The Republican Schism

Author: Theodore Kupfer, Johns Hopkins



The 2012 Republican primary cast light on once-hidden tensions within the Republican party. That light was unflattering and revealed cracks within the conservative coalition. Self-declared ‘social conservatives’ threw their allegiance behind the changing candidate who satisfied the needs of their movement. Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich: each adjusted his message to nab that support. They doubled down on radical tax reform, or famously advocated the closure of five federal departments, or declared the liberal intelligentsia complicit in a ‘War on Religion’. Campaigns embraced untenable platforms to demonstrate these politicians’ credibility among the vocal wing of the Republican Party. And indeed Romney’s rivals fell short in the end. Still, though, their attempt to harness the supposed power of their religious base reminds us that the GOP remains linked to a set of archaic social beliefs no longer viable in a 21st century that looks continually marked by a contest between the Republican position of self-organization and the Democratic preference of centralized planning. If they want to rebrand as the party of liberty and personal autonomy, the Republicans will have to figure their way out of a social values trap.

Looking towards 2016, their problem appears imminent. Probable primary entrants Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and Chris Christie exhibit archetypical traits that now mark the Republican Party to disaffected moderates, pompous liberals, and creative network sound technicians. The above candidates are loud, combative, and in the first two cases, inextricable from their social policy agenda: they never fail to propound heterosexual marriage or steadfast opposition to abortion. Cruz, Perry, and their ilk might excite red-state residents for the first months of the presidential campaign, but could they really win mainstream acceptance? Could they defend themselves against the ineluctable labels of ‘War on Women’ and ‘Religious Right’? Key groups in the electorate seem increasingly unwilling to back candidates who cling to yesteryear’s cultural standards. The Republican Party – whose politicians once derived their beliefs from the likes of Buckley and Bork – suffers from a dearth of unified theory and ideological flexibility. Candidates and religious advocacy groups challenge each other to pledge allegiance to niche issues while liberals wait in the wings to accuse extremism. In order to emerge as a formidable presence in elections, and in order to exert a stronger influence in the political discourse again, the Republican Party must clarify its message. It must become the party which opposes central control over lives, and promotes freedom and agency for citizens.

Today’s Republican Party is fractured. House Tea Party insurgents provided the party a badly needed injection of enthusiasm, harnessing voters’ latent distaste with central control. But that triumph led to the 2012 primary and subsequent identity crisis. Conservatives have lately struggled to understand exactly which citizens the Republican Party represents. Are they the party careful about demanding too much tax money for ineffective federal schemes? Are they the party demanding normative family culture and standing in the way of acceptance for once-marginalized groups like homosexuals? Was the party’s goal to win elections or to purify itself? Identifying religion’s role in the party would inform these questions and clarify the narrative. Religion was never separable from the conservative movement – it is, after all, an old stabilizing institution responsible for the moral fundamentals of many Americans – but the conservative message increasingly grew intertwined with religious doctrine from 1980 onward. Incipient tensions from that period slowly calcified into a schism. Since invoking morality was an easy way for politicians to win over a specific body of the electorate, it became trendy for Republicans to buddy up with religious leaders. Indeed, religion was a major factor in the conservative coalition assembled by Ronald Reagan. Christian Americans suspicious of reckless or prescribed social shifts brought tremendous energy to the Republican Party. Meanwhile, Republican politicians invoked religious values to their own benefit: it is good to have God on your side, and even better to have him against the other side. But the Christian fundamentalists had different needs than the era’s dominant conservative thinkers, who tended towards libertarianism. William F. Buckley, Jr. founded the National Review, in order to convey precisely what conservatism should be. The magazine skyrocketed in readership and drove the conservative discourse from the 1960s onward. First on Buckley’s mission statement, the preamble of his magazine’s constitution, is this short treatise:

It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly. In this great social conflict of the era, we are, without reservations, on the libertarian side.

In three sentences, Buckley summarized ideal conservative social policy. This political philosophy came to undergird and justify countless Republican initiatives. Barry Goldwater, considered to have “invigorated” the conservative movement and “reorient[ed]” the Republican party, fit Buckley’s mold of liberty-based conservatism.[2] Goldwater vocalized irreverence for the New Deal – gasp! – and sought practical alternatives to inefficacious centralized programs. Yet he lauded Nixon for forcing corporations to limit pollution and supported state experimentation with drug policy. Goldwater believed in sensible and restrained regulation, but championed personal liberty and the preservation of stable institutions. What Buckley and Goldwater understood was that voters who stood for freedom would not want to be told what to do by a far-off clergyman any more than by a federal bureaucrat. Their political philosophy was rigid enough to be strong, and flexible enough to satisfy each wing of the GOP coalition.

Goldwater, Reagan, and Buckley
Goldwater, Reagan, and Buckley

As years went by, though, this libertarianism’s viability faded. Religious figures like Pat Robertson and Rev. Billy Graham replaced libertarians as the dominant voices in the party. They grew in reach and influence, promising swaths of eager votes in exchange for support on religious initiatives. Preaching perverse absolutism, they sought to ‘legislate morality’ by reorienting the Republican agenda towards religion. Bans on abortion, draconian crime laws, and strict definitions of marriage – policies which require the government to control individuals’ lives – became the pillars of G.O.P. policy. Republicans who want to win the support of the religious (which has now become the party’s ‘base’) are now forced to prove their support for the moral agenda. The emergent schism within the Republican Party is one between the obdurate social conservatives and the supporters of personal liberty. Republicans often invoke libertarian rhetoric to support deregulation of Wall Street or federal approval of gas pipelines, because these policies forbid an unwieldy self-interested party – the federal government – from intruding into private economic practices. But on issues of marriage or crime, they conveniently change the message: one has to ‘support traditional marriage’; one has to ‘protect the children.’ How can  someone committed to personal liberty justify three-strike drug laws? Indeed, how can a defendant of liberty argue for the federal prohibition of marijuana or for a restrictive federal definition of marriage? Yet party establishment members like Ted Cruz, who said “whenever government acts, it does so at the expense of our own individual liberty,”[3] adjust their message and platforms to suit the religious electorate. Some candidates are hamstrung by that body, as Mitt Romney’s quest during the primary to demonstrate his commitment to the religious right shows.[4] But some embrace the religious as their own, hoping they will energize their campaigns with populist fervor. Those standing in support of the religious right contribute to the practical downfall of the Republican Party, and assault the coherent message of liberty that once stood as a central tenet of the conservative philosophy.

It is no coincidence that the Republican commitment to diminishing federal power has dwindled as the quest to preserve morality via legislation has intensified. People whose ideal ideology involves radical federal overreach have taken over the conservative label. Republicans should support state experimentation with marijuana: such an issue is one of both federalism and personal liberty. Republican commitments to cutting social programs should not be the deathbed of the Republican presence among the impoverished: rather than belittling the poor[5] and criticizing ‘entitlements’, the party should cite the research of Thomas Sowell who demonstrates the practical impotence of affirmative action or rent control. As the years have gone by, however, the message of liberty has been subsumed by the commitment to morality. Rand Paul says the party needs to “look like America”[6] – that it needs to diversify its electorate from the religious, often southern, and often white – and in order to do so, it needs to evaluate and change its ideology. The party must redefine itself as one of resistance to central control and personal freedom. It must adopt stances against undue surveillance and skewed sentencing laws. It must leave room in the calculus for evolution of culture while still stressing the importance of stable institutions. The party has fallen from where it used to be – Barry Goldwater once presciently said to Bob Dole, “We’re the new liberals of the Republican party. Can you imagine that?” – but predecessors provided a blueprint to how it can bridge the schism and commit to sensible policy.


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