Friday, April 17, 2009

The Conservative Coalition vs. the Liberal Coalition: Is the Former REALLY Falling Apart and How Cohesive is the Latter?

Yesterday in the Huffington Post, Drew Westen wrote a well-reasoned analysis of what he identified as five key elements in the conservative coalition that has controlled the Republican Party to a growing degree since the Barry Goldwater presidential candidacy in 1964. Rather than recap his long description of each, I will summarize them briefly.

1.) Libertarian conservatives - Those opposed to strong central government in defense of personal freedom and personal responsibility.

2.) Social conservatives - Traditionalists opposed to social change, primarily composed of Christian evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Dominionists.

3.) Fiscal conservatives - Good old-fashioned Herbert Hoover progressives in the Robert Taft/Bob Dole tradition who acknowledge government's legitimate role in public life but who advocate 'fiscal discipline' and 'pro-business' policies.

4.) Defense hawks - The empire builders who support a strong military, interventionist foreign policy, American triumphalism, and exporting American values.

5.) 'Know-nothings' - American exclusivists who share attitudes frequently defined as racist code words and phrases and who advocate a definition of equality that protects the status quo and promotes bringing the right kinds of minorities into the established order rather than allowing minority groups to strongly influence the cultural, economic, or political status quo in a different direction. These people advance a generally white, European cultural ideal and are accepting of minorities who meet its standards and dismissive of those who do not, though they frequently do not consider themselves racist. They frequently curry to genuinely racist voting blocs, however.

Dr. Westen lists them as exclusive groups, though he notes overlap between some of these groups in some areas. He claims there is a large degree of incompatibility in this coalition, particularly between the first three categories, and that the alliance is fundamentally unstable and is falling apart. This is a popular view in liberal circles, but I am not certain it is an accurate view at all.

I would argue that the last two categories of 'conservative' do not truly exist as intrinsically 'conservative', nor are they separate categories within the conservative coalition that defines movement conservatism within the Republican Party. Instead, they are a set of tendencies shared by conservatives, moderates, and liberals which tend to be particularly prevalent within the conservative coalition because of the natural cultural chauvinism of social conservatives and the natural economic elitism of fiscal conservatives and some libertarian conservatives. There are plenty of Defense Hawks and Know Nothings in the Democratic Party as well, just look at Hillary Clinton's message and demographic in the 2008 election and John Edwards' message and demographic in 2004.

So then, let's reduce that number of categories to:

1.) Libertarian conservatives

2.) Social conservatives

3.) Fiscal conservatives

We can also assume that most of the members of the conservative coalition, allowing for exceptions, have tendencies toward being Defense Hawks, Know Nothings, or both. Libertarian and Fiscal conservatives are often, but not always, Defense Hawks. Fiscal conservatives are often, but not always, Know Nothings. Social conservatives are very frequently both Defense Hawks and Know Nothings. Libertarian conservatives are usually not Know Nothings, but there are exceptions.

If one breaks things down this way, one discovers there is a much smaller division within the conservative coalition than originally appeared to exist. What is more, some of the assumptions that Dr. Westen makes in his article are too driven by subjective thought to correctly describe conservative thinking processes. For instance,

"The fundamentalist politics practiced by the likes of Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson over the last 30 years should have been anathema to genuine libertarians, because they run against everything libertarian conservatives believe in vis-à-vis intrusive government. However, the two groups lived happily together as long as libertarians got to keep their taxes low and their rifles loaded and fundamentalists got to keep their kids from learning anything about birth control (leading the Bible Belt to have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and abortion anywhere in the country, although Sarah Palin seems to be leading a one-family crusade to recapture for Alaska the title of Miss Teen Pregnancy)."


The problem is that this is not merely an ability to live happily together, but a general (if mistaken) belief many Social conservatives hold: they think they are Libertarian conservatives! They believe themselves to be apostles of freedom, much better than those self-proclaimed libertarians who are stupid enough to believe in silly things like personal liberty! This is really important to understand, it really defines a mode of thought that sounds silly to those who do not share it... one can be absolutely opposed to full civil rights for all citizens and still call one's self a libertarian if one accepts that liberty and Christianity are the same thing! Social conservatives of this stripe share the same economic ideas as Libertarian and Fiscal conservatives, and tend to accept the 'government is evil' mantra of Libertarian conservatives in all aspects of their lives except for their right to persecute those who believe differently from themeselves. Frequently, they believe themselves to be the persecuted minority, the evil secular world is punishing them for their righteousness!

