Weisberg: The GOP's New Cowboy Conservatism


One way to understand the divisions in the Republican Party is as a clash of regional philosophies. Northeastern conservatism is moderate, accepts the modern welfare state, and dislikes mixing religion with politics. Western conservatism is hawkish, hates government, and embraces individual freedom. Southern conservatism is populist, draws on evangelical Christianity, and often plays upon racial resentments. The big drama of the GOP over the past several decades has been the Eastern view giving way to the Southern one. To see this transformation in a single family, witness the shift from George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush.

Yet since the second Bush left the White House, something different appears to be happening in Republican-land: a shift away from Southern-style conservatism to more of a Western variety. You see this in the figures who have dominated the GOP since Barack Obama's election: Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rand Paul. You see it in the right's overarching theme: opposition to any expanded role for government in promoting economic recovery, extending health-care coverage, or regulating financial markets. You see it most strongly in the Tea Party movement, which has captured the GOP's imagination and driven its agenda.

On many issues, such as guns, taxes, and immigration, Southern and Western conservatives come out in the same place. They get there, however, in different ways. The fundamental distinction is between a politics based on social and cultural issues, and one based on economics. Southern conservatism cares about government's moral stance but doesn't mind when it spends freely on behalf of its constituents. Western conservatism, by contrast, is soft--libertarian and wants government out of people's way. Southern Republicans are guided by the Bible. Western Republicans read the Constitution. Seen in historical terms, it's the difference between a movement descended from George Wallace and one that looks back to Barry Goldwater.

The GOP's new Western tone harks back to Goldwater's disastrous but transformational presidential campaign of 1964. Goldwater didn't care about religion—he was a Jewish Episcopalian who once said that Jerry Falwell deserved a kick in the nuts. He wasn't focused on racial politics; there weren't many black people in Arizona then. What mattered to him was limiting government and preserving liberty. To Goldwater, political freedom was inseparable from economic freedom, a view distilled in his most famous phrase: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."

Tea Party darling Rand Paul's objection to the 1964 Civil Rights Act is Goldwater's, not George Wallace's. Wallace and his followers resisted civil rights because they wanted to maintain racial segregation. Goldwater favored integration, but thought the civil-rights bill infringed on private-property rights and free association. In a similar way, the Palin-Beck opposition to universal health insurance is based on their intrinsic dislike of activist government, rather than on a Southern-strategy argument that it helps poor blacks at the expense of working-class whites. Many reporters have gone to Tea Party rallies looking for expressions of bigotry. What they tend to find instead is a constitutional fundamentalism that argues Washington has no right to tell individuals or states what to do.

The new Western conservatism, though, is not simply a reincarnation of the Goldwater version. Lacking anticommunism as an organizing principle, it has been forced to invent a demon, depicting Obama's centrist liberalism as socialism with an American face. Where the old Western conservatives had serious thinkers lurking in the background, the new wave is more authentically anti-intellectual. At the same time, Western conservatism has become more inclusive. The embodiment of its frontier spirit and commitment to exploiting natural resources is now a woman who proclaims, "There's plenty of room for all Alaska's animals—right next to the mashed potatoes."

Palin and Beck are terrific entertainers and the Tea Party is a great show, all of which has made the conservative movement fun to watch lately. But cowboy-style constitutional fundamentalism is unlikely to prove a winning philosophy for Republicans beyond 2010. For that, they need a conservatism that hasn't been in evidence lately—a version that's not Western, Southern, or Eastern, but instead tolerant, moderate, and mainstream.