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The problem isn't libertarians or social conservatives – it's today's GOP

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 28, 2005

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.

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 activism.

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.

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.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.


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