Freedom Conservatives

by | Sep 8, 2023 | Editor's Blog | 5 comments

First, a nonpartisan public service announcement: Yield does not mean stop. It does not mean slow down. It means, in traffic circles, to allow other cars who are in the circle to go before you enter if you are entering at the same time that car would be passing. You yield to that car. Hence, the “yield” sign, not the “stop” sign or “slow, traffic ahead” sign. That said, if you can get into the circle before a car gets to you, do it, even if you need to accelerate slightly. Only yield if you would otherwise collide with the car.  Yield signs are only telling you who has the right-of-way, not how to drive your car. That’s all. 

I’ve been reading, thanks to John Hood, about an attempt by mainstream conservative intellectuals to recreate the energy that William F. Buckley, Jr., brought to the conservative movement 60 years or so ago. They’ve put together a statement of principles and call themselves “Freedom Conservatives,” as opposed to the “National Conservatives” that they see as their competitors on the right.

A few things strike me about this movement. First, the National Conservatives are really reactionary populists who are flirting with neo-fascism. Instead of disdaining them, the Freedom Conservatives seem to be wooing them, attempting to re-build the same political coalition that emerged from Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Flattering them by calling them National Conservatives instead of what they really are is just disingenuous. 

The segregationists that the Buckley crowd tolerated and that Nixon recruited are the Trumpists today. The difference is that the segregationists were Democrats and their transition into the GOP took decades. For most of that period, they were the minority members of the Reagan coalition. Buckley and the free-market ideologues drove the policy decisions, even if they turned a blind eye to the racist political tactics of people like Jesse Helms, Lee Atwater, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone that kept the segregationists in the fold. Today, the reactionaries are the dominant faction of the GOP, dwarfing these so-called Freedom Conservatives. 

It’s the same deal with the devil that Democrats made in the post-Civil War era that gave us Jim Crow.  Now, with the help of the GOP, that deal has delivered us Donald Trump. The National Conservatives are driven by a fear of immigrants and minorities. They are isolationist and paranoid with little respect for democracy or the rule of law. 

In reading their document, you would think that these Freedom Conservatives would be pro-choice and oppose arbitrary restrictions on medical care. Unfortunately, that’s not the case and really brings into question their commitment to freedom from government coercion. They have bastardized freedom of religion to justify restrictions on personal medical care.

Nothing is more invasive or coercive than regulating what people can do with their own bodies. There’s nothing free about that. Arguing that a nonviable fetus is a human child is a religious conviction, nothing more. Imposing that belief on the broader population is a violation of freedom of religion and directly contradicts their statement, “Among Americans’ most fundamental rights is the right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force: a right that, in turn, derives from the inseparability of free will from what it means to be human.”

In their view, the government should not regulate free enterprise, but it can tell doctors and their patients what is best for them. Personally, I have some qualms about invasive medical treatment for transgender youth. However, I am far more comfortable with doctors and families making those decisions than politicians, especially ones driven by religious convictions instead of medical and emotional considerations.  

The Freedom Conservatives define themselves as protectors of our heritage “because we seek to conserve that which has made America great—and always will.” I would argue that what has made us truly great is our ability to adapt to an ever changing world. We overcame slavery and Jim Crow. We expanded the franchise. We created a social safety net, though we could do better. And, yes, we became an innovative society that created wealth, but our strength was making sure that it was spread instead of concentrated. I believe, as Lincoln did, that we are an aspirational nation, not a limiting one.

Finally, the statement of principles promotes what it calls “Freedom of conscience,” stating, “Essential to a free society is the freedom to say and think what one believes to be true.” I equate that statement with a commitment of freedom of speech, yet the signatories have little to say about the GOP movement to regulate voting, the greatest expression of free speech that we have in this country. 

