Political Hay

Hurting the Ones You (Ought to) Love

Why do some libertarians want a war with the Christian Right?

By 6.27.06

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New York Post columnist Ryan Sager is one of the sharpest young minds (with one of the sharpest pens) in the punditocracy. He is also a genuine libertarian who is suspicious of virtually every action take by the government, federal, state, and local.

Sager is also -- perhaps especially -- distrustful of the Christian Right. He synopsizes his thoughtful piece in the current issue of the Atlantic, titled "Purple Mountains," thus:

In the piece, I look at whether the GOP's balance between South and West is going off kilter. I argue that, yes, the GOP is tilting too far South, leaving open the way toward a Democratic revival in the interior West.

But that's not really what the article is about. The Interior West and the South are merely geographic proxies in the conflict Sager is manifestly more interested in: the one between anti-government libertarians and Christian conservatives. This is the subject of Sager's forthcoming book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, from which the Atlantic piece is excerpted.

Sager argues:

That realignment is by now complete -- the GOP could hardly dominate the region more thoroughly. But as the South has become central to Republican Party strategy, its particular flavor of social conservatism, moral certitude, and activist government has infused the national party's character. This is slowly alienating the other major bloc in the Republican coalition: small-government conservatives, especially those who value individual liberty most highly.

While fissures run between these two groups in every state, there is also a larger geography to the modern Republican Party's dilemma. In balancing the religious Right against the libertarian Right, the GOP balances the South against the West. (The Midwest is something of a muddle in between.) Bush-style big-government conservatism has tilted the party's regional balance and put the West in play.

Differences between the West and the South begin with religion....


Sager proceeds to segment the percentages of the population of several interior West states into three relevant voting subgroups: evangelicals (which Sager rightly asserts is a predominantly Republican cohort), Hispanic/Latino (which he chalks up as a majority Democrat cohort), and California expats (which he -- wrongly, to my way of thinking -- likens to a "bucket of blue paint" spilling over the West).

Irrespective of whether or not Californian expats bring liberal values inland with them as Sager insists, or they are fleeing those liberal values, as I would contend, did you catch the dynamic of Sager's trichotomy? Two liberal Democrat subgroups and one conservative Republican subgroup are the major players in the swing states in question. Where are Sager's libertarians? In his Atlantic piece Sager does not -- and cannot -- enumerate them because libertarians are an unorganized, thinly populated, and dispersed lot, making them politically useless. The choice in the interior West swing states, according to Sager's analysis, is not between "the religious Right and the libertarian Right" but between the religious Right and liberal Democrats.

The argument then becomes: But the Religious Right's fixation on "guns, God, and gays" so puts off regular voters that it endangers the already-thin Republican majority (even if this were true, however, it would not follow that libertarian-inspired budget cuts would win these voters back). Sager sites the GOP's poor 2004 down-ticket performance in Colorado to make this very point. It is a remarkably inapt example. To begin with, Colorado Republicans nominated the more moderate businessman Pete Coors over Religious Right Congressman Bob Schaffer for U.S. Senate and still lost the U.S. Senate race. And Republicans lost control of the state legislature not because of a proposed gay marriage ban, as Sager argues, but because the state faced a crippling budget crisis brought about by the libertarian-inspired Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Gov. Bill Owens would have to beg voters a year later to grant him special dispensation to increase government spending and raise their taxes (they did!). This is not a record the libertarian Right should be proud of.

Sager further argues:

Bush's GOP, however, is making a Democratic pitch to libertarian-minded voters more credible. The Republican Party is rapidly losing its identity as the party of fiscal responsibility and small government. And Republican intrusions into private and local affairs -- think Terri Schiavo -- are making Democrats look comparatively restrained.

Sager is correct when he argues that President Bush's love for big government has the potential to hurt Republicans. But he is exactly wrong for implying Christian conservatives are responsible for Bush-era profligacy. How can Sager, or any libertarian, argue with a straight face that the Religious Right is responsible for the Medicare Modernization Act, the bloated transportation bill, or the energy bill pork platter? (As for "Republican intrusions into private and local affairs," Sager evidently needs reminding that Congressional Democrats, too, voted to intervene in the Schiavo affair and hardly stand to gain from the incident.)

Moreover, are there any political consequences to Republican fiscal irresponsibility? Are libertarians going to run them out of office? Hardly. To grasp the sheer political weakness of small-government conservatives consider what happened when Republicans acted on the myth they created about their 1994 revolution. When newly empowered Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich tried to cut spending on several federal programs, recently neutered (politically, that is) President Bill Clinton handed him his hat in the government shut-down debacle. No successful politician has attempted to reduce seriously the size of the federal government since. That is probably because, despite political lore, the 1994 election had a whole lot more to do with "moral values" than "smaller government."

Sager is not alone in overstating the impact of the libertarian Right. Glenn Reynolds has posed arguments similar to Sager's in the past:

It's certainly true that the Libertarian Party is trivial. But libertarian-leaning Republicans and independents are far more numerous, and have less reason to stick around given that their agendas aren't getting much attention. What's more, if libertarian-leaning conservatives line up against the Republican agenda, it's likely to worry swing voters far more than if criticisms come only from the usual suspects of the left.

... and has even found his worldview confirmed by the off-year elections of 2005:
I also think that I may have been right in suggesting that the GOP had lost its mojo with the Terri Schiavo affair. Things seem to have started to go south then, not only because of the issue itself, but because of the divisive venom that so many Schiavo partisans aimed at people who disagreed with them. I think it was very damaging to the GOP coalition, and they've continued to pay a price.

And yet, as I pointed out at the time, while no faction of the GOP can claim the 2005 election vindicated their respective public policy catalogues, the "Prayerbook Right" easily outperformed the "Pocketbook Right."

Yet despite their political impotency, the libertarian Right appears bent on bringing down the one political movement that has tolerated its know-it-all-ism and has in fact dragged it into the halls of political power along with it, rather like a ball and chain: the Christian Right. It is beyond arguing that a Democrat Congress would ever grant a hearing to small government libertarians come budget time. Under a Republican majority, made possible by the rise of politically active conservative Christians, the libertarian Right has had every opportunity to appeal for smaller government. That its appeals have been -- and continue to be -- unpersuasive cannot be the fault of Religious conservatives.

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About the Author

Patrick Hynes is an account executive with the consulting firm Marsh Copsey + Scott and the proprietor of the websites www.passionforfairness.com and www.crushkerry.com.