December 1, 2009

The Existence of Two Wings Doesn't Mean that Both Have to Flap on the Same Side

Justin Katz

An interesting, if frustrating, conversation has proceeded from a recent post in which I suggested that libertarians and those who focus on civic and economic matters should not take their Obama-inspired momentum as an opportunity to jettison social conservatives from movement. The frustration derives from the difficulty in nailing down the precise notions that everybody's arguing — perhaps because civic-minded groups with a secular focus seem to believe that they have to run away from any association with socially conservative movements.

The underlying assumption often appears to be that the wonks' issues are the driving force pulling along social baggage that, while not necessarily unwelcome, is best tucked away in the storage area. I'd argue that people's actual voting behavior and other political considerations make such a proposition dubious.

Anyway, the conversation has reminded me that I've been intending to link to RI Tea Party founder Colleen Conley's recent letter to the Providence Journal, and although it was initially her remarks on binding arbitration and suspending legislative rules that claimed my attention, this is the paragraph that stands out, now:

Representatives from the Rhode Island Tea Party, Operation Clean Government, Rhode Island Statewide Coalition and the East Providence Taxpayers Association spoke against the binding-arbitration bill. The Ocean State Policy Research Center provided statistics to back up the assertions made.

None of these groups are organized for advocacy on social issues (although with such things as healthcare, some overlap occurs, of course), and they do not have to be. To extrapolate: I would see no justification or probably advantage to leveraging my involvement in Tiverton Citizens for Change in order to address, say, abortion or same-sex marriage. If every group strives to take a position on every issue, we end up unable to resolve anything, which is why it's so insidious that the political left strives to consolidate all issues under the umbrella of state action.

The reality, however, is that the focus of social conservatives may be broadly characterized as protecting their right to determine the shape of their government — to define marriage, to be able to vote and govern as if it's possible that God exists, to draw lines against killing unborn children. Consequently, when civic groups disclaim association with social conservatives, we must be wary of the inclination of other factions to undermine our efforts in other areas. If, that is, moderates and libertarians take the opportunity to elect candidates and pass laws that further entrench abortion, nationalize same-sex marriage, and strengthen barriers to religious organizations' involvement in the public square, then the right-leaning coalition has sold its soul and will, in the long run, find its economic and civic policies unsustainable.

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The tea party movement is certainly not one to jettison social conservatives. I'd wager most members are social conservatives, perhaps a bit less so in RI than across the nation. Many social issues are inextricably tied to economic issues, and plenty of tea party folks feel strongly about these. But social issues, standing alone, are not part of the tea party's platform. Is it not likely that the most fiscally conservative and Consitutionally minded candidates will also be more to the right on social issues as well? It's the nature of the beast, just as the nature of the typial tea party member is of an independent minded sort.

My inclusion of David Horwitz's article in the previous post is to demonstrate that to win the war, we have to have a simple message that inspires. The tea party troops are viscerally affected by the potential loss of freedom; that's what makes us get up and ACT. It is a lose coalition of engaged citizens from all walks of life, with all manner of viewpoints. But the common thread that runs through is an anti-establishment desire for small, accountable government that works for the people according to the principles set forth by our founding fathers. That came from the bottom up, organically, spontaneously, and identically across the country. Clearly, that's what the people want. The people defined the movement, not vice versa.

Posted by: MadMom at December 1, 2009 10:58 AM

Much confusion results from attempting to label people with a single epithet - a favorite tool of the Left, by the way. In the same manner, no single organization can take on the entire spectrum of issues without losing the ability to work on its declared area of interest. I wouldn't mix my work on restoring Constitutional government with my own interest in restoring a healthy crop of oyster beds to Mt. Hope Bay.

Of course there are many areas of overlap. The welfare buffet set out by the state represents about half of the state's annual expenditure. To relieve our taxpayers of this non-consensual burden (the most important step RI can take to balance the budget and reduce taxes) will require the recipients of state largesse to radically change their lifestyles. Many of the behaviors that comprise those lifestyles are identified as "social" issues.

Libertarians are not necessarily libertines. In fact, a thoughtful libertarian is probably quite conservative in his "social" positions, not least because the maximum freedom he advocates can only be exercised with self-discipline, lest he infringe on the equally maximum rights of other people. It is the failure to exercise self-discipline that requires the members of communities to establish institutions to compel the irresponsible to respect the rights of others.

Sam Adams put it well: ""Since private and publick Vices, are in Reality, though not always apparently, so nearly connected, of how much Importance, how necessary is it, that the utmost Pains be taken by the Publick, to have the Principles of Virtue early inculcated on the Minds even of children, and the moral Sense kept alive, and that the wise institutions of our Ancestors for these great Purposes be encouraged by the Government. For no people will tamely surrender their Liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when knowledge is diffusd and Virtue is preservd. On the Contrary, when People are universally ignorant, and debauchd in their Manners, they will sink under their own weight without the Aid of foreign Invaders."
Samuel Adams, letter to James Warren, 4 November 1775

Posted by: BobN at December 1, 2009 12:41 PM


What you describe sounds like what the GOP was in the 80s and 90s, with a dominant conservative streak across all issues. That a Tea Party movement spawned should be a loud wakeup call.

The simple message of individual liberty is clear and is threaded through every concern from taxes and war, to Life and 2nd amendment rights. The Tea Party is proof that the GOP no longer had a discernible vision for broader freedom, as is the invigorated Right to Life movement among dozens of others.

I cannot speak for anything beyond my local town committee, but that message was not missed in SK. NY-23 should have sent shockwaves through the GOP that collectivism fails precisely because it does not recognize individual preference. Attempting to homogenize outcomes, despite the intent, inequitably distributes the produce of efforts.

Collectivism is the proverbial road to hell. Ultimately that seems to me where the fiscal and social issues are bound. When the GOP is aligned with that, its candidates appeal to the mainstream. When the GOP strays from that alignment, it gets whacked by its base. Given the overwhelming mass of voters on the receiving end of tax dollars, there is precious little room for error. The presumed "GOP base" of voters is not a bunch of entrenched and engaged activist partisans, but rather a huge chunk of the population that has a gut tendency to vote for someone that respects their individualism. They know the difference between right and wrong. When they feel their representative is synced with that, they support him or her. When they don’t, they disengage and/or express their visceral disgust with politics, leaving the status quo to reign.

Conventional wisdom would have us, as you note Justin, push these issues to the back burner as though there is no time for social debate in our governance. But if conventional wisdom were true wisdom, it wouldn’t need the adjective. I received confirmation at a Right to Life dinner several weeks ago. I met countless individuals who introduced themselves to me as “Republicans, but…”

Posted by: Roland in SK at December 1, 2009 2:32 PM

"The Tea Party is proof that the GOP no longer had a discernible vision for broader freedom, as is the invigorated Right to Life movement among dozens of others."

Or, "I didn't leave the party, the party left me".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at December 1, 2009 4:41 PM
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