Monday, January 30, 2012

"Nobody Has Defined What Being Conservative Means"

Last Thursday night saw the 19th Republican debate of the primary season. It has become fairly common to complain about the proliferation of these events. How much more is there really to learn about the candidates at this point?

Many people seem to view them as sporting events (something CNN has encouraged with the singing of the national anthem at the start), and the analysis almost always uses terms from sports: who won, were there any knockouts, who hit a home run.

Speaking as both an historian (see, I've been hearing way too much from Newt) and someone who has seen most of these debates, I think there is more going on than that. Despite the superficial nature of most of the analysis (and I've been as guilty of that at times as anyone), the recent debates in particular have begun to illuminate a significant conversation among the candidates about what "conservative" means in today's American political culture.

Not too surprisingly, Ron Paul, the candidate with the clearest and most consistent ideology, was also the one to identify the centrality of that question in the last debate. We have to decide what conservative means, he said.

For Paul, the answer is fairly simple and straightforward: "Conservative means smaller government and more liberty ... not to run a welfare state and police the world."

On that last point, Paul has most effectively distinguished himself from the rest of the pack. To one degree or another, all of the other candidates have embraced the idea that the United States not only can, but should--even must--be the leader of the entire world.

Ostensibly, there is consensus among the four candidates on the first part of his formula: smaller government. But once you start getting into particulars, the waters get considerably muddied.

From a historical perspective, that's also where it gets interesting.

I see at least four different strands of domestic conservatism running through American history, all of which have appeared in these debates: libertarian, states rights, Hamiltonian activist, and, for lack of a better term, social traditionalist.

They do not consistently line up with a given candidate. The various contenders adopt a given position to take advantage of a perceived weakness in another. But the strands are there.

The libertarian strand is of course mostly associated with Ron Paul, but it also crops up in the views of the others. At the last debate, it was most clearly on display during an extended exchange between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney on "RomneyCare" and the individual mandate, which also brought out the states rights and social traditionalist strands.

Since its passage, Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act has focused primarily on the individual mandate to require all citizens to either have insurance or pay a fine. The principle behind this opposition is basically libertarian: government cannot require a citizen to purchase insurance, because it violates personal liberty and is an unwarranted expansion of government's power.

Because Romney signed a health insurance law with an individual mandate when he was governor of Massachusetts, his opponents have relentlessly attacked him. In response, he has tried to seek refuge in states rights. Back in September, Romney said:
States have the right to mandate. States mandate kids go to school. The federal government can’t do that. States mandate that you have to buy auto insurance. The federal government can’t do that.
Such a response, however, is not entirely satisfying from a libertarian perspective. If a government action is oppressive, whether the oppression comes from the state or federal government is not particularly important.

Under persistent pressure from Santorum last Thursday, Romney tried another strand, the social traditionalist:
If you don't want to buy insurance, then you have to help pay for the cost of the state picking up your bill, because under federal law if someone doesn't have insurance, then we have to care for them in the hospitals, give them free care. So we said, no more, no more free riders. We are insisting on personal responsibility. Either get the insurance or help pay for your care.
Romney here does a good job of making the case that, as I noted back in October 2010, the individual mandate is fundamentally a conservative idea. (Perhaps if it were known as the "no-free-rider clause" that would be more obvious.) Romney's strong argument here makes that clear: the individual mandate, with its rejection of freeloading, insists on personal responsibility--one of the cornerstones of conservative social traditionalism.

In this specific case, Santorum was taking an extreme libertarian stand, in opposition to the social traditionalist argument. On most issues, however, Santorum is a steadfast supporter of social traditionalism. While in his exchange with Romney he suggested that the individual mandate, even one implemented by a state, was oppressive ("in Massachusetts, everybody is mandated, as a condition of breathing ... to buy health insurance"), he has elsewhere argued that states should be allowed to ban birth control.

He has argued that this is a states rights issue, but it also coincides with his personal opposition to birth control (he has spoken of the "dangers of contraception" and has said that it harms women and society).

But when it comes to other issues, his social traditionalism trumps states rights. Santorum favors a federal ban on abortion and gay marriage--in other words, he opposes giving states the right to choose to allow either, even if majorities in some states approved of them, because to do so violates his social traditionalist concept of what is morally right. In such cases, he has no sympathy for the libertarian principle of personal freedom or for states rights.

