Unlike the Democrats whose history begins very early in American history, The Republican party (often called the GOP or “grand old party”) owes its origin to the anti-slavery movement of the mid-19th century. Abraham Lincoln was first Republican president, and he led the Union side of the Civil War, fighting to preserve the American union and emancipate the black slaves in the South.
Traditionally the party drew its strength from the combination of the industrial and commercial interests of the Northeast establishment and the agricultural interests of the West; but in recent years most Southern states have become “red states” (i.e. Republican) while most Northeastern states have become “blue states” (i.e. Democratic).
The contemporary character of the GOP owes its origin to the success of one of America’s most popular presidents – Ronald Reagan – in bringing together three distinct factions who are still the core of the party. It is only through an understanding of the Reagan coalition that you can understand what is happening now in the Republican primary process.
So who are these three groups?
The first are those we could call National Security Hawks. The hawks see our world as a very dangerous place. The events of 9/11 demonstrated that the US homeland is a target of radical Islamic terrorists who long to murder as many Americans as possible. Terrorism operating without any law or restraint represents perhaps the single greatest threat to the security of America and much of the rest world as attacks by radicals in Spain, Britain, Russia, India, Israel, Thailand, and Indonesia and elsewhere have demonstrated. Perhaps the greatest danger is that weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of such terrorists enabling them to murder not hundreds but hundreds of thousands of innocents. This danger is undeniably very real. The government of Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinijaad has questioned the Holocaust and threatened to deal with Israel – America’s closest ally in the Middle East – by “wiping it off the map”.
It is also supporting the terrorist insurgency in Iraq and pursuing nuclear technology for purposes which are unclear. Meanwhile this Iranian regime whose best known motto is “Death to America” is continuing its policy of supporting Islamic terrorist networks like Hamas and Hezbollah. In Pakistan you have a nuclear nation whose stability is also threatened by Islamic extremists raising another possible path through which these weapons could reach terrorist groups. The psychopathic regime of North Korea has also developed nuclear weapons and there is no guarantee that these will not be at some point be sold or transferred to dangerous groups.
Meanwhile broader long term challenges to the US are emerging such as the resurgence of Russia and the emergence of China as major political, economic and military powers. The US also has important responsibilities. Much of the world may resent American power but in times and places of threat or crisis – the ethnic conflicts in Kosovo, the threat to South Korea from North Korea or to Eastern Europe from Russia, to Taiwan from China, etc… the presence and protection of the US is welcomed as a force of stability.
In order to defend the security of its people from its enemies and to meet its international responsibilities to preserve the free world, the US must have a strong military and an efficient intelligence and law enforcement apparatus. These are the chief concerns of national security hawks.
The second major group in the Republican coalition is often called Libertarians. The essence of the libertarian philosophy was simply stated by Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman – it is based on a desire for the minimal amount of government “consistent with the maximum of freedom of each individual to follow his own ways…as long as he doesn’t interfere with anyone else who’s doing the same.”
Because Government is a mechanism that tends to restrict individual freedom, Libertarians tend to be suspicious of the role of government in society and particularly in the economy – as Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address “Government is not the solution to the problem, Government is the problem.” Libertarians are especially suspicious when people speak of government providing “free” services. In fact services are always paid for – the question is who will pay for them and who will control the decisions. Socialists often follow a model in which the government takes the fruits of labor from working people through taxes and then the government gets to control how this money will be spent on goods and services.
Libertarians prefer a model in which free individuals get to keep the majority of the fruit of their own labor, and then the individual who earned the money through his labor freely decides what goods or services to spend on. Libertarians also argue that many proposed government solutions to social ills while well intentioned often produce contrary effects. Minimum wage increases designed to help the working poor may have the effect of making the cost of hiring them too high for business thus raising the rate of unemployment. Social welfare payments continued past a certain point often have the effect of creative disincentives for people to work leading to more poverty and less productivity.
Whereas socialism tend to see the world in somewhat Marxist terms as a “class struggle” between the wealthy and the poor, libertarians tend to see the good of capital and labor as inter-dependent.
When you tax and regulate businesses excessively you don’t simply hurt businessmen and corporations; you also leave them with less money and higher labor costs. The result is that businesses are not able to hire more workers or give raises to the workers they already have. Libertarians as a rule support the concept of equality of opportunity – however they do not support the government mandating an equality of outcome. Because of differences in natural ability, complex personal and social circumstances, work ethic, and the free choices that individuals make there will be inequalities in success. The only way to avert that is through a massive interference by government in the lives of individuals which is precisely what libertarians fear most.
