Future of the GOP: It’s Up to the Democrats

Ross’ question about the future of “fusionism”—the longstanding alliance between libertarians and social conservatives—is a very profound one. Let me suggest a couple of thoughts that may help us think it through together.

  1. While strict doctrinal libertarians have always been a vanishingly small minority in America (cocaine vending machines anyone?), the libertarian disposition or tendency is large and strong.
  2. So long as the Democrats (or anyway the Democrats’ northern leadership) remained effectively a social-democratic party, libertarian-leaning voters had no choice but to support the GOP.
  3. After 1994, Bill Clinton shifted the Dems sharply toward the right on economic issues. The result—as we saw in the 1998-2004 sequence of elections—was that the Dems shed a lot of working-class white votes, while picking up a lot of affluent votes. (Bush beat Kerry among white women without a high school degree; Gore beat Bush among self-described “upper class” voters.)
  4. Probably the most important decision therefore for the future of the Republican party belongs not to the GOP, but to the Democrats: Do the Dems continue on the path Clinton laid down—or do they revert to a more radical politics?
  5. As of 2005, the Democrats have compromised. They practice a politics that is radical and militant in tone, but anodyne in substance. They hate George W. Bush, and the war in Iraq, and the religious right—but it’s rare to hear them say implement the Kyoto accord or raise taxes to pay for universal government-run healthcare. I’m not saying they don’t think it, but they don’t say it.
  6. But the Democrats are quiet mainly because they have sunk deep into the mentality of an opposition party. If they retake one or both houses of Congress—as they gear up for 2008—then they will have to decide: Are they still Clinton’s party? If yes, then I think the Republican coalition will continue to splinter. If no, then for all the troubles described here, the GOP can be held together by the principle of lesser-evilism.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, bestselling author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum considers whether the time has come and gone for the small government heirs of Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich. His answer: “the day in which we could look to the GOP to have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has I think definitively passed.” Government slashing types have never been more than an active minority in the GOP, Frum argues, and there is little chance that Republicans going forward will repudiate the spirit of the big-government Bush agenda. The small-government conservative’s best hope is that, like the defunct Whigs and Progressives, elements of their ideas and ideals will survive as a part of the political consensus.

Response Essays

  • Bruce Bartlett, author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, agrees with Frum’s gloomy assessment of the prospects for small government and argues that conservatives and libertarians often compound the problem by failing to understand the magnitude and political intractability of the government’s non-discretionary entitlement programs. Slashing government is not “as easy as waving a magic wand.” Bartlett warns of the danger of resigning in frustration and calls for “a serious debate among libertarians and small government-types on a realistic political strategy for achieving their goals.”

  • Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argue that although a renewed push for smaller government isn’t in the cards, Republicans can realistically hope to win reforms that promote “freedom, self-reliance, and individual initiative”–values at the core of the small-government movement. In the current climate, Douthat and Salam write, “simply calling for the rollback of government appeals only to those already in the winner’s circle of American life…” So, they argue, Republicans “need to accept that government will remain large in the short run … while pursuing long-range strategies that will produce a more opportunity-friendly, less statist America.”

  • Cato executive vice president David Boaz argues that the Republicans have failed Reagan’s vision, offering their own brand of meddlesome statism as an alternative to the Democrats’. Although there is in the U.S. a constituency for limited government, Boaz argues, it needs a leader. The task for “advocates of liberty and limited government” is to “make ready the ideas, the platform, the networks that could serve a political leader who wanted to take on the task of clearing away the late 20th century’s accumulated burden of bureaucratic systems, unfunded liabilities, overextended military commitments, and usurpations of the responsibilities of free citizens.”