TRENTON, NJ, October 27, 2013 — The maddening fact about the GOP civil war is that there are no clear good guys or bad guys.
Today’s GOP consists of at least five distinct coalitions. One is Big Business, comprising the Chamber of Commerce-Wall Street Journal set who hunt “small varmints” and speak of their love of “cheesy grits” when in Mississippi.
A second group are populists, including the Tea Party and the creamy middle of America that forms Sarah Palin and Herman Cain’s political base.
Populists are often conflated with another GOP coalition with which they overlap: social conservatives. The two groups do pull apart on issues like Israel, genocide intervention, and increasingly, immigration reform.
Fourth are neoconservatives like Dick and Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol, and on most issues, John McCain, of whom George Will acerbically joked, “John is not interested in domestic policy. If it doesn’t fly or explode, he doesn’t care.”
Fifth are the libertarians. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Ron and Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth lead this wing.
In foreign policy, four are interventionist: Big Business, populists, social conservatives, and neocons. Business supports it for profit motives, populists for patriotism, social conservatives for evangelization, and neocons for hegemony. The libertarians dissent.
Social policy? Three coalitions agree on “traditional” American family values: populists, social conservatives, and neocons. Populists out of respect for tradition, social conservatives for piety, and neocons because it’s another thing that makes us exceptional in a world of one-child policies, free needle exchanges, and declining Western values. On this, libertarians are virulently opposed, while Big Business is indifferent.
On economic policy, Big Business is for corporate welfare while populists are for Blue Collar welfare, and social conservatives for chastity belt welfare — that is, welfare that moralizes. Neoconservatives want leverage welfare — welfare to buy and prop up “friends” around the world. Libertarians are ostensibly anti-welfare, but they don’t tend to take that to the logical conclusion of abolishing public utilities, schools, libraries, parks, zoning ordinances, infrastructure, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the Departments of Health, Commerce, Interior, Agriculture, Education, Housing, and Transportation.
The annoyance about these coalitions is that it’s impossible to loathe any of them entirely. Each brings something right to conservative philosophy, but also something wrong.
Big Business gets right that critiques of Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Box stores aside, the small needs the big in order to exist. Industrial food is the only way to feed almost 7 billion human bodies, and high cost American healthcare is precisely what makes cheap healthcare possible elsewhere.
Yet they were wrong to engorge the federal code with billions in subsidies for themselves, and painfully un-self-aware enough to popularize the theory that they, “the makers,” are being sapped by the mass of “takers.” This is grotesquely wrong since average Americans subsidize Big Business to the tune of billions.
Populism correctly orients the party to a labor theory of value, a focus — at least in rhetoric — on the middle and working class. But that has often meant fanning the unfounded fears of middle-America: fear that their jobs are threatened by foreigners; fear of “the other” which emerges after disasters, most recently profiling Arab men; fear-mongering over issues like the erroneously-labelled “Ground Zero” mosque in 2011 and conspiracy theories about the Muslim Brotherhood and Common Core curriculum.
Social conservatism of the C.S. Lewis variety in Mere Christianity is a positive force in the party. However, social conservatism often bleeds into a revival of William Jennings Bryant-ism in American politics, that is exclusionary or anti-science tendencies. It leads to episodes like declining to baptize the baby of an unwed mother (Marvin Winans), saying that vaccines might cause mental retardation (Michelle Bachman), saying that school shootings are God’s wrath on America (James Dobson), or that feminism causes women to kill their children, become lesbians, and practice witchcraft (Pat Robertson).
Neoconservatives correctly understand America’s crucial importance in the world. But they fail to temper that with realism about our means, ends, and limitations. Worse, American Exceptionalism, in its zeal to drive home the uniqueness of American civil society and religious, political, and economic freedoms, often displays insufficient empathy for the young men on the streets of Karachi or Cairo — unemployed and disconnected — who take up arms not for ideology, but to feed their families.
Finally, libertarianism is a source of particular tumult. Libertarianism’s critique of the War on Drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the prison industrial complex are enough to make many minority and under-40 Republicans want to form a Hallelujah chorus. But by worshiping at the altar of unfettered liberty in markets, libertarianism lacks Thomas Sowell’s understanding that, “Social values, in general, are incrementally variable. Neither safety, diversity, rational articulation, nor mortality is categorically a good thing to have more of, without limits. All are subject to diminishing returns, and ultimately negative returns.”
The same is true of the libertarian God of liberty.
It’s a pity they don’t see that, or pretend not to.
These tensions between the coalitions have always existed. But there used to be an understanding between them that they needed each other.
That understanding has faded as talk of the 47 percent, moochers, and “I Built This” has made an individualistic ethos ascendant. The same failure to see their dependence on others which compels people to proclaim, “keep your government hands off my Medicare,” blinds them to the fact Tea Partiers and libertarians are deeply dependent, even codependent on the very forces they bemoan.
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