Should Conservatives Prize Group Loyalty in Their Politicians?

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If so, they shouldn't expect those same politicians to stand against their Washington, D.C., colleagues on principle.

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Invoking the work of Jonathan Haidt, who theorizes that conservatives care more than liberals about in-group loyalty, Will Wilkinson reflects on the GOP primary field and why one conservative is languishing in the polls. By accepting a job as United States ambassador to China in the Obama Administration, Jon Huntsman signaled his disloyalty to the conservative tribe, Wilkinson argues:

Now, I doubt many conservatives think Mr Huntsman was disloyal to America, as Mr Erickson charges. But I do think he is widely seen as a man of questionable loyalty. If you're like me, Mr. Huntsman's willingness to set aside partisanship and serve in a Democratic administration, in spite of his high political aspirations, argues in favour of his loyalty to the country. But if you're like me you're not a conservative, and you don't really care that much about loyalty. Rock-ribbed conservatives I think see it like this: By agreeing to serve as ambassador to China under Barack Obama, Mr. Huntsman picked a side, and it wasn't the side of the conservative tribe. And then he flaked on the Obama administration in order to run for president as a Republican. This is how I read Mr. Erickson's denunciation of Mr Huntsman: "Are you crazy, Huntsman? You want back in? Now? No. Forget about it. You're dead to us."

This leaves Mr. Erickson, and millions of like-minded conservatives, in the odd position of preferring even Newt Gingrich, a man who has been disloyal to more than one wife. Indeed, a latter-day Dostoyevsky would be hard-pressed to imagine a nakeder embodiment of ambition than Newt Gingrich. Still, he's an honoured elder of the tribe. Meanwhile, an experienced fiscal-conservative governor with an outstanding grasp of foreign affairs who would stand an outstanding chance of defeating Barack Obama in the general election languishes in the polls. 

Erickson later reconsidered his assessment of Huntsman, and many conservatives in fact oppose Gingrich. Still, there is a significant constituency on the right that thinks as Wilkinson says it does. And I submit that this is problematic for reasons that go far beyond Gingrich and Huntsman.

The thing about the conservative movement -- and especially the Tea Party -- is that it simultaneously demands that its champions be uncompromisingly loyal and righteously disloyal, depending upon the situation. If you earnestly disagree with a fellow conservative in a spat with an outsider, for example, it is disloyal to say so, especially in a liberal publication. If the GOP nominates someone who you don't think would be all that great if elected, you're expected to support his or her candidacy. On the other hand, being loyal to your president or your party is no excuse if you're being asked to raise taxes or increase spending or concentrate power in a bureaucracy or support a centrist rather than a conservative Supreme Court nominee. Then you're supposed to be principled and do what you regard to be right, regardless of what friend or political ally or ideological organization is asking you to do otherwise.

Conservatives will tell you about Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment one minute, and complain the next about all the GOP congressmen who didn't speak up against Bush's profligate spending. They'll insist that the right's leaders should support the most conservative candidate in a primary, rather than an insider who has done some favor that advanced their career. But then, asked about Sarah Palin's support for John McCain when he faced a more conservative primary challenger, they'll explain that she owed him loyalty for being chosen to run as his veep.

These contradictions wouldn't exist, or would be less problematic, if conservatives were merely expected to stay loyal to a political philosophy and the policies that flow from it, but in fact tribal, political, and personal loyalty are all demanded (often opportunistically as a given situation makes it convenient.) And if someone could articulate more clearly when conservative politicians ought to be guided by loyalty, and when they ought to be guided by their judgment?

Even if fine distinctions could be made in theory, it would often still be impossible to find pols who'd make them in practice. After all, if you elevate politicians based partly on the fact that they demonstrate the trait of loyalty, odds are that trait is going to inform all of their decisions. They're going to go to Washington, D.C., form relationships with fellow legislators and staffers and lobbyists, and feel the pull of loyalty to those people... which is exactly why there isn't very much whistle-blowing or criticism of people who sell out or principled stands against former allies. Those are all disloyal acts, and it is silly to expect folks exceptionally loyal to their partisan or ideological allies to take them. It should be no surprise that guys like Ron Paul, who consistently stand on principle, are relatively disloyal Republicans, whereas guys like Newt Gingrich, who consistently violate core principles they've previously articulated, are among the most fanatically loyal partisan Republicans, and would never dream of leaving the party.


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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