I have recently been writing about the problems that were inherent in the Republican party's "big tent"1. It is hardly the only party to suffer from such problems. The Democrats have a similar issue, with their combination of unions, racial pressure groups, more radical socialists and others, and moderate mainstream liberals. Even the Libertarians, though suffering a slightly different problem, suffer from their refusal to turn away any group which ostensibly embraces some sort of freedom, leading them to embrace a number of groups which are PR nightmares, as well as offer a terribly diluted platform lest they offend any of the disparate groups that make up the party2.
But the Republicans have a particularly harmful combination, much worse than that effecting other parties -- especially since the Democrats lost their conservative southern members in the 1980s -- and, thanks to historical accident, they have perhaps the most incompatible set of groups.
So, before we look at the impact this philosophical inconsistency has had on the party platform and the politicians the party elects, let us look a little more at the various elements of the party, and the history of the party, at least in terms of how it created the current "big tent".
The Republicans of the 1850s and 1860s were a different beast. They were, for the most part, the successors to the Whig party, though even that is not entirely accurate. In the period when the Republicans came into being, the Democrats were certainly the preeminent party. At the time, they were officially the party of states' rights, small government, free trade, hard money and immigration (though it was not a serious issue at the time). But things were changing. The Democrats were being torn apart, not just by questions of slavery, but also by the early expressions of Populism in the west. Thus, the Democrats began to split, with Southern Democrats largely maintaining the same philosophy, while northern and western Democrats began to embrace abolition, along with accepting some free minting of silver, inflationary, pro-tariff and other interventionist argument, though only to a limited degree. At the same time, the Whigs were largely the party of the same things, just more so. They had never been strongly pro-abolition, but otherwise, the Whigs were similar to the Republicans, pro-tariff, for centralized banking, easy money, pro-regulation, for more centralized power and anti-immigrant (again, not that it was a serious issue at the time).
The Republicans largely came into being as the party of abolition, but, as they were also the opposition party tot he Democrats, especially southern Democrats, they adopted much of the Whig and Progressive philosophy, embracing easy money, big government, tariffs and protectionism and the rest.
After the end of the Civil War, the Democrats went back to what they were before the war, becoming once again the party of small government, free trade, states rights and, an increasing issue, immigrants3. The Republicans were the party that opposed immigrants and Catholics, fought for easy money and big government, and, as time went on, also came to be associated with prohibition, the temperance movement and other efforts to use government to enforce specific moral rules upon the public. It was this group that was to form the earliest of Republican factions, as it would persist throughout the party's existence, forming the group that would eventually become the nationalist, protectionist, sometimes nativist or even racist, group we call "paleocons". (As well as the "Rockefeller Republicans", who differ in a few traits.)
In the 1890s4, the Democrats saw their party taken over by the Populists. It was not sudden, it had been coming since the time of the Civil War. western state Democrat parties tended to be "farmers and workers" parties only nominally associated with the national party, and they were mostly favorably disposed to the rising tide of Populism. By 1890, the weight of population had finally given them the edge they needed and the Democrats changed. It was not a total victory, or instant. Grover Cleveland managed to hold old hard currency, small government beliefs and yet get elected twice, but between 1890 and 1912 the transformation took place and the party of Jefferson, Madison, Jackson and Cleveland was turned into the party of Wilson and FDR. The few remaining small government federalists disappeared into small third parties, or remained voiceless members of the Democrats and Republicans.
The same period saw the Republicans touched by a similar crusading spirit. The reform Republicans sought to fix the supposed problems of the free market, giving us institutions such as the FDA and laws such as the Antitrust Act. (It is no coincidence the Antitrust Act and Free Silver Purchase Act are both attributed tot he same man.) This crusading spirit formed the second group within the Republicans, as some paleocons remained immune to this spirit, and became the "country club Republicans"/"Rockefeller Republicans" often denounced in the 1970s, while others were imbued with a fear of banks and big business, as well as a weakly felt love of unions, traits which are part and parcel of many modern mainstream paleocons.
As the century wore on, the Republicans sides with the Prohibitionist movement, partly out of fellow feeling, but also partly because so many issues they both supported made common cause beneficial. For example, the German immigrants in many cities also tended to support private schools, beer halls and hard currency. Thus, the soft money, anti-immigrant Republicans who also endorsed secular schools (mostly out of anti-Catholic feeling) found it easy to make common cause with Prohibitionists5. And thus, over time, the two parties effectively merged, giving us the second large Republican faction, the social conservatives, those who favor using the state -- to varying degrees -- to enforce a specific set of moral rules.
