Every once in a while an article comes along that makes the scales drop away and makes me go “ah hah! That’s how it is!”
I’m a conservative. Have been for over 25 years. And in all that time, there’ve been two things that have bothered me:
- The media’s fixation for mixing up “republicans” and “conservatives”. This is always a problem in Minnesota, with GOP’s history of having collaborated with the DFL’s spending orgies in the seventies and eighties, and having had Arne Carlson as governor for eight years, which seems to make every DFL pundit feel entitled to remind conservatives “but Tom Horner was a perfectly legitimate Republican!” Since some of the people who say this are smart, savvy political observers I have to figure they’re being willfully obtuse, but in the cases of many non-conservatives, I can’t help but think it’s just ignorance.
- “The Southern Strategy”. Way back in the pleistocene epoch, Richard Nixon supposedly started spinning the GOP’s message to play to the fears of white southern racists.
Well, I’ve been a conservative since Reagan’s second term, and I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever met a geniunely racist conservative or Republican. Not one. (And I’m not going to superimpose the fact the the most gleefully racist person I’ve met in my entire life was a DFL organizer onto the rest of the party. You’re welcome).
And so for decades, I’ve wondered what form of conservatism people were talking about when they mentioned either of the above.
Jacob Weisberg summed it up well in, of all places, Slate; there are really three different kinds of conservatism: Northeastern (“moderate”, outwardly secular, tends to work within in big government; think Mitt Romney) and Southern (conservative, evangelical, with a racial aspect), which were the two main faces of conservatism from the 1950’s through the 1990’s. Weisberg notes:
The big drama of the GOP over the past several decades has been the Northeastern view giving way to the Southern one. To see this transformation in a single family, witness the shift from George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush.
The third branch of conservatism: Western. It’s small-l libertarian, Tenth-Amendment-friendly, small-government, and on the rise:
You see this in the figures who have dominated the GOP since Barack Obama’s election 19 months ago: Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rand Paul. You see it in the right’s overarching theme: opposition to any expanded role for government, whether in promoting economic recovery, extending health care coverage, or regulating financial markets. You see it most strongly in the Tea Party movement that in recent months has captured the party’s imagination and driven its agenda.
And no, it’s not like the three “factions” have uniforms and sub-conventions:
On many issues, such as guns, taxes, and immigration, Southern and Western conservatives come out in the same place. They get there, however, by different means. The fundamental distinction is between a politics based on social and cultural issues and one based on economics. Southern conservatives care about government’s moral stance but don’t mind when it spends freely on behalf of their constituents. Western conservatives, by contrast, are soft-libertarians who want government out of people’s way on principle.
Which is a fine answer to one of the left’s latest chanting points; “I wonder if conservatives would be such budget hawks if they knew they’d lose social security?”
Southern Republicans are guided by the Bible. Western Republicans read the Constitution. Seen in historical terms, it’s the difference between a movement descended from George Wallace and one that harks back to Barry Goldwater.
The GOP’s Western tone of recent months summons the ghosts of Goldwater’s disastrous but transformational presidential campaign of 1964. Goldwater didn’t care about religion—he was a Jewish Episcopalian who once said that Jerry Falwell deserved a kick in the nuts. He wasn’t focused on racial politics—there aren’t many black people in Arizona. What mattered to him was limiting government and preserving liberty. To Goldwater, political freedom was inseparable from economic freedom, a view distilled in his most famous phrase, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” To call this politics Western is a matter of its Bonanza style as well as its anti-statist substance. Goldwater boasted a Navajo tattoo and liked flying planes, shooting guns, and playing the tables in Las Vegas. Western conservatism succeeded on a national scale when Ronald Reagan kept the cowboy look while easing up on Goldwater’s honorable, self-defeating consistency.
It’s not a bad description – although liberals like Weisberg always, always, always omit the second half of Goldwater’s famous dictum (“extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the defense of justice is no virtue“; the whole statement kinda sets the left’s false context on its ear.
Tea Party darling Rand Paul’s objection the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is clearly Goldwater’s, not Wallace’s. Wallace and his followers resisted civil rights because they wanted to maintain segregation. Goldwater favored integration but thought the civil rights bill infringed upon private property rights and free association.
Read the rest of the article; Weisberg doesn’t believe Western Conservatism has intellectual legs.
I disagree, naturally; more in coming weeks.