If the so-called Freedom Conservatives were true to the principles they laid out, they would be leading the charge for more access to the ballot box, promoting free speech. Instead, they have either promoted government restrictions or sat silent as states led by National Conservatives, as they call them, strip away voting rights from people. If they really believed in personal and individual freedom, they would be the most ardent proponents of undeterred access to medical care for women and transgender citizens. Instead, they advocate heavy-handed government restrictions that limit individual freedom and endanger lives and the emotional welfare of patients. 

Instead, the Freedom Conservatives understand that they must make compromises, because that’s what politics is all about. Despite their name, they are seeking alliances with the people who have the least interest in freedom and who flirt with authoritarianism. They are looking to rebuild the coalition with the same forces that brought us Jim Crow and Trumpist reactionaries. Unfortunately, they are a long way from having the influence to change the course of the Republican Party. They would be smarter to reject the reactionaries and make peace with the Democrats. At least those compromises would not force them to turn a blind eye toward racism and bigotry.


  1. walter rand

    Thomas, what do you estimate is the relative size of the “freedom conservatives” to the “national conservatives”? The “national,” anti-freedom wing seems much more vocal than the “freedom” wing, but I don’t have a good feel for relative numbers. Louder doesn’t mean a larger population.
    About abortion: whether a non-viable fetus is a person or not is a red herring issue. Don’t fall for that diversion. Forcing a woman to carry the fetus is involuntary servitude and is constitutionally outlawed, with good reason. There is an exception in the constitution for convicted criminals being forced into involuntary servitude, however there is no exception for pregnant women to be forced into involuntary servitude. If the anti-abortion people want to lawfully outlaw abortion they must pass a constitutional amendment adding pregnant women to the convicted criminal exception for imposing involuntary servitude. Whether a fetus is a child or abortion is right or wrong is a side issue. The legal issue is that the US Constitution in the 13th Amendment says it is illegal to ban abortions. If people want to both uphold the US Constitution and ban abortions they must pass a Constitutional amendment changing the language of the 13th Amendment from “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” to read “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment FOR BEING PREGNANT OR for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

    • Thomas Mills

      Walter, according to Pew, 37% of Republicans have a college degree or higher. I suspect the percentage of Freedom Conservatives is about 25% or so. The National Conservatives make up about 60%. That’s the percentage that consistently supports Trump. The other 15% falls somewhere in between.

  2. JB

    Conservatives are concerned with conserving only their own wealth and status. Conservative politicians concern themselves only with conserving the wealth of their patrons. Conservative voters… still believe they might get a seat at the table one day. The needle that the first two groups must thread (and have been more or less successful in doing so) is to convince the third group that by voting against their own interest, they are actually voting against the interest of the other half of the franchise. To that end, they will demonize whomever they must, and embrace whatever dogma they need to — even when they don’t generally believe a word of it.

    The so called “pro-life” movement is nothing of the sort. They’re not even “pro-child”. They’re pro-BIRTH, and once that life is out of the womb those children and their mothers are on their own. But that’s what it takes to keep the rubes on-side, so that’s what they do. Perhaps there will come a day when the base figures out they’ve been had, and considering the makeup of that base, I would be very interested in seeing the reckoning that those in the first two groups will have. But I sort of doubt I have that many years left to me.

  3. cocodog

    Comment on Traffic Circles, AKA roundabouts. They were designed to reduce the number and severity of traffic collisions. However, design has one glowing defect. They are designed for a driver who has developed habits of courtesy and defensive driving. On the west coast where traffic circles are making a comeback, these skills are at a minimum. Moreover, reading can be an issue. Tailgating or aggressive driving is common. I recall a guy telling me tailgating is OK if your brakes and reaction time are good. The two second rule means the time it takes to pop the cap on a beer bottle. These folks believe they have the skills and physical conditioning of a professional NASCAR driver because they watch them on TV. For those folks who think traffic circles are great, take a ride up to DC. They have traffic circles up there that folks enter in the morning and are lucky if they emerge by midnight. Traffic circles can not replace stop lights and good enforcement.

    • cocodog

      In all fairness, I should add the East Coast.

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