Sometime during the 1930s and 1940s, opposition to the Roosevelt administration began to bring the old constitutionalists into the party. They were not terribly prominent at first, as can be seen by the still largely paleocon philosophies of the 1950s. (Eg Eisenhower's periodic rants against big business.) Only with the rise of Goldwater and even more Reagan, did the final large group come into being in the form of the so-called economic conservatives, who also were largely federalist and small government, as well as free market. (Yes, this is the group in which I see myself, or did until I left the party this year.) They had varying fortunes, as we can see from the largely social conservative presidential campaign of Huckabee or the influence of the paleocon voice of Buchanan, and, more recently, the paleocon/nationalist support for Trump. But, at least for a time, say from 1980 until the failure of many of the measures in the Contract with America, they definitely held, if not the majority of membership, at least the lion's share of the power.
It would be a mistake to see these three groups as either all-inclusive, or even completely distinct. There were a few other small factions, such as single issue voters -- largely pro-life though there were also groups like the intermittently influential "defense conservatives" who, following the post-Vietnam period of Democratic abandonment of responsibility for defense, turned to the Republicans based on the single issue of defense -- there were also the former southern Democrats who often seemed a segment unto themselves. And, even just considering the largest three factions, it is still hard to define their boundaries with precision, as many members drifted from one to the other, or even fit within two or more simultaneously (even if it sometimes meant radically inconsistent beliefs).
So, why did I offer up all this history? What is the point?
As I have argued before, this inconsistent, incompatible blend of ideas is of significance because it helps us to understand much about the Republican party, especially, in recent times, why so many are disappointed with the party and why Republicans, far more than Democrats6, are prone to questioning the loyalty of their fellow party members, explaining the prevalence of charges of being a RINO.
Just look at the platforms the Republicans have run on, or the criticism leveled at candidates and office holders. Or, better yet, imagine a few situations for yourself. A bill comes up liberalizing trade with foreign nations. If you support it, the federalists will love you, but paleocons will call you a RINO. A proposition is made to restrict pornography on the internet. If you pass it, the social conservatives will love you, and maybe the paleocons, but the federalists will call you a RINO. And the list goes on and on. Immigration, trade, the size and scope of government, the role of government, and so on. The various components of the party cannot agree on any of these issues. And so, no matter what you do, some branch of the party will claim you are not a "real conservative."
Given this, is it any wonder many politicians in the Republican party simply give up on principles? Some, I grant you, pick one philosophy, and stand by it with honor and consistency, but they suffer for it, being repeatedly attacked by not just the opposition, by considerable numbers of their own party. Which is why, for many, it is simply easier to give up, adopt whichever policy is more expedient, to worry most about one's own interests, since the party will vilify you anyway.
Nor is it just limited to politicians. For every segment of the party, they find themselves feeling they need to apologize for the others. When all three (and more) claim to be conservative, those outside the movement are often confused and imagine what one conservative says is true of the entire philosophy. And thus each segment finds itself being ascribed beliefs it would never endorse, suffering bad press from ideas alien to them.
And it is not just superficial differences. On the left, there is, in general, more agreement, especially since they lost the southern Democrats in the 1980s. For the most part, on a considerable number topics, their disputes are not about significant issues, but rather on how radical they wish to be, how quickly to proceed and what measures to take or avoid7. On the other hand, on the right, we have disagreement about fundamental questions. What is the proper role of government? What is the purpose of laws? What is our position on trade? On currency? We have disagreement on nearly every fundamental political question. And yet somehow claim to be not just a single party, but a single philosophy.
Which is why I wrote before8 that this coming split, brought about by Trump's presidential campaign, may be a blessing in disguise. Yes, it will split the right into two, three or even more factions, leaving us numerically inferior to the Democrats. And it will certainly lose 2016. But, on the other hand, it will finally allow each faction to present itself honestly, to find candidates who are committed, and to reward them for that commitment. And, at last, allow the voters to indicate which beliefs matter to them.
Nor does the split mean we will forever be at the mercy of the left. With a more coherent message, we will be the often praise voice not an echo. We will each seem coherent while the Democrats will now sound muddled and vacillating. I don't think the new parties of the right will steal dedicated Democrats, but they might steal way some of the borderline cases. And will have a better shot with independents.
Nor is there any reason these new parties cannot cooperate when they have a common interest. Or even when they can negotiate to serve one another's interests without harming their own. And, over time, with the new parties being so much more clear in their visions, it is likely new voters will be attracted in greater numbers, allowing the new parties, with time, to become once more viable political forces.
I know, it is not a very cheery picture in the short run, but we made a mistake and need to fix it. We need parties with clear messages. But we failed to do so, we embraced the big tent and we must now pay the price. Fixing it will not be fun, will not be without cost, but we cannot put it off forever. It is time we behaved like adults, accepted that we must pay for an error and accept the costs. And then we can begin the important business of rebuilding whichever of these new parties seems our best representative.
1. See "What Does Not Kill You...", "The Problem With the Big Tent", "Most Absurd Debate Since ... " and "Nice to Get Confirmation".
