The press styles John Kasich as a moderate rather than a conservative Republican. That’s weird. Moderate? Schmoderate! Kasich has a decades-long record as a strong conservative. He stands for an authentic form of American conservatism, one I’d argue is its best and truest form, even if it currently isn’t its numerically largest or most influential form.
There are two basic reasons why reporters—and even some right-wing commentators—don’t understand where Kasich is on the political spectrum, and so label him a moderate out of their own confusion. First, because Kasich is not a right-wing fire eater; he has a conservative temperament. Secondly, because of his positions on poverty and government policy, which not only do not detract from his conservatism, they flow from his bona fide conservatism.
A conservative temperament—empirical, incremental, prudential—is not simply a matter of “style.” While not rejecting government action in knee-jerk fashion, it holds a humble view about government abilities; it’s cautious about unintended consequences.
Further, it’s not a factious, or fractious, temperament. The American Founders warned of the dangers of faction in which “zeal for different opinions” concerning government and other topics “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good.” This is as apt a description of the un- if not anti-conservatism of much of the right-wing (and left-wing) media, and of many politicians today, including a couple who are running for the GOP nomination.
Unfortunately, there is scarcely any worse venue to display a conservative temperament than in a 30-second sound bite on a crowded debate stage.
Secondly, it’s Kasich’s positions on poverty policy, and because he references what Jesus says in Matthew 25 in support of those policies, that confuse the media (and critics) into labeling him a moderate.
Wrong. This is John Kasich at his most conservative.
While conservatives and classical liberals (as opposed to modern liberals) agree on many things, this is one important area that distinguishes conservatives from their classically-liberal co-belligerents. Conservatives tend to see, and value, individuals nested in, and expressed in, a welter of intersecting and overlapping social, political, and economic relationships. The market, to be sure, but also friendships, family, local and larger communities, churches, and other associations. This can facilitate human activity as well as impose on it. So conservativism does not defer reflexively to market outcomes as inherently wise when they result in outcomes like poverty. To be sure, conservatives value the market as a tool—and hugely valuable institution—nonetheless they insist that the market is made for man, not man for the market.
Consequently, conservatives—authentic conservatives—do not shy away from recognizing and embracing the important, traditional role played by American governments in providing for those in need (in conjunction with the important work of other institutions).
In his 2015 report for the Heritage Foundation, Poverty and Welfare in the American Founding, Thomas West, a professor at Hillsdale College, writes, “Conservatives tend to assume that poor relief in early America was entirely private, while liberals generally think the poor were entirely neglected until the 20th century. But America has always had laws providing for the poor. The real difference between the Founders’ welfare policies and today’s is over how, not whether, government should help those who are in need.”
This may not be widely recognized as conservative policy these days, but employing the government to help take care for the needy predates the Republic, and is as American as apple pie.
To be sure, conservative welfare policies often have goals different than modern liberals have. Conservative policy aims for restoration rather than redistribution. It’s committed to the idea that work has inherent dignity, it’s committed to personalism and subsidiarity. Also, conservative empiricism means that there’s a frank recognition that changing factors, like globalization, might affect the appropriate scale, type, and form of policy.
Kasich brings a frank Christian moral vision to his commitment to conservative social policy. Kasich often invokes Matthew 25 when discussing it. “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”
Kasich has been taken to task for applying this passage to justify government action. Marvin Olasky, for example, complained that “Those verses urge us as individuals and churches to help the needy, but they are not a call for government action.” Olasky writes that Kasich needs to “study the Bible.”
But Kasich reads and applies the passage more accurately. In the passage, Jesus expressly talks of nations being gathered before the throne of the King. Nations aren’t limited to individuals and churches, and people can act through their governments as well as through their churches, particularly in democracies. Indeed, while “nations” (ethnos) in the New Testament should not be identified with the modern nation-state, nonetheless, ethnos can include a political or governmental dimension. Olasky’s (and others’) individualistic reading of Matthew 25 ignores the clear corporate, even political, referent of the passage. Indeed, this understanding is fully consistent with the Bible’s teaching in Romans 13 that government exists to promote the “good” (agathos).
The point is not to lose the policy forest for the textual trees: A fully traditional, conservative orientation informs Kasich’s conservatism on this issue. Full stop. End of story.
In sum, not only will voters lose out if they can’t hear Kasich’s conservative voice in the cacophony of the GOP primary field, but American conservatism will be the loser as well if Kasich is not heard as the authentic voice of American conservativism that he is.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.