How Fundamentalism is Splitting the GOP

Andrew Sullivan has piece in today’s New Republic Online with that subtitle.

Conservatism isn’t over. But it has rarely been as confused. Today’s conservatives support limited government. But they believe the federal government can intervene in a state court’s decisions in a single family’s struggle over life and death. They believe in restraining government spending. But they have increased such spending by a mind-boggling 33 percent in a mere four years. They believe in self-reliance. But they have just passed the most expensive new entitlement since the heyday of Great Society liberalism: the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. They believe that foreign policy is about the pursuit of national interest and that the military should be used only to fight and win wars. Yet they have embarked on an extraordinarily ambitious program of military-led nation-building in the Middle East. They believe in states’ rights, but they want to amend the Constitution to forbid any state from allowing civil marriage or equivalent civil unions for gay couples. They believe in free trade. But they have imposed tariffs on a number of industries, most famously steel. They believe in balanced budgets. But they have abandoned fiscal discipline and added a cool trillion dollars to the national debt in one presidential term.

A more disengenous lead paragraph has seldom been written. Sullivan, with a PhD in government from Harvard, and a genius level IQ certain knows better than to confuse libertarianism and conservatism. Indeed, a few paragraphs into the piece, he acknowleges this difference. Conservatives believe it the province of government to protect its citizens, both in the physical sense by maintaining a strong military and competent police force, but also in the moral-cultural sense of differentiating liberty and license. Conservatives, therefore, do not favor “small government.” That would be libertarians, who agree with conservatives on some issues and “liberals”* on others. There is no “they” here.

Further, while I agree with Sully that the GOP-led government has engaged in massive spending, much of it on things of which I don’t approve, conservatives and right-leaning libertarians alike would exclude spending on fighting Islamist terrorism from the calculation here.

Conservatism has endured also because it slowly absorbed much of the old liberal spirit. Who, after all, are the most vocal moral crusaders of today? Christian conservatives, who deploy government power against all sorts of perceived wrongs–sexual trafficking, aids [sic] in Africa, gay unions, poor parenting, teen sex, indecent television, and euthanasia, among many. Almost no Democrat speaks with the moral conviction of religious Republicans. And, when liberalism has been outrun on moral fervor, precious little oxygen remains to revive it–especially with austere, patrician leaders like John Kerry and Al Gore or angry pop culture ranters like Michael Moore.

When has this not been the case? Conservative firebrands railing against sin have been part of American politics since the earliest colonial days. John Edwards and Cotton Mather would not take a back seat to any conservative leader today.

But conservatism’s very incoherence may be one reason for its endurance. In its long road to victory, the Republican Party has regularly preferred the promise of power to the satisfaction of schism. It has long been pro-government and anti-government. It has contained Rockefeller and Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. As a governing philosophy, it has been able to tack for decades from statism to laissez-faire, from big government to individual freedom, with only occasional discomfort. Conservatism’s resilience has been a function of its internal ideological diversity and balance. The more closely you look, however, the deeper the division has become in the last few years, intensifying dramatically since last fall’s election. Which is why, this time, the balancing act may finally be coming undone.

Let me be rash and describe the fundamental divide within conservatism as a battle between two rival forms. The two forms I’m referring to are ideal types. I know very few conservatives who fit completely into one camp or the other; and these camps do not easily comport with the categories we have become used to deploying–categories like “libertarian,” “social conservative,” “paleoconservative,” “fiscal conservative and social liberal,” and so on. There is, I think, a deeper rift, and a more fundamental one.

Call one the conservatism of faith and the other the conservatism of doubt. They have co-existed in the past but are becoming less and less compatible as the conservative ascendancy matures. Start with the type now dominant in Republican discourse: the conservatism of faith. This conservatism states conservative principles–and, indeed, eternal insights into the human condition–as a matter of truth. Because these conservatives believe that the individual is inseparable from her political community and civilization, there can be no government neutrality in promoting such truths. Either a government’s laws affirm virtue or they affirm vice. And the meaning of virtue and vice can be understood either by reflecting on the Judeo-Christian moral tradition or by inferring from philosophical understandings what human nature in its finest form should be. These truths are not culturally relative; they are universally valid.

