Until recently it was widely assumed that the Republican Party is America's conservative party. But increasingly it has been argued that the Republican Party is anything but a conservative party. The issue first gained traction in the mid 1990s, before George W. Bush's inauguration. The self-described Oakeshottian conservative Andrew Sullivan complained in a 1998 New York Times Magazine essay that the Republican Party's regnant governing philosophy had "lost sight of the principles of privacy and restraint, modesty and constitutionalism, which used to be its hallmarks." And not long after, the Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell argued in the Atlantic that Republicans were at once too conservative in their moral agenda and too liberal in their new-found love of Big Government. He concluded that the party stood for nothing and had become "obsolescent."
This general line of criticism has only sharpened in the two terms of the Bush presidency. George F. Will has asserted that the party is in the midst of an "identity crisis" and is on the verge of becoming "incoherent," while David Brooks has argued that having lost its compass the Republican Party is in need of a "revival" and a new "governing philosophy." Returning to his old subject, Sullivan recently accused the Republican Party of turning its back on a true conservatism for a Taliban-like mélange of political extremism and religious zealotry.
These critics are right about one thing: Today's Republican Party is not, as the saying goes, your father's Republican Party. No party that wages a global campaign on behalf of democracy, that vastly increases the size and powers of the federal government, and that seeks national standards for schools, families, and individuals can credibly claim the mantle of conservatism simply. But the critics are wrong to argue that the party is either politically aimless or ideologically incoherentor even, in Sullivan's telling, somehow un-American. Over the last forty years, dating back to Goldwater's 1964 run for the presidency, the party has indeed undergone an ideological and political transformation, a transformation that has at once redefined American conservatism as well as fueled the party's rise to national predominance.
The Grand Old Party
At its founding, the Republican Party was hardly a conservative party in the typical sense. Abraham Lincoln led a party that smashed the institution of slavery, waged all-out war, suspended and amended parts of the U.S. Constitution, launched a hugely ambitious social program known as Reconstruction, imposed a short-lived progressive income tax, as well as creating a national banking system, a Department of Agriculture, and a system of land-grant colleges. Here's how Lincoln himself, in his Second Message to Congress, characterized his party's governing philosophy: "As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew."
Though the party would change over the intervening years, it remained in a general way the party of activist government and progressive causes at least through the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. Even Republican presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover thought of themselves as progressives of sorts ("We are a nation of progressives," Hoover once remarked), while President Dwight Eisenhower liked to call himself a "New Republican." Indeed, the Democratic Party prior to the New Deal, and even in the heyday of the New Deal coalition itself, arguably included among its ranks more identifiably conservative elements than did the Republican Party.
Not until the post-World War II period does the association of the word "conservative" with Republican become prevalent. Around this time a kind of conservatism begins to emerge in the intellectual world, led by such figures as William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, and Frank Meyer, among many others. Using a mix of libertarian, traditionalist, and anti-Communist ingredients, these writers sought to remake a Republican Party that was by then ideologically moribund. To simplify quite a bit, these intellectuals aimed at forging a new party that would be guided by the traditionalism of Edmund Burke and the libertarianism of F.A. Hayek. Their creation was to be the party of limited government and free markets, of federalism and local control, the party that puts its faith in the individual, not "the Organization" or Big Government. It was to be the party of little platoons, self-made men, and risk-taking entrepreneurs.
Few would have predicted, however, that this "New Conservatism," as it came to be known, would eventually meld with the Republican Party. Among the founding generation of conservative thinkers and activists, some contemplated the founding of a third, genuinely conservative party to compete with both the Democrats and the Republicans. William Rusher, the former publisher of National Review and a longtime associate of Buckley, favored such a plan for a time. But with the success of the draft-Goldwater movement in 1964, and especially with the emergence of Ronald Reagan as a national figure, the conservative movement became a Republican movement.
The "New Conservatism"
But conservatism's first wave, which culminated in Barry Goldwater's nomination in 1964, bears little resemblance to the kind of conservatism that is now ascendant in the party. I'll mention two crucial differences. To begin with, first-wave conservatives fervently opposed Big Government, which they considered not merely economically inefficient but morally corrupting as well. They believed that Big Government would eventually slide into socialist and totalitarian rule. This was Hayek's "road to serfdom," made all the more ominous by the foreign threat of the Soviet Union. One might almost say that early conservatives made a theology out of their opposition to Big Government.
