NPR is confused. Or, at least, it’s chronicling the confusion the political press has experienced in their efforts to classify the ideological conflicts tearing the Republican Party apart.
Looking back on the drawn-out intra-Republican squabble over Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the House speakership, NPR recently observed that the battle lines in that fight revealed “deep but hard-to-describe division in the party.” Some said the 20 Republican House members who initially objected to McCarthy were “showing their ideological purity.” But to what ideology are they beholden? That’s a thornier question.
A few GOP-watchers quoted by NPR corrected reporters who reflexively described the holdouts as hardline conservatives, which suggests those members are as or more conservative than most of their conference. That label—one that all sides of the fight embrace—generally doesn’t help us distinguish one Republican House member from another. To NPR, this conundrum exposes once again the degree to which conservatism has become either an indistinct ideological category or one that the GOP has all but jettisoned.
The confusion arises, in part, from an error. What these reporters are witnessing are not ideological conflicts at all. Indeed, the investments some entrepreneurial voices on the right made in the Trump years to transform his movement into an ideological counterweight to conservatism haven’t generated much traction among the GOP’s rank-and-file. What divides Republican voters and their representatives in Congress aren’t debates over ideological first principles. Theirs is not a fight over strategy but tactics.
In NPR’s defense, this is an easy mistake to make if you’re using flawed metrics to gauge individual ideological proclivities. And that’s what NPR did. “When political scientists have used NOMINATE [Dynamic Weighted Nominal Three-step Estimation] voting data to try to objectively measure the party’s conservatism, they have shown the entire GOP has grown more extreme in recent years,” the dispatch read. “Sizably more so than the Democratic Party.” NPR concedes that, “despite its elegance,” this scaling method fails to measure conservatism as conservatives might define it, much less how relatively “extreme” its adherents are. That’s because it’s not a tool to measure thought but action—specifically, the often mundane act of participating in roll-call votes.
In a gentle 2018 admonition of political scientists, R Street Institute fellows Philip Wallach and James Wallner advised against using empirical models like NOMINATE to gauge ideology based on votes because they cannot distinguish ideological conflict from partisan conflict. “NOMINATE scores do possess some predictive power,” they wrote, “but that is no surprise. It is equivalent to saying that roll-call voting in the future will resemble roll-call voting in the past, and it gives no warrant for an ideological interpretation.”
Data-driven journalism was led similarly astray by devices such as FiveThirtyEight’s “Trump Score,” which was used to gauge a member’s relative support of or opposition to Donald Trump. To judge solely by this metric, former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake—a regular critic of the president with well-defined ideological proclivities who was driven from office by Trump—backed the president 95 percent of the time. It turns out that voting with leadership on nominations, procedural motions, and non-binding resolutions with few policy implications doesn’t tell us much about an individual’s preferred theories of social organization.
NPR partially concedes these points, which leaves the reader wondering why the digression made it into the finished product. The segment attempts to apply ideological labels to Donald Trump—a threadbare enterprise that has only ever confounded those who engaged it. NPR’s reporters tried and similarly failed, ultimately concluding that conservatism itself lacks any universal definition. From the viewpoint of its sources, “what it now means to be conservative might be described as: simply opposing liberals.” Perhaps. But “opposing” is an action designed to achieve an objective. It is a means, not an end.
Debates over tactics, often at the expense of whatever those tactics are likely to achieve, loom large over the Republican coalition. The successful effort by the GOP’s more confrontational figures to scare former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels out of the race for U.S. Senate in his state is illustrative of this.
“After 50 years in big government, big pharma, and big academia, Mitch Daniels forgot how to fight,” says the narrator in a Club for Growth-sponsored shot across Daniel’s bow. The Club’s advertisement and those in the group’s orbit who prosecuted the case against Daniels did not dwell much on how the former governor’s objectives and first principles differ from their own, or, for that matter, from conventional conservative policy prescriptions. What they emphasized were verbs.
“Fight,” “support,” and “appease” feature prominently in the argument against Daniels. When the governor’s critics did attempt to indict him on ideological grounds, they made a hash of it by implying (dubiously) that Daniels’s lacks sufficient commitment to fiscal conservatism because he helped create a financially sound and popular entitlement program, which the GOP’s populists—including the Club’s preferred Senate candidate, Rep. Jim Banks—support. NPR isn’t the only institution prone to category errors.
This is just one example among many. “But he fights” once served as a useful indictment of Donald Trump’s Republican critics because it questioned the conventional GOP’s commitment to what the refrain assumes should be their shared cause. The insurgents are no longer mounting an insurgency. They are the establishment themselves, waging rearguard actions in defense of the citadel they long ago captured. But as the right’s sudden rediscovery of fiscal prudence’s virtues attests, Donald Trump’s movement never got around to supplanting conservatism as the GOP’s ideological lodestar.
Internecine ideological conflict never found an audience outside the right’s already highly ideological quarters. What the prosecutors of the Republican civil war love to litigate are the other side’s tactics. The grand strategic objectives will have to wait.