The third element of the Republican coalition is the religious conservatives, who have a major stronghold in the American South. Their principal concern is what they see as the moral breakdown in society reflected in the decline of “family values” beginning the 1960’s when such things as drugs, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion became widespread. The traditional family is seen by religious conservatives as essential to the well being of society since it is through the family that moral values are preserved and passed on. Two issues of special importance to religious conservatives are the defense of traditional marriage and the defense of life.
Religious conservatives understand marriage as the monogamous union of one man and one woman, and they view this as the only healthy and stable foundation for the family. Religious conservatives are also particularly opposed to abortion which they see as an attack on the sanctity of human life, and the darkest expression of a hedonistic ethic in contemporary society which values pleasure but wishes to abnegate responsibility, and sees children as a burden rather than a blessing. They look forward to a society where as President Bush put it “every child will be welcomed in life and protected in law.” While the underlying issues which concern religious conservatives are principally moral and cultural rather than political there is a political dimension. Proponents of abortion, same sex marriage, etc… do not always wish the debate on these issues to be decided democratically through the political process, but rather hope to appoint judges which can impose their will through the courts. For instance the famous (or infamous) 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision prohibited states from restricting abortion even where a majority of people in a given state and their elected representatives oppose abortion.
Religious conservatives fear that liberal activist judges appointed by a Democratic president may impose other things on an unwilling public such as same sex marriage.
To be sure the three factions in the Republican coalition do not always see eye to eye – in fact they are often at odds. Libertarians may be wary of religious conservatives who they see as trying to restrict personal liberty; religious conservatives in turn may be wary of libertarian social and economic approaches. While national security hawks may wish to expand police powers, libertarians may fear that such measures will diminish civil liberties. Both libertarians and religious conservatives may view national security hawks as militaristic and be concerned about foreign adventures.
Yet Ronald Reagan was able in the 1980’s to unite these three groups on a platform of winning the Cold War, lowering taxation and regulation, and promoting a social conservative agenda. The result was the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union in foreign policy and economic recovery at home.
The Republican party of today is looking for someone who will assume the Reagan mantle. Yet no one in this race has succeeded in unifying the party the way Reagan did. Rudolph Giuliani has strong appeal to national security hawks and libertarians. Arriving as to a city that verged on chaos he cut crime by about 50% and murders by some 70%. He was also touted throughout the nation as the hero of 9/11 for the poise with which he handled the greatest crisis of our time. He has a record of tax cutting and business boomed under his administration. However his liberal views on abortion and some other issues have alienated religious conservatives.
Though the initial frontrunner so far he has not performed well, but he is hoping to score big victories in more socially liberal states like California and New York.
John McCain is another favorite of national security hawks. He is a war hero of the Vietnam era who upon being captured was offered release by the Communists but refused to abandon his fellow prisoners of war. He is known in the Senate for his grasp of foreign affairs, and as one of the architects of the current “surge” strategy in Iraq which has so far resulted in a dramatic reduction of the violence. He is somewhat more conservative than Giuliani on social issues, and is also popular with independent voters who helped him to victory in New Hampshire. However his opposition to the Bush tax cuts has hurt him with libertarians, and he is known as a “maverick” who does not vote along party lines, resulting in a good deal of opposition even among other Republicans.
Mike Huckabee the former governor of Arkansas was also an ordained Baptist minister. As such he is a natural favorite in states like Iowa (which he won) and South Carolina which have large numbers of religious conservatives. He is trusted to be a strong opponent of abortion and a zealous defender of traditional Judeo-Christian values. However libertarians are dubious about his record as governor on controlling taxes and spending, while national security hawks doubt his knowledge and leadership on foreign policy. It is doubtful whether he can expand his support to include other factions of the party, and he is often seen as a weak candidate against Clinton or Obama.
Mitt Romney as argued by the conservative magazine National Review is probably the closest candidate to being a “full spectrum” conservative – economic, foreign policy, and social. As governor of Massachusetts he led a liberal state and impressively reformed its finances. But Romney as a member of the Mormon faith is viewed with suspicion by some of the evangelical Christians whose views he shares on social issues. Many of these turned to Huckabee in Iowa, while McCain defeated him in New Hampshire. At the moment he holds a slight lead in the polls of the next big primary state which is Michigan, but McCain is very close. Whoever wins the Tuesday Michigan primary will emerge as the Republican frontrunner – at least for now.