A second distinguishing feature of early conservatism was its traditionalism. Many of conservatism's early thinkers were genuinely anti-modern in their outlook. Depending upon the individual writer, they tended to enshrine at the center of their program Anglo-American peoplehood, or the Southern "way of life," or the God-centered universe of the Middle Ages. They tended to believe in social hierarchy and social order, and tended to attack the American Founding for its Enlightenment and egalitarian elements.
There was also a romanticism about the early conservative movement which can be seen in Barry Goldwater's famous '64 acceptance address. This address is today most recalled for his line that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," but the real themes of the address, repeated over and over again, were diversity, creativity, and individuality. "We [Republicans] cherish diversity of ways, diversity of thoughts, [diversity] of motives and accomplishments," Goldwater declared. "We seek inventiveness, diversity, and creative difference," he pronounced, and then for good measure he concluded, "Balance, diversity, creative difference -- these are the elements of Republican equation."
In his repeated appeals to "diversity," Goldwater was defending a right of self-determinationof the South against the North and the individual against the "Crowd." This was a conservatism still somewhat fearful of modernitywhether as represented in its nationalizing or its corporatizing tendencies. As a watchword, "diversity" perfectly fit the new conservative movementa word that is today completely absent from the vocabulary of conservatives.
The Religious Revolt
The guiding passion of today's conservatism is neither anti-Big Government nor a romantic nostalgia for a lost past. In the 1970s, the party embraced the emerging religious and tax reform movements, and it has not been the same since.
Religious conservatives trace their roots back to the great evangelical revival of the last forty or fifty years, and contrary to general impression, America's evangelical movements have rarely been anti-modern in their orientation. They are not home-grown versions of the Taliban. In the 19th century, evangelicals tended to be allied with the forces of progressivism and modern science, and similarly today, they do not easily fit within more traditionalist modes of political thought. They are democratic-populist, entrepreneurial, reformist, generally forward-looking, and perfectly at home in America's technologically driven mass society. One need only mention such phenomena as "Christian rock music," the "televangelist," or the "Mega-church" to illustrate the point.
The story of how this religious movement came to be felt in the nation's politics reminds one of the saying that God moves in mysterious ways. As Duane Oldfield has told it, in his study The Right and the Righteous, the Religious Right's eventual alliance with the Republican Party was almost accidental. To begin with, in the 1964 presidential election, which first-wave conservatives consider foundational, evangelicals spurned the conservative standard-bearer Barry Goldwater in favor of Lyndon Johnson. Throughout the '60s the majority of evangelicals were Democrats, not Republicans, and it was arguably Jimmy Carter who made the first direct appeal to Evangelicals, a majority of whom cast their vote for him that year.
But almost as soon as Carter had won their vote, he pushed the Religious Right into the Republican camp. Carter's support of the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, and his threat to take away the tax-exempt status of parochial schools outraged religious conservatives, who increasingly began to see themselves as a distinctive political movement. In 1979, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, and a year later Ronald Reagan won the White House in part by appealing to these religious voters.
From 1976 to 1988 a genuine political realignment took place, as evangelicals and fundamentalists moved, en masse, from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Not only were they voting Republican, something they had occasionally done in the past, but they were joining Republican ranks in great numbers, and soon a large majority, something in the neighborhood of 60 to 70%, would identify themselves as Republicans. They are today the face of the Republican Party: Conservative Christians made up nearly a third of Bush's total vote in 2004.
Religious conservatives have affected the party in numerous ways, most especially by giving the party a voice in the Culture Wars. But they have done something else as well, not as often commented upon but foreseen by those who followed Republican Party politics closely. In the mid-'70s, at the low ebb in Republican Party fortunes, William Rusher contended in his book The Making of the New Majority Party that only through a coalition with social or religious conservatives could the conservative movement triumph nationally. Yet Rusher also noted that this would necessarily mean accommodating the social conservative's view "that government may at times be a useful weapon for curbing various forms of private rapacity." Religious conservatives are not fundamentalists when it comes to the size and role of government.
The Supply-Side Revolt
Around this time, another revolution was underway, one that would also change how Republicans viewed government. This was supply-side economicsor "Reaganomics." Ronald Reagan learned from supply-siders like Arthur Laffer, George Gilder, and Paul Craig Roberts that taxes matter, and that cutting excessive tax rates will enhance economic growth and even produce more government revenue, not less. And Reagan learned from the popular revolt against state taxes, as embodied in California's Proposition 13, that cutting taxes made for good politics. But Reagan's supply-side views were as strenuously resisted by many Republicans as by Democrats. Even as late as 1979 George H.W. Bush was famously deriding Reagan's proposed fiscal policies as "voodoo economics." When Reagan advanced his Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which sharply cut personal tax rates, many of his closest advisors objected, warning him of the likelihood of ballooning deficits. Reagan reportedly replied, "I don't care."
