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Is Nikki Haley a moderate or a conservative? Yes.

She’s a down-the-line conservative on almost every issue — except for one really important one.

A sign that reads “independents for Nikki” is stuck in the New Hampshire snow.
A campaign sign in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, urging independents to vote for Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

People often refer to Nikki Haley as a “moderate.” But what does that really mean?

In the traditional three main policy areas in US politics — economic, social, and foreign policy — the former South Carolina governor’s platform is deeply conservative. Haley has endorsed invading Mexico and increasing the age at which Americans can receive Social Security benefits. She has called herself a proud “union buster” and said that Florida’s infamous “don’t say gay” law doesn’t go far enough. She wants to cut taxes for the wealthy and hike them on green energy companies. Those positions are not extreme enough to be out of step with the MAGAfied modern GOP, but they are not “moderate” by any reasonable definition of the word.

But since the rise of Donald Trump, a fourth policy area has become central to American politics in the past few years: democracy. And in this area, Haley really does break with the GOP’s extremists. She has said Biden won the 2020 election and attacked Trump for denying it. She called January 6 a “terrible day,” supported prosecutions of rioters, and even suggested Trump should be held responsible.

Haley hasn’t made her campaign about these issues. But it’s very clear that, if elected, she wouldn’t wage war on the American political system in the way Trump would.

This kind of basic support for free elections and the rule of law would not, prior to Trump, have been remotely controversial. But in today’s Republican Party, where a large majority of voters believe that Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election, it requires a certain kind of political courage.

These stances are what truly earn the otherwise-conservative Haley the moniker “moderate.” But the very fact that she qualifies shows how far American politics has strayed from normal.

Democracy, moderation, and the right

Prior to Trump, the term “moderate Republican” was typically used to refer to Republicans who advocated that the party take a more conciliatory approach in specific policy areas like immigration, criminal justice, and climate change. These kinds of moderates understood “moderation” in terms of traditional policy issues — arguing that, for some combination of substantive and political reasons, the Republican Party would be better off softening its rough edges. Such Republicans have generally conservative views but are willing to compromise with Democrats and sometimes embrace relatively liberal policy ideas.

When Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts in the 1990s, he passed a state health care program that worked a lot like Obamacare. In the late 2010s, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed bills eliminating mandatory minimums for drug convictions and requiring a 40 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Susan Collins (ME) proposed legislation codifying Roe’s abortion protections into federal law.

This is what moderation looks like within a stable democracy: a willingness to compromise with the other side in specific policy areas. But when democracy itself is at risk of collapse, it makes sense to think of “moderate” in a somewhat different fashion: referring not to stances on the issues of the day, but to a more fundamental view on the proper relationship between conservatives and democratic institutions. When people call Haley a “moderate” today, this other meaning — or something like it — is what they have in mind.

To clarify this alternative understanding of moderation, it’s helpful to turn to Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt’s treatment of 19th- and early-20th-century Europe — the period during which democracy dethroned monarchy as the continent’s dominant governing ideology. Ziblatt shows how conservative parties (meaning those factions representing the interests of the elite classes and others hostile to social change) worked to accommodate their supporters to democracy. They would not have been called “moderate,” but they did play a moderating role.

Ziblatt’s research shows that countries with strong conservative parties tended to have relatively straightforward and stable paths to democracy. By contrast, those with weak conservative parties tended to democratize more erratically, often involving bloodshed and right-wing counter-coups.

This, he argues, is a result of the conservative parties’ role in changing their backers’ attitudes toward democracy. In countries with strong conservative parties, elites felt as though they could get enough of what they wanted through elections to be comfortable with democracy. In countries with weak conservative parties, by contrast, these classes felt as though democracy itself posed a danger to their wealth and status — and felt a need to strike at the system to protect their positions of privilege.

“Well-organized and highly institutionalized partisan old regime interests provided a way of ‘lowering the costs of toleration,’ and thus making democracy safe for key segments of old regime elites,” Ziblatt wrote.

Nikki Haley is a “moderate” in a related sense. With American democracy under threat from Trump and his MAGA movement, there’s a desperate need for a faction to play the role of 19th-century English Tories: convincing the right-wing sectors of American society that they can advance their policy aims through the system, without resorting to Trump-style radicalism.

The best case for Haley is that her victory could theoretically turn the GOP into such a party.

Why Haley-style moderation isn’t working — for her or democracy

But there’s a fundamental difference between the 19th century and today. Back then, the parties served to domesticate a threat to democracy emanating from the social elite. Today, the Republican Party is the source of the threat. The party has been institutionally captured by its extreme faction, to the point where many moderates in the pre-Trump sense have been driven out.

In such a radical environment, Haley obviously couldn’t run as an old-school moderate. She couldn’t flee to Trump’s right: That strategy has been tried repeatedly (most recently by Ron DeSantis) and found wanting. And she couldn’t wage a frontal assault on Trump’s authoritarian tendencies in a party where large majorities believe the 2020 election was stolen; that’s why Chris Christie flamed out.

So Haley tried to thread a very difficult needle: campaigning as a true conservative on policy, while adopting a sunny affect and distancing herself from Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

This looks, in hindsight, like a better tack than the ones taken by her rivals. In New Hampshire, an open-primary state with a tradition of moderation, it may yield some limited dividends.

But in her home state of South Carolina, she’s down by 30 points in the RealClearPolitics poll average. Nationally, she’s down by about 50. Haley’s brand of “moderation,” limited as it is, is out of touch with the Republican electorate and Party as a whole.

Once she loses, the rubber will hit the road for Nikki Haley’s moderate bona fides. Will she choose to endorse Trump and campaign for him, maximizing her relevance in the Republican Party? Or will she choose to put her commitment to democracy first and oppose him?

On this, her track record is not very promising. You may recall she served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, standing by him through the first two and a half tumultuous years of his presidency. And she has already said she would vote for Trump if he won the party’s nomination — even in the event that he was found guilty of a felony.

Perhaps Haley will surprise us. But I have a nagging feeling that her commitment to democracy is subordinate to her commitment to her party and to her future success within it. If that proves correct, then her brand of moderation will be exposed to be something worse than limited: fake.

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