Academic journal article Policy Review

Freedom's Choir: Social and Economic Conservatives Are Singing the Same Song

Academic journal article Policy Review

Freedom's Choir: Social and Economic Conservatives Are Singing the Same Song

Article excerpt

An old ghost returned to haunt the Republican Party during the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). While the party's economic conservatives, true to the free trade orthodoxy of the Reagan era, immediately leapt to support the pact, the party's social conservatives were suspicious of it from the start. One pro-life leader captured the depths of the minischism when she remarked, "only the establishment's for NAFTA" - meaning "only" the economic conservatives with whom she had made common cause for 12 years.

Like the intraparty disputes over abortion, gay rights, taxing the rich, or a host of other issues, the NAFTA campaign has raised serious questions in some minds about the coherence of the Republican Party. On one side of the party, they see economic conservatives champion lower taxes, less regulation, and free trade. On the other, the cultural conservatives who, in their view, take decidedly unlibertarian positions on social issues and often seem lukewarm in their support for classical market economics. While the two groups may have been held together in the past by a shared anticommunism or their mutual enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan, the argument runs, on a number of issues the two camps are now divided.

Fears of Fratricide

Even the conscience of conservative Barry Goldwater, who did as much as anyone to build the modern Republican Party, is troubled by a sense of inconsistency. Surveying the cultural conservatives' consternation over President Clinton's plan to put gays in the military, the former senator told a gay newspaper, "The Republican Party should stand for freedom and only for freedom ... freedom means doing what you damn well please. To see the party that fought communism and big government now fighting gays, well, that's just plain dumb."

Senator Goldwater alludes to the key question: Is there an inherent contradiction between the party's support for economic freedom and its social agenda?

If so, the GOP is divided against itself, and presents a potentially unstable coalition that could fly apart-particularly as we enter the new, post-Cold War world. Any armchair political scientist could easily imagine the party transforming itself into a "more consistent" William Weld party with the goal of keeping the government off our backs and out of our bedrooms. Or it could become a party combining social conservatives and protectionist trade unionists - a Pat Buchanan party supporting traditional values and putting "America First."

More likely, the party could "go the way of the Whigs," destroying itself in fratricidal battles and leaving Ross Perot to occupy the ruins.

Before the professional doomsayers get carried away about the GOP'S future, however, we should remember that the problem of internal division has visited the party many times since modern conservatism's inception. The tensions we see today pale in comparison to the dispute that raged in the 1950s between the followers of libertarian-leaning Friedrich von Hayek and the traditionalists led by Russell Kirk. That argument was resolved so completely by William F. Buckley Jr. and the intellectual battalions at National Review that generations of conservatives - myself included - have grown up feeling perfectly at home among the most ardent partisans of both camps.

There is, in fact, no inherent contradiction among the strains of conservatism. lf we reconsider and resolve again this old argument between our party's economic and cultural conservatives, we will find that they both are firmly united behind a freedom agenda.

The Right Side of History

I happen to agree with Senator Goldwater that the best way to describe ourselves in the 1990s is as "the party of freedom." That phrase best captures our basic values as we confront the most statist administration in 30 years.

After a President flying the Republican banner - however weakly - was kicked out of the White House with 62 percent of the country voting against him, we urgently need a fresh way to explain ourselves to an understandably surly and skeptical electorate. …

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