2. I have written on various web sites that the Libertarians, because they accept so many outre groups, give the appearance of being childish and not taking their own beliefs seriously. They also have serious politico-philosophical issues. Since people can claim to be "for freedom" yet embrace some pretty disparate ideals, they have everything from traditional small government, limited government free market libertarians to communo-anarchists, from the most absurdist of drug legalization protesters (and say that while favoring drug decriminalization -- see "The Problem of Established Perspectives", "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est", "Importing Drugs", "Guns and Drugs", "Nonsensical Regulation" and "The Free Market Solution") to "the libertarian left" and its hodgepodge beliefs. In short, they are desperately in need of a consistent set of beliefs (as well as a less adversarial view of government). See "The Libertarian Left", "Revelation From Bottom Feeding", "Liquid Ice? Female Father? That's Nothing!", "Culture and Government", "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", "Some Libertarian Analogies", "Copyright as Politics", "The State of Nature and Man's Rights", "Societal Evolution", "The Benefit of Society", "A Beast's Life", "Learning From Crows", "Knights and Bandits", "The All or Nothing Mistake", "Of Ants and Men", "A Little Bit of Irony" and "Intellect and Politics". Of course, even then, I would still have objections to their overall approach ("Why I am not a Libertarian"), but if they were to behave a bit more like adults and espouse a single philosophy, others might be willing to listen to them who presently will not.
3. It is a historical oddity that the KKK was made up largely of Democrats. Their anti-immigration philosophy, as well as their ideas of enforcing morality through force, fit much better with the Republican and Prohibition parties. But, since they were predominantly southern, and the south was almost universally Democrat, it was inevitable they would be Democrats, and thus they expressed a set of beliefs very inconsistent with the beliefs of their party. (Similarly, the Democrats, for a long time the party so tolerant of immigration, also became associated with segregation, another set of fairly inconsistent beliefs brought about by geographic and historical coincidence.)
4. See "A Passing Thought", "Four Elections" and "The Best Historical Example".
5. The Prohibition Party itself remains in existence to this day, and opposed Republicans many times, running its own candidates in every election. On the other hand, many pro-prohibition individuals drifted from the Prohibition Party to the Republicans as it became clear that the Prohibition Party lacked any real political power, especially following the repeal of Prohibition.
6. At one time this was purely the province of the radical left. They were given to Soviet-style purity checks and group questioning of one's orthodoxy. The right, at one time, made fun of such behaviors, seeing them as un-American and dangerous. Unfortunately, those days are long gone, and the Right is, if anything, even more prone than the left to criticize a fellow conservative by claiming his beliefs are insufficiently orthodox.
7. This is a bit over simplified, as the left does have some very real disputes on issues, but there are, much more often than on the right, large areas of agreement between most or all of their internal factions.
8. See "What Does Not Kill You...".
For those interested in more on paleocons (especially in terms of protectionism), see "Many Types of Conservatives", "Beware Populist Deception", "Protectionism Right and Left", "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, and More Jobs", "Fear of Trade", "Free Trade, Employment, Outsourcing, and Protectionism", "Another Look at Exploitation", "Computer Games, Immigration and Protectionism", "Cheap Lighters, Overseas Dumping and Monopolies", "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc", "Unfair Advantage and Foreign Trade", "The Problem of Established Perspectives", "Two Sided Processes and Claims of "Unfair" Outcomes","Fear of the 'Big'". and "Against the Neo-Luddites and Anti-Automation Rhetoric". On social conservatives "The Virtue of Novelty and the Value of Tradition" ,"The Trap of Tradition" ,"Culture and Government", "In Defense of Standards" , "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"" , "O Tempora! O Mores!, or, The High Cost of Supposed Freedom" , "The Problem of Established Perspectives" , "A Bit of Clarification" , "Our Unique Age, A Tempting Falsehood" , "Inversion of Traditional Values", "Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism" and "In Praise of Slow Changes". For economic conservatives and federalism (which I obviously favor), see "Free Market and Federalist Confusion", "The Case for Small Government", "Myths and Realities of Strict Construction", "Hugging You to Death", "Competition", "The Basics", "The Benefits of Federalism", "Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism", "Power and Disorder", "Redundancy as a Protective Measure", "Adaptability and Government", "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy", "Why Freedom is Essential", "The Free Market Solution", "How To Blame The Free Market", "In Praise of Contracts", "Contracts and Freedom", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government" and "Negative and Positive Rights". For a more complete history I suggest "A Timeline Part One" and "A Timeline Part Two", "A Timeline Part Three", as well as "The Political Spectrum", "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age", "Four Elections", "A Passing Thought", "The Best Historical Example", "Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset", "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution" and "Rethinking the Scopes Trial"