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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Conservative Litmus Test, Part 1

While reading the hate mail generated by Shawn Macomber’s article about re-enfranchisement of felons (ex-felons, really, but I have a quibble with the term), I was struck by the idea that people believe that there are absolute litmus tests for membership in the GOP or for self-labeled conservatives in a more general sense. Shawn advocated something that they disagreed with and their immediate response was to kick him out of the clubhouse.

My first instinct was revulsion: I don’t like the idea of litmus tests and I do like the idea of the “big tent.” Give me dissent and lively debate and I’m a happy boy; disagreement on particulars--even some important ones--doesn’t mean that we can’t dine at the same club. Sometimes we just sit at different tables (to stretch an overused metaphor).

My second instinct was to beat myself up a bit: of course there are litmus tests. There are some things that are inviolable in being a member of a political party. There are some things that you could advocate that would mean you can’t be part of the happy conservative club.

The conservative side of the aisle is pretty hard to peg, though. It encompasses people with both isolationist and almost imperial designs on foreign policy; both free traders and protectionists; and a spectrum ranging from near-libertarians to near-socialists. Our own President Bush, for example, is more of a small tax socialist (an unhappy combination there) with a moderately conservative social agenda, some free trade instincts that get pushed back regularly by his protectionist policies, and an evolving, extremely engaged foreign policy.

I voted for the guy, I like the guy, but I don’t know that I would label him a conservative.

That begs the question, though: what is the litmus test to be either a conservative or a Republican? Or do we have to fragment the labels further to find the litmus test for each group, understanding that there simply won’t be agreement in some areas (like abortion, the death penalty, and our involvement in the Middle East)? Fragmenting further, though, threatens to make a situation where the term Republican comes to represent every combination of political thought that you can imagine (think of all the cocktail party self-definitions you’ve ever heard: “I’m a social liberal and a financial conservative").

If the tent grows too big we’ll be in an age where we can say, “We’re all Republicans now.” That’s demonstrably not true, but it leaves me where I started. What is the test, aside from self-identification, that defines a member of my tribe; what is the border that separates us from them in the big debate on ideas and the direction we take as a nation?

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