There are Libertarian and Fiscal conservatives who are put off by this behavior, notably Barry Goldwater in the former category and (for a very long time) George H.W. Bush in the latter. The problem is that they are in the minority. Most conservatives in the Republican party are unwilling or unable to buck the political power of fundamentalist Christian voters in the party organization. Conservative tv and radio pundits like Bill O'Riley, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity are primarily Social conservatives masked in Libertarian or Fiscal sheep's clothing. So the unity of the right wing is much sturdier than Dr. Westen and many of our fellow liberals would like to believe. Thinking otherwise is dangerous. Yes, Libertarian conservatives like Christopher Hitchens and Fiscal conservatives like Andrew Sullivan and Gov. Charlie Crist (R FL) are hitching to the moderate-to-liberal bandwagon in these difficult times, but they are in the extreme minority. Even moderates like Senator Arlen Spector (R PA) are being intimidated to fall into the conservative line.

The real danger, however, that this overconfident belief in the destruction of movement conservatism poses to liberals, is successfully captured by Dr. Westen despite his failure to understand what he is really saying:

"They're short on ideas, but they're long on selling ideas, however vapid. Second, Democrats are exactly the opposite: They're long on ideas but short on the ability to bundle them into coherent, emotionally compelling narratives that make people want to buy them..."


This is the most dangerous flaw in predictions of the destruction of movement conservatism and the triumph of 'progressivism.' Particularly when one notes that the Democratic Party has to face Fiscal conservatives, Defense Hawks, and Know Nothings within its own ranks. Senator Blanche Lincoln (D - Wal-Mart) defected from the EFCA, after having been one of its original Senate supporters, due to political pressure from Fiscal conservatives within the Democratic Party. Senator Ben Nelson (D - NE) was the leader of the Senate slashing of the White House stimulus bill.

Fiscal conservatives in both parties may be the future of the Republican Party, or even of the Democratic Party, if self-proclaimed 'progressives' do not work hard to support liberal Democratic candidates instead of rushing to support the most neoconservative candidates available.

The division between liberal Democrats, Fiscal conservatives, Blue Dog Fiscal/Social/Defense Hawks, and moderates may be far more dangerous to the Democratic Party than any of the internal divisions in movement conservatism. Liberals, if they wish to hold their own and expand their influence, must find a way to bring the most pragmatic members of the Green, Peace and Freedom, and Natural Law parties back into the Democratic ranks. Liberal pragmatists more invested in radical reform than the success of the Democratic Party must strive to do the same if they wish to save liberalism.

The liberal coalition of ethnocentric civil rights groups, feminist groups, and GLBT rights groups (all of which desperately need to pool their forces into cohesive human rights groups) with labor, civil libertarians, peace activists, and environmentalists might be far more unstable than the other side. Environmentalist liberals and Labor liberals have much deeper divides than Social and Libertarian conservatives. Ignoring those divides is asking for trouble... it's one of the reasons we have a surfeit of liberal third parties with no cohesion amongst themselves, let alone with liberal Democrats.

I believe that Fiscal conservatism will self-destruct if aggressive radical reforms are adopted to help those most harmed by the bad economy and get the economy back on track. Even if President Obama's rather conservative agenda succeeds, it will at least prove that conservatism must be pragmatic rather than dogmatic. Social conservatism will continue to shrink as the younger generation continues to challenge the older... but there will always be backsliding as well. How many of today's conservative Republicans were counterculture liberals in the 1960s?

Before liberals can gloat about the destruction of movement conservatism, we have to actually sort out just what movement liberalism is and get it back on track.

8 comments:

Fritz said...

But what if the Obama stimulus plan fails to boost the economy but instead results in stagflation worse than the '70s? This is an outcome that I consider quite likely. I think countering that the Obama administration really should have doubled down and borrowed much more is not going to go over well.

This scenario would likely breathe new life into fiscal conservatism.

Chris Richards said...

Well, if one wants to go by the experts, stagflation is a very likely effect of the Paulson/Geithner bailout, yes. Pumping money into banks didn't work for Hoover either, or for the Japanese in the 90s. I'm more than willing that it could go very badly. I should note that infrastructure spending has a far better track record, as much in the Truman/Eisenhower years as the New Deal.

