Who, and What, Is Conservative?

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

National Journal has released its rankings of the most conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Georgia’s Austin Scott was ranked 2nd on this list for 2012.  Given that their number one choice, Todd Akin, is no longer serving due to his failed attempt to become a Senator, Scott can be said to be the most conservative member of Congress at this point.

Unless you ask Heritage Action, which sees things differently.  They cite Tom Graves in a 4 way tie as the House’s most conservative member, with a rating of 97%.  Congressman Paul Broun is the sole holder of their next position with a 96% ranking.

National Journal gave a separate article to the ranking of Broun, the only officially announced candidate to replace Senator Saxby Chambliss.  They even dared use the “M” word – moderate – to describe his ranking of 175th most conservative member of the House.  Other potential candidates listed were Phil Gingrey (52nd), Jack Kingston (55th), Tom Price (59th), and Heritage Actions’ #1 Tom Graves at 68th.  For those looking at these metrics with an eye on the U.S. Senate race, they also name Congressman John Barrow the most conservative Democrat currently in the U.S. House.

Not only do these rankings differ between the various organizations, but from year to year.  The rankings for 2011 votes from National Journal had three Georgia Congressmen – Gingrey, Price, and Lynn Westmoreland – all tied at first place.  It’s hard to imagine 50-60 people getting more conservative than them in one year’s time, or that any of these men suddenly developed a lib’rul streak.

Truthfully, these rankings are much more about generating headlines and publicity for the publications and their underlying organizations than they are about the underlying actions of the members.  They are known, however, to send congressional communications directors into a bit of a flurry as they try to either capitalize on a beneficial score or try to tamp down any suggestion that the member they work for is anything less than a bonafide conservative.

The fact that the rankings differ so widely between Heritage Action and National Review delivers a much bigger and more salient point.  There is no commonly accepted definition of conservative anymore.  The word now means entirely different things to different people.  It has, frankly, approached the point where the claim of being a “conservative” is itself almost without meaning without additional context.

The matter is further complicated when attempting to score the attempt to enact a more conservative form of government.  National Journal creates a scorecard that ties points closer to that of Republican leadership, indicating that support for an overall plan to enact the most conservative legislation possible moves the overall situation of governance toward the conservative spectrum.

Heritage Action scores more on purity and absolutes, giving more credit to those who buck leadership as more of a rule than an exception.  They will generally be supportive of those who eschew compromise and will hold out until a bill passes their often illusive goals.  They would rather have members not be part of an overall solution than be part of one that they determine is less than their goals.

Overall, scorecards like this give Congressmen who earn them talking points and direct mail bullet points.  They also reduce political debate to yet another form of soundbite instead of facilitating a deeper discussion.  Lost in this process is what it means to be a conservative.  You either score highly or you don’t.

In a land where Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater are now a full generation removed from leading the movement, Conservatives continue to struggle with both brand identity and a cohesive direction with which to grow their base and implement change.  The loss of a central definition of conservatism nor an accepted method to even identify what is conservative illustrates part of Republicans fundamental problem.

If we no longer even know what it means to be a conservative, it’s going to be awfully difficult to sell conservatism to voters who have rejected the party time and again during the last several election cycles.


  1. IndyInjun says:

    It got to be sad. I used to cite the treatise “I am Republican Because….,” then compare the Georgia GOP delegations votes to that standard. The neocon crowd ran me out for my trouble, because their darlings were demonstrable fakes 10 years ago. They have made their bed and now lie in it. They have relegated the GOP to the Gone Old Party. Too many people no longer buy that the Dems are horrendously worse.

  2. SallyForth says:

    One thing for sure, “conservative” and “Republican” are NOT interchangeable terms. Conservative is a political philosophy, as are moderate and liberal — people of either philosophy may choose any or no political party. Republican is just one of the several organized political parties in the US, and includes people whose philosophy may be moderate, liberal, conservative, or a combination thereof.

    Today’s Republicans are anything but conservative in their fiscal and social policies. The more governmental control they can exert over everyone’s lives, the better they like it. And their spending like a bunch of drunken sailors during the eight GWB years of unfunded wars, etc., threw us into our current economic mess (the jury is still out on whether Barry’s fiscal policies will get us out).

    In order to be believable for coming elections, Republicans need to retool – stop ranting about abortion and guns, get back to fiscal conservatism, personal rights, and national security (first of which is securing our borders and refusing to reward the millions of people here illegally, stop ignoring existing law and deport them). Cede the 7% of total voters attributed to Hispanics they didn’t get, stand up and support the other 93% of American voters, take care of our tax-paid treasury and honor ALL our individual rights as Americans under the Constitution.

    • seenbetrdayz says:

      Aside from the fact that guns are about personal rights, I’d say that’s a pretty good starting point you laid out.

      • SallyForth says:

        Yep, s/b/d, sounds like you and I are on the same page. I just mean they need to stop singling out that one personal right and ignoring or attacking all the rest.

        • seenbetrdayz says:

          And, I would agree with that.

