September 12, 2006


Is There an Elephant in Here? (Ryan H. Sager, 12 Sep 2006, Tech Central Station)

If the conservative movement is a family, it's a far-flung, rowdy, dysfunctional one. But CPAC brings it all together.

If only for three days.

But for those three days, all the brothers and sisters, crazy aunts and sleazy uncles, barely-tolerated in-laws and disgruntled step-children, black sheep and golden boys and grandmas and grandpas of "the movement" (as those in the family are known to call it) are under one roof. It's a bit like the holidays -- inasmuch as there's a reason the suicide rate spikes around the holidays.

Various bizarre scenes unfold all around. An iMac plays footage of Ronald Reagan on a loop. Republican committeemen from the Midwest can be overheard debunking the theory of evolution while waiting in line for dinner ("What do you call an animal with a half-fin-half-wing? Kibble."). Al Franken and G. Gordon Liddy face off over at Radio Row. And books full of Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinions are given out as party favors.

Meanwhile, a walk around CPAC's convention floor takes one on something of a whirlwind tour of the Right. There, the 90-plus organizations and corporations that sponsor the conference set up booths to push their pet causes: Americans for Tax Reform ("reforming" taxes to within an inch of their lives), Americans for Immigration Control (keeping Mexicans in Mexico), the Family Research Council (keeping gays out of marriage), the Log Cabin Republicans (wedding gays to the GOP), the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute (grooming the next generation of Ann Coulters), the National Rifle Association (defending the right to shoot), the Drug Policy Alliance (defending the right to shoot up), the Objectivist Center (deifying Ayn Rand) and the National Right to Work Foundation (demonizing the unions). Just to name a few.

As in most large families, however, there is one marriage that undergirds the entire enterprise: For the conservative family, that is the marriage between social conservatism and small-government conservatism. There is no one group at CPAC -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- that fully represents either of these philosophies. Rather, these are the two main currents of thought that push the conservative movement along. Social conservatives (a.k.a. traditionalists, the Christian Right, the Religious Right) place the highest value on tradition and morality -- or "Western values," as they often put it. Small-government conservatives (a.k.a. libertarians) value human freedom and choice above all else.

These two kinds of conservatives, whose fundamental views of the world are at odds as often as not, were brought together in the 1950s and '60s by a concept known as "fusionism," the brainchild of conservative thinker Frank Meyer, an editor at National Review from its earliest days and a tireless movement activist until his death in 1972. In Meyer's formulation, social conservatives and libertarians should be natural political allies. Not only are their goals compatible, he argued, but their philosophies are complementary -- if not codependent. Either philosophy, if not reined in by the other, risks veering wildly off the tracks.

At CPAC, watching anti-immigration activists frothing at the mouth and calling illegal immigrants "burglars" and "wage thieves," and watching libertarians selling t-shirts urging "Capitalists of the world unite," it's not hard to see how that might happen.

Meyer began expounding his theory in a series of essays in National Review in 1956. It boiled down to a simple formulation: No act is truly moral unless it is freely chosen. While Meyer agreed with social conservatives about the importance of moral order, he feared that they were so wrapped up in preserving Western tradition that they were willing to resort to authoritarianism to achieve their goals. At the same time, while Meyer was in sympathy with libertarians and their emphasis on the need for a limited state, he feared that their philosophy was prone to degenerate into the pursuit of freedom for its own sake, free of any moral boundaries.

As Meyer wrote: "Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it ... Free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon surrenders to tyranny."

What's more, Meyer argued, social conservatives had a vested interest in the small government pursued by libertarians. It was the government, particularly the federal government, that was to blame for what many perceived at the time to be America's moral decay. As conservative writer David Frum summed up Meyer's thinking: It was federal judges who were banning prayer in schools; it was city planners destroying inner cities with their highways and public-housing projects; it was New Deal welfare programs that fostered illegitimacy. The way to achieve social conservatives' goals, Meyer argued, was to beat back big government. In other words, in a conservative society, libertarian means would achieve traditionalist ends.

