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An Opportunity for Libertarian Conservatives

Disgraced Senator John Ensign of Nevada and Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina have shined a new spotlight on the role of social conservatism in the Republican Party. Social conservatives form a critical part of the GOP, given its support of traditional marriage and a greater public role for religious values. Because the Republican Party has branded itself as the party of "family values," charges of hypocrisy in light of Ensign's and Sanford's infidelity are inevitable.

Democrats are obviously happy because the more the Republicans identified themselves as the protector of "family values," the more they implied that Democrats had no values at all. While "family values" should have no political ideology, Republicans unwittingly set the bar so low for Democrats that Barack Obama was able to easily shatter these perceptions simply by taking his wife out on dates and spending time with his children.

This post, however, is not about hypocrisy, Democrats, or the impact Sanford's affair will have on his possible presidential ambitions. Rather, it is about a new path for Republicans that would take them back to a Barry Goldwater brand of conservatism that may be a better fit for the country in 2009 than its current more religious brand. Turning to Goldwater would allow Republicans to reposition themselves without abandoning their conservative principles.

The modern Republican Party largely consists of an awkward marriage between Southern more religious-based social conservatism and Western more libertarian-minded leave-me-alone conservatism. (Moderate Republicans that hail from the Midwest and Northeast are an endangered species.)

Social conservatives have tended to wield a larger influence in the GOP, an influence that has only increased as the party became increasingly concentrated in the South. Their power is expressed in the Republican Party's platform, such as seeking a constitutional ban on gay marriage, advocating prayer in public schools, and restricting abortion.

As noble as social conservatives' intentions may be, however, the moral failings of Republican and Democratic politicians alike should make it clear that morality cannot be easily legislated. This is where libertarian-minded conservatism stands to fill the void left by hypocritical social conservatives.

Libertarian conservatives support limited government not just in financial affairs, but also personal and social affairs. A social conservative may oppose gay marriage because it goes against biblical teachings. A libertarian conservative, however, may support the right for adults to enter any consensual relationship they wish, even if they are personally opposed to gay marriage.

A social conservative may frown on marital infidelity because it weakens the family unit and is a sin against God. A libertarian conservative may frown on infidelity as well, but will not penalize the guilty party as severely because that person made a private decision and should live with the consequences.

Libertarian conservatives believe in free will, so long as the rights of others are not violated. Social conservatives believe in free will as well, so long as their actions do not contradict biblical teachings.

But there are two problems confronting social conservatism in addition to the difficulty with legislating morality:

1. The United States is slowly becoming less Christian and more tolerant of nontraditional lifestyles. This does not excuse moral failings such as infidelity. But it does suggest that such failings are no longer as shocking to the public as they might have been 20 or 30 years ago. Many of us are guilty of the exact same failings and therefore look with suspicion at politicians who claim to be the paragon of virtue.

2. The United States is slowly becoming more liberal because of the influx of immigrants and the growth of liberal demographic groups. Blacks already vote Democratic by a 9 to 1 ratio, but the real danger for Republicans lies in the Latino population. They voted for Obama by a 2 to 1 ratio and are the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. This was devastating for Republicans in Florida, North Carolina, and the Southwest in 2008. Could Georgia follow in 2012 and Texas in 2016? If Republicans lose any of these states, it would seem virtually impossible for a Republican to cobble together enough electoral votes to win the White House, as I argued shortly after the election.

Also, while Blacks and Latinos may harbor some socially conservative views (i.e., gay marriage and abortion), they are highly suspicious of the Republican Party and its commitment to their communities. So it will take more than social conservatism to earn these groups' votes.

Libertarian conservatism allows Republicans to reconnect with voters by coming across less piously and removing the hypocritical position of advocating limited government unless it pertains to private matters. And if the libertarian conservatives had a greater voice in the Republican Party, it is quite possible that voters would look at Sanford's actions as a personal failure rather than "yet another hypocritical 'family values Republican' who doesn't practice what he preaches." But because the party has come to be seen as the party of social conservatives, Sanford's and Ensign's dalliances tarnish the entire party.

