The Republican Schism

Colorado is a Republican state run by Democrats. Why is that? David Kirby of America’s Future Foundation (AFF) organized a debate in Denver to figure it out. Brad Jones of FaceTheState (shown in the photo) moderated the event, held March 26 at the Oxford Hotel. AFF described the event as follows:

Democrats’ Strategy to turn the Mountain West Blue, and What Libertarians and Conservatives Can Do About It

It’s no mistake that Democrats will be hosting their national convention in Denver. Liberal funders have invested heavily in Colorado as part of a multi-cycle strategy to turn traditionally red states in the mountain west blue. But have Republicans and the Religious Right put more libertarian-leaning mountain states up for grabs? Looking at the primaries, does Huckabee’s success indicate the growing or waning influence of evangelicals in the Republican Party? Does Ron Paul’s fundraising success indicating a growing influence of libertarians? And what to make of McCain? Join our panelists as we discuss the future of libertarians, conservatives, and evangelicals in the West.

Featuring Jon Caldara, president, Independence Institute; Jim Pfaff, president, Colorado Family Council Ryan Sager, author, Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party; Gene Healy, senior editor at the Cato Institute and author, Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power; moderated by Brad Jones,

The four main speakers offered four different takes on the GOP and the problems arising from the “fusionism” of the last few decades between social conservatives (the religious right) and fiscal conservatives. (Caldara and Healy are shown in the photo at left; Sager and Pfaff are shown below.)

1. Sager believes that social conservatives, with their emphasis on outlawing abortion and disparaging homosexuals, along with their increasing friendliness toward big-government programs, have alienated both socially-tolerant fiscal conservatives and younger voters. Sager said that he’s sorry to lose social conservatives as political allies, but he didn’t express much hope for a renewal of fusionism. Instead, pointing to polling data and demographic trends, Sager predicted continued Democratic success in the Interior West.

2. Pfaff, whose organization is friendly with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, argued that fusionism continues to be a sound basis for an alliance, and that many on the religious right continue to share concerns about limiting the power of the federal government.

3. Caldara suggested that the main problem is that Republicans aren’t acting like Republicans; that is, they are promoting higher taxes, expanded political programs, and more government controls generally. This has dispirited the Republican base and made possible Democratic victories. He thinks that Republican “differences… are actually pretty small” and that they can be bridged.

4. Healy said basically that fusionism doesn’t matter. Whether Republicans or Democrats have controlled the national government, its power has steadily expanded. However, while Clinton supported free trade, got the deficit under control, and helped reform welfare, Bush expanded welfare and launched a nation-building expedition. “If what you really care about” is limited government, Healy said, then partisanship is the wrong strategy. Instead, our best hope in the near future is divided government.

I suggest that a fifth explanation is the best one. Fusionism is inherently unstable, the conservative split was destined to happen, and a deepening schism is both inevitable and desirable.

Today’s liberals of a classical bent, whom Sager calls the libertarians, are primarily concerned with individual rights. Thus, they care deeply about property rights and economic liberty, and they also care deeply about individual freedom. Their concern is fundamentally with the well-being of individual people and the society that they comprise; their basic value is earthly flourishing. Thus, the “fiscal conservatives” are dominantly secularists, even though many of them also hold religious views.

The religious right, on the other hand, is fundamentally concerned with success in the afterlife and with obeying the (alleged) commandments of God. The Bible doesn’t lend much support to a politics of economic liberty; it is instead dominated by the ideal of giving away one’s money to help the less-fortunate. Most Christians, even most “conservative” ones, endorse a robust welfare state. To the extent that Christians endorse relatively free markets, they usually do so on essentially collectivist grounds: free markets harness capitalist vice to enrich the masses. Capitalism does enrich the masses, but the key political question is whether the rights of the individual to pursue earthly happiness remain inviolable.

Certainly the likes of George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney advocate massive state intrusion in the market, often on explicitly religious grounds. Moreover, many on the religious right believe that God wants them to outlaw abortion, gay marriage (if not homosexuality), and pornography. Thus, even social conservatives who endorse relatively free markets — and they seem to be a dying breed — typically advocate censorship and highly intrusive state powers. To take but one example, the effort in Colorado to define a fertilized egg as a person would, if enforced, impose severe state controls over our sexual and reproductive lives.

Democrats in Colorado have not won; Republicans have lost. Republicans have pushed for such measures as waiting periods for abortions and controls of book-store displays. They have resisted efforts to moderate the drug war, even for medical marijuana, and it took a Democratic government to repeal the Prohibition-era ban on Sunday liquor sales. So Republicans have certainly been unfriendly toward “socially tolerant” fiscal conservatives — a large group in the Interior West, as Sager has found. Meanwhile, Republicans have also given us massive tax hikes, the smoking ban, and corporate welfare. While some Republicans do actually push for free markets, Republicans on the whole are only modestly better than Democrats at defending economic liberty, and often Republicans are leading the charge to violate economic liberty.

