They still dont get it.
Today House Republicans are releasing Pledge to America , a 21 page, 8,000 word document outlining their new governing agenda, a copy of which is now making the rounds.
The editors of National Review issued a fawning, effusive editorial , claiming it is bolder than the 1994 Contract for America and that it commits Republicans to working toward a broad conservative agenda.
Nonsense. While the pledge has many praiseworthy items on economic and defense issues, it says almost nothing about social concern. That is not a “broad conservative agenda.” Its disappointing, though unfortunately not all that surprising, that the GOP could release a pledge that has almost nothing about social issues and the flagship publication of the conservative movement doesnt raise a peep.
The Weekly Standard hardly does much better. John McCormack writes , There had been some discussion as to whether or not social issues would be included in the document. And indeed they are.
Indeed they are barely mentioned. Out of 8,000 words, the pledge contains 43 dealing directly with social issues:
We pledge to honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private and faith-based organizations that form the core of our American values.
Notably, that line was only added at the last minute after Rep. Mike Pence raised a fuss . Outside the preamble, the only mention of social issues concern the ones that, as Ramesh Ponnuru noted , almost derailed Obamacare:
We will protect the doctor-patient relationship . . . We will permanently end taxpayer funding of abortion and codify the Hyde Amendment.
This is little more than promising to maintain the status quo, yet it is the extent of social conservative issues addressed in the pledge.
With all due respect to my friends at these publications, if you think this is a sufficiently conservative agenda then you are as out of touch with the conservative movement as the House Republicans.
Since at least the days of Reagan, there has been a popular conception of the conservative coalition as a three-legged stool consisting of social conservatives, economic conservatives, and defense conservatives. This is true only in rather limited sense. Unfortunately, the conservative intelligentsia long ago bought into the idea that the tripod metaphor represents not just varying emphasis within conservativsim, but broad, distinct, non-overlapping constituencies.
The reason they have done so is because most of the establishment elite and their organizations are oriented around one of the three “legs.” While they may brush shoulders while passing each other in the halls of the Heritage Institute, these groups rarely interact in any significant or meaningful way. Conservatives in Washington (and New York, for that matter) have a tendency to forget that their way of thinking is anomalous and deviates significantly from most conservatives in the flyover states. They work, and often live, in a liberal, urban environment in which a full-spectrum conservative is outside the norm.
But the fact is that most conservative Republican voters are from rural or suburban areas. As this map from the 2004 election shows, the dividing line in America is not between Red States and Blue States but between Red and Blue counties:
The difference between heartland conservatives and East Coast elites, however, is not a matter of geography but of an inadequately robust understanding of conservatism. The problem is not urbanismyou can find heartland conservatives everywhere in the countrybut rather the diluting influence of liberals and libertarians on the conservatives who live in those areas.
Admittedly, the advent of web-based media (which is overrepresented by liberals, libertarians, and liberaltarians) and the mainstreaming of the East Coast conservative media has had a similar effect on Red State voters. But for the most part, rural/suburban Republican-voting conservatives (including Tea Partiers) still do not make sharp distinctions between the three branches of the coalition. You won’t find, for instance, many fiscally-oriented conservatives in rural Oklahoma that are squishy on the life issues or think that we should shrink the military. In fact, when you hear someone referring to themselves as a “economic conservative” or a “national security conservative” you can almost be assured that they are (a) a libertarian, (b) a pro-war hawk, and/or (c) live or work in an urban area.
Indeed, the very use of the term “social conservatism” is misleading and reveals how far the conservative elite establishment has moved toward libertarianism. The term can be used generically to refer to many groups that are neither Republican nor politically conservative. African Americans, Hispanics, and Catholics tend to be “conservative” on many social issues, though they do not constitute a solid base of support for Republican candidates. Even President Obama is conservative on a number of social issues; that does not make him a social conservative.