5 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

I would be careful with how you brand this, because it can fall into the same trap as the whole "Party of Reagan" nonsense, even though Reagan is dead and a good chunk of voters weren't alive when Reagan or Goldwater made their impact on the political landscape. It's not just Latinos the Republicans need to court, but young voters, as well.

UNRR said...

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 6/28/2009, at The Unreligious Right

WorkingTommyC said...

Libertarian conservatism does not rule out social conservatism. That is a common mistake also made by many who call themselves libertarian.

"Primum non nocere" ("First, do no harm"). For government that means first do not violate the Supreme Law of the Land, the US Constitution.

We are set up as a republic. Unfortunately, the Federal government has effectively destroyed the separation of powers between the Federal and the state levels of government by ignoring the Constitution. Many of the true libertarian characteristics of our government have not been allowed to exist or have been greatly diminished. Otherwise, we'd have "fifty experiments in local government." Such competition would be healthy for our republic. People would have a more diverse choice of lifestyles by voting with their feet where and thus how to live.

Under a proper republic as outlined in the Constitution, a true libertarian will not condone the Federal government forbidding a state from implicitly promoting a socially conservative paradigm by punishing/outlawing certain behavior.

The stepping between state and citizen is not allowed under the Constitution except in certain very limited ways though the Federal court system has systematically been destroying those limits since the early 1900s.

Without those limits being reinstated, true "consent of the governed" cannot be pursued when people are not allowed to govern at the lowest possible level. States should decide for themselves such issues as abortion which have proved impossible to satisfactorily decide at the Federal level. Divisiveness in the country results from intolerance of other states' deciding for themselves through their representative governments what behaviors to allow and outlaw. Both major parties are more than guilty of such intolerance.

It is often difficult enough to decide certain issues at the state level as well but the state is the basic unit according to the Constitution and, according to the law, it is up to the states to decide on all matters not specifically assigned by the states to the central government.

"The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite." --James Madison, Federalist No. 45

S.W. anderson said...

Anything is possible, AP, but I strongly doubt libertarian-type conservatives will take over the Republican Party anytime soon.

First, the mostly southern religious right harvests money and wields power through its involvement in politics. They're all about control. You've got entrenched interests there that aren't likely to give up their moneymaking franchise, their ability to wield power and their control. That's especially true if they're expected to step aside in favor of "live and let live" libertarian types who have no problem with what religious-right types consider sinful sexual behavior, abortion rights and so on.

You've also got Republicans who, while not all that sold on religious conservatism personally, appreciate the potential for political gain from pandering to the religious right, and sometimes the the broader public as well, by exploiting wedge issues.

The other thing about libertarian conservatives is their quirky notions about money and the economy. Going back on the gold standard is simply not feasible. While tempting right now, doing away with the Federal Reserve System makes about as much sense as doing away with the Air Force.

At any given time, it seems, libertarians always advance some interesting and appealing notions. It's when you look closer to see what they want to do that you realize they're out of the mainstream in significant ways.

The best chance for a libertarian ascent to political power, meaning the presidency, would be if another charismatic Barry Goldwater type were to come to the fore at a time when most of the electorate was thoroughly disgusted with most Democrats and Republicans — a not implausible scenario, unfortunately.

Even then, the prospect could well be one of four or eight years of gridlock. That's because a libertarian president likely would not have sufficient support in Congress to do much more than skirmish over one thing after another.

Thomas said...

I agree with your post for the most part, Anthony. I think the religious right has weakened considerably over the last few years though. The old leadership is dying off or stepping down from their positions of influence. And as far as I can tell, no equivalent people are stepping up.

Personally if the GOP became more Barry Goldwater-like, that would be a party I could consider paying attention to. People forget that Goldwater was a proponent of gay rights for exactly the reason you described, Anthony - if people agreed on a relationship, why should he care?

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