Meanwhile, while working my way through some back issues I was referred to a piece written for the American Enterprise Institute last summer by Henry Olsen that seems relevant right now. In weighing the prospects for a dark-horse candidate, Olsen observed that two distinct forms of conservatism coexist within the GOP. "Dispositional conservatives" are the party's pre-1980 base; they are conservative in the most basic sense of the word in their opposition to change for its own sake and their mistrust of any sort of radicalism. As Olsen elaborates:
This type of conservative was cautious and suspicious of change-- someone who trusted the collected wisdom of institutions and the past over the novelties of individual reasoning and innovative philosophies. It was in this sense that British and Scandinavian parties of the right labeled themselves "Conservative"; it was to overcome this definition that Canada's Conservatives changed their name in the 1940s to the oxymoronic Progressive Conservative Party. In America, this sentiment was well expressed in Russell Kirk's 1953 magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. It may be neatly summed up in the conservative adage that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.
Beginning with the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, if not with the anti-communist surge starting in 1946, "dispositional conservatives" have had to maintain uneasy relations with "ideological conservatives," the people I label "entrepreneurial Republicans." Olsen describes them thusly:
Ideological conservatives are not, by virtue of disposition, necessarily averse to change. On the contrary: In the mold of Reagan, they are forward-looking. They embrace changes and reforms that advance conservative principles, such as the primacy of freedom and the morality of free markets, the protection of traditional moral structures and practices, and the unapologetic use of American power overseas. Under Reagan, conservatism became associated in the public eye with action, experimentation, and change. Its evolving character was best expressed in a line from Reagan's Republican convention acceptance speech in 1980, quoting Thomas Paine: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
Olsen doesn't take the American Conservative view that "ideological conservative" is an oxymoron. But it's unclear from the above paragraph whether "the primacy of freedom" or "the morality of free markets" are means or ends for this group. If there is an irrepressible conflict between dispositionals and ideologues, it may be exactly over the hierarchy of means and ends. Some of the dispositional conservatives have recognized the contradiction of a conservative embrace of free-market "creative destruction" and have denounced some of the ideologues as "radicals," particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Ronald Reagan himself reportedly expressed the tension between dispositionals and ideologues when he said that "human nature resists change and goes over backward to resist radical change." Olsen's argument is that relative moderates usually win out over ideologues in Republican primaries because enough dispositionals remain in the party to resist any perceived radicalism. In his view that's a good thing, since when ideologues manage to head the ticket, the other side usually has success portraying them to the electorate at large as dangerous radicals. Writing last Summer, when Gov. Perry was poised to enter the race and was feared as an instant front-runner, Olsen was clearly rooting for a "dispositional" candidate to win the nomination just so Democrats would not use the "radical" card against them.
Have the dispositionals and ideologues rallied behind Romney and Santorum respectively? It doesn't seem likely. As the arch-capitalist in the race, Romney ought to be the favorite of the ideologues if we understand them to be concerned primarily with "the morality of free markets." Yet Santorum seems to be the favorite of ideologues, at least outside the South where Gingrich may still have strength. The bailout issue has arguably confused matters for free-market ideologues, but Santorum has gotten his second wind just as the "culture war" has allegedly flared up again over contraception coverage for Catholic-hospital employees. When culture becomes the primary issue, the dispositionals, to the extent that they stand by definition for traditional values, may favor Santorum while the free-market faithful follow Romney -- thought the fanatics may prefer Ron Paul. But that would go against Olsen's notion that the dispositionals are a moderating influence within the GOP due to their distrust of radicalism. The problem may be with the dispositional category itself. We can all agree to a certain extent on the definition of a philosophical conservative as a matter of temperament, but philosophical conservatism is really no more than philosophical caution. Once that caution is acknowledged, any avowal of conservatism still begs the question, "conservative of what?" But Olsen's definition of "dispositional conservatism" is practically value-neutral, reducing an entire worldview or assortment of worldviews to simple resistance to change. It doesn't really tell us anything meaningful about these Republicans if it doesn't tell us what they're for -- what they actually want to conserve. If the category only becomes relevant, is only activated when another Republican is perceived as a "radical" threat, it probably isn't useful even to that minimal extent. I'm not disputing that distrust of radicalism is a real element in Republicanism, but there's probably more opportunistic flexibility to the concept -- more chance that one of many factions can slap the "radical" label on another faction, but later be labeled radical itself -- than Olsen's framework allows for. Some people may be temperamentally averse to extremism in any form, but in most cases radicalism is probably defined in the eye of the beholder on a subjective, selective basis, depending on the kind of change you fear. What we know is that many Republicans consider Romney not radical enough, while some consider Santorum (not to mention Paul) too radical. Whether that's anything more than a matter of rhetoric in either case remains to be seen.