The Five Strands of Conservatism: Why the GOP is Unraveling

The modern conservative movement, which eventually came to define the GOP, was built on an ideological foundation -- and a coalition -- that was fundamentally incoherent.
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In one sense, it isn't hard to see why the Republican Party seems to be coming apart at the seams. When you get caught gutting the regulations that had kept us for 70 years from another stock market crash like the crash of 1929 and another collapse of the banking system like the one that occurred during the Great Depression, and when your policies throw millions of people out of their homes, jobs, retirement, and doctors' offices, the next bottle of elixir you sell is not likely to fly off the shelf, especially if it's the same whine in a new deCantor.

But at a deeper level, the modern conservative movement, which eventually came to define the GOP (to its benefit for many years), was built on an ideological foundation--and a coalition--that was fundamentally incoherent. It took a charismatic leader to bring it together (Ronald Reagan), a tacit agreement among its coalition partners to give each other what they wanted, and a message machine to start selling the idea that that there was coherence to a conservative "philosophy" that was anything but coherent.

Modern conservatism wove together five discrete strands and interest groups that couldn't coexist. What is remarkable is how well it held together despite the fact that those strands were actually difficult to interweave.

The first strand is libertarian conservatism, reflected in leaders from Barry Goldwater to Ron Paul. Libertarian conservatives believe government should be small and weak and kept that way through low taxes. From their point of view, the primary role of government is to police the streets, protect private property, and protect the country from external threats (although at times they can get a little histrionic about internal threats as well).

The second strand, with which libertarianism is entirely incompatible, is social conservatism, particularly Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalists of any sort believe that they have privileged knowledge of God's Will and hence have the right to use whatever methods available--including the instruments of state--to impose that will on others. It is one thing to believe, as many democratic (and increasingly Democratic) evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics do, that life begins at conception. It is another to believe that because you believe that, you have the right to impose your interpretation of the books you consider holy on others who may not share your faith or your interpretation of Scripture. The fundamentalist politics practiced by the likes of Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson over the last 30 years should have been anathema to genuine libertarians, because they run against everything libertarian conservatives believe in vis-à-vis intrusive government. However, the two groups lived happily together as long as libertarians got to keep their taxes low and their rifles loaded and fundamentalists got to keep their kids from learning anything about birth control (leading the Bible Belt to have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and abortion anywhere in the country, although Sarah Palin seems to be leading a one-family crusade to recapture for Alaska the title of Miss Teen Pregnancy).

The third strand of conservatism is old fashioned fiscal conservatism--the kind that once led Bob Dole to garner his party's nomination for president but would make him unwelcome in the contemporary GOP. Fiscal conservatives are essentially soft New Dealers, who accept the premises of the New Deal--that we need a safety net, that when people lose their jobs because of economic downturns they shouldn't lose their homes, that people deserve some minimal degree of dignity in old age if they worked hard for 40 years--but prefer the safety net and tax codes to be thin. Fiscal conservatism bears no logical relation to social conservatism, and although it bears a superficial resemblance to libertarian conservatism, the two are fundamentally at odds, with one accepting the premises of the New Deal and the other rejecting them.

The fourth strand, national security conservatism, is a different breed. National security conservatives tend to be hawkish (although they have a curious habit of evading military service when it comes their turn), and they are generally quick to accuse others of being soft on the threat du jour (unless the other side happens to be in an interventionist mood, in which case they often morph into isolationists just for sport, as when George W. Bush attacked Clinton and Gore for "nation building" and then went on a six year binge of it). The militarism of national security conservatism is as far at odds from evangelical Christianity (and hence social conservatism) as it could be, given that Jesus preached most about the evils of war, poverty, and public expressions of piety, but somehow Christian social conservatives have found a way to rationalize militarism (not to mention ignore the plight of the poor or blame them for their poverty and build crystal cathedrals). Indeed, fundamentalist Christians were the strongest supporters of the Iraq War of any demographic group other than the Bush and Cheney families.

The final strand of conservatism is the one Nixon exploited with his Southern Strategy and the Republicans have exploited ever since, whether the issue is voting rights, "welfare queens," affirmative action, or the fate of "illegals": prejudice, whether conscious (as when Reagan and Nixon used, let's say, "colorful" terms, to describe those on welfare) or unconscious (as when Bob Corker ran a race against Harold Ford, a black Congressman from Tennessee, asking, "Who's the real Tennessean?", when what he was really activating in the back of voters' minds was, "he's not really one of 'us,' now is he"?). Given that most white Americans no longer see themselves or want to see themselves as racist, and that they actually consciously eschew racist sentiments and actions such as overt discrimination against people because of the color of their skin, emotional appeals to this segment of the conservative population tend to be strongest when a conscious "text" with some merit (e.g., we can't simply open the floodgates to all who would want to enter the United States and become citizens) is superimposed on the unconscious "subtext" of prejudice (the people flooding in happen to have dark skin). Although it's easy to localize this strand of conservatism as Southern, given that the GOP has become a regional party, it is important to note that had the Presidential election only included white voters (the Republicans' fantasy), McCain would have won in a 63-37 landslide over Barack Obama. But conservatives don't have much on their side on this one either, except to the extent that they can block the vote, because demographics are running in the wrong direction for them over the next 50 years.

I would never underestimate the ability of the right to find a way to stitch something back together, for two reasons. First, they're good at it. They're short on ideas, but they're long on selling ideas, however vapid. Second, Democrats are exactly the opposite: They're long on ideas but short on the ability to bundle them into coherent, emotionally compelling narratives that make people want to buy them--except when the GOP is so corrupt, inept, and/or bankrupt (or causing bankruptcy) that even moderate Republicans jump ship.

The reality is that it's going to be difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, and it's going to take someone with vision and charisma to figure out which aspects of conservatism to bring back into the center and which to catapult without losing a base that is now seriously out of step with mainstream America. I don't see that leader in Bobby "let me tell you a story about my dad and how in America, anything is possible" Jindal, Tim "let me tell you a story before you fall asleep and I have to certify Al Franken" Pawlenty, and Sarah "let me tell a lot of stories and hope no one checks the facts" Palin.

Faux tea parties aren't going to get them there, either (and if you ask me, they seem more than a little elite (tea?) and, well, gay (don't real men drink beer?) for a Party determined to "save the institution of marriage." But perhaps as they clink their porcelain cups in unison for high tea, they'll have an epiphany about how to replace their predictable and carping Constant Comments about taxes and deficits with a new blend. Perhaps they could borrow some green tea from the President.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."

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