Constitutional conservatives and social conservatives: An uneasy coalition

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted November 6, 2000

Barry GoldwaterThe post-war conservative movement, which began with the near-nomination of Robert Taft to be the GOP nominee for president in 1952 and then succeeded with the nomination of Barry Goldwater as the GOP nominee for president in 1964, was largely focused on issues based on the Constitution of the United States.

The political figures in the various states who promoted both Taft and Goldwater were very devoted to the Constitution. They understood history. Thus they knew that the United States was unique in history in that it had preserved freedom of the individual from the tyranny of government longer than had been done anywhere since the Roman Republic.

Among the conservative leaders of that era there was intense interest in the famous Second Amendment, debated to this day as the issue of gun control, and in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects the individual against unreasonable search and seizure by the government. The Tenth Amendment was revered because it said that powers not specifically enumerated in the Constitution were to be left to the states and to the people.

But conservatives proved unable to elect a president and to govern a nation until they added to their ranks the religious right. The social conservatives were largely Religious Southern Democrats and urban Catholic Democrats who could not stomach what their party had done on school prayer, busing, abortion, the equal rights amendment and other such social issues. They broke ranks and joined with the Constitutional conservatives to form that governing majority which made the 12 years of Presidents Reagan and Bush so pleasant to remember.

The movement continued along after the defeat of George Bush for a second term and after a couple of years also helped to elect a Republican Congress. That movement has kept the Republicans in the majority ever since.

But it is an uneasy coalition. That is because while most of the Constitutional conservatives understand and respect the positions taken by social issue conservatives, the reverse is often not true. The fissures have become more pronounced as the federal government has sought greater and greater power.

Elian Gonzalez at gun pointConstitutional conservatives are in a constant state of alarm. Social conservatives don't see what the problem is. Thus when Elian Gonzales was seized at gunpoint by federal agents armed to the teeth and taken from relatives in Miami on Good Friday of this year, to be given to his father who was under the control of Fidel Castro, Constitutional conservatives were in tears, believing that they had witnessed the end of their form of government in this nation. But social conservatives cheered because little Elian was reunited with his father and that supposedly was a victory for family values.

When the issue of "mandatory filtering" was before the Congress (that is to say demanding that libraries filter out certain materials or lose all federal funds), Constitutional conservatives blanched because they said the federal government had no business telling local governments what to do and besides, if the government can define what is bad today, it can redefine what is bad tomorrow and that is likely to include guns and who knows what else. But social conservatives said that pornography is harmful to kids and if the Constitution has to be bent a bit to stop it then so be it because this social evil simply must be confronted head on. And when internet gambling was a red hot issue in Congress, Constitutional conservatives did not want to give federal authorities the power to look at your credit cards for possible gambling usage because once the precedent is set, the government will be using that power to look for lots of other things as well. But social conservatives said gambling was doing so much harm to middle class families that it was well worth setting the precedent.

And so it has gone. The most recent example is the federal standard for drunkenness, pushed through Congress by social conservatives over the objections of the Constitutionalists. This unfortunate break in unity is permitting very bad things to happen. Forces that do not have the best interests of this country at heart are taking advantage of the split. Both sides need to sit down and examine what is happening before it is too late. It is certainly true that these social ills that the cultural conservatives are worried about are corrupting, and if left unchecked will destroy the society. But it is also true that an all-powerful federal government is, as we have seen with all too many examples in the 20th Century, in many ways even more destructive because it leaves the individual defenseless and with no choice at all.

Surely with the sort of clever minds that have surfaced in this movement in recent years there must be a way to find a solution to these problems which both sides can live with. Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform, thought he had the right formula when he proposed the notion of the "leave us alone" coalition. He comes closer than has anyone else that has advanced an idea, but so far the social conservatives, given the background of many of them as Democrats, are very attracted to federal government action and so they aren't quite buying that coalition. Clearly we all need to try again and again before there are no more chances to try again because an all-powerful federal government will have declared that none of us is useful to the state and therefore all of our opinions must be suppressed.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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