Something We Learned In New Hampshire: There Are Three Definitions Of The Word Conservative

rick santorum and mitt romney

Every single political ad we’ve heard or seen in New Hampshire uses the word “conservative.” 

Rick Santorum is a “full spectrum conservative.”  Jon Huntsman is a “consistent conservative.” Newt Gingrich is a “proven conservative.”  You get the idea. 

This is a remarkable phenomena because 50 years ago almost no one in American politics called themselves a conservative. Now almost every Republican (and some Democrats) fight to pin that label on themselves.

Obviously, this label is used by very politicians who are dissimilar to each other. So it’s worth trying to differentiate between three meanings of the word “conservative.” There is obviously some overlap in these categories. A politician could be a little mix of each. 

“Values conservative”: This kind of conservative appeals to an ideology or a philosophy for their worldview. Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry are values conservatives, who rely on Biblical religion and ideas drawn from America’s founding documents. Ron Paul is a kind of values conservative too – but he draws from Libertarian principles and a tight reading of the Constitution. A value conservative thinks danger lies in straying from the best ideas. “We need to return America to the principles that made this nation great,” they’d say. 

“Small-c conservative”: The oldest definition of a ‘conservative’ in politics is someone who emphasises preserving the good in the way things are. These conservatives tinker on the edges of established systems, and want change to be slow and organic. They are defined by prudence and caution. They have political ideas, but they don’t treat them as unbreakable dogma. This kind of conservative politician governs to the political centre of the people. Jon Huntsman fits this style, though his actual policy plans appeal to values conservatives. A small-c conservative would calmly say, “This is the greatest country in the world, and I won’t let Barack Obama change that.” 

“Identity conservative”: This kind of conservative has a rougher style. They are often slashing partisans who rail against elites. They say that we need “to take our country back.” Often the policy-substance doesn’t have to match with values-conservatives. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were big-spending politicians with little regard for free-market orthodoxy. Despite this, many observers think they are the “most conservative” because they are the most confrontational. They often cast themselves as an agent of enormous, and revolutionary change. They’d shout, “We need dramatic fundamental reform, or we will face calamity.”  


Candidates don’t use the terms we’ve come up with of course. They just call themselves “conservative” or use some other kind of intensifying adjective. A “true conservative”, or a “faithful conservative.” 

Mitt Romney calls himself a conservative too – but he uses all three of the above as different modes in his campaign. We noticed him doing it this morning with great ease and fluency. It may be one of the reasons he does so well in this state. A conservative voter who had any one of the above tendencies could find something to like in Mitt Romney’s speech.

Meanwhile, someone who was an “identity conservative” would really be offended by Ron Paul’s campaign, which seems to downgrade loyalty to Real Americans, in allegiance to some ideal. A “small-c” type of conservative would find both Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul a little unnerving. Change that radical can be scary and have unintended consequences.  

Everyone is fighting for this “conservative” label but it obviously can mean several things. It’s content isn’t permanently defined. It’s tempting to say that the word doesn’t mean anything in mind, but we think we’ve picked out the three dominant trends. It’s worth keeping these shades of meaning in mind when watching the campaign.