Why Republicans Should Make 'Conservative' a Taboo Word

Now that every GOP candidate invokes the label, it is increasingly useless in describing what the party wants in a presidential nominee.

Last week, a caller to the Rush Limbaugh radio program raised the question of how Republicans ought to choose their nominee for the 2016 presidential election. "The future of our country depends on a great executive," he said, "and not a great politician." He then offered a specific example. "The best president in my mind, the gentleman president of all time, is George W. Bush," he said, adding that "he conducted himself as professionally and proficiently as possible."

On a different radio show, the host might have pointed out that the Bush Administration actually failed several hugely consequential tests of skill and competence, illustrating why proficiency really is a vital quality in nominees for the presidency. Alternatively, he or she might've argued that while proficiency is, of course, a desirable quality, political skill is every bit as important as executive experience. But Limbaugh sidestepped that debate, staking a claim familiar to anyone who has listened to his program in any election cycle going back to the 1990s.

"Before we get too far out of control starting to talk about what we need, who we need, what kind of person we need to be the next president of the United States," he declared, his voice booming, "there's only one qualification that interests me, folks. It's the only chance we have to restore this country. It's the only chance we have to begin the process of reversing this transformation that Obama has begun. We have got to nominate a conservative Republican. It's the only way we're gonna win. Going out and finding a good executive doesn't matter. That's not what we need."

Just get "a conservative."

The singular focus on ideology, without regard for experience or governing skill, will strike some observers as an example of what's wrong with Limbaugh's belief system. In fairness, there are plenty of others who believe what America most needs is just to elect a feminist or a libertarian or an environmentalist to the White House.

In any case, the critique I want to make is different. Republicans on talk radio frequently invoke their desire to find "a real conservative." There is talk of nominating the most conservative candidate, or the most conservative electable candidate, per the formulation of William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review. But when Buckley said that, the GOP was a much different party than it is now.

Today, every GOP contender self-identifies as a conservative. Among Republican voters, there is no consensus about whether Marco Rubio or Chris Christie or Jeb Bush or Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz or Rand Paul is the best conservative, or, for that matter, what exactly is or ought to be meant by the word. I doubt that Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Hugh Hewitt could all agree.

When talk radio hosts say that Republicans need to nominate a conservative, it may seem as though they are trying to offer substantive analysis, but I am not sure that's the case. At this point, the word is as much a dodge as it is a declaration. Invoking it creates the illusion of agreement as most everyone in the audience nods their heads. Mega-dittoes, Rush, of course we should nominate a conservative. But these listeners will soon be deeply at odds about contested primaries. Absent this word, conservative, Limbaugh and commentators like him would be forced to describe what they want in a nominee with some precision, rather than leaning on a verbal crutch that enables them to avoid specific claims.

The headline of this piece suggests that the right should make "conservative" a taboo word. By that, I don't mean that they should abandon or stigmatize conservatism.

I mean that they should take a lesson from the board game Taboo by Hasbro. In that game, a player draws a card. On it is a word like carrot. The challenge is to get one's teammates to guess the word without saying vegetable or orange or rabbit or root. It forces one to come up with formulations like, "a foodstuff that grows in the ground, is tapered in shape, tastes crisp, and can be made into juice."

If Republicans were to declare the word "conservative" to be taboo, at least for discussions of the 2016 GOP primary, they'd get more clarity, for reasons that Eliezer Yudkowsky elucidates in a post suggesting this general technique:

Get together a pack of soi-disant futurists and ask them if they believe we'll have Artificial Intelligence in thirty years, and I would guess that at least half of them will say yes. If you leave it at that, they'll shake hands and congratulate themselves on their consensus. But make the term "Artificial Intelligence" taboo, and ask them to describe what they expect to see, without ever using words like "computers" or "think", and you might find quite a conflict of expectations hiding under that featureless standard word ...    

The illusion of unity across religions can be dispelled by making the term "God" taboo, and asking them to say what it is they believe in; or making the word "faith" taboo, and asking them why they believe it ... When you find yourself in philosophical difficulties, the first line of defense is not to define your problematic terms, but to see whether you can think without using those terms at all. Or any of their short synonyms. And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead. Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don't use a single handle, whatever that handle may be.

There are talk radio hosts who could excel even if they had to taboo the word "conservative." Impose that rule on, say, Mark Levin, and he'd be perfectly capable of using different words to arrive at more specific, intelligible claims, and large swaths of his audience would be able to anticipate them. I'm not sure the same is true of Limbaugh. I don't doubt his intelligence, but he's been leaning on "conservative" as an intellectual crutch for so long that I'm not sure he could stand without it.

That's too bad for his listeners, who'd benefit from thinking through what, exactly, they're seeking. If their only answer is "a conservative," they've work to do figuring out what exactly that means, for without clarity, they're at the mercy of politicians who excel at embodying vague notions of what voters feel they want.

If you're a Republican voter, can you taboo "conservative" and tell me what you want in a candidate? I'll publish thoughtful replies sent to conor@theatlantic.com