Melting Point for the Union of Ice and Fire?
The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party
by Ryan Sager
John Wiley & Sons, 2006
By the end of 1954, Robert Taft
was dead, Joe McCarthy was politically dead, and American conservatism as a whole looked barren and inert. But under the surface, seeds were beginning to turn. That same year, disaffected Democrat and isolationist Pat Manion began making overtures to a handful of conservative senators, while cranking out Robotype letters in his basement to send to a small network of supporters, in an effort to generate opposition to the liberal, internationalist post-war consensus of the Eisenhower era. In 1955, William F. Buckley Jr., an aristocratic young Yale graduate, recruited former communist Frank Meyer and others to found a weekly conservative magazine called The National Review
. Meanwhile, freshman Senator Barry Goldwater, new chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, was criss-crossing the country on speaking tours, denouncing Democrats and liberal Republicans alike.
In 1964, all of these elements would converge in the Goldwater presidential campaign, which is now commonly understood as marking the birth of the modern American conservative movement. But the movement had been gestating for a decade. And it was Meyer who articulated the movement's ideological conception, which was centered around a concept he called "fusionism," whereby economic conservatives and traditionalist conservatives were brought together in productive balance.
Now, half a century after it was conceived, conservative fusionism may be on its deathbed. Ryan Sager, a former editor at the New York Post
and the Sun
, doesn't want to claim that fusionism is beyond saving, but he does make the case that it will expire without major surgery. Sager is an economic conservative - a libertarian - and his book argues that the fusionist balance has been thrown out of wack by an unholy "God and government coalition," which harnesses the moral interventionism of evangelical social conservatives to the raw-self interest of big-government machine politics. This "big-government conservatism" is the hallmark of the Bush/Rove faction of the GOP, Sager suggests, and if left unchecked, it will spell electoral doom for the Republican Party.
Sager's engaging account of the conservative movement's history is worth the price of the book alone. He traces the growth of movement conservatism from its days in the political wilderness, through its fraught relationship with Nixon, its moment of triumph in the Reagan era, and its feisty - but often inept - opposition during the Clinton years. Along the way, he tells the stories of its personalities and internal conflicts with wit and humor. While he emphasizes the unifying importance to the movement of external enemies like Communism or Clinton, it's the fusionist marriage that gives life to American conservatism.
One of the most interesting lessons of the fusionist idea is that the internal contradictions within a political movement can actually be a source of strength. Conservative fusionism balances the libertarianism of Milton Friedman with the traditionalism of Russell Kirk
and Richard M. Weaver
. On the one hand, there is an elegant logic connecting the two schools of thought: strong traditional values limit the need for activist government ("where families fail, government steps in"), while small government allows family values to flourish without the interference of social engineering. At the same time, the instincts of each camp dampen the extremist tendencies of the other, positioning libertarians as watchdogs against moralist threats to individual freedom, while the traditionalists guard against the libertarian tendency to allow too much social license. Kirk himself - in a moment of initial skepticism - described this arrangement as a "union of ice and fire."
However, as Sager observes, the traditionalist conservatives of the 1950s and 60s were not the same as the social conservatives of today. Traditionalism then was about an instinct for law and order and longstanding social mores; it had yet to be linked to a vast evangelical political movement - modern political evangelicalism was only really awakened during the Carter years. The tremendous growth of social conservatism has transformed the balanced movement Meyer described into something much more lopsided. This unbalanced coalition - along with the migration of white southern voters into the GOP column - has provided the political impetus for the Bush administration.
The resulting “big-government conservatism” is not an ideology but a mechanism for staying in power. It is designed to rhetorically appease social conservatives while continuing to provide the entitlements that voters expect from government. As Sager describes it, Republicans largely abandoned their commitment to smaller government in the wake of their disastrous budget showdown with President Clinton in 1995. "Having lost confidence that they can sell the American people on the need for smaller government," writes Sager, "both the party and the movement have shifted their strategy from fighting big government to trying to co-opt it." Thus it is that George W. Bush has presided over the largest expansion of entitlement spending since Lyndon Johnson.
This analysis grounds Sager’s libertarian critique of the Bush administration. Again, this is worthwhile reading for liberals as well as conservatives; it illuminates how the Republican right and the Democratic left have periodically found themselves bedfellows in opposing Bush policy, and provides context to the crescendo of conservative voices condemning the president – who looks to liberals like one of the most conservative in history – for not being any kind of conservative at all.
From an economic conservative perspective, Bush’s sins have been many: No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, the 2002 farm bill, steel tariffs, the failure to “reform” Social Security – the list goes on. Sager deconstructs Bush’s “ownership society” and finds little in it to love. Not that it is completely void of appeal to economic conservatives: while NCLB was an unmitigated disaster, Sager has hope for the Health Savings Account concept tacked onto the Medicare reform bill, and Bush earns some credit at least for trying
to privatize Social Security. But the overall picture is bleak:
The problem, at base, seems to be that by accepting the premises behind so much of the liberal federal edifice, conservatives have left themselves with precious little room to maneuver.
Compounding the problem is the fact that Bush’s ‘war on terror’ and his rhetorical coddling of evangelicals have bound the Republican party to a number of social policies that will ultimately turn out to be losers: from opposition to gay marriage to support for warrentless wiretapping.
