Speaking on the Easter Sunday
edition of ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, the columnist
George Will referred to the Terri Schiavo case as another dividing line between
“small-government” conservatives and “social-issue” conservatives –
one that will be “papered over” but remain significant within Republican
ranks. Will is not alone in this
assessment. Writing in the London Times,
Andrew Sullivan argued, “The Republicans have plans to intervene directly in
many people’s lives — spending billions on sexual abstinence education,
marriage counselling, anti-drug propaganda, a war on steroids, mentoring
programmes for former prisoners, and on and on. Got a problem? Bush’s big
government is here to help.”
It’s a common refrain. The modern American right, once an alliance between more libertarian and traditionalist elements united in opposition to the post-New Deal welfare state at home and communism abroad, is being torn asunder by disagreements between Bible-toting religious conservatives and Hayek-quoting boosters of freer markets and smaller governments. Some of this plays out in public-policy debates, such as the extent to which Congress should transgress federalism and states’ rights to defend Ms. Schiavo’s right to life, and some of it manifests itself via tensions at conservative gatherings.
Ryan Sager recounted examples
of the latter in a column
for Tech Central Station, arguing that
social conservatives at CPAC seemed disdainful of their libertarian brethren:
“The message in that regard was clear: We Christians can do this alone, y'all
who ain't down with J.C. best be running along.”
The blogger Eric Deamer, posting at his website The
Young Curmudgeon, suggests that the right has been reduced to a motley
amalgamation of “big government liberalism in economic policy, and religious
rightism in social policy trying to pass itself off as conservatism’.”
Yet many social conservatives
feel that the Republican Party and the larger conservative movement suffer from
the opposite problem: pro-life and pro-family forces supply the votes that put
GOP candidates over the top, but in their view economic conservatives get to set
the policy. The Arlington Group, a
network of socially conservative organizations that counts some of the most
important contemporary religious-right leaders among its participants, chastised
White House advisor Karl Rove when the Bush administration put Social Security
reform above a federal marriage amendment on its list of second-term priorities.
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As I note in a cover story for
the April 11 issue of The American
Conservative, the most significant achievements of the modern American
conservative movement have been in the realms of economic and foreign policy.
The Cold War has been won and marginal tax rates are well below their
once-staggering 70 percent levels. For
all the wailing and gnashing of the teeth about the Christian right, the Jerry
Falwells and Pat Robertsons have precious little to show for their decades of
This isn’t just
traditionalist sour grapes. Even
some astute liberals have noticed that religious conservatives are often
shortchanged by the politicians they bring to power. Thomas Frank, author of What’s
the Matter With Kansas?, argues that social conservatism has helped dress
the American right in populist garb, persuading working-class voters to support
the party of laissez-faire rather than vote their own pocketbooks.
I don’t see a lot of
laissez-faire in America today, red-state or blue.
But speaking as someone with some experience
debating the state of the libertarian-traditionalist alliance, and substantial
sympathies for both sides, let me suggest that they each have a point.
It’s just a slightly different one than they think.
Too often, what the Republican Party offers is the opposite of the fusionism
of Frank Meyer– both libertarians and traditionalists get a lot of rhetorical
symbolism, but relatively little substance.
Libertarian-leaning conservatives who vote Republican to control federal spending and shrink government instead get the largest new entitlement program since the Great Society, faster increases in non-defense discretionary spending than during the Clinton administration, more Cabinet-level departments rather than fewer and deficits that have grown to the point that even the GOP’s tax-cutting capacity is in question.
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Moral traditionalists who vote
Republican also have ample room for complaint.
It’s undeniably the case that many GOP legislators, both in Florida and
on Capitol Hill, who sought to save Terri Schiavo were sincere and often
principled pro-lifers. But the Holy
Week legislation passed by Congress was a last-minute and ultimately futile
gesture, the latest in a long line of futile gestures aimed at social
conservatives, including constitutional amendments pertaining to abortion,
school prayer and marriage that have gone nowhere regardless of how many
Republicans hold seats in the House or Senate.
Conservatives are often too quick to view the libertarian and traditionalist strains of their movement as contradictory instead of complementary. This tendency makes some social conservatives too statist and some libertarians unduly inclined to eschew traditional morality. But instead of fighting one another, both elements of the right should hold Republicans accountable. The GOP has become a party that relies on their moral and electoral support but gives them more talk than action in return.
expressed do not necessarily reflect those of PoliticalUSA.com.