It was a clever argument, especially in light of the threat from "Godless" international Communism, which was equally despised by libertarians and social conservatives. And to the extent that the conservative movement has congealed and succeeded in the decades since Meyer began pushing it, that success -- first within the Republican Party and then on the national stage -- has been due to the libertarian and social-conservative factions sticking together.

These partners got the Republican Party to nominate Barry Goldwater, a libertarian-conservative and militantly anti-Communist U.S. Senator from Arizona, for president in 1964. While Goldwater lost that race in a spectacular fashion, getting less than 40 percent of the popular vote, his candidacy committed the Republican Party to the cause of conservatism.

Out of Goldwater's failed campaign rose many of the pillars of the modern conservative movement. An out-of-work actor and former Democrat named Ronald Reagan launched his political career at the 1964 Republican national convention with a rousing, nationally televised speech, "A Time for Choosing," in support of Goldwater. Anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly, best known today for her fight against the Equal Rights Amendment, first became known for writing a pro-Goldwater book, A Choice, Not an Echo, attacking the liberal Republican establishment that had elected Dwight Eisenhower and nominated Richard Nixon for turning the party into a weak imitation of the Democrats. And, last but not least, the idea for the American Conservative Union -- which founded and runs CPAC and serves as something of an umbrella organization for the conservative movement -- was born in a meeting just five days after Goldwater's defeat, with the idea of carrying on the fight begun in the 1964 campaign.

From these humble beginnings, the conservative movement went on to elect Reagan as president in 1980 and 1984. It turned over control of both houses of Congress to the Republican Party in 1994. It elected Bush in 2000. And it reelected him, with increased margins in Congress, in 2004.

So why was all not well in the Republican Party in the months after Bush's reelection? Why, as Democrats wept over the election returns, did a significant segment of the conservative movement weep with them? Why, as activists and students and journalists gathered for CPAC, was there a distinct sense that something was amiss?

Because the marriage at the heart of the conservative movement was falling apart.

To be sure, the relationship's had its rocky patches before. It's always been more Married With Children than Ozzie and Harriet. Whatever alliances have been formed, libertarians have always tended to see social conservatives as rubes ready to thump non-believers on the head with the Bible first chance they get, and social conservatives have always tended to see libertarians as dope-smoking devil worshippers.

The exaggeration's only slight. In 1957, Communist-turned-social-conservative Whittaker Chambers famously wrote of libertarian favorite Ayn Rand that "from almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber -- go!'" In 1961, Ronald Hamowy, reviewing the first years of National Review's existence for the libertarian New Individualist Review, blasted editor William F. Buckley Jr. and his colleagues for plotting to reintroduce the burning of heretics. In 1969, a libertarian delegate to the conservative youth group Young Americans for Freedom, which was holding a convention in St. Louis, burned his draft card on the floor of the convention hall -- sparking a physical confrontation and the tossing out of 300 libertarian YAF members.

The split underway between libertarians and social conservatives today is less dramatic than those of the past -- there are no punches being thrown (yet), and Nazi analogies in contemporary politics are usually confined to the crowd -- but it is far more profound.

This time, the split is not a spat. It is a slow-but-sure breaking apart.

The sides here are not arguing over one unpopular war, as they were during Vietnam. They are not arguing about any of the various vagaries and fine points of conservative thought that have fueled so many heated internal debates over the decades. They are not fighting over one administration's failure to rein in the size of government, as some conservatives did during the Reagan years.

Today, no longer bound together by the Cold War or opposition to Bill Clinton and having tasted power at the small price of bending their beliefs, the two sides are fighting over nothing less than whether the Republican Party will complete its abandonment of the very principle upon which their fusionist marriage has been based these many years: a commitment to limited government.

