Is the U.S. conservative movement (or, more precisely, the Republican Party, which is not exactly the same thing) facing an imminent split between its fiscal and social-issue wings?
Possibly, but it would be a foolish thing to do in the face of a Democratic Party that controls both the White House and the U.S. Senate under the leadership of an activist president.
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, however, and if it does, it will make the GOP a minority party for the foreseeable future.
Before we go on, however, let’s note that the Democrats are not all that unified themselves: There are real differences among Democrats that are beginning to come more to the fore as President Obama tries to get some of his priorities accomplished while still maintaining a credible chance to win control of all of Congress in next year’s mid-term elections.
On one side of the Democratic divide is the party’s hard-core left wing, which has very definite plans for asserting substantially more federal control over the economy, the environment, health care and education at all levels than is currently the case.
The hard left is presently unhappy with the party’s more moderate congressional wing (which is still left of center), whose members – at least those from centrist or conservative districts – have to factor political viability into their public policy positions and voting habits. Thus, many of the hard left’s goals are still unfulfilled, or only partially so, and the true believers are getting impatient.
It’s also worth noting that moderate Democrats (the so-called “Blue Dogs”) are getting pretty thin on the ground, replaced primarily by Republicans but sometimes by more liberal Democrats.
But that’s not the GOP’s problem (though it may be an opportunity). The Democrats are dealing with the problems of success and count themselves a majority, while Republicans must deal with the problems of failure and hold minority status in the national legislature (though not in the states, where the GOP runs about 60 percent of statehouses).
And the strain is telling. Partly because many on the right expected to win the presidency in 2012 (as, reportedly, so did Mitt Romney and his chief advisors) and partly because there is a real divide in the party that reflects a division in the nation, recriminations and even some outright hostility between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives are showing up everywhere from blog posts to op-eds to Fox News broadcasts.
It’s not a question of whether it should or it shouldn’t be happening – it is happening, and it should be addressed, because if the party and the conservative movement can’t find a way to fix it, neither side is going to have much to feel good about (at the national level, at least) for a very long time to come.
Why did the split happen, when for decades both sides were happy to get along and support the same candidates for the same offices without coming to rhetorical fisticuffs about it?
Partly, it’s because social conservatives are also usually fiscal conservatives (and religious and cultural conservatives), but the opposite isn’t necessarily true – indeed, it often isn’t. Thus, “fiscal cons” often boast that they don’t hold to the priorities of the “social cons,” where the opposite claim seldom, if ever, is heard.
This, of course, raises discontent on the part of the social cons, leading them either not to support certain candidates who do that or leave the party altogether.
And partly, it’s because fiscal conservatives have had their successes and failures, but social conservatives haven’t seen the Republican Party offer the wholehearted support to their causes, notably abortion and marriage, that it has to fiscal cons’ issues.
On the other side, fiscal cons are starting to blame social cons for recent losses, saying that social issues are a drag on the party’s popularity and the party would be better off without them. Republicans would have a far greater chance of attracting independents and even some Democrats if the party eschewed social issues, they contend.
There are two responses to that: One is that Romney almost exclusively cited economic issues in his recent campaign, hardly mentioning social concerns at all – and he still lost. Perhaps he would have done better by broadening his appeal to socially conservative Democrats.
The other is if the fiscal cons think they can conjure up a majority by casting off half their party’s current members – members who agree with them on fiscal issues, remember – they might be making a big mistake.
After all, there is a party and a political philosophy already in existence that generally focuses on fiscal responsibility and takes the opposite tack on social issues as most social cons: It’s called Libertarianism, and its registered followers in any given community could fit comfortably in the average bus.
Not that Libertarians are wrong in everything they say. I often cite the Reason Foundation on school choice, fiscal cutbacks and firearm rights, because its writers make a lot of sense in those areas.
And I just read a March 21 piece titled “Libertarianism for Social Conservatives” that said that libertarianism and social conservative can not only coexist, but thrive in mutual comity.
The author, Jack Hunter, who is Sen. Rand Paul’s director of New Media, wrote that those who see the two philosophies as “inherently hostile” are “flat-out wrong.”
Hunter’s position is that, as things stand now, social cons can make common cause with libertarians in recognizing that, while real change is difficult at the federal level, much progress can be made by focusing on states and communities.
“The distance between mere rhetoric and tangible success for social conservatives essentially comes down to this question: Does the federal government always have to be involved? … It may not be possible to get rid of abortion throughout the nation, but it might be possible to save unborn children in Alabama or South Carolina.”
Hunter also favors letting states make more decisions regarding marriage and the use of “soft drugs,” something that social cons might have a harder time accepting – though given what is going on in Washington this week, leaving the marriage issue to the states may be the best possible result at the present time.
And the whole question of the use of America’s military power abroad substantially divides conservatives and libertarians, who more often resemble leftist isolationists on that issue – though for different reasons.
Leftists think U.S. strength is wrong in itself; most libertarians think it necessary for self-defense, but believe it has been misused for other reasons far too often.
Still, Hunter’s conclusion is worth attention: “Social conservatives have no reason to fear libertarianism and have much reason to embrace it. In the end, libertarianism simply tells us what the state cannot do; our values tell us what we ought to do – and liberty gives us the freedom to do it.”
But while it would be hard for me to be a Libertarian voter, it also is unlikely that I and the millions of people like me would remain Republican voters if the party became a refuge simply for fiscal conservatives alone.
Where would we go? A new third party? The Libertarian movement? Possibly.
Or, finally realizing that where once we got mere lip service on vital issues (and for far too long we were foolishly satisfied with it), now we will not even get that. So, we could just stay home.
And the government would stay in Democratic hands forever and ever, amen.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org