Political Hay

Old Fusion?

Social conservatives and libertarians appear ready to go their separate ways.

By 11.8.06

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After a nasty campaign season in which both sides traded insults and accusations, can they work together in the future? It is a question sure to be directed at Republicans and Democrats, but it might be profitably be asked of feuding libertarians and social conservatives as well.

The midterm elections didn't make a peaceful outcome more likely. Instead both sides acquired new ammunition. Reputedly libertarian Arizona narrowly rejected a ban on same-sex marriage (though similar measures passed everywhere else they were on the ballot), rebuffing social conservatives. Minimum-wage hikes passed in six states, which isn't very libertarian -- and neither were many of the Democratic victors, despite the Libertarian Democrat meme. Expect the finger-pointing to continue in this increasingly ugly dispute.

Consider the much-discussed culture war of words between former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Focus on the Family head James Dobson. After it was reported that Armey described "Dobson and his gang" as "thugs" and "bullies," the Texas Republican didn't back down. Instead he blasted certain "self-appointed Christian leaders" for being "big government sympathizers who want to impose their version of 'righteousness' on others."

Dobson didn't exactly turn the other cheek. He responded by calling Armey "a very bitter man" who was motivated by past slights -- Dobson backed an unsuccessful leadership challenge by his "close friend and hunting buddy" Steve Largent -- and seeking to reposition himself within the Republican Party at the expense of religious conservatives.

Other Christian right leaders objected to Armey's assertion that congressional Republicans were being distracted by issues like same-sex marriage. "If it weren't for the marriage amendment in Ohio, John Kerry would be president," the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land told the Washington Post on Friday. "So shut up, Dick."

WHAT MAKES THE FLAP EVEN more remarkable is the fact that Armey's political philosophy is as congenial to the Christian Coalition as to the Cato Institute. He is an evangelical whose born-again experience was noted by World magazine and hardly a cultural libertine. He was strongly pro-life and even voted for some of that "distracting" legislation opposing same-sex marriage. But one of Armey's biggest wins for religious conservatives protected home-schooling families from new federal regulations -- classic fusionism, securing traditionalist ends through libertarian means.

Personal animosity is certainly a factor in the Armey-Dobson dustup, but fusionism itself may also be fraying. That is political journalist Ryan Sager's thesis in The Elephant in the Room, the book for which Armey granted the interviews where he originally criticized Dobson (and which I reviewed in the October issue of The American Spectator). Sager contends that social conservatives no longer want to accomplish their goals through anti-statist means, preferring instead to create a "God and government coalition."

But the case could also be made that libertarians no longer care about traditionalist ends. When the Acton Institute's Jennifer Roback Morse recently argued that the pro-family policies endorsed by the socially conservative Family Research Council were more compatible with libertarianism than those of the liberal Children's Defense Fund, many libertarians were unimpressed. From their perspective, she might as well have noted that the positions of the Women's Christian Temperance Union were more libertarian than those of the Communist Party USA.

It didn't help that Roback Morse made these arguments while trying to persuade libertarians to pull the lever for Rick Santorum, who was no libertarian favorite. And the anti-statist Senate votes the Pennsylvanian did cast could have probably been highlighted without relying so heavily on the fact that Santorum "totally aces Tony Perkins' litmus test for candidates," as my friend David Weigel of Reason put it. But even if the policies in question reduce federal expenditures, the objective of, say, curtailing abortions in military hospitals isn't one many of Santorum's libertarian critics share.

It is the growth in influence of libertarians who don't hold culturally conservative assumptions as much as any alleged big-government drift by religious conservatives that imperiled the fusionist project. As the brush of big government is cleared, Reaganites and Randians envision a different idealized outcome and the ends are starting to outweigh the means.

THAT IS NOT TO SAY THAT social conservatives haven't in some cases become more eager to use the federal government for their own purposes, especially under Republican majorities. Many Christian conservatives have gone from arguing that the welfare state undermines marriage to using it to promote marriage. Some seek to shape public-school curricula rather than make it easier for families to opt out of secular government schools. The religious right has always taken a more expansive view of the state's ability to suppress vice than many other conservatives; when activist Supreme Court justices mandate some socially liberal policy, moral conservatives are often quick to back constitutional amendments imposing the opposite policy.

But the costs of marriage-promotion programs and the faith-based initiative are only a fraction of the Medicare prescription drug benefit or even No Child Left Behind. These two major Bush-era expansions of the federal government had little to do with social conservatives. In fact, even many economic conservatives are willing to increase spending now to buy votes for programs they hope will enhance choice and reduce dependency later. Perhaps we're all big-government conservatives now.

And not all trends on the religious right point in a statist direction. Their position on school prayer becomes more flexible every year. Bans on pornography are a lower priority than they once were. Ramesh Ponnuru observed in National Review, "Social conservatives may be upset that the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in 2003, but they are not campaigning to reinstate them (the way they are campaigning, for example, to bring back laws against abortion)."

Can the old libertarian-traditionalist alliance be rebuilt? Perhaps -- in The Elephant in the Room, Sager calls for "a renewal of fusionism." But even so fusion-friendly a libertarian as Sager seems unsympathetic to social conservatism -- which makes the rift between fairly fusionist conservatives like Armey and Dobson's allies all the more ominous. If the two major parties can't get along next year, it's just politics as usual. If the row between social conservatives and libertarians isn't resolved, it's the end of the American Right as we know it.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.