With this attitude towards the deficit Reagan was breaking sharply from conservative orthodoxy: After all, Goldwater's '64 Republican Party platform had affirmed the importance of "prudent responsible management of the government's fiscal affairs." In justifying his tax cuts, Reagan was reduced to appealing to the precedent of John F. Kennedy. Yet a momentous ideological shift was underway within the Republican Party, a shift nicely captured in James Ring Adams's authoritative book on the subject, Secrets of the Tax Revolt: "The old Republican agenda began with balancing the budget, by tax increases if necessary. The new program concentrated on ending the growth in taxation and subordinated the budget."
Obviously, many traditional conservatives found supply-side economics congenial to their anti-Big Government cause. However, by emphasizing taxes and economic growth, as opposed to balancing the budget, supply-side economics changed the political landscape: Conservatives no longer had to play the Scrooge to liberalism's Santa Clause. Conservatives could now cut taxes, and let liberals worry about balancing the budget. The size of government as such was no longer a conservative fixation. This subtle shift in emphasis became more pronounced with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Communism's demise meant, as Daniel Casse has pointed out in Commentary magazine, that the question of government's size could be seen in less apocalyptic and more pragmatic terms. By the end of the 1990s, opposition to Big Government had simply ceased to be a populist, conservative cause.
So in retrospect what seemed like the triumph of the "conservative" movement in 1980 and 1984the movement that generally traces itself back to Goldwaterwas in a sense the beginning of the end. The sociologist Robert Nisbet once wrote, "Reagan's passion for crusades, moral and military, is scarcely Americanconservative." The very same, only more so, could be said of George W. Bush, who is also a crusader, both at home and abroad.
Bush's emphasis on spreading democracy over the entire planet along with his high-stakes, risk-taking use of American military force abroad are hardly conservative staples. Bush has replaced the older, world-weary conservative emphasis on order and stability (which went by the name of Realism) with a moral, even moralizing impulse. Rather than considering the September 11 attacks in merely strategic terms, the Bush Administration saw the unfolding of a great struggle between good and evil that pitted democracy against tyranny. One gets the sense that George W. Bush, unlike many of America's intellectual sophisticates, whether on the Left or Right, was genuinely shocked and morally repulsed by the terrorists.
On the domestic policy side as well, Bush has acted against conservative-type. Like Ronald Reagan, he sharply cut taxes in his first term and has presided over a growing federal deficit. Unlike Reagan, and even more against conservative-type, Bush tends to see the government not as the problem but as a part of the solution. In his first term, Bush expanded the reach and scope of the Department of Education and added an expensive new government entitlement program with his prescription drug benefit. He midwifed a vast new federal bureaucracy known as the Department of Homeland Security and greatly enhanced the federal government's domestic surveillance powers through the U.S. Patriot Act. He also endorsed new rules for corporate governance, signed a campaign finance reform bill, and has made ambitious plans for the reconstruction of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
While many of conservatism's spokesmen loudly denounced these policies, the president seemed to suffer little in his popularity among conservatives at the grass-roots level, at least for his fiscal policies.
From Social Security to Terry Schiavo
Four issues have thus far dominated Bush's second termsocial security reform, the Terry Schiavo affair, the filibuster debate, and now the Harriet Miers nomination. Social Security reformor something like Bush's private investment accountshas long been a traditional conservative cause. The fact that President Eisenhower had made his peace with FDR's New Deal, and in particular had no intention of rolling back Social Security, earned him the opprobrium of the editors of the National Review. Goldwater, in contrast, floated the idea of Social Security reform during his '64 presidential campaign. But Social Security reform no longer animates the Republican Party's faithful. When Bush unveiled his plans for an Ownership Society, many religious conservatives balked or stood on the sidelines, and Bush has so far failed to get the party behind him, much less the country as a whole.
Into the midst of this great yawn for the Ownership Society dropped the Terry Schiavo and filibuster bombshells. The party that could barely muster any enthusiasm for a venerable conservative cause like private investment accounts quite suddenly acted with energy and dispatch. At the behest of religious conservatives, the Republican Party sought to prevent the Florida courts from removing Terry Schiavo's feeding tube, and to circumvent the Democratic filibuster of Bush's judicial nominations.
