become a scapegoat for angry right wing rage? Or both?

Are they mad at their party for not agreeing with them? Or are they mad at America for not agreeing with them? (Seriously, if the right wing can't win the Republican primary, how on earth can it hope to win in the general election?)

The problem with trying to define conservatism is that there are innumerable definitions, species, and sub-types -- so many that the definition is out of control.

As there is no reliable definition of conservative or conservatism, I'd like to propose returning to the roots, and defining it according to the traditional dictionary definition.

Defining conservatism in such a conservative manner may sound radical, but I don't know what else to do. Besides, everyone is defining conservatism, so I thought, hey, why not use the dictionary -- at least for entertainment purposes?

So without further adieu, here's the definition of what should probably be called "Webster Conservatism":



Back to basics!

(Who'd have thought that Webster's Dictionary could be a source of satire?)

MORE: Do not miss John Podhoretz's "Why They Hate McCain." According to Podhoretz, McCain has made enemies not because he isn't a conservative, but because he just refuses to follow the political tactics of conservative ideologues. This, says Podhoretz, confuses "ideological convictions with political tactics, and infus[es] a disagreement on how to approach problems with a moral edge it does not deserve":

...McCain likes to make common cause with politicians across the aisle from him. They can't stand this. They prefer someone who fights Democrats to someone who makes deals with Democrats. Fair enough. But this is a difference of degree, not of essence. McCain is a deal-maker. Perhaps, having engaged with a real enemy who broke his arms and tortured him and sought to destroy him body and mind and soul, he doesn't see an enemy when he sees a Democrat but rather just another American whose ideas on many things differ from his but with whom he might share some common ground.

McCain would, there is no question, be a lousy leader of an ideological movement. But the Republican party is not an ideological movement. It is a political vehicle for the American right-of-center. Those who confuse the Republican party with the conservative movement are indulging in a fantasy -- that there is purity in politics and that there is something immoral about ideological impurity.

Excellent analysis. Read it all.

Confusing tactics with ideology is both a tactical and an ideological mistake.

MORE: If Ilya Somin is right, a McCain administration would mean gridlock:

John McCain will now almost certainly become the Republican nominee for president. Therefore, we will be hearing more about the longstanding issue of conservative distrust towards him. I think that that distrust has an important upside that has been overlooked: it will make it more difficult for McCain to promote major new expansions of government should he become president.
(Via Glenn Reynolds.)

No major new expansions? Sounds like Webster conservatism to me.

Perhaps the Republican Party could rebadge itself as the loyal opposition.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds links some excellent analyses of the Republican Purity issue. Hugh Hewitt sounds conciliatory, and sees a need "to strike some common chords again and again, beginning with why the GOP needs to retain the White House, regardless of who its nominee is."

John Hinderaker (anything but a McCain supporter) thinks things have gone way too far:

To assert, as some have, that there is "really" no difference between McCain (average ADA rating from 2002 through 2006 of 23%) and Hillary Clinton (average ADA rating over the same period of 96%) is the kind of never-mind-the-facts shrillness that we expect from the Left, not from our fellow conservatives.
And he takes issue with the idea that perfection should be the standard of conservatism:
John McCain will not be a perfect Presidential nominee. Then again, we didn't have any perfect candidates this year. (Funny how often that seems to happen.) How odd, though, for conservatives, of all people, to be the ones to hold out for perfection in human affairs. And despite his flaws as a candidate, John McCain has at least one major strength: he might actually win.
AJ Strata has a very thoughtful post, and I very much appreciate the link!

(I disagree with Dan Riehl, but as I explained before, I respect that everyone has his limits in terms of lines that cannot be crossed -- including me.)

Finally, don't miss Roger L. Simon on the purity issue:

Speaking bluntly, it may be that the search for ideological purity anywhere on the political spectrum is a fool's game (unless you're trying to sell books or drive ratings). Anyway, it's clear from Tuesday's returns the Republican electorate isn't buying it. Across much of the country, the man advertising himself as the perfect conservative ran a poor third to a "maverick" Republican and a Southern populist. And that purist of purists, Ron Paul, simply disappeared from view.

Of course, this pure conservative (Romney) may not have been the best standard-bearer for conservatism. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that he was a notably bad one (a long history of flip-flops).

But that should only prove my point about purists. No one is good enough for them...

(Via Glenn Reynolds.)

