A Nice Republican Girl

As many of you know, I recently wrote a book called "What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?" I wrote it for three basic reasons: to explain the ACLU to Republicans, to explain Republicans (or…


As many of you know, I recently wrote a book called "What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?" I wrote it for three basic reasons: to explain the ACLU to Republicans, to explain Republicans (or at least my kind of Republican) to some members of the ACLU, and to explain the Bill of Rights to anyone who would listen.

As I have gone around the country doing the "author thing," I have been struck by how often people have said "I used to be a Republican, but when the Pat Robertsons and Pat Buchanans took over, I left. How can you stay in a party that has departed so dramatically from its original principles, that has become so inhospitable to both civil liberties and traditional Republican values?" My answer to that is that I was here first–that the current move to a totalitarian ideology will pass, because it will inevitably lose us elections, and the mainstream of the party will reassert control. And that, of course, brings me to the subject at hand: who is a "real" Republican?
Anyone who follows politics to any extent at all knows that there is a serious schism in the Republican party. That schism is between those of us who hold traditional Republican values, and "culture warriors" like Pat Buchanan, who will address you, I understand, next week. My kind of Republican belongs in the ACLU–the Buchanan variety emphatically does not.

Evidence of the division within Republican party ranks can be seen all around us–in debates over reproductive choice, over NAFTA, over the drug war–not to mention environmental policy, or school vouchers or Senator Istook’s continuous attempts to repeal the First Amendment. The effects of the schism are also all around us–one need only look at the so-called "gender gap" (or as one pundit recently called it, the "gender canyon").

So–What is a traditional Republican? How does he or she differ from a Buchananite? Or to put it another way, what did "Conservative" mean before the term was hijacked by the political religious extreme?

Let me offer my definition: a conservative Republican is–or should be–someone who believes in limiting the power that the state may exercise over the individual. Such a Republican supports the concept that majority rule must be subject to the restraints of the Bill of Rights; that certain rights are fundamental and should not be subject to the whim of the voters or to popular passions. Finally, such a Republican believes that rights are individual; that is, that government has the obligation to treat citizens as individuals, and not as members of groups–and that means you neither advantage or disadvantage citizens on that basis. No special rights, but no group-based disabilities, either.

What I have just described to you is a philosophy that I call "Goldwater Republicanism" or libertarian Republicanism. A number of polls have confirmed that most Republican voters are of this variety–even primary voters, who tend to be more ideological than those who vote in general elections.

Goldwater Republicans believe that government power is easily misused and thus must be carefully monitored and limited. This is not anarchy; govt is clearly a necessary mechanism through which a citizenry establishes order and provides for the common welfare. Rather, it is a recognition that concentrated power, even in the hands of the most benign and well-meaning of functionaries (perhaps especially in such hands) is a potential threat to individual freedom. If liberty is something we value, prudence requires that we limit the ability of the state to interfere with a citizen’s personal or economic choices.

True Goldwater Republicans are civil libertarians. (Barry Goldwater himself certainly is!) That’s because it is inconsistent to believe in markets for goods but not in markets for ideas. How secure is my property from interference by a government that can forbid me to associate with certain people, or read certain books? How secure are any of my rights, political or economic, against a government that can decide who gets those rights and who doesn’t? The issue is the same–the power of the state.

There is a wonderful quote from Cato’s letters –Number 15, I think–where this point is made. Cato says "the security of property and the freedom of speech always go together; and in those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call anything else his own."

Libertarian Republicans–traditional Republicans–have always understood that freedom is dangerous. In a free country, people are going to live lives I disapprove of. They are going to make choices I wouldn’t make. And some of the choices they make will be annoying, or blasphemous, or harmful. But the alternative is to allow the government to make those choices. And those of us who are traditional Republicans believe that handing over such power to government is a far more dangerous proposition.

I am not a believer in litmus tests, but if there is one consistent philosophical thread that has defined the term Republican over the past half-century or more, it is precisely this devotion to limiting the power of the state.

If that is the case, how can Pat Buchanan (or any of the current crop of theocrats, for that matter) possibly consider themselves Republican? If Barry Goldwater stands for the proposition that government doesn’t belong in my boardroom or my bedroom, Pat Buchanan stands for the proposition that government belongs in both. His policies would not only insert government into the most private decisions people make; he would also use the heavy hand of the State to interfere with trade and with economic markets. When I was growing up, people who were advocates of big government were called Democrats. If they were isolationist and nativist, we called them reactionaries. But people with such views were seldom, if ever, called Republicans.