The chasm between social and fiscal conservatives has always been there. Indeed, they were seldom even though of as allies until the 1980 presidential campaign. They have always been allies rather than friends. Real and perceived liberal weakness on Communism, crime, and government spending forced them to cooperate.

Many people predicted the end of the coalition with the collapse of Soviet Communism. The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 seemed to confirm that. Not only was foreign policy no longer a big presidential issue, but Clinton was the leader of a New Democrat party that was more moderate on social issues. For a variety of reasons, though, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans staged a huge takeover of Congress in 1994. The GOP has won six straight congressional elections and an unabashedly conservative president just won reelection mere months ago.

So, what are the signs that the GOP is losing its hold? Mostly, increases in federal domestic spending. Sullivan correctly notes that the Republican Party, which recently opposed the very existence of the Education Department, is now pushing such things as No Child Left Behind. Does that offend many fiscal conservatives? Absolutely. But the GOP moved to the middle on these issues because they were political losers. Democrats were able to successfully portray Republicans as uncaring and anti-education when they pushed for cutting these programs. Thus, “compassionate conservatism.” I don’t particularly like it and neither do many Republicans. But, unless the Democrats offer a more fiscally sound alternative, I don’t see how this much hurts the GOP at the ballot box.

Sullivan rightly faults the “fundamentalist” strain he sees in some GOP leaders, although I think he overstates the case more than a bit.

Fundamentalism, by its very nature, eschews compromise. It is not an inferential philosophy, drawing on experience or history to come to a conclusion about the appropriate way to act or legislate on any given issue. It derives its purpose from fixed texts: the Bible or the Koran. In its Catholic form, it vests unalterable authority in the Pope rather than in the more heterodox laity or even broader clergy, and it brooks no internal dissent or debate. Because the tenets of fundamentalism are inviolable and its standards are mandatory, fundamentalists are inevitably uneasy in the modern West. The culture affronts them in every way–and the affront demands a response. Women in combat? Against God’s will. Same-sex marriage? An oxymoron. Abortion? Always and everywhere to be forbidden by law. Stem-cell research on embryos? Doctor Mengele reborn.

The problem with this analysis, though, is that it simply isn’t true. As the Education Dept. example illustrates, Republicans compromise all the time on issues that are important to them. Women are already in combat. Republican governors are pushing and signing gay civil union bills. Stem cell research is not only legal but funded by federal dollars.

Furthermore, to the extent that there’s a fundemantalist streak in the Republican Party, it’s because that streak is mirrored in the American public. It’s not as if Bush hid his religious and social views from the people when he ran. A large segment of our society is deeply religious and believes in imutable truths laid down from on high. Those of us who don’t are in the minority.

*I’ll not rehash the debate over this term here.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. billy says:

    the real problem for the gop is that there are two types

    the fundamentalist


    the fiscal conservative

    and they have a silent agreement to band together to win.


    the fiscal conservatives thought the fundamentalists were just a tool to help win elections. Now the fiscal conservatives are realizing that they were, in fact, the tool of the religious right.

    how will they react? i dont know for sure?
    can anyone say ross perot?

  2. DaveD says:

    I agree and disagree with Mr. Joyner. Certainly the conservatives seem to be speaking with greater moral clarity today compared to the liberals. However, I think Americans in general are people of moderation. And if the conservative message gets too shrill or in your face I think that Reagan Democrats and moderate conservatives who are not liberal averse on the rare occasion will be turned off. The President to me is obviously more moderate than the Fundamentalist Christians who are exceedingly more judgemental of their fellow man than Jesus himself has been depicted to be. Preemption as a means of “defending” American interests at least the way it has been so visibly practiced in the Middle East is too new a philosophy for me to be able to judge its merits if it were to become a routine approach to foreign policy. Fiscally, I just don’t think the current rate of spending is sustainable, no matter what programs are funded. I think Libertarianism is great in some of the messages it whispers in our ears. It just does not seem a practical alternative to serve as our leading political philosophy, but perhaps I have an erroneous impression.

  3. Bithead says:

    Sullivan calling someone else confused.
    The mind boggles.