There have always been libertarian and authoritarian strains within the Republican Party. Both are very different, often to the degree of incompatibility.
Generally speaking, the libertarian strain is what generations have always thought of as traditional American conservatism—limited government, individual liberty, free markets, strong national defense, and loyalty to the Constitution. However imperfect, this is the conservatism of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. When Reagan told Mike Wallace in 1976 “I think that the heart of my philosophy is much more libertarian,” he thought it important to make this distinction.
The authoritarian strain is what many thought of as conservatism throughout the 2000s: Bigger government (expanding entitlements), attacks on individual liberty (indefinite detention, warrantless wiretapping), state intervention in the economy (stimulus, bailouts, TARP), and an aggressive national defense (Iraq War, a decade in Afghanistan). This is the conservatism of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Strangely enough, it is also generally the “conservatism” of Barack Obama, in that most of the more authoritarian policies described here have been continued or expanded by Bush’s successor.
This week, there were dozens of headlines and stories speculating that Republicans were suddenly throwing longtime anti-tax activist Grover Norquist under the bus. Some seem eager to do so. But the argument between Norquist and such Republican leaders, who now say they’ll break his pledge and raise taxes, also represents the latest tension between these libertarian and authoritarian strains.
Those who praise the few Republicans now willing to “compromise” on taxes and revenue are missing the point—these Republicans have been behaving like Democrats for some time. They were the quintessential Bush Republicans, tolerant of massive government intervention in domestic policy and exuberant about it in foreign policy. The kind of low tax, minimal spending, limited government Norquist advocates hasn’t actually existed or been promoted within the GOP for a very long time.
It is no coincidence that the Republicans who now break rank with Norquist—most notably Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain and Congressman Peter King—are also some of the most high profile advocates of a more authoritarian Republicanism.
The tired, old neoconservative mindset of more government, more war, and less civil liberties informs the current “changing” views on taxes and spending of these authoritarian Republicans. For example, the automatic cuts, or sequestration, set to occur January 1, are generally supported by Norquist and most libertarian-leaning Republicans. Said Sen. Graham “What I would say to Grover Norquist is that the sequester would destroy the United States military.” “Destroy” the military? Even under sequestration, Pentagon spending will remain about where it was in 2006.
This is how Democrats behave anytime Republicans dare suggest rolling back any federal department. It is also how authoritarian Republicans think about Pentagon spending—that a decrease in the rate of increase is a “cut” in spending.
And this is precisely where Norquist worries authoritarian Republicans the most. Norquist has not only been an outspoken skeptic of current foreign policy, but in his position as one of the conservative movement’s leading fiscal hawks, he has begun to tie deficits and debt to our overseas policies. The authoritarian wing of the GOP does not mind if their fellow Republicans talk about small government so long as they don’t actually go the full route by addressing Pentagon spending—an annual trillion dollar revenue siphon dwarfed only by entitlements.
Unlike Norquist, authoritarian Republicans generally agree with Obama on foreign policy. Libya is a good example, where Senators like Graham and McCain enthusiastically supported the intervention and many identifiably Tea Party Republican leaders opposed it on constitutional grounds. The authoritarian GOP wing also agrees with Obama on the necessity of undermining basic civil liberties in the name of national security, hence their unwavering support for the Patriot Act and NDAA.
So why should it be any surprise that these Republicans might now agree with Obama on taxes too? Particularly, where the discussion on taxes and revenue correlates with neoconservative desires to continue funding America’s alleged role as world policeman—potentially “destroying” the military, as Graham put it?
The message of this year’s election was not simply voters deducing that Obama is absolutely grand and the GOP is too “extreme”—but that the old Republican Party of Bush, and by extension, 2008 nominee McCain and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney—doesn’t work anymore. Americans aren’t buying it.
Though Norquist’s Taxpayer Pledge has been around for decades, as a feature of limited government, it is an example of what a traditionally conservative Republican Party should work toward—not necessarily what it has been.
This is not to say that Grover Norquist is some sort of libertarian purist, far from it. But his general views on taxes, spending, and foreign policy do represent a challenge to the authoritarian Republicans who’ve long dominated the party. This latest scuffle is simply the old guard getting irritated publicly.
Unfortunately, the authoritarian Republicans aren’t going anywhere, any time soon. But neither is their retread version of the GOP. “Compromise” or not.
Jack Hunter is the co-author of The Tea Party Goes to Washington by Sen. Rand Paul and serves as New Media Director for Senator Paul. The views presented in this essay are the author’s own and are independent of any campaign or other organization.