There's been a bit of a discussion going on between Ross Douthat, Tyler Cowen, Ross again, John Holbo, and Brad DeLong about defining conservative ideology. At the same time, Richard Just did a piece recently arguing that Jim Webb may agree with liberals about a lot of policy issues but really he's a conservative.
To me, thinking about all this mostly reminds us that American politics isn't especially ideological and hasn't historically ever been especially ideological. Tradition and institutional structure have given us a robust two-party system. Geography and immigration have given us an enormous, extremely diverse country. Typical democracies have many fewer people and substantially more political parties. Consequently, practical politics in the United States revolves around a competition between two political coalitions that are, of necessity, pretty slapdash and unwieldy. The primary fact about an American's political allegiance, under the circumstances, is his attitude toward those coalitions not his or her abstract ideas about how things ought to be. A "conservative" in this sense just is someone who supports the Republican coalition versus the Democratic one and who in internal debates tends to support the institutionalized conservative movement's "three pillars" approach against various reformist tendencies.
This is in a lot of respects disappointing for a writer, since it involves people who are interested in ideas spending a lot of our time doing "gotcha" stuff about how the other team is desperately in hoc to malign interests. But I think that if you look at our history overall, you'll see that America has benefitted from having a political system that's relatively comfortable acknowledging the essentially grubby and transactional nature of real-world democratic politics rather than one dominated by a lot of aspirations to purism and total victory.
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