Special Report

Understanding American Politics

Nobody does so more perceptively and creatively than Grover Norquist.

By 8.6.08

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If you want to understand American politics, then you will read the new book by Grover Norquist, Leave Us Alone (reviewed by W. James Antle III in last April's American Spectator).

Norquist has a unique real world perspective on politics in America. He has served for over 20 years as President of Americans for Tax Reform, the most effective taxpayer activist organization in the country. But what is unique is the way he has carried out that role.

Norquist doesn't just sit in Washington and spout and pontificate. He has made a practice of traveling around the country and meeting with real grassroots activists, offering advice and support to help them achieve their goals, and learning from them in return. Indeed, he has carried this practice out internationally as well, meeting with such activists around the globe.

This grew into the regular Wednesday morning meetings he holds in Washington, D.C. every week at ATR. Conservatives across the board of every stripe meet there and trade notes on what they and their organizations are doing, economic conservatives, free market conservatives, taxpayer activists, social conservatives, gun rights activists, religious conservatives, national defense conservatives. The group includes writers from several publications, think tanks, and blogs who can disseminate what they hear. It includes staffers from the House, the Senate, the White House, and elsewhere in the Administration. It includes elected officials, appointed officials, and candidates running for office. It includes representatives of major business organizations as well. A writer or blogger sitting through these meetings gets more than enough heads up on what's happening and coming down the pike to be a brilliant cutting edge opinion leader.

The audience regularly approaches 150 or more, much larger than typically attends events sponsored by major think tanks, for example. Moreover, it is an audience of political and activist professionals who understand how to be effective political and policy advocates. Norquist has now inspired similar meetings at the state level in 45 states.

Through these activities, Norquist has come to provide the critical networking function for the conservative movement. Business analysts and investors recognize just how enormously valuable this networking function is in the business world. Just check out the market cap of Google, for example. Norquist is the Google of the conservative movement.

THE BOOK and its analysis grow out of this background. Norquist starts by analyzing American politics as breaking out into two diametrically and irreconcilably opposed coalitions -- The Takings Coalition and the Leave Us Alone coalition.

For the Takings Coalition: "These groups and individuals view the proper role of government as taking things from one group and giving them to someone else….Money, power, and control. Who are they in favor of taking it from? You and me, the taxpayers." This coalition includes everyone who wants a handout from the government, from straight welfare to corporate welfare. It includes trail lawyers and labor union leaders trying to loot corporations and the taxpayers. It includes government bureaucrats, contractors, grantees, and big city political machines, whose primary motivation is a gold-plated deal paid for by the taxpayers. It also includes the "coercive utopians."

These folks want to change the world. They want to change you. And they are willing to wield the blunt instrument of the state to make you, your family, and your life fit their procrustean bedâ€"no matter how much it hurts you or how much it costs you. And they expect to be paid with tax dollars for supervising your moral regeneration. These are the radical environmentalists, gun control advocates, extreme feminists, safety and health "Nazis," animal rights extremists, anti-religious secularists, and some gay groups that wish to impose their sense of morality on others through the power of the state.

Of course, this Takings Coalition is the heart and soul of the Democrat party.

In sharp contrast, the Leave Us Alone Coalition,

the political movement created out of the defeated Republican Party of midcentury and sculpted by Ronald Reagan's political leadership and lifetime, is a coalition of groups that have one thing in common. They do not want the government to give them something. Or take something from others. On the key issue that motivates their vote, they want one simple thing from government: They just want to be left alone. They are taxpayers who want lower taxes. Businessmen and -women, entrepreneurs, investors who wish to run their own affairs without being regulated and taxed out of existence. Property owners who do not wish to be taxed out of their homes and property. Gun owners protective of their second amendment rights. Homeschoolers who are willing to spend the time and energy to educate their own children, asking only that the government leave them alone. Conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Mormons, all members of the various communities of faith who wish to be left alone to practice their faith and pass it on to their children.

This Leave Us Alone Coalition is the heart and soul of the Republican Party, whether actual Republican leaders understand that or not.

Norquist does not intend Leave Us Alone to be a banner or political rallying cry to attract voters, as some have mistakenly interpreted him. He intends the phrase to be descriptive and analytical, just as he does not expect the Left to campaign under the phrase "The Takings Coalition." The Leave Us Alone Coalition adds up to a center-right majority that is available to perceptive and effective Republican and conservative leaders marching that majority to victory.

NORQUIST EMPHASIZES that all the members of the Leave Us Alone Coalition do not necessarily agree with all of the others on their issues. The Coalition works because for each member the central issue that moves their vote is to be left alone, not to force others to conform to their views. How this works is shown by the operation of the Wednesday meeting. Each presenter explains what they are doing and looks for wider support from others in the group. If the homeschoolers are not interested in the presentation on capital gains reduction, they just don't volunteer to do anything. Others in the room will. Since the homeschoolers are primarily motivated by their own freedom, they are not offended by what the business lobbyists say about cap gains. When the homeschoolers explain what they are doing, the cap gains lobbyists may not be interested in that. But others in the room will be. Since the cap gains lobbyists are primarily interested in their freedom, however, they are not offended by the homeschoolers.

