The key to understanding the implosion of US conservatism

The Trump years exposed the split between ideological and instrumental Republicans. We are now witnessing the consequences

February 12, 2021
Image: GrandeDuc / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: GrandeDuc / Alamy Stock Photo

On the face of it, US senators such as Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse should be leading the Republican Party through this moment of reckoning. They have impeccable conservative pedigree and have taken a principled stance against Donald Trump’s opportunism. Instead, Romney has been marginalised, and Sasse is facing censure in his home state of Nebraska. 

Why are elite Republicans—those who burnish longstanding establishment credentials—finding it so difficult to keep control of their party? Because they tend to be ideological conservatives, while the Republican rank-and-file tend to be instrumental conservatives. It is this dichotomy that explains, in large measure, what is happening in the US right now.

Conservatism in America has historically been defined with respect to the US constitution and the principles it embodied at the time of the republic’s founding. Conservatives wish to conserve those principles. 

At issue between ideological and instrumental conservatives is whether one wishes to conserve those principles for their own sake, or for the sake of the short-term ends they yield. Ideological conservatives lean toward the first view, while instrumental conservatives lean toward the second. 

Elite Republicans tend to be ideological conservatives because they like to intellectualise matters. To them, the integrity and logical consistency of conservative thought over time matters more than any short-run policy outcomes of that thought—their argument is that, over the long-run, conservative thought yields a just and flourishing society. 

Sasse is perhaps the most visible exponent of this view today, and you see it in his frustration with those in his home state who would seek to censure him: “Let’s be clear: the anger in this state party has never been about me violating principle or abandoning conservative policy—I’m one of the most conservative voters in the Senate—the anger’s always been simply about me not bending the knee to one guy.”

But, I conjecture, most conservatives in America—and most rank-and-file Republicans—are instrumental conservatives. They are conservative in that they wish to preserve certain advantages borne to them by the rules of society, including those stemming from the constitution. This doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. They are simply acting in a self-serving manner, as do most other humans. Trump understood this fact and used it to quickly conquer the Republican Party in 2016. 

So long as there is little meaningful difference between conserving constitutional principles for their own sake and for the near-term outcomes they yield, there is little cause for disagreement between ideological and instrumental conservatives—between elite and rank-and-file Republicans. This had been the general state of affairs in America since the great realignment in national politics that followed the US civil rights era and Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which flipped most white southern voters from Democrat to Republican

Instrumental conservatives in America, including many southern whites, embraced constitutionalism because it moderates the pace of change and therein safeguards incumbent advantages from popular democratic currents. The constitution, for all its merits, sets the “rules of the game” in a way that benefits white Americans: we see this most visibly in the Electoral College and the way Senate seats are apportioned to states. A pure democracy in America would likely wipe out this white advantage, and that is not in the interests of incumbents. 

Southern whites in general recognised this calculus during the civil rights era and accordingly abandoned the emerging egalitarianism of the Democrats for the constitutional conservatism of the Republicans. But over time, even a constitution designed to enable only a moderate pace of change cannot forestall it. When that change happens, a constitution for moderation is no longer useful; indeed, it is downright dangerous to erstwhile beneficiaries, as it soon sets in to preserve a new incumbency. 

Under those circumstances, as an instrumental conservative, you need a more dramatic approach: a reversal of policy. Hence the resonance among this group of Trump’s mantra “Make America Great Again.” But such radicalism, and counter-constitutionalism, puts them at odds with ideological conservatives like Romney and Sasse. 

To be clear, the dichotomy between an ideological elite and an instrumental rank-and-file plagues American liberals as well. For instance, the liberal elite of the Democratic Party is committed to globalism for its own sake, while the liberal rank-and-file generally supported globalism for the cheaper goods it brought to US shores. But as globalism has steadily eroded jobs and wages in the US, the liberal rank-and-file has increasingly abandoned ideology for the populism of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Hilary Clinton’s loss in 2016 laid bare the chasm between liberal elites and their ranks. 

So, where is American politics headed? On the one hand, the notion that purist-conservative and purist-liberal ideology will be less influential in US politics might be good news: ideology is often the antithesis of evidenced-based policy. On the other hand, ideology in American politics is being replaced by populist opportunism, pitting an ethno-nationalism on the side of the Republicans against a redistributive socialism on the side of the Democrats. That contest does not appeal. 

It prompts the question of whether American democracy will even survive that kind of politics. In an America where the constitution itself becomes a partisan issue, there is little scope for peaceful dialogue.  

But in the end, I remain optimistic because of the pragmatism of elites, who still hold many of America’s political leadership positions. Last week, Republican Liz Cheney, who had earned the public scorn of many in her party for voting to impeach Trump, very comfortably survived a challenge to her leadership role in the House. Even as the rank-and-file chided her, her own colleagues in Congress endorsed the usefulness of her principled conservatism. 

Perhaps, as America’s founders envisioned, political elites will indeed save the people from themselves?