Interestingly, Santorum also challenged the libertarian/free market primacy of low taxes in the January 21 debate in South Carolina:
We need a party that just doesn't talk about high finance and cutting corporate taxes or cutting the top tax rates. We need to talk about how we're going to put men and women in this country, who built this country, back to work in this country in the manufacturing sector of our economy.
Though Santorum was far from explicit about it, he was endorsing here not untrammeled free markets, but positive government efforts specifically designed to redevelop the manufacturing sector of the economy. This is a far more activist role for government than the libertarianism he embraced in the health insurance exchange with Romney.

This Hamlitonian approach has a long conservative pedigree, going back to the 19th century Republicans, as well as the Whig Party before them. It embraces the idea that government should work deliberately and actively to produce particular economic ends in the national interest (railroads, e.g.), rather than leave that to the free market.

Santorum is not, however, consistently a Hamiltonian activist. For example, he reversed course and attacked Gingrich's "grandiose" plan for a moon base because government needs to do less:
to go out there and promise new programs and big ideas, that's a great thing to maybe get votes, but it's not a responsible thing when you have to go out and say that we have to start cutting programs, not talking about how to grow them.
Gingrich, not surprisingly, reverted to Hamiltonian form, and argued that government can and should do great things:
in response to what Rick said, when we balanced the budget with the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, and ultimately had four consecutive balanced budgets, we doubled the size of the National Institutes of Health because we set priorities. It is possible to do the right things in the right order to make this a bigger, richer, more exciting country. You don't just have to be cheap everywhere. You can actually have priorities to get things done.
Gingrich neglects to note, of course, that those balanced budgets came under the Clinton era tax rates, which he and other Republicans now routinely decry as socialistic due to their reflexive obedience to the party's tax-cutting dogma. Newt's grandiose, Hamiltonian schemes would require far higher taxes than he can dare propose today.

I've written recently how Gingrich's attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital reflected a social traditionalist challenge to a libertarian (in this case, free market) conservatism, so I won't belabor that here.

My larger point is simply this: Paul is right. Nobody has defined what being conservative means. All drama aside, these debates have served to highlight the ideological disarray in today's Republican Party.

With the exception of Paul himself, none of the candidates consistently represents a clear vision of conservatism for the 21st century. Each one has, for short-run tactical reasons, adopted whatever strand of conservatism promises to advance his immediate political prospects vis a vis the others.  If, as seems inevitable, any of those three gets the nomination, the definition of "conservative" is likely to remain hopelessly muddied.

[In my next post, I plan to examine the role the right's hatred of President Obama plays in this disarray, and how it threatens to turn the Republicans into a modern-day version of the Whig Party.]


  1. I'm trying to work out why Santorum and the type of Republican voter that supports him have apparently contradictory beliefs about states rights, though I wonder if there's a philosophically significant difference between a state's right to mandate an action and its right to ban an action.
    It seems as though many Republicans are more willing to accept prohibitions on actions or behaviors they deem undesirable (contraception, gay marriage, abortion, etc.) while feeling oppressed by requirements to do specific things (buy health insurance, go to school until you're 18, "forced to have a government injection").
    This doesn't include libertarians who may feel the same way about mandates and bans, and there are sure to be several exceptions, but I wonder if candidates have beliefs about states rights that explain some of these apparent contradictions or if they simply find unpopular mandates to be better political fodder.

  2. Thom, as a general rule, I think states rights tends to be what you cite when you know full well you cannot get your way on national policy. So for Santorum, knowing that it would be impossible to have a national law against contraception, he calls on states rights, hoping that some states might choose to do so (though he has denied that publicly, saying that it would be stupid to do so and that he merely believes states have a right to do stupid things).

    When it comes to abortion and gay marriage, citing states rights would mean that many states would in fact allow those things, both of which I think Santorum finds more morally objectionable than contraception. Both are intrinsically evil in his mind and are not subjects about which one can EVER legitimately make a different choice. So no state should be allowed to choose to allow them.

    I'd argue that there have been precious few politicians or political parties in American history that have consistently supported states rights. Even antebellum Democrats wanted a national fugitive slave law, wanted a national guarantee of slavery in the territories. Republicans in the late 1850s cited states rights in refusing to enforce the fugitive slave law. It is the tool of those out of sync with the national mood but constituting local majorities, as with segregation in the 1950s.