American Conservatism

‘Reasonable’ Conservatives


- March 7th, 2019
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A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat urged Republicans to give up their push for stricter voter ID laws.

In making this argument Douthat cites a study suggesting that while stricter voter ID laws have no effect on voter turnout, let alone disproportionate effects on certain racial groups as Democrats have often suggested, they also had no effect on fraud or the perception of election integrity. In view of this, Douthat argues, Republicans should stand down on stricter laws so as to make it easier to make inroads with minority groups convinced that voter ID laws are about curtailing their franchise.

Because nothing screams “not racist” like catering to the soft bigotry of low expectations after your social science study indicates voter ID laws have no racially disproportionate effects.

When it comes to voter fraud, the study itself goes to great lengths to point out potential pitfalls in its conclusions. It notes that measuring voter fraud is difficult because different federal and state agencies “vary in the extent they collect and share information on it” and that the study uses databases that are non-exhaustive. It also notes that changes in crime statistics “can reflect changes in both the number of committed and reported crimes,” suggesting that an increase in reported voter fraud might be the result of greater reporting rather than increased occurance.

These caveats are not particularly comforting for conservatives who are already skeptical of social science methodology and the privileging of linear regressions to common sense.

And then there is another problem that the study doesn’t mention: absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. And even the smartest and most well intentioned researchers would have difficulty conclusively showing that there is a lack of voter fraud.

Simply put, there are many reasons to be wary of this study—and social science studies more broadly—and to pay close attention to the caveats and potential pitfalls that the researchers themselves point to, especially when the conclusions are surprising and unexpected.

But let’s imagine, caveats aside, that the study is correct that stricter voter ID laws do not lower voter fraud. And let’s also imagine that the study is correct that these laws do not boost overall confidence in electoral integrity among Americans—one third of whom believe that electoral fraud is “widespread.”

Anecdotally, we have met many conservatives who do believe that stricter voter ID laws will help ensure electoral integrity. These tend to be the same conservatives who, against the protestations of social scientists, believe that building a wall will deter illegal immigration. Shouldn’t conservative leaders be representing these people and their concerns?

Douthat’s argument perfectly illustrates everything wrong with the so-called “reasonable” conservatives. Their mission appears to be constantly looking for ways to cede ground to their opponents, supposedly on the faulty assumption that if they are reasonable enough, the other side will respect the good-faith effort and meet them halfway.  

The insanity of abandoning the push for strict voter ID laws to appease a party routinely speculating about the efficacy of $100,000 worth of Russian Facebook ads in flipping a $5 billion election cannot be overstated. It is silly to think that voting should require less verification of citizens than buying cold medicine. And it is both disingenuous and cowardly to stand down in the face of accusations that common-sense voter integrity measures are racist.

And what exactly does Douthat think will happen if Republicans stopped pushing for voter integrity? Does he really believe that Democrats would suddenly stop calling them racist? Will Democrats kindly reciprocate and drop one of the issues important to their base? Does he really believe that they would actually start trusting Republicans more?

If Douthat thinks that, he should also urge for the complete legalization of all drugs— he’s clearly smoking something pretty strong.

No. Give up the push for common-sense voter ID and Democrats immediately would claim victory and then continue using the issue as a cudgel. They would use the Republicans’ concession as proof that strict voter ID laws were so racist that even the racists in the Republican Party had to abandon the issue. And then they would target anyone who ever supported those laws and smear them as racist because they used to support a policy so racist that even the . . . well, you get the picture.

By ceding ground, Republicans would lose leverage in all future negotiations. Showing weakness would only spur Democrats to redouble their efforts, and cause the Republican base, once again, to judge them weak and spineless and not worth the bother of having to turn up on election day.

But given that Douthat is a smart man who probably isn’t mainlining heroin, why would he propose such a thing?

Many “reasonable” conservatives are terrified of their side seeming . . . well, unreasonable. They would rather lose with grace than win at the cost of seeming uncouth. And they can afford the luxury of arguing so as to preserve their reputations—for now. “Reasonable” conservatives tend to be well connected and well educated “intellectuals” who serve as self-appointed generals for the conservative movement, but stand to lose very little if an establishment Democrat wins elections.

They don’t care if they lose leverage for future negotiations. It won’t affect them personally. They don’t care if the Democrats win and redouble their efforts. It feeds their victimhood complex. And they don’t care if the Republican base abandons them—most of those people don’t read the New York Times, anyway. And who needs the support of  people deemed “racists” or uncouth?

They will keep trying for style points from the non-existent judges as their carefully lined up tin soldiers are ravished in guerilla warfare. We should expect nothing less.

Remember, these are the same people who would spend years agonizing over just-war theory after terrorists murdered nearly 3,000 civilians by smashing planes into buildings and while a costly and a bloody war dragged on for nearly two decades. Losing a political election is a trifle compared to the deaths of thousands—and if the latter didn’t galvanize them, the former sure as hell won’t either.

These “reasonable” conservatives are smart enough to understand the perils of socialism and that they are witnessing the ongoing decay of Western civilization. But they don’t have enough skin in the game for visceral concern. They care more about the approval of their liberal communities. Given that they are already viewed with suspicion, they pounce on every opportunity to differentiate themselves from those their friends stereotype as unenlightened and uneducated conservatives. They never want to be mistaken for having sympathy with those people.

But the soldiers on the front lines increasingly are disenchanted by their generals. They want generals who will fight for them. Ross Douthat and the rest of the “reasonable” conservatives showed their true colors a long time ago. They would abandon every policy that conservative Americans wanted if it meant that the Left would promise to say that they weren’t racist and ignorant.

The real shame is that the people with the biggest opportunities and responsibilities to stand up to the establishment have become so weak that they are kept in check by the worry of what their friends in their urban liberal enclaves will say.

Here’s hoping Douthat and the rest of the “reasonable” conservatives wake up and realize that their timid reasonability is little more than rationalized cowardice.

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Photo Credit: The Hoover Institution

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