To Sager, this big-government conservatism is wrong on the merits, but it’s also foolish in light of changes in the electoral map. Republicans, he points out, have essentially maximized their Southern support – it’s impossible for them to do any better
in the South than they’re doing already. Meanwhile, Democrats are succeeding in turning the interior West into a battleground, threatening to reduce the GOP to a Southern party. Winning in the mountain states will require a different strategy than the one Republicans have pursued in recent years, as there are simply not enough evangelicals in the region to sustain the “God and government coalition” that has served Karl Rove so well. Instead, Sager suggests, Republicans should restore the fusionist balance, toning down their social conservatism and rededicating themselves to economic conservatism, the better to take advantage of the West’s particularly libertarian ethos.
One could argue that Sager falls victim to the same conceit that has affected many political observers - including myself - at times: mistaking an intellectual movement for a political coalition. Republican electoral success over the past quarter century has had less to do with an elegant ideological formula than with the GOP's ability to draw support from a trio of reactionary populisms: anti-civil rights sentiment in the South, the anti-tax revolt in the West, and politicized evangelicalism in the South and Midwest. Agile pandering to these forces should not be taken for some kind of commitment to a political philosophy.
Now that the tax revolt has faded, it does seem that the West finds itself in cultural tension with the evangelicals and white southerners of the Republican coalition. But, while there certainly is a libertarian bent to mountain states voters, there’s no particular evidence that what they seek is a redoubled commitment to Milton Friedmanism. Sager reprints data from the Pew Research Center indicating that political attitudes in the Interior West do differ from those in other regions – but not by any great degree. For instance, 35% of Western voters agree with the statement, “the government today can’t afford to do much more to help the needy” – in contrast to the Northeast, where only 27% of voters agree. Yet 35% is a clear minority – and it’s virtually identical to the 34% of voters who feel the same way in the liberal bastion of the Pacific Coast. Similarly, while the percentage of Westerners who agree that “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment” is nine points lower than it is among Northeasterners, it’s still a robust 72%! And on the obverse: only 22% of Westerners agree with the deterministic statement that “hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people.” As do a mere 25% of those socialistic Northeastern voters.
The uncomfortable fact for conservatives is that American voters simply don’t share their ideological obsession with “smaller government” – even in “libertarian” regions like the West. True, Americans don’t like taxes, and will revolt against them from time to time, but that seems to represent a periodic correction rather than an underlying determination to do away with government. See, for instance, this Washington Monthly article
by Mark Schmitt. Conservative anti-government ideas may sound nice in theory to many voters, but they quickly run up against the reality of a modern society that needs an active and effective government. Thus, while Sager cites poll data to indicate that public opposition to Social Security privatization was not as stiff as we remember it being, he overlooks the fact that, according to polls, the more Americans learned about the “private accounts” idea, the less they liked it.
And Sager, in both an explicit and an implicit fashion, acknowledges this. The New Deal is here to stay, he concedes. The question for Republicans is not how to erase it, but how to “transcend it”:
Republicans are never going to roll back the New Deal. But they can shape what takes its place as America moves past the framework of its old industrial-era economy, to which the New Deal is inextricably tied.
This transcendence can only come by reducing “the supply of government,” since “demand for government services certainly hasn’t shown any signs of cooling down.” But here comes Sager’s implicit concession: he has little to propose in the way of actually limiting that supply. His prescriptions for the Republican Party are rather tame: the only distinctly economic proposal is a renewed push for school vouchers. Beyond that, he suggests that Republicans curb some of the Bush administration’s domestic war on terror excesses (warrantless wiretapping, etc.) and promote “cultural federalism”: e.g., letting states decide what they want to do about gay marriage.
That’s it. He leaves the core system of American entitlements alone. No plan for a way forward in the Social Security wars, no argument for a radical expansion of Health Savings Accounts. We know Sager likes the idea
of HSAs and Social Security privatization, but it’s notable that he discusses those ideas in a chapter on Bush administration failures, but does not emphasize them in his chapter on where Republicans should go from here.
It’s possible that the main problem is confusion on the part of American voters, who “will always want a million contradictory things, chief among them low taxes, a strong defense, and gobs of government services.” This is a situation crying out for leadership, argues Sager: “The American people have their virtues, but knowing what they want from the government and setting sensible long-term priorities in the absence of principled political leadership are not among them.”
But once again, we’re forced to ask: if six years of a self-identified conservative Republican president working with a self-identified conservative Republican Congress could not produce principled conservative leadership, then is such leadership possible at all? Or can conservatives only be principled when they are out
of government? Conservatism, one might deduce, makes for a nice mode of critique from the sidelines, but it doesn’t really provide a principle for modern government. Thus, when in power, it begets government without principles.
And so the real crisis in conservatism may not be the growth of evangelicalism or the electoral tar baby of the South. The real crisis might be conservative government itself. Movement conservatism’s Friedmanesque obsessions may hold little direct appeal to Americans, who want a government focused on delivering necessary services with maximum efficiency, not one held hostage to a war between anti-government ideologues and an amoral political machine. The West won’t save this train wreck, nor will the Republicans’ repeated attempts to somehow appeal to minority voters (even while they’re forced to play the race card to keep their white supporters coming back).
Sager is a very smart observer, and liberals trying to get a handle on the current political state of play would do well to read his book, perhaps as a companion to Tom Schaller’s Whistling Past Dixie
. And a Sagerite Republican Party would be much healthier for the American body politic than the current model. But he can’t avoid the central dilemma of the right: fusion may have electrified the conservative movement, but given the failures of conservative government, it hardly seems enough to keep the power going.
Labels: book reviews, conservatism, conservatives, Ryan Sager