          It would be nice if people realized that our rights are connected. For example, when ‘conservatives’ failed to stand up to the Patriot Act and gross violations of the 4th amendment, they helped lay the groundwork for illegal search for and seizure of firearms. When liberals attack the 10th Amendment, they have no recourse when a state like Washington or Colorado decriminalizes marijuana and then Feds come in and arrest cancer patients for smoking a joint.

          People just get blinded by party loyalties and ‘following the leader’ syndrome that they can’t seem to know when they’re having the wool pulled over their eyes. It’s all tyranny unless “our guy” does it. Then it gets a free pass.

    • Harry says:

      Your opinion about what is important and what’s not is just that – your opinion. It’s not shared by the great majority of GOP voters of which I assume you are not one. But, we really appreciate Democrats giving the GOP advice on what positions to take and not take.

  3. NoTeabagging says:

    Political parties spend all their energy making sure the other party never scores any points. They fail to see that nothing is ever accomplished under this current system of offense/defense game play.

  4. Vicki says:

    IndyInjun, the GAGOP removed the “I am Republican Because….” treatise long, long ago. Probably about the time they ran you out. But I still like to throw it in their faces, because they really *aren’t* Republican any more.

  5. Doug Deal says:

    If elections become a contest of people “proving” they are the most conservative, count me out. I just want to know if you think the government should be bigger or smaller. In my experience, lots of “conservative Republicans” in Georgia love big government at every level. I just had a mass meeting where one person was excoriating those who want our city to have economic growth because it needed to be controlled by the government so that she would not have to cross the street with so much traffic and another was criticizing the rest of us for not passing recent tax increases to pay for more roads.

    At a county monthly meeting, three or four people stood up to say how great of a President Roosevelt was because of his social programs (yet somehow Obama’s spending was still bad).

    We also have a mentality of protecting the local military bases at all costs even if their presence is not needed because of the jobs they provide, instead of their military need. We criticize the subsidies given to Iowa corn farmers but greedily ask for subsidies of our own.

    We support wars we cannot afford because it is supposedly conservative. We think it is a good idea to spend more without raising taxes, which simply destroys our stability with ever increasing debt and convinces people that things can be had with no cost. If every increase in government program instead came with an enormous tax bill, people would stop saying how much we need them.

    At this point, politicians and members of both parties and sides of the political spectrum have swung so far in the direction of irresponsible stewardship of our country that short of political realignment or the states calling a constitutional convention, we are way too far off the rails for it to matter who we elect.

    But, as long as we hate the right groups of people out of Christian love, all is ok.

    • Harry says:

      Conservatives desire smaller government overall, but feel that some control and regulation is needed. Otherwise, what’s the purpose of having a government at all? Liberals desire bigger government overall, but would prefer to do without some control and regulation. Otherwise, what’s the purpose of a Bill of Rights?

  6. Trey A. says:

    Austin Scott is the second most conservative member of Congress? I remember him getting attacked in the gubernatorial primary race for being too moderate. I remember him being the only one in that GOP field to come out and say that campus carry was a bad idea (he was right, of course, but he took some flack for it).

  7. Joshua Morris says:

    I’m a little surprised at how little the folks who post here know about the history of the conservative movement. Ever since I read The Politics of Prudence by Russell Kirk, I have continually found that his explanation of conservative thought is as close to my line of thinking as anyone’s. For those who haven’t read them, his ‘Ten Conservative Principles’ are available to read here for free: http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/detail/ten-conservative-principles/. I also have been reading through an omnibus book of William Buckley articles, which gives interesting historical perspective on what issues conservatives were debating and writing about back to the 1950s. You may be surprised at how similar they are to the issues we debate today.

    Conservatism has been hijacked for the last 40-50 years, if not longer. It is a group of principles not so much defined by the social issues many rail on today, but it is rather more about the value and application of lessons learned from experience. These lessons do affect conservative beliefs and positions on the issues we debate, and this makes the conservative approach very different from the progressive liberal ideological approach. Progressive beliefs are nothing more than merely untested, politically-driven philosophies drummed up by wannabe intellectuals from knee-jerk reactions to current societal outcries. There is a vast difference–something the folks at Heritage Action and National Review could never really portray on a scorecard.

  8. Coming up with one definition of “Conservative” – or “Liberal” for that matter – is possibly futile. I am developing a blossoming interest in Amercian philospher Ken Wilber, who offers, for example, that Buddha was both the “ultimate republican”, and the “first democrat”. He starts by suggesting that “every [person] shares a dual role: being both an autonomous, self-reliant unit unto itself, and also a part of one (or more) other wholes.” Of course, conservatives would tend toward the first part of that statement, and lib’ruls would lean toward the second part. When combined with a second variable – interior vs. exterior, which, frankly, I’m just starting to understand and would warp if I tried to explain – there are actually four complementary quadrants needed to fully explain any person (or entity). Wilber has extended his study into how to apply this train of thought to politics – called “integral politics” – and if you have capacity for an interesting 17-minute video, you can check him on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQRUu_4W2j8.

    I don’t mean this to be esoteric or earth-shattering, just something else to think about when we try to stuff a whole political party, or movement, into one self-reliant box.

Comments are closed.