In New Hampshire—the primo primary state!—the Republican Liberty Caucus’s annual conference is a battlefield in the civil war within the GOP. With over 700 activists attending, does this indicate that the liberty faction is winning in the battle for the soul of the party?
First, the context. The GOP is in long-term demographic decline. In 2004, some 44% of Hispanic-American citizens voted for George W. Bush, while in 2012 only 27% went for Romney. Hispanic citizens, who accounted for 17% of the population when Romney ran, will represent at least 30% by 2050. Bush received 43% of 18-29 year-olds, compared to Romney’s 37%. But these voters tend to be socially liberal—for example, strongly supporting same-sex unions—and will become more allergic to the GOP.
While 59% of white evangelicals supported Romney, this is little comfort to the GOP. Some 29% of citizens 50-64 years old fall into this category, while only 11% of young people do. Indeed, fully 35% of them have no religious affiliation. Tomorrow’s voters will be much more secular.
Against this reality, most commentators make out the conflicts within the GOP to be between establishment Republicans who are “pragmatic” and want to win future elections, and purer right wingers, who are unrealistic, often intolerant ideologues, scaring away voters.
But in fact there are three factions, showing the battle to be much more complex.
Establishment Republicans, while critical of the welfare state, generally want to reform it rather than repeal it. They advocate rolling back many economically burdensome regulations and simplifying if not radically reforming the tax code. But they do not question the fundamental premise that government is responsible for helping people with either direct aid or targeted policies. This is why they speak of “saving” Social Security, Medicare, and the like. Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and John Boehner best represent this faction. They tout their creds at getting things done rather than making utopian speeches.
Nearly all establishment Republicans pay lip service to socially conservative policies—banning abortions and perhaps same-sex marriage, and certainly defunding Planned Parenthood. But these are not their priorities. This puts them in conflict with the second GOP faction.
Extreme social conservatives give priority to their values agenda that usually involves limiting freedom. For example, they would deny same-sex couples the liberty to marry, even though this freedom does not limit the liberty of social conservatives. They usually push a religious agenda demanding, for example, that symbols of their faith—a manger scene, the Ten Commandments—be displayed on government property. Their latest pinup girl is Kim Davis, the Kentucky government clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because it violated her religious convictions, never mind her oath to the Constitution. (Would these conservatives celebrate a pacifist Quaker who refused to issue gun licenses?)
Establishment Republicans usually consider conservatives who give priority to social issues embarrassments who lose elections: Remember Todd Aiken and Richard Mourdock, who lost Senate races in Missouri and Indiana, respectively, because of their misinformed statements about abortion?
Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum best represent this faction and, in these two cases, they actually favor government management of the economy in the name of “family values.”
The liberty caucus
This brings us to the faction found in the Republican Liberty Caucus. Libertarians and Constitutionalists—many also social conservatives—understand that America itself is in a civil war between makers who live by producing goods and services to trade with their fellows, and takers who use government to steal from productive individuals. In our corrupt, crony system, political power—not free markets or merit—determines who gets what. In the end, the system that punishes achievers will run out of victims and collapse. To prevent this, radical change is needed.
So is there any way for the GOP civil war to end with a unified party? Possibly.
Some establishment Republicans actually are social engineers on the right and wouldn’t do away with the welfare state even if they could. Others believe deep down that radical change would be best, but think that it is politically impossible. Yet it is impossible in part because they refuse to take a stand against the system.
They see many libertarians as impractical utopians. And it is true that the system can’t be changed overnight. But it can be changed in the long run if these establishment Republicans put their political skills into educating the public, getting elected, and pulling together coalitions to make radical changes.
Extreme social conservatives are morally wrong in their attempts to limit liberty, a practice they denounce when liberals try it on them. And, in any case, they must understand that if they give priority to the wrong battles—battles they’ll likely lose—government will continue to expand, overspend, strangle economic opportunity, and limit their autonomy to live by their values. We will all become even more dependent on the state for mortgages, medical care, retirement income, you name it. If you think the Common Core is bad, that it's making our children stupid, wait until the government goes after home schooling.
To win future elections and to save the country, the GOP must unite behind a consistent freedom agenda. It must reach out especially to the young tech entrepreneurs who value achievement and prosperity, love their work, are socially liberal, and will sooner or later run afoul of government regulators. The GOP must become a modernist party, offering a positive vision of a future as it can be and should be, if only individuals can be free!
More political analysis by Ed Hudgins:
The Republican Party’s Civil War: Will Freedom Win? - A #1 Amazon best-seller
More Atlas political content:
Up from Conservatism - A Folio gold award winner for editorial excellence
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.