It is worth noting, that the Wall Street bailout is a 'fiscal conservative' plan pitched by neoconservatives in the Republican Party and continued by neoconservatives in the Democratic Party, some very different from your own libertarianism AND my liberalism. ;)

The main purpose of my piece was to give my own analysis of the political situation about which liberals are crowing. Movement conservatism is not as dead as liberals want to think, and movement liberalism does not exist in the way liberals think it does. I think the triumphal tone of many liberal writers is a little too premature and I am trying to strike a notably different tone in hopes o presenting a more realistic political picture for some of the people patting themselves on the back.

Fritz said...

We keep agreeing...

Obama made a very interesting choice in using his political capital to semi-permanently expand the size of the Federal government in projects that will be hiring during the 2010 election season rather than in short-term stimulus (like what the money was suppposed to be spent for).

We will see whether the expanded coffers of the public employee unions and the larger number of people dependent on government paychecks translates to continued Democratic victories in 2010 and 2012.

Chris Richards said...

Don't get me wrong, I am entirely happy with the stimulus bill, I would have been even happier with the larger figure Congress set before it was cut down by the Senate.Infrastructure investment and practical programs are things that I, as a pinko socialist, am hardly going to complain about. ;)

As a pinko socialist, of course, I would rather have seen a temporary emergency nationalization of the banks most in need of rescue instead of the massive hand-out to financiers who proven adept at ruining multimillion dollar corporations. That's the part I am nervous about. I think it might work, with the stimulus, but it does jar my principles a bit. It bothers me we won't see more bank execs fired or jailed, being the class warrior I am, too. ;)

If things get better, I am not going to complain. If the bank bailout doesn't work, I am going to be joining the Krugmans and Stiglitzes in screaming nationalization, or even join Bernie Sanders in asking for usury legislation favoring credit unions over banks.

But I I think you likely guessed most of that. ;)

Fritz said...

I'm not a pinko socialist at all, and I want to see a few bank execs jailed. I think it is utterly unforgivable that these people were allowed to destroy the companies they worked for and were able to walk away from the train wrecks scot free. I also think the board members who did not control the CEOs should be in the next cells.

Hell the CEO of Fannie Mae is now appointed to be in charge of the bailout. Crazy.

Chris Richards said...

Well, we've had our arguments on the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac issue, of course.

Aside from that, I agree with you, and despite the Fannie/Freddie disagreements we may have, I agree it's not terribly appropriate to put the Fannie Mae CEO in charge of the bail out under the circumstances. I'd put Robert Reich in charge, but then I'm vindictive on top of everything else.

Superb Jon said...

Obama marks the end of the Burke Maritan Buckley model of conservatism based on collectivist labor unions, police suppression of the Bill of Rights, middle class subsidies for homes and schools under the watchful eye of the Knights of Columbus and Opus D. Every American boom has been caused by an Evangelical Revival and every major Depression by the domination of new Catholic immigrants. See for example George Marlin's history of the conservative party in New York or Paul Johnson's Modern Times, extolling the rise of Carolignianism of Adenauer, de Gaulle, and Gaspieri, forgetting that Hitler, too, was Carolignian and a Catholic altar boy.

Chris Richards said...

Superb Jon, because the content policy of this blog is firmly dedicated to freedom of expression, I am not going to remove your comment.

That said, paranoid conspiracy theories coupled with despicable Know-Nothingism is hardly a view I endorse. What is more, your comparison to Hitler is the worst kind of attempt to wave a blood shirt taken from a straw man. Hitler may have come from a Catholic background, but the Nazi Party was anti-Catholic and anti-Christian, supporting a state church that paid lip service to Christianity while calling on the older, pagan Germanic religious tradition. The highest levels of Nazis advanced a neo-pagan, Hegelian state religion that repudiated Christian principles entirely.

I am hardly the biggest fan of the current pope or the reactionary trend in Catholic Church leadership, but that does not excuse Know-Nothingism. Many American Catholics (John Kerry, Hilda Solis, Gavin Newsome) are among the foremost liberals of the country.

Evangelical fundamentalism is based on many of the same principles of authoritarian Dominionism as the Universalism of fundamentalist Catholics. The problem is not religious affiliation, it is the view of how religion and politics intertwine and the belief that the Church should control the State.

American social conservatives are not going to give up on this idea anytime soon.