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Recent infighting raises the question: How conservative is the GOP?

U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy talks to then-Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in the House Chamber during the fourth day of voting for speaker of the House in January.
Chip Somodevilla
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U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy talks to then-Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in the House Chamber during the fourth day of voting for speaker of the House in January.

A few weeks ago, Americans — or, the subset who get excited about these things — were glued to C-SPAN as the House voted 15 times for a speaker.

It was a show of a deep but hard-to-describe division in the party. While the overwhelming majority of Republicans supported eventual Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a faction of 20 Republicans held out. Among their demands were that the House not raise the debt ceiling without deep spending cuts.

What set them apart? To some, the rebel Republicans were showing their ideological purity.

"By and large, the reason why Kevin McCarthy has this problem in this conference is that these fiscal conservatives do not want to follow the Mitch McConnell Senate Republican strategy," American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp told Fox Business. "They passed nearly a $2 trillion omnibus with winks and nods from Republicans because they don't have the stomach to reduce federal spending."

But the speaker fight, as well as the debt ceiling fight that has followed and the fight over leading the party, have raised some big questions about — well, are these Congress members so uniquely conservative?

Charlie Sykes, editor-in-chief of the website The Bulwark, wrote a piece titled "There's nothing conservative about reneging on our debt."

"I understand the whole idea of fiscal conservatism, but then basically saying, yes, let's push the country toward debt default — in what world is the refusal to pay your credit cards considered a conservative act?" he told NPR.

Likewise, The New York Times' resident right-leaning columnists David Brooks and Bret Stephens discussed how "the party and a radicalized conservative movement have left them feeling alienated."

New York University professor and media critic Jay Rosen noted how Republicans "are frequently called 'conservatives' — and the most destructive among them the 'most conservative' — by reporters and editors who no longer know why they're using the words they habitually use."

All of which is to say that the latest instances of GOP infighting have thus revived a years-long conversation about what it even means to be conservative — and if that is even still the ideology at the center of the Republican Party.

Trump the (maybe) conservative

Debates over the party's ideology have been going on for a very long time, of course. But that conversation arguably got louder when Donald Trump ran for president in 2015. NPR's Scott Simon asked right-wing radio host Glenn Beck back then whether Trump was a conservative.

"I don't think he is," Beck answered. "I haven't heard him talk about the Constitution or small government."

But most of the party — Beck included — would eventually come around.

And a recent study shows just how much they did — it shows that Trump, who campaigned this past weekend in New Hampshire and South Carolina, in fact changed how people define conservatism. Researchers surveyed people who were particularly active in partisan politics. They presented those activists with pairs of senators, and then asked the respondents to name which senator was more conservative or more liberal.

"By April 2021, when we did this survey, Donald Trump had, even for these political activists, largely redefined what it was to be conservative around support for Trump and his style of politics," said Daniel Hopkins, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a study co-author.

Even those with conservative voting records (as measured by NOMINATE, a widely used measure of members' ideologies based on their voting records) were seen as more moderate than their colleagues if they were also Trump critics.

Georgetown's Hans Noel, a study co-author, adds that Trump reordered the party's priorities, taking focus away from traditionally conservative principles.

"This sort of America first, nativist, ethnocentric, even racist kind of appeals where he's like, 'Let's get out of NAFTA and let's not let companies be woke,' some of those completely fly in the face of a free market economy, free trade, Republican coalition," Noel said.

If not conservative ... then what?

So: Is the post-Trump GOP conservative?

By one definition, yes. When political scientists have used NOMINATE voting data to try to objectively measure the party's conservatism, they have shown the entire GOP has grown more extreme in recent years — sizably more so than the Democratic Party.

But while the people who voted against McCarthy are largely at the "conservative" end of the spectrum by this measure, it's not a totally clear picture. Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia (McCarthy supporters) are more "conservative" here than Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida (a vocal McCarthy opponent). And no matter what, McCarthy's score still most definitely qualifies as "conservative" here.

Perhaps more importantly: NOMINATE — for all its elegance — doesn't really get at how "conservatism" is defined. It picks up how much people vote together, not what topics they're voting on or what they believe. If Congress starts voting on more bills about transgender issues and fewer about trade, the score won't reflect that.

So then we're back to definitions. For her part, Ashley Hayek, executive director of the pro-Trump group America First Works, believes both that Trump's ideology is conservative, and that he changed conservatism.

"It was exposing the gap between the consultants and the people, and that permanently altered people's expectations overall," she said. "So I think conservativism is really, you know, putting power back to the American people."

A short version might be that he made the party far more populist, making a concerted effort to win over non-elites.

On that note, Hayek adds that she sees this whole debate over whether the party is conservative as an inside-the-beltway conversation — something average Americans aren't concerned with.

That may be true; Charlie Sykes and David Brooks and Jay Rosen are two journalists and an academic, the very picture of elites.

But the debate still raises an important question: If today's conservatism is defined by Trump, what happens as his influence wanes?

Michael Steele, former RNC chair, worries the party has no ideology right now — it didn't adopt a new platform in 2020, and Trump opponents like former Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., are now out of power.

"We don't even have a platform. How do we define ourselves? We can't even tell you what we believe," he said. "You know, everybody talking about Liz Cheney is conservative — Liz is conservative on a lot of things, but Liz got herself kicked out of the party."

As 2024 approaches, Sykes thinks that what people think of as conservatism may at this point be more about style than substance.

"It's whoever can play most effectively to the media wing of the Republican Party, who can anger the left, who promises to fight and inflict damage on the left more more aggressively."

From that point of view, what it now means to be conservative might be described as: simply opposing liberals.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.