Many conservative pundits were aghast. It seemed to them as though the Republican Party was turning against just about every conservative tenet imaginable: the party's actions were said to be in breach of the principles of federalism and separation of powers, as well as in violation of the principles of local control and state's rights. Republicans, it was charged, had turned their backs on the sanctity of the family, prescription, precedent, and tradition. George F. Will grumbled that the party "seemed to have subcontracted governance to certain especially fervid religious supporters."
Overlooked by Will and others is that these religious supporters are today's Republican Party. They, after all, got Bush elected, and they, not surprisingly, expected the party to reflect their sense of what's most important. The current imbroglio over the Miers nominationis she a genuine conservative or not?is a part of this story, one that concerns the judiciary's role in America's Culture Wars. Over the last thirty odd years, liberal judges have attempted to implement an agenda of secularization and expressive individualism upon the American public, an agenda that everyone admits has little hope of success through normal democratic processes. This is a battle that the Republican base at least considers worth fighting. In their view, there is little point in standing merely for formal niceties like federalism and procedural precedent if this means unilateral disarmament on more substantive questions of policy. They reason, in a certain sense, as Lincoln did when he defended the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus by asking: "Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?"
The Party of Lincoln?
The Republican Party is more Lincolnian today than at any point in recent memoryand this has already had profound effects not only for the GOP but for the Democratic Party as well.
Today, the Republican Party is America's "nationalist" party, in opposition to an increasingly "provincial" Democratic Party. As Samuel Beer once observed, national and provincial are the fundamental polarities of political party conflict in America, dating back to the debate between Hamilton and Jefferson. Now, there can be little doubt that today's political landscape is buffeted by many cross-currents, but increasingly it does seem to be the case that the Republican Party speaks in the name of universal causes, while the Democrats invoke minority rights or self-interest. The Schiavo case and filibuster debate are only two of the more recent instances of this tendency; other examples might include the two parties' respective positions on such issues as stem-cell research and cloning. The Democrats in each case would leave these questions up to individual scientists or to the several states, while many Republicans lobby for a moral consensus. The Republican Party seeks a national referendum on certain hard questions, while the Democrats have recourse to a vocabulary of privacy, minority rights, diversity, and multiculturalism.
This reverses the relation between the parties from just forty years ago when a provincial Republican Party proclaiming the virtue of diversity faced off against a nationalist and unifying Democratic Party; however, it also represents a return to the parties' respective positions through much of their histories, when a Lincolnian Republican Party of great nationalist crusades opposed a Democratic Party of local interests and minority rights.
The parties have returned to their original positions in another salient respect. Lincoln once described the difference between the Democrats and Republicans of his day as follows: Democrats, he wrote, "hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man's right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar." Lincoln, of course, was referring to the slavery debate and the claim of Southern Democrats to hold a property right in their slaves. But in small ways as well as large, Lincoln's characterization also captures something important about the Democrats and Republicans of our own day.
The Democratic Party's mantra in the presidential election of 1992, "It's the economy, stupid," signaled its wish to change the subject away from more cultural concerns. This worked for a time, but today Democrats increasingly suffer in the polls on the moral issues. In one of many attempts to respond to their morality-deficit, Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean recently declared, "Our moral values, in contradiction to the Republicans', is [sic] we don't think kids ought to go to bed hungry at night." Dean's response, however, was just another dodge, since there is not a Republican on the planet who believes children should go to bed hungry at night. On the other hand, there are plenty of Democrats who are for a business in stem cells, notwithstanding the moral hazards, and for business-as-usual with China, notwithstanding its human rights record. And they are for an absolute right to abortion, notwithstanding the moral complexity of taking another human life. Many would apparently side with the big corporations, even if it means, as in the recent Supreme Court decision of Kelo v. New London, trashing the rights of lower-class homeowners. As for the war on terror, it is for many Democrats less a moral cause than a big mistake.
Now, it goes without saying that the Republican Party remains the party of free markets, private property, and business interests. But where the man and the dollar come in conflict, to use Lincoln's terms, today's Republican Party can increasingly be relied upon to side with the former.
On occasion, the Republican Party may be guilty of excessive moralizingits religious conscience sometimes lacks a civic spirit. The Lincolnian party is without a Lincoln. But who can say with a straight face that Puritanism is on the march in America? Quite the contrary, libertarianism and nonjudgmentalism hold sway in most precincts of the culture. Against this, the Republican Party contends, and that above all else makes it worthy of the conservative name.