P.J. O’Rourke is a particular favorite of mine, and he did a wonderful article about Buchanan and his political views for Rolling Stone. Let me read to you a small part of his description, because it is far better than anything I could have written.

O’Rourke writes about Buchanan: "Let me tell you a few things about the boy. In the first place, he’s a Democrat. I know Pat says he’s not, but it’s more of his malarky. He’s a Democrat of the old-fashioned, sorehead ignoramus school. He attacks corporations for laying off employees. Does Pat think the corporations should just keep the employees hanging around, making butt prints on the office copier and using their desktop Pcs to visit paramilitary Web sites? Or maybe the government should decide who gets fired. That works so well at the post office. And Pat is outraged by big corporate profits. Sure, the economy performs brilliantly without them. What does Pat think happens to profits? The money couldn’t just go right back into the economy or anything. Somebody, probably with a stein on the end of his name, must be hoarding the cash so that it can all be smeared with chocolate by National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored performance artists. Maybe the government should decide how big profits should be. That works so well at the post office too. Pat hates free trade. Now, there are few things all economists agree upon, but every half-sane economist on earth says that free trade benefits the great mass of humanity. Dumping NAFTA and GATT and pasting huge tariffs on goods from slanty-eyed places would bloat prices, destroy export industry jobs, and devastate Pat’s own blue collar constituency…..

"Pat Buchanan is a big government guy. He’s the loudest advocate for federal expansion since Hillary Clinton tossed her cookies in the health-care fiasco. And Pat not only wants government to keep doing what it is doing wrong, he wants it to do a lot of new wrong things. He wants to take solemn, indeed sacred, moral questions such as abortion and marriage and turn them into muddy political footballs. He wants to run the pigskin horde of government through intimate and confidential territories of our lives–religion, sex, culture, language. Next, no doubt, he’ll try to make all Ten Commandments into federal laws. HB 7085–Honor thy father and thy mother. "Knock Knock. FBI here. Talk to your mother like that again and its 25 years to life."

"This is not conservatism as I know it…Conservatism means faith in the individual, every individual, even if that individual has a funny name and comes from far away.

"Conservatism means belief in private property because individuals can have no substantive freedom unless they are secure in the ways and means of their lives….Conservatism means trust in religious and moral traditions because vast numbers of people have accepted those traditions voluntarily and because their acceptance has withstood the test of time. There is no place in modern, pluralistic conservatism for the legal denigration of one set of traditions and glorification of another. People have to work that out for themselves, among themselves. And there is no such thing as instant tradition–however much the Christian Coalition may want to create one. Nor can religion and morality be effectively imposed from the outside unless Buchanan thinks he’s Moses descending with tablets from the mount (and given his record of anti-semitism, I don’t think so).

"And conservatism means belief in the free market. Not because the free market is virtuous or fair–it’s not. The free market is just information. It tells us, to the penny, what people will pay for a thing. Buchanan’s tacit pleas for a soviet-style industrial policy disparage the free market. He might as well disparage arithmetic." O’Roarke has more to say, but I think you get his point.
Pat Buchanan is a populist who is playing to some of the ugliest manifestations of our fears and anxieties. He says what people want to believe: Whatever is wrong with American society, it isn’t our fault. It’s the blacks, the Jews, the gays, the education bureaucrats, the slanty-eyed foreigners, the evil big businessmen…It is a classic approach. Keep it simple and give them someone to hate. Have the government impose my version of "family values." Have the government ban books I don’t like, outlaw trade with people who can make the product cheaper or better. Make sure everyone prays to my god. Put women back in the home taking care of their kids, where they belong. Pass a law limiting corporate profits.

The problem is, once we hand over to government the power to impose our preferred moral and economic behaviors on everyone else, we’d better be very sure we remain in the majority. Because at the next election, a different group, with different ideas, might win and they might use the power we have given the state to impose their ideas. It was precisely to avoid such scenarios that the founders gave us a republic rather than a majoritarian democracy.

Ira Glasser once said, "Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind changes." Poison gas is exactly what Pat Buchanan is peddling. It sure isn’t traditional Republican values.