Are Conservatives More Intellectually Honest?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Kudos to Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur for noticing that “filibuster opponents have gone silent after Democrats lost the Senate in January, while numerous Democratic senators who were vocal in their criticism of the blocking tool have similarly ceased to be vocal on the issue.”

It’s funny how we can go from lamenting an undemocratic tool that causes gridlock to employing a time-tested Senate rule that prevents the tyranny of the majority. On both sides of the political aisle, opportunism seems to trump principle.

Speaking of which — and I realize this invites the predictable “Last honest man in Washington” criticism — I’m starting to think that center-right opinion leaders might be the only intellectually honest cohort left in Washington.

When Kentucky clerk Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, many of my conservative colleagues eschewed partisan tribalism in favor of stressing a consistent principle: Davis must follow the rule of law. Likewise, when Hillary Clinton’s team produced a tortured excuse for why she had a private email address and a private server, even those of us who think Clinton has acted inappropriately might concede that, yes, there is overclassification of national security secrets.

These concessions might preserve intellectual integrity, but they aren’t terribly helpful politically — at least, not in the short-run. In a world where politicians need us to believe that their side is purely angelic (and the other, purely demonic), introducing nuance is less than helpful.

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of partisan hacks on the Right; there are. For example, in the past, Liberty Counsel has taken positions that seem to contradict their current defense of Kim Davis. This seems, at best, inconsistent. Selective outrage is in vogue this season.

Still, once you get past the people (and groups) who are obviously carrying water for their “side,” there are a lot of conservative truth tellers out there. And I don’t see liberals having this same willingness to go against their “team” when their team deviates from principle. Personally, I have rarely been in a TV debate scenario where a liberal concedes a point — or seeks comity. There are exceptions, of course, but liberals tend to be meaner, more aggressive, more tribalistic, and less willing to grant concessions.

The predictable result seems to be that liberals often win. This makes sense, somewhat. If one side is disciplined and committed to going on the offense and sticking with their “team,” and the other side is committed to finding the truth (“Hey, Mr. Referee—actually I didn’t quite make that first down”), then guess who wins? This, of course, at least partly explains the frustration of some grassroots conservatives who wish the Right would just adopt the tactics of the Left.

It’s hard to quantify this trend when talking about TV spots. My claims are purely anecdotal. But if metrics are needed, we need look no further than the Supreme Court. This is from the New York Times:

In case after case, including blockbusters on same-sex marriage and President Obama’s health care law, the court’s four-member liberal wing (all appointed by Democratic presidents) managed to pick off one or more votes from the court’s five conservative justices, all of whom were appointed by Republicans.

They accomplished this feat (in large part) through rigorous bloc voting — making the term that concluded Monday the most liberal one since the Warren court in the late 1960s, according to two political-science measurements of court voting data.

Clearly, hanging together has its advantages. Meanwhile, thinking for yourself has negative consequences. Imagine how different the political landscape would be if the “conservatives” voted in a bloc the way liberals do. I’m not suggesting that this would be good or right or appropriate, but it would likely be effective. Once one side commits to total war, as the Left seems to have done, non-compliance equates to unilateral disarmament. Thus, anyone who wants to comment on political issues risks being pressed into service.

So, assuming I’m right, why are conservatives more intellectually honest? One could argue that liberals are inherently fond of command-and-control systems, while conservatives are rugged individualists. (Getting conservatives to agree to anything is the equivalent of herding cats.) It’s an interesting theory, but history suggests this phenomenon is somewhat cyclical.

Those of us who lived through the George W. Bush era still recall that center-right journalists were too willing to look the other way and not criticize the GOP’s big government policies. Many of us who watched this occur vowed never to carry water for a Republican like that. It’s entirely possible that future generations will learn the opposite lesson — that politics is a bloodless war, and esoteric niceties like “principle” are always the first casualty.