Political Hay

Whose Crisis Is This Anyway?

"Conservatives of Faith" aren't the problem -- not so long as libertarians ignore their own fundamentalism.

By 5.4.05

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Like everyone else, I thought it was the Democrats. After a stinging and humiliating loss in November, a loss that hinged in many ways on their position on the Iraq War, the party turned around and gave Howard Dean (the architect of that position) the leading role in post-election party reconstruction!? Their formula for success in 2006 appears to be a reprise in substance and form of their 2004 strategy: Bush is Hitler (or Mao -- whichever makes for a better MoveOn.org commercial). Meanwhile, Hillary is running around talking about eliminating abortions. Surely it's the left that's in crisis.

But then on second thought, the left did a bang up job of keeping Social Security reform and U.N. reform (i.e. Bolton) off the table, with help of course from their traditional allies in the AARP and the New York Times respectively. This really should be no surprise. Being the minority is pretty easy -- your job is to oppose the other guy. The majority has to actually forge compromises, make deals, and run the country, something the left hasn't done in more than ten years.

But last week Andrew Sullivan warned, contrary to what I had heard on Fox News, that it's the right that has the problem. See, the Republican Party is a coalition party, and its two constituencies, which Sullivan calls "Conservatives of Faith" and "Conservatives of Doubt," are growing incompatible with one another.

The manifestation of this tension in the conservative movement is that the Republicans are now "willing to concern themselves with aspects of human life that conservatives once believed should be free of all government interference." Education, gay marriage, Terri Schiavo; all are examples of the party going back on its principles.

What is the result? For Sullivan "unless the religious presence within Republicanism becomes less dogmatic and fundamentalist, the conservative coalition as we have known it cannot long endure."

Sullivan, though, has over-simplified the whole problem. Yes, of course the Republican Party is a coalition. The cracks and fissures appearing now in the conservative coalition have always been there, but they were always put aside because there were bigger battles. Success has brought these disagreements to the forefront of conservative discourse -- so what.

Moreover, this does not explain all the contradictions in Bush's administration. No Child Left Behind is no more liked by the conservatives of faith than those of doubt. Moreover, Bush's leftward turn on Social Security last week is sure to draw rancor from both sides of Sullivan's split.

In many ways the religious right feels just as neglected by Bush and the Congress as does the libertarian right. The American Conservative even ran a cover story in their April issue subtitled "How the GOP Exploits Social Conservatives."

The most accurate explanation of the Bush Administration's big-government tendencies is likely a peculiar mixture of ideology, political reality, and median voter theory. But such analyses have no ability to stir men's souls, and Sullivan's explanation does this quite well. For him the skeptical (libertarian) conservatives are being hounded out of the party by a cabal of religious fundamentalism. His is a reactionary story, intended to affect a sense of injustice amongst the unappreciated Conservatives of Doubt. He censures this "new stridency," a fundamentalist urge that "by its very nature, eschews compromise."

But the very nature of his condemnation betrays a similar fundamentalism on the part of the libertarian conservatives. Theirs is a fundamentalism of science and reason. Any opposition to stem cell research is dismissed as reactionary and irrational, and even splendid compromises such as Bush's denial of federal funds to stem cell projects are dismissed as catering to the religious elements in the party.

If compromise is what Sullivan wants, then he should be willing to accept a compromise on civil unions rather than insisting that it's gay marriage or nothing. Isn't this a version of fundamentalism (right or wrong)? Would Sullivan oppose Goldwater's suggestion that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" on grounds that it "eschews compromise"? Indeed, the critique of fundamentalism often masks an objection to a particular brand of fundamentalism.

No, real crisis, to the extent there is one, is within libertarians who've allied themselves with social conservatives, but now feel disrespected and forgotten. It is the libertarian who agrees with Barney Frank on gay marriage but Bush on Terrorism that finds himself mired in an exigency of ideology and praxis. For these libertarians there's an internal battle between moral indignity and rational self-interest that appears hopeless. This is the frustration expressed in Sullivan's crisis.

The Christian right hasn't changed and neither has Bush. Libertarians on the other hand have found compromise with these elements increasingly difficult. To try blame this crisis on the "Conservatives of Faiths" is neither fair nor productive.

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