A lot of the reaction to my conservapedia piece falls along the lines that you would expect – essentially that I’m painting with too broad a brush. I probably was in that post. Obviously a lot of conservatives are thoughtful, independent-thinking, and honest people. It’s primarily, therefore, a reaction to the conservative leadership that leads me to write posts like that one. To the movers and shakers on the quasi-populist right.
What I think we’re seeing and have been seeing now for some time is the heating up of an internal war within the GOP and the broader conservative movement, which includes the Tea Parties and other grassroots efforts that may or may not be directly affiliated with the Republican Party. This was bound to happen after the McCain loss. It gave the real right-wingers in the party (and outside of it) a chance to blame the moderates for the loss, and it gave the GOP insiders a chance to settle old scores. I’m not at all sure that the factions here are really “moderates vs conservatives” so much as a certain brand of right-winger vs. another.
I’m not really entirely sure of Sean Scallion’s break down of the sides involved as Conservative Inc. vs. the establishment. I think that they overlap far too much, and I think that it is a certain faction within the establishment that is also at the heart of the Tea Parties, warring against other factions within the establishment. In other words, the grassroots base is not its own entity but rather part of a larger faction.
Nor is it simply social conservatives vs. fiscal conservatives, or neoconservatives vs. realists, or neoconservatives vs. social conservatives. The factions at play here are not the old divisions, and the old rules don’t apply. People like David Frum are pushed to the margins for entirely different reasons than people like Daniel Larison.
So what do we know?
- We know that the Republican Party just came up with an idea to make its potential candidates pass a “purity test” in order to gain GOP funding. This would indicate that the party has become less interested in simply being the party of limited government and more in being the party that believes in X,Y, and Z. Indeed, many of the commandments in that purity test are oppositional in nature. Perhaps the division then is between those who stand against and those who want the party and the movement to be for something.
- We know that the excommunication of moderates occurs not because they are not socially conservative enough – plenty of atheists are movement conservatives. They’re just also generally hawks. But on certain points being too socially liberal becomes a liability, hawk or no. Gay marriage, abortion, and immigration are the Big Three. I think it’s possible to stray on one of these points, but more than one and you’re out, regardless of how hawkish or fiscally conservative you may be.
- We know that fiscal conservatism is important when it represents opposition to Democrats. Eight years of big spending didn’t rile up a Tea Party movement, but a few months of Democrat big-spending did. Fiscal conservatism and limited government, then, are only important as oppositional stances. Therefore if you do not oppose the stimulus now you’re a heretic. Similarly, healthcare reform under a Republican administration would not see the same resistance it does today not because of policy differences but because small government is reserved for oppositional positions.
(Remember – these points are merely to describe the present prevailing faction in the conservative movement. There are many principled conservatives who may honestly take limited government stances but they do so consistently rather than as fairweather fiscal hawks.)
- We know that criticism of the pundits on the right or of the very popular politicians (like Sarah Palin) is an act of heresy. In other words, opposition to the leaders of the oppositional faction is verboten. This isn’t so much a rule as it is a result of the various factions bumping up against one another. David Frum critiques Rush Limbaugh and is ostracized by the Limbaugh faction, but nobody is similarly ostracized for critiquing David Frum. This is because Frum’s faction is much weaker than the Limbaugh faction (at the moment).
- And lastly, support for the wars is pretty much necessary, though that could change if the new anti-war right really takes off. Again this anti-war position would be entirely oppositional in nature, not grounded in any meaningful policy or philosophy. Even now you see the supporters of the wars attempt to posture themselves both as backers and critics of the Obama surge in Afghanistan. Either way, a staunch commitment to an interventionist foreign policy is necessary, though it is not enough (see: David Frum).
So to sum up a little, the faction now leading the GOP (and the Tea Party movement) is an oppositional faction. There is a litmus test that they’ve fairly clearly laid out – you have to be against enough of the Democratic agenda, just socially conservative enough, and for now a supporter of the two wars the last administration started. You need to pretty much withhold criticism of enough of the major players in the party or its punditry with some exceptions and for only the right reasons – it’s ok for someone at Commentary magazine to critique Glenn Beck’s use of the word “imperial” to describe America, for instance. Perhaps due to its oppositional nature, this faction comes across as angry and has a populist fervor despite it being very much an extension of one branch of the Republican beltway.
Enough independents and moderates are turned off by all of this or don’t fit the narrow mold presented here to belong to this faction, and so to some degree the dividing line becomes hard-right vs. moderate. Others simply dislike the tone and approach of this faction, regardless of how much they may share politically.
In the 2010 and 2012 elections we’ll see these factions warring against one another. The oppositional faction is the most organized, which is why it is most discussed here. The others are fractured. There is no way the paleocons or Paulites will ever join ranks with the Frumians or the socially liberal but hawkish moderate Republicans. So this major faction will need to suffer serious defeats before any new faction can rise up to take its place. This very well might not happen until 2016 or later. We shall see.