Opinion | The conservative challenge to liberalism goes deeper than self-interest


The political analyst Michael Barone once quipped, “All process arguments are insincere, including this one.” He meant that political fights ostensibly about the rules of the game are really about helping one side win. But that’s not always the case, or at least not entirely. Two new high-quality studies suggest that American conservatives are more committed than liberals to two important procedural norms — federalism and free speech — independent of whose partisan interests they serve.

Those findings support the theory that conservatism is more focused on the means of distributing political power, while liberalism is more focused on the ends to which political power is used. Modern populism on the right, which aims to set aside traditional guardrails and achieve conservative ends by a wider range of means, can be thought of partly as a response to this gap.

The first paper, published this month by Tufts political scientists James M. Glaser, Jeffrey M. Berry and Deborah J. Schildkraut, measures the impact of political ideology on support for federalism. Based on an analysis of survey data since 2000, it found that “conservatives are more likely to prefer a devolution of power to state and local jurisdictions, even if doing so might make it harder to achieve conservative policy aims.” Meanwhile, liberals are “more likely to prioritize policy aims and to support whichever level of government seems most likely to achieve them.”

For example, even secular conservatives oppose by a wide margin the Supreme Court’s holding that school-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional. Among liberals, meanwhile, “one’s position on the question of which level of government should control school prayer is heavily determined by their religiosity.” On an issue with minimal partisan valence — whether states and localities or the federal government should take the lead in combating prescription opioid abuse — a 2015 survey found that conservatives were significantly more likely to say states and localities.

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On issues where state-led policymaking can advance liberal priorities, meanwhile, liberal support for federalism surges. In 2018, 83 percent of liberals supported California’s prerogative to set especially progressive vehicle emissions standards. While conservative views of federalism also shift depending on the ideological implications, the effect is less pronounced: Fifty-eight percent of conservatives also said California should be allowed to maintain an environmental policy that contradicted the (then-Republican-controlled) federal government’s.

Conservatism’s preference for decentralized power, then, appears “to be rooted in principle,” not partisan advantage. What about when it comes to another procedural norm — freedom of speech?

A January paper by Ruth E. Appel and Jennifer Pan of Stanford University and Margaret E. Roberts of the University of California at San Diego measured the propensity of Democrats and Republicans to remove partisan misinformation on social media. The differences are stark: “Even when Republicans agree that content is false, they are half as likely as Democrats to say that the content should be removed and more than twice as likely to consider removal as censorship,” the study found.

The authors showed 1,120 people false headlines geared to support the partisan priors of one party or the other, such as “Hours after signing an executive order on Jan. 20, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden violated his own mask mandate” and “In Sept. 2016, Ted Cruz tweeted, ‘I’ll believe in climate change when Texas freezes over.’” Respondents were told the headlines were false.

If conservative support for free speech were primarily self-serving, we’d expect Republican respondents would target Democratic misinformation for removal. Instead, the authors found: “Regardless of the partisan slant of the content, Democrats are more likely to support the removal of content, while Republicans are more likely to oppose removing content.” Moreover, Democrats discriminate somewhat in favor of misinformation that supports their party, while Republicans treat pro-Republican and pro-Democratic content similarly.

The Republican emphasis on freedom of speech online is sometimes interpreted as a reflection on the party’s purported disregard for the truth. Instead, it might reflect a genuine conservative position about the optimal way for political communication to operate.

Both papers are open to multiple interpretations, of course, and it’s possible these findings are better explained by subtle power dynamics than principles and values. As the writer Fred Bauer noted, “free-speech commitments used to be a very important social marker for college-educated Americans.” For much of the 20th century, the process of open debate was seen as a means of persuading more people of liberal positions; today, it is more often seen as a threat to dominant liberal institutions.

The “process arguments” favored by right and left have changed before, and they could change again. After all, there’s nothing inherently virtuous about a rigid commitment to processes such as federalism and the marketplace of ideas if they lead to terrible outcomes.

New socially conservative movements — variously labeled populist, New Right and integralist — consider conservatism’s traditional commitment to process to be a political handicap. Why, they ask, should the right commit to playing by certain rules if those rules tend to lead to progressive victories? For example, the Harvard law scholar Adrian Vermeule’s theory of “common-good constitutionalism” urges conservatives to eschew originalism’s procedural strictures and embrace judicial outcomes that promote a certain vision of the common good.

The most fiercely contested arguments in American politics are increasingly about processes — such as elections, the filibuster, gerrymandering, judicial confirmations — that set the rules for taking power. It would be naive to expect parties’ procedural positions to be entirely consistent. But we should hope that abstract principles continue to carry at least some weight in at least one party, if not both. A political order where all process arguments are insincere is one where power can be sought by any means necessary, and more violent and primitive forms of politics become thinkable again.

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