I myself have renounced “fusionism.” The religious right is no friend of liberty. I voted for Democrat Bill Ritter for governor, I have indicated my likely support for Mark Udall over Bob Schaffer for U.S. Senate, and I have pledged not to vote for John McCain, who has trampled the First Amendment as well as pushed for faith-based politics.

Fusionism is dead. Good riddance.

As far as I can see, the only real hope for liberty (beyond the necessary philosophical foundation) is for the civil-libertarian left, the free-trade Democrats, and the free-market right to form a new alliance. The religious right has already started to merge with the religious left, and that process will continue. The ultimate battle is between reason and liberty on one side and faith and force on the other. Of course, some non-Christians, such as rabid environmentalists, will join the side of socialism, their natural home, while various Christians will join the side of liberty. Social tolerance insists on freedom of religion (including freedom from religion) and naturally includes tolerance for religious differences — so long as religionists don’t try to impose their religious dogmas by force.

But on with the discussion.

Pfaff argued that there “really isn’t a divide at all;” he called himself a “Christian libertarian” and a member of the “Reagan coalition.” He said that, while he is concerned with the politics of “life” and “marriage” (i.e., banning abortion and preventing homosexual unions), social conservatives are “not just animated by family / life issues.” They also care about freedom in the economy.

“I have no desire to live in a pro-life, socialist state,” Pfaff said. For one thing, under socialism he’d lose the “pro-life” issue, too. (I don’t think that point is correct, as Christian socialism is possible.) He added, “To understand social conservatives, you have to understand that life issue.” He said the matters of abortion and marriage, as well as fiscal issues, are “rooted in the principles of liberty.” By my lights, that only demonstrates that the meaning of liberty depends crucially on underlying principles.

Caldara tried to sprinkle some water on burning bridges. “For the most part, I love social conservatives,” he said. However, Caldara made perhaps the most devastating critique of fusionism, even if he didn’t intend his comments as such. He pointed out that, in the good ol’ days of fusionism, God loved guns and low taxes, so fusionism worked. But now “God is having second thoughts on both issues,” and the religious right seems more concerned with telling people how to live. The problem that Caldara points to is that of faith-based politics: Christians who try to justify capitalism through religion ultimately fail to do so, while other Christians successfully sacrifice capitalism to religion (consider, for instance, the rise of Jim Wallis.)

But the GOP has other problems, Caldara noted, such as the “business-development Republicans,” whose idea of business development is a combination of corporate-welfare, discriminatory taxation, and political favoritism. I would describe the broader problem here as pragmatism: many Republicans don’t even know what principles are, much less seek to apply them in politics.

Healy offered perhaps the most painfully funny talk. “Is it really a shame” if “our side” loses, he asked? Bush has hardly represented a victory for conservatives. He also suggested that, with a Democratic president, at least Republicans might oppose some expansions of federal power.

In line with his new book, Healy offered a more fundamental critique of the American presidency. The modern president has become “the living embodiment of America’s hopes and dreams,” he said. He quoted Hillary, Obama, McCain, and Bush about controlling the economy, creating an American “kingdom,” following Teddy Roosevelt, and having “a heart big enough to love those who hurt.”

In other words, the president is supposed to be “America’s shrink and social worker and talk-show host,” as well as the protector of the entire earth, all in one person. “The president is supposed to be a superhero.” However, Healy warned, “With great responsibility comes great power.”

Sager began by reviewing the history of fusionism. Bush, he argued, abandoned fusionism in favor of so-called “compassionate conservatism.” Sager blasted McCain’s campaign censorship law. Citing recent history, he asked, if you are socially tolerant and fiscally conservative, “why on earth would you vote Republican?” The Democratic Party is increasingly the home of free trade plus social tolerance, he suggested.

Sager places the blame for fusionism’s demise squarely with the religious right, which seems to care most about “denying civil rights to gay people.” Such a position alienates young voters as well as civil libertarians, he added. The message of the GOP insofar as it is dominated by the religious right is, “We are the party of bigotry.”

In the question period, Healy noted that, even though he is sympathetic with the “pro-life” position, he no longer sees a basis for a broad coalition. Social conservatives are “no longer part of the leave-me-alone coalition,” he said. Instead, they seem to be following the ideals of the Great Society. Pfaff said that he supported Huckabee, whom Healy particularly criticized, despite concerns with Huckabee’s economic pronouncements.

Pfaff was obviously feeling a little bit beat up. I think that’s because, ultimately, Pfaff cannot establish a basis for fusionism, even though he obviously wants to. To me, Pfaff’s support for Huckabee indicates where his priorities rest. While I appreciate Pfaff’s concern for economic liberty, he’s half-heartedly fighting a battle within the religious right that he simply cannot win.

As the old alliances crumble, people are going to have to make some hard choices. Democrats will have to decide whether they care more about class warfare or a sound economy. Civil-libertarians of the left will have to decide whether they can live with civil liberties such as gun ownership and property rights. Christians of the right will need to decide whether they care more about abortion and homosexuality or economic liberty — and pick their allies accordingly.

Meanwhile, those who consistently advocate individual rights must fight for their principles and try to bring others on board.