By James Banks
This year’s CPAC was probably as notable for the people and groups who didn’t show up, as it is for those who did. Since Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and a number of Beltway groups and think tanks were absent, the conference wasn’t necessarily a weathervane for where the conservative movement—depending how one defines it—is heading. But the event was representative of some of the rifts which might emerge during the next few years.
If this event is remembered for anything, it will probably be the controversy over the inclusion of the gay activist group GOProud, which caused a boycott by the American Family Foundation, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, and others. Generally, I’m in the camp that says this was the wrong battle to pick (especially given that the convention was broad enough to include previously banned organizations like the John Birch Society). But leaving the inefficacy of their strategy aside, it is legitimate to ask if social conservatives have cause to be uncomfortable about current trends in the conservative movement.
The answer is a definite yes. The partnership between fiscal and social conservatives goes back to the days of Ronald Reagan (and maybe not long before that, considering that Barry Goldwater was an outspoken opponent of restrictions on abortion), but the partnership has never been an equal one. Republican presidents of the past two decades have attempted to satisfy both constituencies, but while the socially conservative side of the coalition sincerely endorses free enterprise, the fiscally conservative side of the coalition only tolerates the platform planks that call for defining marriage as being between a man and a woman or banning partial birth abortion.
I acknowledge that this dichotomy is a bit problematic. Everyone knows that Jim DeMint is a social conservative dedicated to economic liberty, but he could just as easily be described as an economic libertarian devoted to social conservatism. Even so, at the heart of both convictions, the dichotomy proves more or less accurate: I’d be willing to wager that it is much easier to find a thoroughgoing supporter of economic liberty on the board of the Family Research Council than it is to find an outspoken opponent of abortion-on-demand on George W. Bush’s former council of economic advisors.
Furthermore, while there are many libertarians who are committed to pro-life policies and the Libertarian Party has nominated pro-life candidates before, it is dubious that federalism—libertarianism’s standard solution to the issue—would make much difference. Returning authority on the abortion issue to the states might be a symbolic political victory for the pro-life movement, but as a matter of practical economics, there would be very little change in the number of fetuses aborted.
Even if certain states passed rigidly anti-abortion laws, state borders are porous; back in the 1980s, in my native state of Idaho, the drinking age was 18, while the drinking age in neighboring Washington state was 21. The lines of traffic that Washington State University students created while traveling to bars in Idaho on a Friday night are still legendary. In the same way, socially conservative Idaho could outlaw abortion today, but the laws of supply and demand dictate that abortion clinics would begin to populate the Washington-Idaho border.
It should also be noted that—in spite of the claims of many federalists—governments at the state and local level are often not much more “pro-family” or “pro-life” than governments at the federal level. I know of no social policy that has proved more incipient to social degradation than no-fault divorce, condemning millions of children to grow up in single-parent homes and live lives of poverty. But this policy was—and always has been—administered at the state level. Nor are state and local laws always representative of the communities whom they regulate. It makes sense that no-fault divorce would begin in California, but seems anachronistic that the last state to resist it would be New York, which did not liberalize its divorce laws until 2010.
Finally, while fusing conservatism and libertarianism makes sense on some issues—strong families allow for less government welfare, for instance—not all positions can be fused tidily. I keep coming back to abortion because this is the issue at the very center of social conservatism, but there are also many relatively statist nations with activist governments who nonetheless take a much more conservative stance than the economically liberal United States. Germany is the axel-span of the European Union, and yet they take a stance on abortion which is essentially the same as that which was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1971.
None of this is to say that social conservatives should embrace centralization or statism. Since at least the 1960’s Warren Court and Great Society, statism has been at odds with a socially conservative agenda; but they should think twice before accepting platitudes about how their real enemy is Washington. Libertarians arguing that less government is in the interest of social conservatives might be promising much that a more economically liberal society will never deliver.