28 October 2009

All Conservatism is Local

The Conservative Party of New York State has gained national attention for its surging campaign to elect Doug Hoffman to represent the 23rd District in Congress over a Republican candidate as well as a Democratic nominee. A victory by Hoffman might establish the Conservatives as a viable alternative to the Republican Party for Empire State conservatives, or it may prove a tactical maneuver, whether Hoffman wins or loses, in a long-term strategy for movement conservatives to take over the state GOP and its fundraising apparatus.

Is the Conservative Party in a position to exploit a Hoffman upset? It's hard to say. Hoffman may be the face the party chooses to showcase in the 23rd District, but it shows different faces depending on where you are in New York. Like all smaller parties here, the Conservatives play the cross-endorsement game to get better ballot position, and Conservatives in each county make their own tactical decisions with little apparent regard for ideological consistency statewide.

Consider Albany, where I live. In the state capital city the Conservative Party has endorsed Jerry Jennings for mayor. Jennings is the Democratic incumbent and heir to one of the most enduring political machines of modern times. He is opposed by a Republican, Nathan Lebron, and a Working Families candidate, Corey Ellis, who lost to Jennings in the Democratic primary. The Hoffman candidacy has shown that Conservatives don't consider themselves obliged to endorse Republicans, but to prefer an archetypal machine Democrat to a GOP candidate is strange. Stranger still, some of Jennings's cronies were defeated by insurgents in the Democratic primaries, but remain on the final ballot on the Conservative line.

Perhaps the Albany party practices literal conservatism. Is it not the conservative thing, leaving ideology out of it, to stick with the machine that has ruled Albany from time immemorial? It should be obvious, anyway, that the conservatism practiced in Albany is something quite different from what the nation sees in the 23rd District. Would the Albany Conservatives ever support someone like Hoffman to represent themselves in Congress, or in City Hall? A more important question is whether the statewide Conservatives need to enforce some sort of ideological consistency throughout New York in order to take the maximum advantage of whatever success Hoffman has next month. That is, will conservatives need to infiltrate Conservative county organizations in order to make themselves a viable statewide party? Or should New York conservatives worry less about ideological correctness and more about allowing local parties to represent constituencies in ways that Republicans or Democrats don't? This is going to be a tough question for them, because another way of saying, as I suggest in my title, that all conservatism is local is that all conservatism is relative. For ideological conservatives that may be unacceptable, but local or literal conservatives may prove more pragmatic.

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