The Conservatives’ Big Tent

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

Mallory Factor recently presented parts of his newest book, Big Tent: The Story of the Conservative Revolution – As Told by the Thinkers and Doers Who Made It Happen, to an audience at the Heritage Foundation.

Factor is the John C. West Professor of International Politics and American Government at The Citadel, a military academy in South Carolina. He is also a Fox News contributor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He brought the constitutional challenge, Free Enterprise Fund vs. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, to the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation on business accounting before the Supreme Court.

In his talk, he compared the emergence of the conservative movement to the arrival of a P.T. Barnum circus in a small town. Factor reasoned that is why “every day, the mainstream media portrays the conservative movement as a sideshow.”

The media presents “a parade of horribles: candidates who are portrayed as uncaring about the needs of women and minority groups, politicians who are said to promote xenophobia and fear of immigrants, or rich old white men who are seemingly focused on lowering their tax rates and preserving their wealth instead of paying their fair share.” Factor added that, “Day after day, the media tells stories like these in lurid detail” and “through these reports, the conservative movement is depicted as an array of human oddities.”

In response to the media’s treatment of the movement, Factor acknowledged that “many conservatives fear that the media-reported freak shows may turn the next generation away from conservatism.” However, he did not feel that this would be a major problem because Factor believes that “America is a conservative nation.”

He pointed out, “Conservatives outnumbered liberals in 47 states” and that the majority of conservatives do not self-identify as Republicans. “In fact,” said Factor, “38% of Americans self-identify as conservatives. But less than 25% self-identify as Republicans.” Why is there a disparity between these labels? Factor said that “there’s a wide dissatisfaction” with the Republican brand, whether it be the choice of candidates or endorsement of certain policies.

Even after the mainstream media’s coverage of conservatives, Factor pointed out, “The conservative movement is, and always has been, an idea-driven movement. At the beginning, whether as the Free Soil Party or the other pre-American Civil War abolitionist movements, conservatives “were gathered around an idea” and “started out as an idea-driven movement.” Six years after the Republican Party was formed, “Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected to the White House” as President. Even P.T. Barnum was a Republican, elected to the Connecticut state house.

That is a stark contrast to today’s Republican Party, which is “an established political party.” And, when you compare “both parties, ideology is far less important than party politics, even though ideas motivate and invigorate the grassroots.” What is the major difference? The conservative movement usually sticks to its “intellectual pillars,” which the mainstream media would say is made up of “racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, economic inequality and militarism.” That liberal perception was “personified” by President Obama with his “cling to guns and religion” comment on the campaign trail, ribbing “small town America” conservatives.

Instead, the conservative pillars are:

  1. Respect for religion and tradition of past generations
  2. Maintenance of the rule of law
  3. Protection of individual freedom and liberty
  4. Belief in a higher law above man’s law

Factor said, “A movement has to have some pillars, as we all agree, or the whole tent will fall down.” To contrast the two main political parties, Factor pointed out, “Conservative principles stand in stark contrast to the Democrat Party’s slogan at the 2012 convention, which you probably all recall, Government is the only thing we all belong to.” Also, he said, “If the American people start believing government is the only answer, then it’ll be a wrenching ending indeed for our great American experiment.”

He reiterated that the liberal perception “is not what conservatism is about” because it “is not about people who refuse to embrace progress and have been left behind.” To him, “the movement is actually about people who hold tight to core principles and hold essential truths that are needed to save our beloved nation from tyranny.” Conservative ideas “are rooted in man’s most important values,” which “are the values that the American nation was founded upon.” Primarily, Factor said the beliefs are “order and liberty, freedom, and a nation under God.” He believes that, “The American founding was an assertion by colonials that they were entitled the rights granted” to everyone and that “it was an evolution, rather than a revolution.”

As with every movement, “when leaders in our movement fall away from core principles, which they sometimes do, we must step back, reexamine our course, and select new leaders.” It is important because “the personal human impulse to defend and fight for one’s cherished convictions is as natural as it is timeless.” Conservatism is set apart from other ideologies because “it has a guiding philosophy, social life, education, cultural institutions and government is natural and ancient” and “it conveys the idea of attentively guarding something for the purpose of safekeeping.” Factor added, “Perhaps because of association with guarding, many people confuse conservatism with blindly upholding tradition. But traditionalism fails to capture our movement adequately.”

To counter the perception that conservatives are stubborn, Factor admitted that “Tradition may need correction.” Also, he said, “Conservatives have reverence and respect for tradition, but are not inseparable from it.” Although, Factor said that conservatives “want a government that is ordered and maintained by the rule of law” and does not “choose winners and losers,” the government should “allow the fruits of their liberties to build their livelihoods…and let people worship as they see fit.”

Factor outlined what he considered to be the three main pillars of the conservatives’ “big tent”: “National security conservatives, social conservatives and economic conservatives.” With the big tent and resulting variety of opinion, conservatives “debate all these issues among ourselves, often clashing fiercely with those in our movement who disagree on policy.”

The “deep intellectual and cultural rifts between major constituencies within the conservative movement” has made the conservative movement “A big tent of people sharing common principles, but widely different world views.” Yet, the divisions in the “big tent” have led “many conservatives [who] would rather burn heretics from different wings of the movement than unite and fight the infidels who are actively attempting to tear down our beloved country.” Factor said, “It is amazing how much they dislike each other” and how the conservatives do “not frequently enough” come together and agree on issues or candidates. Instead, they impose “litmus tests” in order to “keep out other conservatives who don’t agree with them.” In the end, “the movement often seems fractured and divided in the media, and in the popular imagination.”

However, “when the broad conservative movement defends” its common values, “the conflict dissipates and the media back down.” A prime example was the Duck Dynasty controversy, where one of the stars, Phil Robertson, made some remarks about gay marriage and was suspended for them. However, unlike some Republican candidates, the TV show and Robertson were not “abandoned by the many wings of the conservative movement and the Republican Party.” Robertson was later reinstated.

Factor urged the audience and conservatives to “work together to elect candidates” because “the conservative movement will have to use the Republican Party to elect its candidates, or else it will lose.” He believes that, “Only by winning the right to govern can conservatives bring freedom and liberty to our nation.” And, Factor added, “Core conservative principles cannot be violated, but policy differences need to be tolerated” and that conservatives need “crossover” candidates like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal or Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Yet, “this vibrant and lively, internal debate within the conservative movement stands in stark contrast to the orthodoxy of the Left, which seemed to have adopted the position of, no enemies to the Left.” Factor said that the Left is composed of “special interest groups join[ing] in a grand coalition, each group gets legislation that benefits them” in return for other benefits’ interests. As a result, this “ensures…they get their piece of the pie” regardless of the “cost to the nation.”