I've never known a pure person in my life, and I don't think there is such a thing.

(Well, depending on your religious views, there might have been one a couple of thousand years ago.)

UPDATE: Other than citing the dictionary, I never offered my own "purist" definition of conservatism. If I had my druthers, I'd go with the one Ronald Reagan once gave:

Reagan, in attempting to define conservativism, said: "If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals -- if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is."
So, doesn't that give me a right to be a Reagan libertarian purist conservative? Sure, why not?

But do I have the right to insist it is the only definition, and that everyone better agree with me or else I'll pack it up and go home?

Sure. But that would be pretty foolish of me.

So what is it that makes these purists feel so much more, um, entitled?

MORE: Speaking of Ronald Reagan, do not miss Bill Whittle's comment here:

A political party is a series of personal compromises in order to achieve a goal unattainable by the perfect political party: one's own self. If McCain is the legal and lawfully selected nominee, and Republicans decide to walk away from their party in droves, what makes them think they will be able to count on those who, you know, actually went out and voted Republican either joyfully or through clenched teeth, in order to prevent The Deluge?

If your idea of any political party is one that means unlimited support for your personal values if your candidate is ascendant, while you in turn owe none to those you dislike or even disdain, you might be in for a surprise in future elections.

Speaking as a FredHead myself, I am bitterly disappointed that I did not even have the chance to vote for a man I admired, and am more distraught still to find myself in the position I now occupy. I see many, many worrisome things about John McCain, but being tough on terror and spending are not among them. We could do worse. Two names come to mind immediately.

Much is said about principles, and since I am not able elect anyone BY MYSELF I have entered into this pact with the group of people who I feel most comfortable with in terms of values. If they, as a body, choose a candidate who is not my first, second, third or fourth choice, then I can look to the Democrats. There I find views so antithetical to everything I believe that I realize there is indeed something to this idea of party loyalty.

And I cannot help but think that such a kind and practical man as Ronald Reagan would be amazed that his name was being invoked so frequently in order to insure that the most liberal, socialist, power-hungry statist in my living memory is elected. I'm glad he's not here to see this because if he knew the consequences of what was being done in his name, I believe it would kill the man.

posted by Eric on 02.06.08 at 12:24 PM


"Conservatives", by what ever their definition, or maybe I should say Republicans, need to be slapped around silly.

Once we start arguing over the definition of conservatism, and using definition to drive the heretics out, we're starting to look an awful lot like another party that regularly draws from under 1% to at most 2% of the vote in elections. You know the one I'm talking about.

This is a fever swamp that is being descended into, and it's not going to be good for the country, Republicans, or conservatives.

Sebastian   ·  February 6, 2008 1:13 PM

I'm really tired of hearing the 82 rating like it is a good thing. I looked up the full slate. An 82 puts him at 47 out of 55 in 2006. Bottom of the pack. He's only a few places ahead of some democrat senators with that rating.

McCain does not have a conservative record. He has a not liberal for a dem record.

Phelps   ·  February 6, 2008 1:34 PM

We have politicians like McCain here in Texas. Here they have the decency to actually be Democrats.

I don't vote party - I vote values and ideas. I vote for more life, liberty, property. I vote for Federalism. I vote for the Constitution. I also vote for a healthy national defense. John McCain gets 1/6 on my list. Why should I vote for him? So a 0/6 doesn't get in? Is that really such a big difference? I voted for national defense in 2004, and still got a 3 trillion dollar budget, no support of the constitution in the DC Gun Ban case, and "stimulus".

BTW, when someone goes to the dictionary as an appeal to authority - epic fail.

Donut   ·  February 6, 2008 2:10 PM

I'm much more in line with McCain's current stated public positions than with, say, Rudy's. But I would have happily voted for Rudy, and can only vote for McCain once I get an application into the Irish government for provisional residency.

McCain has his positions. Sure. But he has a long history of cutting the legs out from under his friends for no profit. He doesn't make deals with Democrats because they get him something - he makes deals with Democrats because it will hurt Republicans.

When McCain stood with Kerry against the Swiftboat vets - including his fellow POWs - it bought him NOTHING. Just the joy of being able to betray the people who trusted him.

Yeah, I'll probably vote for him. But when do I get a party? When can I stop voting for the least bad candidate from the OTHER party?

