Western conservatives and Southern conservatives battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

The thinking behind the news.
May 29 2010 7:02 AM

Showdown at the GOP Corral

Western conservatives and Southern conservatives battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

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 plays upon racial resentments. The big drama of the GOP over the past several decades has been the Northeastern 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 Republicanland: 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 19 months ago: 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, whether in promoting economic recovery, extending health care coverage, or regulating financial markets. You see it most strongly in the Tea Party movement that in recent months has captured the party's imagination and driven its agenda.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

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On many issues, such as guns, taxes, and immigration, Southern and Western conservatives come out in the same place. They get there, however, by different means. The fundamental distinction is between a politics based on social and cultural issues and one based on economics. Southern conservatives care about government's moral stance but don't mind when it spends freely on behalf of their constituents. Western conservatives, by contrast, are soft-libertarians who want government out of people's way on principle. 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 harks back to Barry Goldwater.

The GOP's Western tone of recent months summons the ghosts of 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 aren't many black people in Arizona. 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." To call this politics Western is a matter of its Bonanzastyle as well as its anti-statist substance. Goldwater boasted a Navajo tattoo and liked flying planes, shooting guns, and playing the tables in Las Vegas. Western conservatism succeeded on a national scale when Ronald Reagan kept the cowboy look while easing up on Goldwater's honorable, self-defeating consistency.

Tea Party darling Rand Paul's objection to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is clearly Goldwater's, not Wallace's. Wallace and his followers resisted civil rights because they wanted to maintain segregation. Goldwater favored integration but thought the civil rights bill infringed upon 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 federal benefits will help poor blacks and not working-class whites. Many reporters have gone to Tea Party rallies looking for expressions of bigotry. What they have tended to find instead is a constitutional fundamentalism that argues that Washington has no right to tell individuals or states what to do.

This shift is partly the result of the political limitations of Southern conservatism and partly a response to Barack Obama's style of liberalism. A GOP dominated by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed was increasingly noxious to potential supporters who happened to be secular, Jewish, Mormon, or gay, or who accepted evolution. Obama has also helped steer the GOP by denying the evangelicals fuel for their bonfires. He has done this by avoiding, and in some cases preemptively surrendering on, the issues that animate Southern conservatives—God, guns, and gays (his belated push to drop "don't ask, don't tell" notwithstanding).

The new Western conservatism is not simply a reincarnation of the old Goldwater version. Lacking anti-communism as an organizing principle, it has been forced to invent a collectivistic demon, depicting Obama's centrist liberalism as socialism with an American face. Where the old Western conservatives had serious thinkers lurking in the background—Harry Jaffa, the Straussian political philosopher, wrote Goldwater's famous convention speech—the new wave is authentically anti-intellectual. At the same time, Western conservatism has become more inclusive. The embodiment of its frontier spirit 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 or Southern, but instead tolerant, moderate, and mainstream.

A version of this article also appears in this week's issue of Newsweek. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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