There is some interesting data from Pew. I had looked at this data many times before, but in looking at it again I noticed a distinction within the conservative demographics which I hadn’t noticed previously. This distinction seems to at least partly explain why many moderate conservatives have left the GOP in recent years and why some of the most strongest conservatives are also the most critical of other conservatives.
What is interesting is which specific demographics most strongly support torture and the Patriot Act. It’s most particularly clear with the latter. Conservative demographic groups (Enterprisers, Social Conservatives, & Pro-Govt Conservatives) have the strongest support for the Patriot Act. That isn’t surprising, but what is surprising is which specific conservative demographic groups have majority support (Enterprisers & Social Conservatives) and which don’t (Pro-Govt Conservatives).
Let me explain.
Enterprisers are essentially neo-cons, neo-liberals, and (neo-) libertarians which demographically translates as mostly rich white males who have partisan loyalty to the GOP and who are the most loyal viewers of Fox News. Social Conservatives are essentially the fundamentalists and rightwingers in general which demographically translates as older whites who represent the other big chunk of Republican voters. Both groups are known to criticize the government for different reasons and yet both love the idea of a strong military (the military, rather than democracy, being the symbol of their ideal government). They may use pro-constitutional rhetoric in their criticizing the government, but ultimately they don’t take the constitution all that seriously when it comes to protecting human rights and freedom for all.
It’s telling that Pro-Govt Conservatives are the one conservative demographic group that doesn’t have majority support for the Patriot Act. That is a very telling detail. To be a conservative who actually believes in the government serving a positive function means to be a conservative who also genuinely believes in strictly adhering to the constitution and to the moral vision upon which this country was founded. This is the group that I consider as being ‘real’ conservatives in that they are more moderate and traditional (i.e., they believe in conserving social institutions such as government) compared to the radicalized element within the GOP. But these down-to-earth conservatives don’t get as much attention as they’re too reasonable. Also, despite being the most traditional of conservatives, they aren’t the base of the Republican Party. In fact, they are almost evenly split between Republicans and Independents (which is the same role the Liberal demographic group plays in the Democratic Party).
The fact that traditional conservatives (traditional in the larger historical sense) are the least supportive of the Republican Party says a lot about what has become of the party that supposedly represents ‘conservatives’. It also explains a lot about why traditional conservatism is ignored in America. The GOP doesn’t care about traditional conservatives as much because it isn’t their base. These conservatives are the poor and working class people. Unlike the wealthy Enterprisers, they don’t have lots of money to donate to political campaigns. And, unlike the upper middle class Tea Party supporters, they don’t make for entertaining media coverage. These people are too busy just trying to get by and going by the media you would hardly know they existed.
Related to this, I was comparing conservatives between the parties. It might surprise some people to see how many conservatives there are in the Democratic Party. In particular, poor minorities living in the South are extremely conservative and yet loyal Democrats. Rightwingers like to argue that only liberal Democrats want big government for social issues, but government being involved with social issues has always been a traditional conservative position. Why are liberal Democrats defending the traditionally conservative role of the government as an institution upholding social order and the public good? Maybe because it’s in the nature of liberals in general to defend the powerless when attacked by the powerful.
So, what exactly is traditional conservatism?
Here is a very good explanation/description:
True conservatism is a philosophy committed to conserving– conserving families, communities and nation in the face of change. Committed to preserving fundamental values, such as accountability, civic duty and the rule of law. And committed to a strong government to realize these ends. What passes for conservatism in America today bears only a passing resemblance to this true conservatism. It worships at the twin altars of free enterprise and weak government–two decidedly unconservative notions.
Real conservatism values security and stability over the unfettered free market. In Germany, for example, it was the conservative Otto von Bismark–not socialists–who developed social insurance and built the world’s first welfare state. Today conservatives throughout the world–but not here–endorse government-provided national health care, because they recognize public needs are not always met by the private sector. And they see a role for government in encouraging national economic development.
A true conservative movement would not ignore the decay of our great cities, or see the disorder of the Los Angeles riots only as a political opportunity. Nor would they pay homage to “free trade” while the nation’s manufacturing base withered. Nor would a conservative President veto pro-family legislation requiring companies to provide leave to new mothers, in deference to business prerogatives.
Traditional conservatives champion community and nation over the individual. They esteem public service, and promote civic obligation. They reject the “invisible hand” argument, that everyone’s pursuit of individual self-interest will magically yield the best public outcome, believing instead in deliberately cultivating virtue. Authentic conservatives do not assail 55 m.p.h. speed limits and seat-belt laws as encroaching totalitarianism.
Finally, a genuine conservatism values the future over the present. It is a movement of elites to be sure, but of elites who feel that their privilege entails special obligations. The old word for this was “stewardship”–the obligation to care for the nation’s human and natural resources, and to look out for future generations’ interests.
Such conservatives would not open up public lands for private commercial exploitation, or undermine environmental regulations for short-term economic growth. They would not cut funding for childrens’ vaccinations, knowing that the cost of treating illness is far greater. And a conservative political party would never preside over a quadrupling of the national debt.
In America, then, what we call conservatism is really classical liberalism: a love of the market, and hatred of government. Adam Smith, after all, was a liberal, not a conservative. As the economist Gunnar Myrdal once noted: “America is conservative . . . but the principles conserved are liberal.”
American conservatives have often celebrated the country’s historically “exceptional” character: the acceptance of capitalism and the absence of any significant socialist movement. Curiously, though, they often miss their half of the story: the absence of a real Tory conservatism. What Louis Hartz called America’s “liberal consensus” excluded both of the great communitarian traditions–ain’t nobody here but us liberals.
True conservatism’s weakness as a political tradition in America is thus an old story. When values confront the market here, the market usually wins. In recent years, though, conservative social values seem to have been eclipsed. Many of today’s conservatives are really libertarians–proponents of a radical individualism that has little in common with conservatism.