George Will, dorky docent of American conservatism, detects a return to the libertarian stylings of Barry Goldwater at the Republican national convention.
Four decades after a Republican convention in San Francisco nominated Sen. Goldwater, sealing the ascendancy of conservatism within the party, his kind of conservatism made a comeback at the convention here. That conservatism – muscular foreign policy backing unapologetic nationalism; economic policies of low taxation and light regulation; a libertarian inclination regarding cultural question – is not fully ascendant in the party. But the prominent display and rapturous reception of Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated that such conservatism is not an insurmountable impediment to a person reaching the party’s highest echelons.
For structural and probably cultural reasons, it is highly unlikely that America will ever have anything other than a two-party system. For this reason, pragmatic libertarians will have to learn how to work the two-party system. For all their manifest shortcomings, the Republicans seem to be a more hospitable environment at this point.
But the domination of the Republican Party by cultural conservatives did make some other conservatives — libertarians and religious skeptics, among others — feel uneasy, even unwelcome. Being derided as RINOs — Republicans in name only — did not help. And the dominance of the cultural conservatives gave force to the Democrats’ and media’s caricatures of the Republican Party as a brackish lagoon of intolerance, a caricature that, like all caricatures, contained a trace of truth.
For all the rending of garments coming from the Democrats and the secular left, I see remarkably little in the way of actual state action implementing the allegedly theocratic cravings of the social conservatives since their rise to influence in the Republican Party. I certainly disagree with them on a number of points, but a careful reading tends to show that a great deal of what they want falls into the area of civil society, not state action. They have, of course, been infected to some degree with the virus of statism, but cries of alarm from the statist left that the Christian conservatives are attempting to implement state-mandated mind and social controls smack more of projection than anything else. Much of the social/cultural conservative agenda is defensive and reformist – they are animated by a desire to roll back what they see as a state-facilitated and noxious cultural of radical relativism and secular radicalism. Even their current flagship issue – the “defense of marriage” – boils down to preventing change from being imposed by state organs without democratic approval.
Interesting times, my friends, interesting times.
ADDENDUM: A few additional thoughts whilst standing in line for lunch.
In discourse, terminology is destiny. As a legal drafter, I always go first and foremost to the defined terms of a contract, regulation or policy. In bashing out the paragraph above on cultural or social conservatives, I mistakenly adopted some of Will’s terminology.
The bugaboo of the left (and their organ the Democrats) in the US is the “religious right,” and my comments in the paragraph above are directed primarily to this bugaboo. Aside from religiously driven moral concerns, though, the major driver of real social/cultural conservatism in this country is the puritan streak that has been handed down through the ages as the antithesis of the hedonistic American thesis.
In recent decades, this puritanical impulse has been mated to the statist impulse, yielding such unholy offspring as the radical environmental movement, the anti-smoking crusade, the nascent anti-fat crusade, and of course the drug war. You will note that the puritans reside comfortably all across the political spectrum in America, and have had a much greater impact on state activities than religious devotees. Neither the Republicans or the Democrats has really made any effort to take on the puritans, who in many ways have become a major bulwark for the cult of the state.