With the approach of the crucial mid-term elections, and especially after the media obsession with the internet correspondence of Congressman Mark Foley, numerous liberal commentators eagerly anticipate a shattering crack-up of the conservative movement. While the outcome of the November balloting remains very much in doubt, these gleeful predictions of GOP disaster demonstrate an ignorant misunderstanding of the essential nature of the Republican coalition, and grossly exaggerate the gap between “religious” and “economic” conservatives.
Paul Krugman, for instance, New York Times columnist, bestselling author and Princeton professor, recently published a piece called “Things Fall Apart.” In it, he declared: “At its core, the political axis that currently controls Congress and the White House is an alliance between the preachers and the plutocrats- between the religious right, which hates gays, abortion and the theory of evolution, and the economic right, which hates Social Security, Medicare and taxes on rich people…Together, these groups formed a seemingly invincible political coalition, in which the religious right supplied the passion and the economic right supplied the money.”
Krugman insists that the movement will inevitably self destruct because its members don’t share a philosophy or even common aims. “The coalition, however, has always been more vulnerable than it seemed because it was an alliance based not on shared goals, but on each group’s belief that it could use the other to get what it wants,” he writes. In other words, he suggests cooperation within the conservative movement has always been self-serving, hypocritical, contradictory and cynical. He makes the fatal mistake of many ideologues: feeling so certain of his own enlightened righteousness that he can’t even acknowledge the sincerity of his opponents. “Surrounding this core is a large periphery of politicians and lobbyists who joined the movement not out of conviction but to share in the spoils,” he sniffs.
This attitude reflects the common assumption that the impassioned members of a Pentecostal church in Alabama can’t possibly endorse the same worldview as Ivy League-educated intellectuals at a conservative Washington think tank – an assumption that ignores the obvious fact that some ideological commitments cut across class, religious, educational, economic and even racial lines. The agreement on major issues that has fueled Republican successes since the Reagan Revolution is authentic and organic, not strategic or calculating.
For instance, religious conservatives support low taxes not as a sop to their economic conservative allies, but because they believe that families will make better decisions on spending their own money than bureaucrats. Inheritance taxes are at least as offensive to people of faith as they are to small government reformers since these “death taxes” assault one of the ultimate family values: the ability to pass on to the next generation the fruits of a lifetime of hard work. By the same token, economic Republicans who want to limit governmental bureaucracy and spending will support the home-schooling practiced by many of their Christian colleagues not as some concession to Fundamentalists, but because they share the core principle that individual Americans should depend less on government and more on themselves.
Even some issues that are supposed to drive a wedge between the “preachers” and “plutocrats” can, if properly understood, bring the two factions together. Consider the debate over federal funding for embryonic stem cell research: where even the most secular, libertarian-tinged, economic conservatives will rightly question the necessity of government financing for scientific work that remains profoundly controversial. Leaders of the religious right don’t seek a government ban on this area of scientific investigation so long as it’s privately funded—they only want to avoid tax-payer support and the societal endorsement that comes with it. By the same token, opposition to same sex marriage doesn’t involve any effort to block or penalize private gay relationships, but merely a desire to stop the governmental sanction and support involved in state backed matrimony. During all debates on the National Endowment of the Arts and the condemnations of their generous grants to sacrilegious expression, people of faith didn’t clamor for censorship--- they wanted only to avoid government sponsorship. If an artist chose to display a crucifix in urine in his own garage, not even the most outspoken religious conservative would have demanded that the police invade his premises to halt the blasphemy.
In all these areas, the libertarian and faith-based impulses can and do reach similar conclusions: hoping to keep government disentangled from ongoing efforts to challenge age-old religious values, and striving to use all available means to shore up societal support for the traditional family.
Yes, economic and religious conservatives may emphasize different priorities: Christian activists will care more passionately about abortion, while money-minded reformers might stress retooling social security or cleaning up our law-suit riddled judicial system. But the two wings of the GOP and the conservative movement nonetheless pursue goals that are not only complementary, but utterly dependent on one another.
The economic conservatives want to shrink government and encourage personal responsibility. Religious right wingers seek to strengthen the family, and to affirm its independence. These two aims naturally, inevitably, go together.
This inherent reinforcement becomes apparent when considering current controversies regarding the beginning of life and our last years of existence. Liberals increasingly favor a cradle-to-grave governmental role, hoping that tax money will fund day care, school breakfasts, medical care, psychological counseling and more. Economic conservatives oppose such programs as wasteful and intrusive, while religious conservatives hate them because they undermine the role of the family. If Washington D.C. provides a toddler’s breakfast at government funded nursery school in Seattle, as well as the food stamps that finance other meals, then what’s left of a classical parenting role? By the same token, if grown children bear no responsibility for their aged parents, and depend entirely on the feds to feed and care for mom and pop in their senior years, then it involves not only a grotesque expansion of government but a tragic diminution of the role of family. Setting up voluntary personal retirement accounts within Social Security not only provides the greater independence that economic conservatives crave, but also reinforces the family values boosted by religious believers --- since such accounts (financed by your own payroll deductions) would be transferable to your heirs, rather than simply reverting to the strangers in the government.
In other words, the alignment of religious and economic conservatives isn’t an accident or an opportunistic strategy: it’s the logical result of identical desires. Both sides want to see the family strengthened and the government’s power reduced – two goals which can’t be separated. Bigger government means weaker families, while stronger families mean less justification for big government.
This common vision among conservatives of all stripes doesn’t mean that Republicans agree on all issues. The immigration debate, for instance, saw spirited arguments among various factions within the party. But that question —easily the most divisive current agenda sitem for Republicans – hardly splits conservatives along simplistic religious/economic lines. Most (but by no means all) economic conservatives (representing the interests of businesses, big and small) backed the comprehensive immigration reform advocated by President Bush, and many religious conservatives (including leaders of most of the major Evangelical denominations) also backed a path to earned legalization as an expression of “compassionate conservativism.” While nearly all Republicans back the idea of constructing a fence and strengthening security at the border, the complicated, multi-faceted disputes over what to do with the illegals already here defied simplistic attempts to characterize the GOP as clearly split between businessmen and Bible-thumpers. On this and many other issues, some of the commercial leaders could cite chapters and verses of their Bibles, and some of the religious believers achieved great financial success with profound respect for business values.
Regardless of differences in nuance and rhetoric, the dollar and devotional wings of the Republican Party will continue to enjoy a natural, logical, obvious congruence in political philosophy as well as practical approaches. Above all, the increasingly stridency and uncompromising militancy of the American Left helps push non-liberals of every stripe toward common ground – as does the obvious contempt with which leftist commentators like Krugman view all branches of conservative thought. Family values conservatives include tens of millions of Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and even the religiously unaffiliated, and can’t be rightly classified as “preachers.” Nor do libertarian-minded main street strivers, the independent small business people and entrepreneurs (who now far outnumber the members of organized labor in this country), deserve classification as “plutocrats.”
In this difficult electoral environment, with the mainstream media shamelessly exploiting the shameful behavior of Mark Foley, it’s of course possible (but by no means certain) that the Republicans will lose one or both houses of Congress in November. But the conservative coalition that has achieved such spectacular success in the past will manage to hold together for the long term, based on shared strong family/small government values, and no doubt will enjoy fresh victories in the future.