We’ve had a wide variety of conservative: the neo-cons, the paleo-cons and most recently the crunchy cons. Have you ever noticed how many of the most prominent conservative voices in America sound more like liberals? I have, and I believe they are in class all their own: they have a special mission and fit a particular profile.
They are what I like to call ‘kept cons.’ They are ‘kept’ by liberals in that kept cons generally work for liberal institutions and seem to fill the role of token conservative; they write conservative columns for national liberal newspapers or appear as conservative hosts or commentators on CNN or MSNBC or CNBC; but they don’t sound all that conservative. You can spot them slamming Sarah Palin or tamping down on the Tea Party. Their usual message is always something like, “I’m a conservative but these other people, these gun owners/southerners/TEA Partiers/Tax Cutters/Randians/Supply-siders/Pro-lifers/Climate Change Deniers/Libertarians/Gun Nuts/ Gold Bugs, etc., are beyond the pale.
The kept conservative’s announced job is to represent the conservative point of view, but their real job is to give the illusion of balance without really challenging any of the core tenets of liberalism. They spend lots of time ‘reinventing’ the Republican Party, and the new invention is always the same: more liberal. They live among liberals, their friends are liberals, and, of course, they are paid by liberals.
They don’t actually have to work for the New York Times Company or NBC Universal. Some of these kept cons work for think tanks funded by conservatives, when they can’t get government work. They might be employed by the American Enterprise Institute where they can collect steady paychecks between gigs working for government, or for campaigns for people who want to run governments, or running lobbying and public relations firms when the GOP is not in power.
They raise money from across the U.S. on the grounds that they will represent heartland values in the corrupt seat of political power. But, nevertheless, they live in Washington, D.C., they think like D.C., they are haunted by the fear that if their career flags too much they will be banished from D.C., and they fight each other for the right to sit on the floor nearest the table of the liberals, where they can get the biggest scraps which fall from that table.
They are the loyal opposition: loyal, that is, to the regime, not to the people. They are not the solution. In fact they are more of a problem than the liberals, because when occasionally they are in power, they spout disconnected free-market slogans while they spend us into oblivion and practice crony capitalism, giving free-markets an undeserved black eye. True resistance to socialism will not come from such an opposition force as our current conservative ruling elite. Better no opposition than faux opposition.
I don’t want to be too cynical. Kept conservatives may once have been true, principled conservatives, and may well have gone to Washington initially as Mr. Smiths, with pure intentions and a desire to save it. But unlike Jimmy Stewart’s character, when they got hit with the overwhelming allure and threat of great power, they ‘went native.’
For a time I ran a conservative think tank called the Allegheny Institute (more on that in a future column) which focused on free market solutions to local problems. This is where I first saw the phenomenon of the kept conservative up close and personal. I was an adviser to some members of the country commission.
Counties in America are often governed by a county commission system under three commissioners. The system is set up so that two are of the majority party and the third is of the minority party. In Allegheny County (the Pittsburgh region) that pretty much always meant two Democrats and one Republican. The only real fight the Republicans ever fought was not which party would govern the county, but which Republican would be the minority commissioner. If he didn’t make too much trouble, some small sliver of jobs patronage was thrown his way, maybe a few contracts for his favored vendors with the county, and a small staff on the county budget, plus his salary, benefits, driver, etc. Crumbs from the table of the Democrat machine.
I see the same thing on a national scale right now: Republican congressmen who are more afraid of losing their jobs than they are of losing their integrity. I get it, really I do. D.C. is a company town and the company is government and if the company keeps growing there’s something for everyone.
The safest route is to become invested in the mission of growing the company and keeping your bit of the big game safe. But if you take a risk, a real risk, and stand up for principle and just vote ‘no’ on the fiscal cave, or draw a line in the cement (enough with the lines in the sand, which are washed away with each new tide) and vote ‘no’ on new debt, you just might end up being exiled from all of that, sent back home to Poughkeepsie, New Rochelle, Upper St. Clair, Springfield, Greenville, Franklin or Fairview, where it’s back to work on Monday running the restaurant chain or the auto dealership. You probably don’t even get to be the head of some trade federation in D.C. because that’s really a former Senator kind of job; it’s not for just some House of Representative back-bencher. And forget about a plum think tank gig or CNBC/CNN/MSNBC Contributor gig at $500 a pop.
The opposite of a kept conservative could be called a ‘Saint Thomas More conservative’. He (or increasingly often, she) values integrity more than power. Thomas More, of course, valued his integrity even more than his life! I wonder: can’t we at least get conservatives in Washington who value their integrity more than their lifestyles?
Mr. Bowyer is the author of "The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide," published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for Forbes.com.