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Fall 2006 -- As I was completing work today on this issue of the magazine, I received an e-mail announcing publication of Ryan Sager’s new book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.
I was surprised that the book appeared to cover much the same ground that Ed Hudgins did in his article —and a trifle concerned that similarities in their themes and titles, along with the “elephant” imagery, might cause some to wonder if Ed or I had read the book first and borrowed from it. We haven’t.
However, the considerable advance publicity for Sager’s book suggests that it is likely to be influential. So I quickly went online, where his first chapter and several reviews are posted, to get a sense of his theme and conclusions. Sager’s narrative of the history of the GOP’s ideological disintegration seems roughly parallel to Ed’s account. However, Sager’s suggested remedy for “reconciliation” of the feuding factions—which a number of reviewers appear to find persuasive—is destined to fail.
Like Ed, Sager contends that the old Goldwater-Reagan political coalition is falling apart. However, Sager places the factions into only two pigeonholes: “small government conservatives” (or “libertarians”), who “value human freedom and choice above all else,” and “social conservatives (a.k.a. traditionalists, the Christian Right, the Religious Right),” who “place the highest value on tradition and morality.” Sager acknowledges that no particular group “fully represents either of these philosophies. Rather, these are the two main currents of thought that push the conservative movement along.”
This is the first problem in his analysis: it oversimplifies the philosophical divisions, masking the existence of ideological subgroups whose principles are utterly incompatible with each other. More on this in a moment.
Sager writes that the welding of these two clashing factions into a powerful conservative political coalition emerged from the thinking of the late Frank Meyer. A National Review editor, Meyer defined a political strategy he called “fusionism.” For him, libertarianism and traditionalism were complementary: liberty without morality, or morality without liberty, degenerate into social chaos. “Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it,” he wrote. “Free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon surrenders to tyranny.”
Meyer’s “clever argument” to social conservatives, as Sager terms it, was that “no act is truly moral unless it is freely chosen”—hence, religious authoritarianism was self-contradictory. Additionally, he said, liberal interventionist policies were undermining America’s moral fiber; thus, social conservatives ought to oppose “big government.”
Meyer’s argument for limited government wedded the two camps in a political coalition that led to the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, then to the presidency of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Yet it was always a marriage of convenience, based not on shared principles but common enemies: the Soviet threat abroad, and the liberal threat at home. After communism’s collapse and the philosophical drift of George H. W. Bush, which left the conservative coalition in disarray, social conservatives and libertarians reunited in opposition to a new enemy, Bill Clinton—the former on moral grounds, the latter on pro-freedom grounds.
But this marriage ended almost as soon as it began. The end of the GOP’s commitment to its “fusionist” premise of limited government, Sager notes, came with the party’s defeat during the 1995 budget showdown with Clinton, when the federal government briefly shut down. But why?
The coalition's disintegration would have come even sooner had it not been for 9/11.
In a long 1996 essay, “The GOP’s Foreign Imports,” I explained that “polling data told the Democrats that their GOP adversaries had a fatal weakness…[and that] they had an ace card to play against would-be Republican budget-cutters: the charge of ‘selfishness.’”Clinton successfully portrayed the Republicans as “meanspirited” and “unjust,” as favoring the rich. “The budget battle,” admitted conservative writer and strategist William Kristol, “played into the two great Republican vulnerabilities: that we are the party of the rich and the meanspirited.”
So the Republicans immediately began to backpedal, falling all over each other in a “compassion competition.” “Concerned that voters see them as heartless technocrats,” reported a 1996 Time article, “more and more Republicans want to make sure that the phrase compassionate conservative is not an oxymoron.”
One of those Republicans—George W. Bush—decided to make that altruistic label his own. As Sager points out, Bush did not advance
the old Republican agenda of cutting taxes and the government programs they fund… This was a different animal entirely. “Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself,” Bush said during the 2000 campaign. He derided the idea that “if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved.” He called this a “destructive mind-set” with “no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than ‘Leave us alone.’” Instead, Bush said, America needed less “sprawling, arrogant, aimless government” and more “focused and effective and energetic government.”
With Bush, the limited government premise—the glue that had held the shaky GOP coalition together—cracked and crumbled completely. “The Bush administration,” Sager concludes, “…has adopted a philosophy of big-government conservatism, which joins unrestrained government spending to an aggressive appeal to religious conservatives.”
The coalition’s disintegration would have come even sooner had it not been for 9/11, which provided a new enemy against which to unite: al Qaeda. But after five years of as-yet-unsuccessful warfare in Iraq, even that is no longer enough to keep Republicans together. From the start, Bush played to the social conservatives, taking the economic conservatives’ support for granted. Every indication is that they now wish to repay his indifference at the polls during the next election.
