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West vs. South?

Jacob Weisberg offers a superficially plausible explanation [1] of recent struggles on the Right — he sees them reflecting a split between Western and Southern varieties of conservatism, the former identified with Barry Goldwater and now Rand Paul, the latter with Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed. The examples he provides suggest that his West/South breakdown is just a remapping of the conventional libertarian/religious Right divide. But the remapping doesn’t work: Ron Paul hails from Texas, after all, which is Southern as well as Western, and his son lives in the Bluegrass State, which is certainly more Southern. Meanwhile, Midwesterner Tim Pawlenty is the darling of the Bush-style compassionate conservatives. And before he destroyed his personal and political lives at a single stroke, South Carolina politician Mark Sanford had seemed like a leading voice for the budget-cutting Right.

Plainly enough, the South is still the center of gravity for the GOP, and many of the most prominent figures in the Christian conservative and small-government camps alike hail from that region. Moreover, the two groups overlap more than Weisberg admits: not only do both Pauls have strong social conservative credentials (tempered by libertarianism, to be sure), but Sarah Palin, whom Weisberg assigns to the “Western” faction, is supported at least as strongly by the religious Right. Weisberg’s categories are just plain wrong.

“A GOP dominated by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed was increasingly noxious to potential supporters who happened to be secular, Jewish, Mormon, [2] or gay, or who accepted evolution,” he writes. This is risible: Mormon voters are a very important, if imperfectly assimilated, bloc of the religious Right [3] — they have been indispensable in campaigns to stop gay marriage, for example — while Christian Zionists are considered welcome allies by many in the minority of American Jews that votes Republican. (It’s true that Glenn Beck is a Mormon, and there are strong traditions of self-reliance in Mormonism, which can be a source of libertarian tendencies. But the religious Right side to Mormon political activity is equally pronounced.)

Weisberg, alas, not only is wrong in his general argument, but can’t even get the particulars right. He claims that Harry Jaffa “wrote Goldwater’s famous convention speech.” No, he didn’t — Karl Hess drafted that speech, borrowing the idea about extremism in defense of liberty from a letter Jaffa wrote. No research, no original thought, just cliches. Weisberg ought to try harder.

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#1 Comment By Jack Ross On May 29, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

Just about everyone who writes about elections and party politics is that superficial. Paging Michael Barone?

#2 Comment By mike On May 29, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

Right and what of the great western maverick, McCain? As far as I can tell he is the only Republican raising a fight about the democrats undoing don’t ask, don’t tell. Haven’t heard much from the southern leaders like Huckabee.

#3 Comment By Brass On May 29, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

“Right and what of the great western maverick, McCain? As far as I can tell he is the only Republican raising a fight about the democrats undoing don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Maybe because most uniformed officers have moved on already? (And most of the officer corps — as opposed to the grunts — lean Republican.)

Others may be following -Republican- Colin Powell on this one, who was elevated to top positions by Republicans Ronald Reagan, George Bush 41, George Bush 43. Nice try to blame Dems on this one, but even by your own admission, LOTS of Republicans aren’t exactly worked up about this, other than the 73-year old McCain. Not a peep from Dick Cheney either. I wonder why?

#4 Comment By Bill On May 29, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

Well, well, Jacob “The End of Libertarianism” Weisberg gets another thing wrong! Man was his call on libertarianism in ’08 The. Worst. Call. Ever.

Why aren’t writers like him ever held accountable for the b.s. they spew?

#5 Comment By spinnikerca On May 29, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

I hardly think someone has to be FROM the west to capture the ideology attractive to the west — but in any event, Ron Paul is from PA, if you are talking about where he grew up, and Rand grew up in Texas.

Ron is more the ideology most attractive to the west (where I am) and Palin/Huckabee most to the south, and Rand is sort of a fusion, which is why he is getting such traction. We will have to see his record in the Senate, of course.

#6 Comment By Young Geezer On May 29, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

Don’t let’s get fooled by the states on the map: politics is a lot more subtle, and has a lot more dimensions, than “South” v. “West”. For instance, there is a strain of the old Federalist-and-Whig Party in states like Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky (and even a little in S. Carolina). Those states’ politics look different than, say, Alabama, Mississippi, northern Florida or other places in the “South”. And that old Federalist-and-Whig tradition gets you the difference between a Rand Paul and a Mike Huckabee, or better yet, a John Warner and a Jesse Helms.

That is still too broad a brush, too. I imagine there is even more gradations when you see these places up close instead of bird’s eye.

#7 Comment By Adam Rurik On May 29, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

“Ron Paul hails from Texas, after all, which is Southern as well as Western, and his son lives in the Bluegrass State, which is certainly more Southern.”

Which is it, Mr. McCarthy?

#8 Comment By Daniel McCarthy On May 29, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

Adam, I’m not sure what you’re asking. Texas is culturally both Southern and Western. Kentucky is culturally more Southern than Western, at least in the ways Weisberg has in mind.

#9 Comment By Adam Rurik On May 29, 2010 @ 9:54 pm

Texas, although a part of the Confederacy, is a world unto itself, resisting classification. As for Kentucky? Yeah. (Personally, I consider everything below the Ohio River to be the South…in the EASTERN U.S.)

#10 Comment By MattSwartz On May 30, 2010 @ 8:01 am

Weisberg’s theory may be a bit superficial, but it isn’t invalidated solely by the fact that political activists in some parts of the country gravitate towards leaders from other parts. That makes perfect sense. Remember the old saying: familiarity breeds contempt.

#11 Comment By TomT On May 30, 2010 @ 8:15 am

Props to McCarthy for insightful article, and accurate analysis, which attracted the comments from Young Geezer which I also found valuable.

I was born in California, grew up and spent most of my life in Oregon, lived in Washington State for 15 years before moving here just 4 hours drive above Texas. And I recognize myself in the comments of the above mentioned opinions.

Libertarians and Mormons, like many minorities, often seem radical and immune to common sense, yet while they obviously hold certain truths. I find Rand Paul a pleasant fusion of good ideas from his father, tempered by common sense and honesty.

While I hold Palin in high regard, I wanted to puke when she lied about supposed McCain virtues, albeit for honorable reasons of loyalty and payback. If Rand Paul can successfully walk the tightrope between honesty and common sense and keeping his word, I think he will be a bright light for us.

#12 Comment By superdestroyer On May 31, 2010 @ 6:50 am

The real question is whether there are enough middle class whites in either the south or the west to maintain a conservative political party. Given that less than half the children in first grade are white and that immigrants vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, it there any real reason to worry about the divisions inside an irrelevant political party?