Friday, February 3, 2012

A Growing Rift in the Republican Party

Here's the opening to Ben Shapiro's recent column for
In 1831, Henry Clay formed a new political party. He called it the Whig Party. His goal was to ensure Jeffersonian democracy and fight President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat. Over the course of the next 20 years, the Whig Party achieved several presidential victories. But as slavery assumed more and more national importance in the political debate, the Whig Party began to shatter.
As Shapiro goes on to explain, the Whig Party was gone by 1860.[1] The anti-slavery members in the North left to form their own party, and the pro-slavery members in the South left to form their own country. And now, seven score and twelve years later, Shapiro wonders if the unrecognizable modern-day descendant of that upstart Northern party is in the early stages of a Whig-like demise:
The center of the Republican Party cannot hold. With Mitt Romney's victory in the Florida primary, it's clear that large swaths of the Republican establishment have rejected the Tea Party; it's similarly clear that the Tea Party has largely rejected Romney and his backers. . . . On what basis will the party unite? On fiscal responsibility? Romney and his cohorts have said nothing about serious entitlement reform; the Tea Party, meanwhile, calls for it daily. On taxation? Romney has a 59-point plan that smacks of class warfare; the Tea Party wants broad tax cuts across the board. On health care? Romney and much of the establishment aren't against the individual mandate in principle; the Tea Party despises the individual mandate as a violation of Constitutionally-guaranteed liberties. On foreign policy? Paleoconservatives want a Ron Paul-like isolationism; neoconservatives want a George W. Bush-like interventionism; realists want something in between.

There is the very real potential for the Republican Party to spin apart in the near future. It could easily become a set of regional parties knit together by opposition to extreme liberalism. Chris Christie and his followers don't have all that much in common with Rick Perry and his followers. Never has that chasm been so obvious.
To recap, we have four issues identified as signs of the growing rift within the Republican Party:
  • Entitlement reform. Tea Partiers won't shut up about it; Romney doesn't like to bring it up.[2]
  • Taxes. Tea Partiers favor "broad tax cuts across the board"; Romney has a convoluted plan including a number of prongs which, considered together, bear a vague resemblance to something that might, if you squint and the lighting is just right, be described as broad tax cuts across the board.
  • Healthcare. Tea Partiers are staunchly opposed to the individual mandate at the federal level; Romney claims to be staunchly opposed to the individual mandate at the federal level.
  • Foreign policy. Nobody can agree on anything.
I'm reminded of the debate from Futurama ("I say your three cent titanium tax goes too far!" "And I say your three cent titanium tax doesn't go too far enough!"). I mean, yeah, Romney's moderate in virtually every sense of the word, and I totally understand why so many Republicans are indifferent—if not outwardly hostile—toward his inevitable nomination. But let's not lose our minds here. Mitt Romney is not the harbinger of an ideological split in the Republican Party. He doesn't even have an ideology.

But, much like a wildly off-target golf shot that rolls to a stop ten feet from the cup on an adjacent hole, Shapiro is at least wrong in a strangely accurate way. I doubt anything can save his central comparison—slavery demanded a level of humanitarian concern and moral outrage unmatched by any contemporary issue, with the possible exception of slavery—but if we're going to insist on trying to find the closest parallel, I think we can come up with a few injustices more appalling than high taxes and mandatory health insurance. How about:
  • Denial of same-sex marriage rights
  • The War on Drugs
  • Mandatory minimum sentences
  • Torture and indefinite detention
  • Capital punishment
  • Restrictions on access to abortion and contraception
To name a few. Obviously, I'm talking about issues where libertarians diverge from conservatives—and the Republican Party in general. And yet, so many libertarians are nonetheless content to support a party that only sometimes aligns with their core values.[3] I don't have any great insight into whether that uneasy coalition is about to fall apart, but why shouldn't it? The discord Shapiro's talking about—the manufactured panic over Romney—is little more than petty squabbling among conservatives about the ideal volume at which to be conservative. Meanwhile, they're continuing to ignore and alienate an entire bloc of voters who disagree with them in actual, substantive ways, and who probably should've left the Republican Party a long time ago.

1. Would it surprise you to learn that the Whig Party has been revived? Me neither. And I more than welcome this development, if only because it carries with it the possibility—however remote—of "Whiggery" re-entering the lexicon.
2. At least, that's what Shapiro says. Skeptical, I went to Romney's website, and I can see how he missed it—you have to go all the way to page 142 of "Believe in America: Mitt Romney's Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth" to find the section on entitlement reform. Shapiro must've given up somewhere around the chapter on "Human Capital Policy", which sounds a lot like a phrase a computer would produce in a valiant—but ultimately unsuccessful—attempt to pass the Turing test.
3. I'm sure this goes without saying, but, of course, all libertarians have exactly the same set of beliefs and priorities, and thus it's perfectly appropriate to broadly characterize them as one single-minded entity.


  1. Which begs the question: Could Mitt Romney pass the Turing test? I know Gingrich and Paul could, because a computer couldn't make that shit up. Also, if we later found out Romney was a robot, wouldn't that make you more likely to vote for him?

  2. Great post. You've done a great job of mapping out the rifts in the GOP. And yes, I was surprised to learn that the Whig party is back.

  3. @Jeff: Thanks!

    @Unknown: Excellent points. It really is hard to watch Romney without wondering. I mean, of course he's not a robot (or an alien!), because that's insane—but if there was a robot running for office disguised as a human, this is pretty much how it would go, right?

  4. The reality facing the "Libertarian" bloc within the Republican party is that, without the other factions in the party, they wouldn't poll out of single digits.

    The only thing holding that broader coalition together, the thing that, in the end, always comes through, is simple, pure, and unvarnished hatred. Hatred of a caricature of Democrats (wrongly believed to be the real thing), hatred of a caricature of liberals (wrongly believed to be the real thing), hatred of Obama (same notation), and so on.

    Beyond this sort of raging hatred, the Republican party hasn't had an actual, real-world agenda, as a party, for years. Lower taxes, the single item with which it most strongly identifies, isn't a real issues in a nation in which Americans pay the lowest taxes they have in 62 years. The parites' "agenda," at present, is that Barack Obama--in the real world, a pretty conservative figure who, only a few years ago, would have fit right into the Republican mainstream--is an anti-American Kenyan Muslim socialist who wants to institute a government takeover of the economy, enact government "death panels" to kill old people, and tax the public into oblivion. None of this has nay basis in reality; he gets that last accusation in the face of having cut taxes for everyone making it. Not once, but twice. There is, as I said, no connection to reality--it's all just mindless hatred.