A perceptive political leader who understands this can consequently appeal to everyone in the coalition. I have attended these meetings for 20 years, and watched candidates and members of Congress come through. What I came to realize is that this is the model for successful Congressional campaigns in at least 60% to 70% of the country. Ditto that for Governors and state legislators.

But doesn't the "religious right" want to legislate morality, and impose their values on others? How can they be part of a Leave Us Alone Coalition? Norquist explains, "The 'religious right' is best understood as a parents' rights movement that fears state interference in the family just as small businessmen fear regulatory burdens, taxpayers fear the growing tax take, and gun owners fear politicians calling for gun control." What motivates the so-called religious right and moves their votes is attacks from the secular left on their freedom of religious belief and worship, their freedom to promote those beliefs, and their freedom to pass those beliefs on to their children. What I have seen as well now since the 1970s is the secular left trying to impose their morality and values on those holding traditional moral values, rather than visa versa. See, e.g., the Boy Scouts of America. As Norquist puts it, "These parents of faith will fight to control what is taught to their children in their schools. They will not cross the street to go after folks in San Francisco who behave oddly."

Now we can all understand what has happened to Kansas. Those working class social conservative voters that Thomas Frank laments have abandoned the state's old time progressivism are card-carrying members of Norquist's Leave Us Alone coalition. They see its success as in their interests, not contrary to them. Their votes are not moved by the prospect of government handouts, which they rightly do not see as in their real long term interests. As Norquist explains, "They do not want the government to give them something. Or take something from others."

Norquist even explains how the pro-life movement can be part of the coalition. The unborn child desperately wants to be left alone, not aborted. Those who identify with the unborn child see the issue this way.

HAVING ESTABLISHED this groundwork, Norquist continues in the book with the most brilliant and insightful analysis of the rise of the conservative movement and its long-term prospects that I have ever seen. Swelling the rise of the Leave Us Alone Coalition is the sharp growth of the investor class and widespread stock ownership, the sharp decline of labor unions, the growth of the more devout among Protestants (evangelicals), Catholics, and Jews, the growth of Mormons, the sharp rise of talk radio, the decentralized Internet, and the new media, the sharp decline of the major networks and old newspapers, the growth of homeschooling, higher fertility rates and much less abortion among conservatives and traditional families, the dying off of Great Depression era voters, continued growth of the NRA and explosion in conceal-and-carry permits, superior political training of young conservatives and Republicans that can't be duplicated on the Left (young conservatives are better behaved than young lefties), and much more limited opportunities to increase turnout of Takings Coalition voters.

Trends supporting the Takings Coalition include more widespread dependency on government handouts, increasing numbers of government employees, increased opportunities for voter fraud, the movement to allow voting by criminal convicts (hardcore practitioners of Takings Coalition philosophy), and the declining number of hunters. Norquist argues that the Hispanic vote is still up for grabs, with the increasing proportion of evangelical Hispanics a special opportunity, if Republicans don't stupidly alienate this voting block for the long term with overly aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.

Norquist recognizes that the long-term outcome of the battle between the two coalitions is consequently still uncertain, depending on how these trends turn out. Wise conservative and Republican leaders would try to strengthen the positive trends for the Leave Us Alone coalition, and weaken the negative trends. Norquist agrees that a huge opportunity in this regard is personal accounts for Social Security, massively increasing the strength of the investor class. Norquist also notes that with African Americans still voting 90% for Democrats, a huge latent opportunity exists in a potential Leave Us Alone coalition breakthrough with these voters.

On the other side of the ledger, Republicans would be foolish to allow Democrats to take away secret ballot elections for unions, allowing unions to beat working people (literally) into acquiescing to union control over their jobs. They would also be foolish to allow Democrats to bring back the phony "fairness doctrine" and shut down talk radio. Republicans and conservatives need to be alert to stop increasing government dependency, and look for opportunities to reverse it.

NORQUIST'S ANALYSIS shows why it is so counterproductive for Republicans to give in to Democrats in supporting tax increases, increased regulation, gun control, and other initiatives that run counter to the Leave Us Alone coalition. Those sellouts undermine support from the natural coalition base of support for Republicans and conservatives, and ultimately lead to political defeat. See, e.g., President Bush 41.

His analysis also shows why David Frum and others are so wrong in arguing that the tax issue is dead and that political success now lies in embracing a Big Government conservatism that would increase government dependency and taxes. That would not just short-circuit appeal to the Leave Us Alone coalition, but undermine the long term strength of the coalition itself.

Norquist's analysis represents the real political world as it is. Putative Republican and conservative leaders ignore it at their peril.

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About the Author
Peter Ferrara is Director of Entitlement and Budget Policy at the Heartland Institute, General Counsel of the American Civil Rights Union, Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and Senior Policy Advisor on Entitlements and Budget Policy at the National Tax Limitation Foundation. He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush.