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  • Douglas Carswell

What does it mean to be conservative?

By Douglas Carswell

What does it mean to be conservative?

I have just finished reading a rather good book about Mississippi politics. ‘The Switcher’, by Judge Jim Herring, is a biographical account of Mississippi’s colorful election campaigns and candidates.

First elected as a District Attorney in 1971, Herring ran for Lieutenant Governor in 1976 and then for Governor in 1979 – each time as a Democrat. Herring, however, ends up serving as Chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party for seven years.

‘The Switcher’, as the name implies, is a book about one man’s personal journey from the Democrats to the Republicans. But it is also the story of how an entire state flipped to the GOP.

Until Thad Cochran’s election as US Senator in 1978, Mississippi had not had any state-wide Republican politicians since the 1880s. Not much changed until 1992, when Kirk Fordice and Eddie Briggs were elected Governor and Lieutenant Governor. Even then, it was not until 2011 that the Democrats lost their hold on the state Legislature.

Why did Mississippi flip? For Herring – and indeed for many Mississippians - Ronald Reagan clearly exerted powerful pull factor. A key moment the book refers to came when Herring heard ‘the Gipper’ speaking in Gulfport about the need for “steadiness of purpose, fidelity to ideals and love of country”.

Reagan’s brand of conservatism, with its attachment to the free market, limited government and uncomplicated patriotism, attracted millions of traditional Democrat voters across the South. Mississippi's switch was made possible, too, thanks to the heroic efforts of Billy Mounger, Wirt Yerger and Clarke Reed. In some sense, one might even argue Mississippi's 'switchers' made possible not only the conversion of our state but perhaps too, the Reagan Revolution. Thank goodness for ‘switchers’! Without them, there would have been no Reagan Democrats, and the 40th President is unlikely to have been a conservative.

Mississippi proves that you do not – or at least did not - need to be a Republican to be classified as conservative. Plenty of folks that voted for Jimmy Carter in 1979 and Bill Clinton in 1992 had conservative views when it comes to Faith, Flag, Free markets and Family.

Herring himself remains consistent to his political principles across each chapter of the book, favoring limited taxes, light regulation and adherence to the Constitution.

He, like many in our state, might have switched parties, but his conservative ideals remain largely unchanged.

Being a conservative is more than just allegiance to a particular party. It ought to be about more than having the right bumper stickers or watching Fox News over CNN.

Although Jim’s book doesn’t mention Edmund Burke, the great Anglo-Irish forefather of the conservative movement, reading it is clear to me that he is a Burkeian conservative at heart – like most folk in Mississippi, and perhaps indeed America.

Burke, an early supporter of the American Revolution and doughty defender of free trade, believed that throughout a nation’s history, a process of trial and error means some laws and government arrangements survive, while others die out. Those that survive we should therefore regard as a sublime inheritance because they represent in effect the aggregated wisdom of past generations. That, to me, seems to be the essence of conservatism.

Mea culpa. My bad. In a recent article on crime, I wrote that “from 2016 to 2022, violent crime in our state increased by 741 percent, according to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety. We went from 538 violent crimes a year to 4,529.  That is 3,991 more violent crimes and more victims.”

Actually, those numbers are wrong. I took the figures from the Mississippi Crime Statistics website in good faith, but it now seems that the website only includes partial data for 2016.

To make the point that criminal justice leniency is fuelling an increase in crime, I should have stuck with the 260 percent increase in homicides in Jackson between 2013 and 2021. The actual statistics are grim enough without me needing to (inadvertently) provide erroneous ones. My apologies.

Douglas Carswell is the President & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.



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