So, where do advocates of limited government go from here?
Sager’s answer—the one attracting early reviewers and commentators—is a typically conservative one: to go back to the past. Specifically, he argues for a return to Frank Meyer’s “fusionist” approach. “The differences between libertarians and social conservatives are not yet irreconcilable,” he declares optimistically. “There is a way open toward reconciliation—a way that revives the old fusion of liberty and tradition, freedom and responsibility, small government and strong government.”
Now let me admit that I have not yet read enough of Sager’s book to comment on his specific recommendations. I understand that, for one thing, he places some hope in the emergence of Rudy Giuliani as the GOP standard bearer—someone who stands for fiscal conservatism, social liberalism, and a strong national defense.
But one doesn’t need to know the specific implementations of a flawed premise to know that it won’t work. And Sager’s premise—that “the differences between libertarians and social conservatives are not yet irreconcilable”—is flatly false. If we take the term “libertarian” in a non-definitive, purely descriptive sense, as meaning an advocate of individual freedom and limited government, then libertarian accommodation with social conservatives is inconceivable on many important issues, without the abandonment of basic principles.
Where do advocates of limited government go from here?
As far back as my 1996 essay, I anticipated a coming “Republican crack-up.” However, I identified the party divisions not as being simply between “individual liberty” and “traditional morality,” but as involving a host of more basic philosophical premises: pragmatism versus principle, self-sacrifice versus self-interest, individualism versus tribalism and nationalism, reason versus faith, secularism versus religion, limited government versus statism.
And even then, it was clear that most leading conservative Republicans did not accept ideas compatible with individual liberty and limited government. Consider some examples (footnoted in the original essay):
“Democracy works only so long as a sufficient proportion of the people are willing to place the common good above self-interest.” “Laissez-faire is not enough, there has to be some higher value in society. There can be no such thing as an entirely free market. The market has to be responsive to social responsibility. Here I even agree with some liberals….”—Paul Weyrich
“We need to correct a mistake in philosophy. Many of us act as if we have reduced the entire Declaration of Independence to a single phrase, ‘the pursuit of happiness.’”—William Bennett
“Yes, unbridled capitalism must be restrained or people will get too much money and too much power and will use it to oppress others.”—Rev. Pat Robertson
“Charles Murray…thinks we need to stop looking after the poor economically, but I’m not sure stopping dependency is the answer.”—William F. Buckley
“It is useless to argue, as some libertarians do, that we do not need redistribution at all. The people…rightly insist that the whole look after the weakest of its parts. This is a primary function of collective action, of government.”—Jack Kemp
“A conservative doctrine of the welfare state is required if conservatives are even to be included in the contemporary political conversation.”—George Will
“Religion is at the root of morality; and morality is the basis of law. Traditionalists and conservatives have as much right as secularists to see our values written into law, to have our beliefs serve as the basis for federal legislation” “Someone’s values are going to prevail. Why not ours? Whose country is it, anyway?”—Patrick Buchanan
All of which leads to some questions:
If the basis for any “fusionist coalition” within the Republican Party is commitment to the principle of limited government, where does one find evidence of it in these statements of principle from leading conservative Republicans?
Why would a religious conservative who believes that abortion is “murder” wish to “limit government” from stopping what he sees as a capital crime?
Why would a nationalist conservative who believes that immigrants are ruining the ethnic and cultural purity of America wish to “limit government” from stopping them at the borders?
Why would an altruistic conservative who believes that individuals “must place the common good above self-interest” wish to “limit government” from compelling everyone to assume his “social responsibility”?
Why would a traditionalist conservative who believes that “someone’s values are going to prevail” wish to “limit government” from having “our values written into law”?
Why would a conservative who bases his values on religious faith feel the need to offer rational arguments for those values, rather than simply impose them on others by legal compulsion?
Why would a conservative who equates “morality” with self-sacrifice feel motivated to uphold laissez faire capitalism—a system based on the profit motive?
Why would a conservative who believes that principles ultimately must give way to pragmatic expediency bother to uphold principled limitations on government?
Even to frame such questions is to realize at once the futility of expecting a return to any broad-based conservative coalition united on the principle of limited government.
What conservatives have come to understand—but many libertarians still prefer not to—is that the conventional philosophy of faith and self-sacrifice is totally incompatible with a social system based on reason and individualism. That social system and its philosophical rationale are of a piece, and cannot be sundered.
Moreover, they are not to be found in our nation’s past. Rational individualism, the economic system of laissez faire capitalism, and the political system of truly limited government are not traditions we can go back to. They are ideals for the future—ideals that we must fight for in the present.