Is ‘Leave me the Hell Alone’ Conservatism on the Rise in the GOP?
Jacob Weisberg writing in Slate:
One way to understand the divisions in the Republican Party is as a clash of regional philosophies. Northeastern conservatism is moderate, accepts the modern welfare state, and dislikes mixing religion with politics. Western conservatism is hawkish, hates government, and embraces individual freedom. Southern conservatism is populist, draws on evangelical Christianity, and plays upon racial resentments. The big drama of the GOP over the past several decades has been the Northeastern view giving way to the Southern one. To see this transformation in a single family, witness the shift from George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush.
Yet since the second Bush left the White House, something different appears to be happening in Republicanland: a shift away from Southern-style conservatism to more of a Western variety. You see this in the figures who have dominated the GOP since Barack Obama’s election 19 months ago: Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rand Paul. You see it in the right’s overarching theme: opposition to any expanded role for government, whether in promoting economic recovery, extending health care coverage, or regulating financial markets. You see it most strongly in the Tea Party movement that in recent months has captured the party’s imagination and driven its agenda.
Although marked by a cartoonish analysis (Southern Conservatives are walking around with a bible in one hand and the constitution in the other), Weisberg gets it. What the Tea Party people represent – and it’s an attitude that the Southern Conservatives are beginning to adopt – is what Weisberg correctly alludes to as “soft libertarianism.” In historical terms, it presages Goldwater by about 100 years or more, although Goldwater was it’s modern equivalent.
It’s what we used to call the “pioneering spirit” best illustrated by those hardy folk who settled the lands beyond the Mississippi River. Note I write “settled” rather than “explored.” Those who first mapped the trails that led to the hundreds of thousands of easterners making their way west, as well as the early traders, Mountain Men, and ne’er do wells who roamed the wilderness searching for their fortune, had no interest in “settling” or “pioneering” anything. They were closer to anarchists than pioneers. Government – any kind of government – established anywhere near them was considered a threat.
The genuine pioneers on the other hand, recognized that government must be established wherever they laid down roots if only for their own protection. While establishing a strong, self reliant credo, they nevertheless turned to Washington to protect them from the depredations of Indians (riled by the settlers who built on disputed lands), as well as protecting the railroads and regulating the rivers so that the fruits of their labors had a ready market where they could be sold.
In short, where Weisberg portrays Western Conservatism as something akin to the anarchists who opened the West, they were, in fact, not hostile to government at all. Being Americans of that time, they had no cause to support welfare or social engineering schemes. And if Weisberg would take the time to read and understand what the Tea Party people are all about, he would realize that it is not social welfare programs that these Conservatives oppose. Rather, they believe that these programs are best run by the states, and that Washington has no business dictating social policy. In short, it’s a more robust federalism that most of these Western Conservatives are espousing.
Yes, there are some in this camp who believe all welfare should come from churches and private institutions, with no government involvement at all in creating a safety net for the poor. Similarly, like Governor Perry of Texas (who straddles the Southern/Western conservative divide), there are some who think that beyond establishing a national defense and running foreign policy, the federal government should leave the rest to the states.
Perry said in his speech at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference that the only things the federal government should be doing:, “Have a strong military, secure our borders, and deliver the mail on time. And that’s it. … And until you can get those three right, how about leaving everything else alone?”
Not even Goldwater would go that far, and these activists have about as much chance of realizing that dream as Ron Paul has of getting elected president.
Mainstream Tea Party activists are opposing the Obama agenda on tactical grounds, as well as the simple principle that what the president is attempting with health care, cap and trade, financial reform, and other agenda items is imprudent, unworkable, and goes far beyond any rational, reasonable response to what he is trying to fix.
It continues to amaze me that pundits like Andrew Sullivan, Matthew Ygelsias, and now Weisberg constantly refer to President Obama as a “moderate” or a “moderate liberal.” Moderates do not name Van Jones to any position of responsibility within 5,000 miles of Washington, D.C. Nor does a “moderate liberal” tear apart something as interwoven into the lives of individual citizens and the entire American economy as the health care system is, and replace it literally with God knows what. Also, moderates do not show up on the National Journal’s ranking of liberal senators as number one – ever.
These pundits are mystified by the Tea Party’s opposition to these fantastically imprudent legislative initiatives because they fail to understand the underlying rationale of most Tea Party activists. These are communitarian efforts to remake America into something alien, subsuming individual rights in a miasmic fog of positive rights for which there is no basis in the Constitution, nor connection to tradition, First Principles, or common sense.
It can be said that the Tea Party opposition to these initiatives has a decidedly partisan bent. Not wanting to give Obama and the Democrats anything resembling a victory is at the heart of their efforts. A glance at the previous 8 years of opposition to the Bush agenda for exactly the same reasons shows where that idea came from.
But if McCain had been elected, he too would have been forced by dint of political necessity to come up with answers to many of the issues that Obama has dealt with. I doubt very much if a GOP-written health insurance reform bill would have been met with the kind of opposition that the Tea Party activists gave Obamacare. And the necessity for some kind of financial regulation to rein in the big banks and deal with some of the underlying causes of the financial meltdown would have been unavoidable. There probably would have been no Tea Party movement in the first place.
What Weisberg and other liberal pundits fail to grasp is that while I agree there is a sizable segment among Western and Southern conservatives who subscribe to the “Leave me the hell alone” school of conservatism, it is tempered by the reality of the majority who don’t want to get rid of government, but rather make it the servant of the people and not the other way around. The preferred way to do this is re-establish a robust federalism where tax money and social programs – as much as it is practicable – are transferred to state governments. This is a lot different than the anarchists that Weisberg and others portray the Tea Party activists.
Perhaps if they took off their rose colored glasses through which they view the president, they might better understand the real pluses and minuses of the Tea Party rather than the shallow, cartoonish view they currently hold.