Will social conservatives continue to accept federally funded "character education" in lieu of education reforms that would let parents choose their children's schools? Will they continue to accept billions of dollars of government money channeled to religious charities in lieu of reducing the tax burden on Americans so that they could give more money to charity themselves? Will they continue to accept the idea of government as nanny, protecting children from sex and violence in TV shows, movies, video games and every other conceivable medium, in lieu of demanding a society in which parents are expected to be responsible for their own children? Will they continue to embrace the machinery of federal power that they once feared, simply because the "good guys" are the ones pulling the levers for the time being?

In other words: Can social conservatives and libertarians return to the common ground they once shared, or will their differences grow irreconcilable?

There can obviously be no reconciliation between someone who holds freedom itself as the highest end of humankind and someone who holds the maintenance of the "enduring moral order" as the highest end. However, it's worth noting how divorced from reality the libertarianism envisioned here is. The "education reforms" of which he speaks would require universal vouchers--a vast expansion of government -- just as a reduction in the money channeled to religious charities would simply mean a redirection off that money back to the government bureaucracies (and more money besides, because government delivers the services less efficienty than the private sector, as both sides would argue). Libertarians ultimately just have to determine whether they prefer the Third Way of the Judeo-Christian conservatives or the moral permissiveness of the secular Left. They're likely to pick the latter when young and choose the former as they mature.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 12, 2006 12:04 AM

THe Seger article is certainly worth reading in its entirety.

As in earlier comments, I suggest that the components of the voter coalition known as the conservative movement have the political maturity to continue to defer to one another's interests within their respective domains.

Live babies, strong defense, family values, RKBA, ownership reforms of economic institutions: everybody gets something.

It is only that the "To the gas, chamber--go!" set are not going to get 19th Centurty mythic, ideal type, laissez faire capitalism. If those fools thought about it, they would understand that the institutions of civil society which would have to stand in for the government would have to be reestablished or re-animated, which institutions are the very ones the libertines despise.

Selfishness is a virtue to those people; religion is the "mysticism of the mind," and is to be eliminated. Altruism--giving--is foolishness, they say. It is almost as if some left-wing Karl Rove were pulling their strings to create the impression that conservatives would have people selling apples on streetcorners and living in cardboard shacks.

I suggest that a conservative crack-up is not in the cards. We shall continue to exhibit the foregoing due deference, not only because civility is our way, but also because we have not an ideology, but absence of ideology. We shall not throw the world away in a childish tantrum: we are not the left.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 13, 2006 5:39 AM

I am surprised this post went so long without comment. Perhaps that says something about libertarianism in general.

As far as the state of the conservative (GOP) tent - I read today that Laffey endorsed Chafee in RI. Someone at NRO said that Chafee would not have endorsed Laffey, had the election gone otherwise. In PA 2 years ago, Toomey endorsed Specter after the primary, but I doubt if Specter would have done the same, had he lost. The country-club Republicans aren't a large part of the tent anymore, but they are certainly a most bitter lot (more so than the libertarians). I still remember my aunt from Cook County ranting against Reagan, even though the GOP won the Senate.

This is one reason why Rudy is more of a contender than many people think - McCain is too much like one of the country-club Washington D.C. set. Despite being from AZ, he always reminds me of a GOP dinosaur from IL or OH. Rudy may be a New Yorker, but he's real. He can be everybody's mayor. If he wants to win, that's one way to do it. What is McCain going to do, run as everybody's Senator?

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 13, 2006 6:38 PM

You'll never convince the party that McCain isn't one of them.

Posted by: oj at September 13, 2006 6:46 PM

I don't have to - McCain has done a pretty good job of it himself.

Of course, he should get the support of every Republican if he wins the nomination. I would vote for him ahead of any Democrat.

But McCain has made his road - now he has to navigate it. He may think he can continue to be Senator Maverick over the next year, but he has to start attacking the Democrats if he wants to get the ring. Otherwise, Rudy will beat him on form alone.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 13, 2006 10:04 PM

He's the most popular Republican in the party according to the polls.

Posted by: oj at September 13, 2006 10:24 PM