TCS Daily


Cuckolded by the Conservative State

By Ryan H. Sager - April 1, 2005 12:00 AM

Warnings that the Republican Party has slipped its small-government moorings seem to fall on deaf ears these days -- or at least the owners of those ears are practicing some pretty powerful denial.

Take, for instance, a recent column by National Review's Jonah Goldberg. In it, he responds to concerns from me, Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds about the GOP's slide toward Big Government Conservatism by pointing out that the conservative coalition has always had conflicts. Today's are no worse than before, he argues. Thus, there will be no "conservative crack-up."

The first point can be granted readily. It's the other two that are up for debate.

Just because there have always been tensions between the social-conservative and libertarian wings of the Republican Party doesn't mean that today's tensions aren't morphing into something completely different -- and something much more profound.

In the past, whatever their differences, religious conservatives and libertarian conservatives were "fused" together, in Frank Meyer's famous formulation, by a shared belief in limited government (a belief intensified during the Cold War years due to the threat of "Godless" communism). Libertarians liked limited government because -- well, they were libertarians. They saw small government as an end in itself. And religious conservatives liked limited government in part because they saw big government as a threat to Christian virtue.

But here's where the big shift has occurred -- where the fusion's grown cold: While libertarians still believe in their half of this equation, many religious conservatives are shedding their skepticism when it comes to the state.

While some libertarian types may have been upset with President Reagan's deficits, he was at least singing from their hymn book: Government is the problem, not the solution. George W. Bush on the other hand has never even gone to the trouble of aping a small-government posture. Instead, Bush has adopted one of Reagan's other famous lines, sans irony: I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.

This represents a fundamental shift in the direction of the Republican Party and a threat to its traditional alliances. The shift is self-evident. Instead of being the party that tries to rein in entitlement spending, the Republican Party is now the party of the $1.2 trillion Medicare prescription-drug benefit. Instead of being the party that is opposed to even having a federal Department of Education, the Republican Party is now the party of extensive intrusion into local schoolhouses by Washington, D.C. And instead of being the party of the rule of law and state's rights, the Republican Party is now the party of Congressional intervention into the thoroughly adjudicated medical decisions of an individual family.

Now, to be clear: What's most disturbing to libertarians about all of this is not that the shift in the traditional alignment will hurt the Republican Party at the polls -- at least in the short term. What's disturbing is just how powerful the idea of a "God-and-government" coalition could be.

What if Karl Rove's idea for a permanent majority actually worked? The GOP could convince soccer moms that it's not so hard-hearted by implementing national health care piece by piece. It could pick up the votes of blue-collar union members by appealing to them on "values" issues that the Democrats can't talk about without choking on their own bile. And the GOP could even pick up votes from socially conservative black and Hispanic voters who are adamantly opposed to gay marriage.

The electoral logic of Big Government Conservatism, in fact, is virtually inescapable. Where the logic falls apart, however, is in why we would continue to call this new edifice "conservative" at all.

This is why libertarians are worried about the Republican Party having a "conservative crack-up." Not because it's in any immediate danger of falling apart at the polls. But because it's in danger of no longer being conservative.

The old fusionism in conservatism can't survive when one faction starts to see government power as a tool for -- rather than a threat to -- achieving its underlying ends.

Eventually, it seems inevitable that expanding the Republican Party's power at the expense of its principles will cause it to hollow out its core and collapse. But such a day could be far away.

In the meantime, those doing the expanding and the hollowing on behalf of the Bush administration can ask themselves whether power for its own sake is a worthy end or whether power corrupts. If they listen to their consciences, they might hear one word: absolutely.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at editor@rhsager.com.

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