15 March 2013

Full-Spectrum Conservatism vs Pauline Libertarianism

It's CPAC time again -- time for more alarmed introspection from Republicans and either shudders of horror or sneers of contempt from everyone else. The big story this year was that the Conservative Political Action Conference did not invite Gov. Christie of New Jersey to attend. This is a big snub for a leader whose conservatism is unquestioned by objective observers yet remains popular in his own otherwise-blue state and is considered a credible contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Christie was too heterodox or perhaps too ready to cooperate with and compliment the President following a natural disaster for the CPAC organizers, who were lambasted for their intolerance even by hard-right types like Cal Thomas. I don't read enough Republican or conservative media to have found anyone defending CPAC's decision, but I'm sure some must approve or else CPAC wouldn't be the big event it is every year. This year a tug-of-war between purists and pragmatists was probably inevitable, but as the annual straw poll approaches we have a new storyline. At least one Fox News blogger suspects that Sen. Paul of Kentucky will continue his father's often-unwelcome winning streak in these polls. Even without Christie, it seems, CPAC is far from pure, or at least far from unanimous, and as far as Brad Todd is concerned the problem is libertarianism, at least as defined by the Paul family and their acolytes.

Todd strikes a condescending tone throughout his anti-Paul piece, dismissing libertarians as an ideologically limited and thus necessarily subordinate element in the Republican/"conservative" coalition. He compares libertarians unfavorably with the "full-spectrum conservatism" presumably (or desirably) prevalent at CPAC. The implication is that something's missing in the libertarian appeal, and Todd explains explicitly that the missing elements are "social issues," otherwise known as "family values," and a "muscular foreign policy." Without these, Pauline libertarianism is "a one-note kazoo song," good only for leading troops for "intra-party guerrilla purges" and inadequate for national elections. The Paulines' apparent disinterest in family values and foreign policy risk alienating the GOP from the voters on whom its depended for generations, Todd warns.

While many Republicans and conservatives are paying close, concerned attention to demographic trends and worrying over how to appeal to a changing electorate, Todd remains convinced that the electorate hasn't really changed. The problem with the Paulines, he writes, is that "They’re not motivated by two-thirds of the cause that animated the Reagan coalition." Many of his comrades concede by now that the "Reagan coalition" of the 1980s was a specific historic phenomenon, and many recognize (or at least fear) that it has expired and may be irreproducible. Not Brad Todd. His criticism of the Paulines and his insistence on the primacy of family values and a hard-charging foreign policy presume that the Reagan coalition is still out there. As far as he's concerned, it may always be out there. For Republicans like Todd, the "Reagan coalition" may be the same thing as the "silent majority" that Richard Nixon credited for his election victories. Since Nixon did win elections, he could point to something real, but he was probably smart enough to see that his silent majority was no less contingent a phenomenon than the later Reagan coalition. But Republicans from Nixon's time forward have thought of the silent majority in transcendent, essentialist terms. For them, the silent majority -- to be specific, the silent Republican-voting majority -- is what must exist for America to be America. It is the salt of the earth, the repository of tradition, the saving remnant. If you assume that Republican values made America great, there must always have been, must always be a critical mass of people who live by those values, since America could not have grown great otherwise. The more pessimistic or pragmatic Republicans and conservatives of this decade may believe the same thing on some level -- they may fear that the emergence of a majority without those values will doom the nation -- but they, at least, recognize some need to adapt and address the majorities they can see, i.e. those that elected Barack Obama President twice. The Paulines, presumably, have made a choice about what really matters to them, or what they think can be conserved, and want to tailor their case to the audience in front of them. They share space at CPAC uneasily with people like Todd who believe victory will come by performing the ghost dance and pleasing the great spirit. But for all I know, the only reason the libertarians show up there is because they know they can always win that straw poll for someone named Paul. What would happen is CPAC shuts them out the way they shut out Gov. Christie? I'm not sure anyone in the GOP really wants to know.


Anonymous said...

The problem with the hard line conservatism is that it tries to buck evolution. Every time a "random mutation" occurs within their species, they utterly reject it, whether it is a survival adaptation or not. This leads to let's call it "political inbreeding". Inbreeding or any nature - political or not - is an evolutionary dead end.

I heartily applaud the stubborn and stiff-necked constituents of the right who will lead to it's ultimate demise.

Samuel Wilson said...

Expecting the ultimate demise of "the right" is wishful thinking. There'll always be a "right" whenever an imperative to "evolve" or simply change meets resistance from those satisfied with the present or fearful of the future. And if you ever get someone like Chairman Mao in power, anyone who questions any whim of the leader will likely be labelled "rightist."

All that being said, the "right" of this particular time and place will inevitably go extinct someday, as will the "left" and "center."

Anonymous said...

Yes, but as long as they are a small enough minority that their political power is limited, that's good enough for me.