Still, while social conservatism (broadly defined) is not confined to the GOP, it is a centralif not the centralcomponent of traditional conservatism. The idea that conservatism is not primarily about the preservation of faith, family, community, and ordered liberty, would be baffling to conservatives who came up during the eras from Taft to Reagan. That is why when these heartland conservatives are asked to rank issues of ultimate importance, abortion, marriage, and religion freedom naturally takes precedence over fiscal concerns. It is not that they think repealing the death tax is unimportantits just that it is not nearly as important as repealing Roe.
Similarly, the term “economic conservative” has taken on a peculiar connotation. Nowadays the label has been adopted by those who can identify what taxes they want cut but not which spending. They also tend to support the interest of lobbyists and corporate oligarchies rather than workers and small businesses. House Republicans who claim to be economic conservatives are often quick to offer non-specific platitudes about fiscal restraint while maintaining a “business as usual” attitude to fiscal irresponsibility. Earmarks, for instance, are a relatively trivial concern compared to the more pressing economic problems we face. Yet it is disturbing to see so-called economic conservatives in Congress defend the practice as if it were their primary job to bring pork back to their districts.
In contrast, one-legged conservatives are true fiscal conservatives. They are pro-capitalism, pro-growth, and pro-entrepreneur. They embrace the basic tenets of supply-side theory without falling for the magical thinking that tax cuts always increase government revenues. While they are tired of trillion-dollar deficits and out of control spending at the federal level, they understand that the role of state and local governments is to provide the infrastructure that makes economic growth possible. They dont, like the Club for Growth types, freak out on finding that a Republican governor supported using taxes to pay for roads, police, and prisons. One-legged conservatives understand the economy on a personal level. For them, it is not just a series of charts and statistics and abstract theories from a think-tank white paperweapons to be used to wrest power from the Democrats.
Likewise, the one-legged conservatives are conservative on defense because they are the ones that are defending the country. More than 44 percent of U.S. military recruits come from rural areaswhich is why for many conservative families, “national defense” is a personal issue. Since the Reagan era those in the military have also had a tendency to vote for Republicans. In 2004 an unscientific survey of U.S. military personnel showed they supported President Bush for re-election by a 4-to-1 ratio. They trusted Bush and the Republicans to lead on issues of national security and believed the GOP when it made the case that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were genuine threats. What they did not give was a mandate to create a perpetual war machine that is fueled by the blood and sweat of their children.
Like most heartland conservatives, they tend to support the GOP and the conservative movement even when they are being ignored or dismissed. The few times they do raise a fuss, the GOP elite begins wringing their hands and fretting about dissension in the coalition. What they don’t understand is that the conservative coalition is composed primarily of us one-legged conservatives.
All too often conservative pundits claim that the movement would be better off if it were more like them. While I have a tendency to resort to that type of thinking, this is not what I am saying now. It is not that I think that the coalition should be more like me but rather that I am already a representative member of the largest, most essential group of conservatives in America.
Back home in Texas I’d be fairly typical exampleI’m a rural, evangelical, veteran, and former small business owner. You can find social-fiscal-defense conservatives like me in every church, diner, and public square. Yet in Washington, D.C., I’m something of an anomaly. Ask someone here about their political leanings and their answer will sound like they’re ordering from Starbucks: “I’m fiscally conservative on taxes and spending, a neo-con on foreign affairs, and lean libertarian on social issues like drug legalization, gay rights, and abortion.” In contrast, most people in rural areas would simply say, “I’m a conservative”and expect you’d know what they meant.
The problem with the conservative elite, particularly the policy and pundit classes, is that they have almost no interaction with actual one-legged conservatives. How many evangelicals or military veteransmuch less evangelical military veteranswill you find in the think-tanks or on the mastheads of the elite conservative publications? Or what about small business entrepreneurs? Or rural Southerners? You’re more likely to find an agnostic Canadian who served in the Israeli Defense Forces.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course (well, nothing wrong with serving in the IDF; being agnostic or Canadian is a bit suspect). But acknowledging that disconnect between the elites and the commoners can help illuminate why we keep seeing these “conservative crackup” stories coming from the East Coast. They think that when we express our disdain for this false fusionism that we are breaking ranks. Perhaps, if they would only get out more they would see the truth: There’s only one leg of our coalitionand we’re the ones holding up the conservative movement.