Richard R   ·  February 6, 2008 2:28 PM

I'm a conservative independent, and I've been voting Republican. Here's my definition of American Conservatism (as opposed to conservatism found widely overseas:

An American Conservative believes in and wishes to conserve the revolutionary liberal principles of government derived by our founding fathers and expressed in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution; and at the same time conserve the Revolutionary liberal principles of morality found in the Bible.

Ronald   ·  February 6, 2008 5:40 PM


Meleva here. I have no interest in defending Laura Ingram. I find her sophomoric (always yukking it up with those sniggering, sichophantic college boys she has behind her). What I don't understand is why you cannot see what has made McCain so very unpopular to conservatives (as defined by Webster). It's not as if he just suddenly became the whipping boy of the right. He has held the top position as the wolf in sheep's clothing for years and years. We are simply flabbergasted and dismayed that he's so close to the White House. It isn't a syndrome. It isn't personally motivated hatred. It is a strong dislike and distrust born of years and years of forehead-smacking disbelief at what "McCain is up to this time"! Now we have this schmuck as our candidate? It's a shock. Take it easy on us... And give us some time to mourn.

William and Meleva   ·  February 6, 2008 8:50 PM

"Sebastian: I'm really tired of hearing the 82 rating like it is a good thing. I looked up the full slate. An 82 puts him at 47 out of 55 in 2006."

Why did you feel the need to lie, Sebastian? An 82 lifetime puts McCain around the 15th most conervative.

Roy Mustang   ·  February 6, 2008 10:27 PM

When I began entering into the give and take of legislative bargaining in Sacramento, a lot of the most radical conservatives who had supported me during the election didn't like it.

"Compromise" was a dirty word to them and they wouldn't face the fact that we couldn't get all of what we wanted today. They wanted all or nothing and they wanted it all at once. If you don't get it all, some said, don't take anything.

I'd learned while negotiating union contracts that you seldom got everything you asked for. And I agreed with FDR, who said in 1933: 'I have no expectations of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average.

If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later, and that's what I told these radical conservatives who never got used to it.

Ronald Wilson Reagan   ·  February 6, 2008 10:29 PM

Roy: thank you for posting the link. Although McCain is indeed technically about the 15th lowest-rated Republican, he's right near the group median value. So although that part of what Phelps says is technically correct, it's highly misleading. Where he is in fact totally wrong is in his statement that "he's only a few paces ahead of some democrat senators with that rating." Either Sebastian doesn't know who's a Democrat and who's not, or he can't count, or he's fibbing. All seem equally possible to me.

The most conservative Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, comes in at 55. There's one other Democrat in the 30's and a few in the 20's, but most (including Hillary and Obama) are in single digits. There is thus a huge gap in the mean, median, and modal values between Democrats and Republicans, and McCain is clearly on the Republican side of that yawning divide.

It is also instructive to note that if one were to wipe out all of the "RINO's" (a stupid term that I really wish had never been invented) who are rated in the 80's or lower in this system, we'd be down to about 26 Republicans in the Senate.

We wouldn't win any votes, but our shining purity would be a beacon to curmudgeons everywhere.

HTL   ·  February 6, 2008 11:44 PM

Sebastian: sorry I used your name in vain the above post. I was following up on Roy's comment, and he incorrectly identified you as the source of the quote. I noted the error and corrected it in one spot, and missed it in another.

HTL   ·  February 6, 2008 11:48 PM

Hear hear, especially to Bill Whittle's quote! I'm not a giant McCain fan, but given the opposition, he'll get my vote. (You kidding me? Between a genuinely experienced, relatively reliably fiscally conservative hawk and either of the two baby-pol pretend-experienced wealth-redistribution-monger "declare-victory-and-come-home" Dem front-runners?)

Jamie   ·  February 7, 2008 4:23 AM

I was the one, not Sebastion, as HTL noted. Here is the problem with that reasoning. First of all, a presidential candidate should not be a maverick. He should follow the party platform, and McCain shows no interest in doing that.

Second, should the candidate be the "good enough" guy? Why shouldn't the candidate be one of the 26 that's left when the "RINO"s are gone? (And I too dislike the word and don't use it.) If I'm looking for a surgeon, I don't want the guy who's qualification is, "well, he graduated in the bottom 1/3 of his class, but he did still graduate."

Phelps   ·  February 7, 2008 12:47 PM

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