The GOP might be described as a three-legged stool comprising fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and neoconservatives. There are other “legs,” or strains of modern conservatism, but these three constitute the principle ones and, of them, only fiscal conservatives could traditionally claim to represent the so-called Republican establishment.
And just who hails from this establishment? Think of East Coast corporate cardinals, the sort in Brooks Brothers suits inhabiting the corner offices on Mad Men. The Don Draper-like businessman long-epitomized with some justification the archetypical Republican to whom the party most catered and who set the GOP’s course. While hardly progressive, the moderate republican helped forge a bipartisan consensus that prevailed for several election cycles during the twentieth century.
As Geoffrey Kabaservice writes in The New Republic, the old guard could put its finger on the scales and send rivals from other conservative factions packing. So it was that Wendell Wilkie won the Republican nomination in 1940, not Ohio Senator Robert Taft; Thomas Dewey prevailed in 1944 and 1948; and that exemplar of reasoned moderation, Dwight Eisenhower, carried the party’s banner to victory in 1952. Then things changed. “With the movement of industrial and financial power away from the Northeast,” Kabaservice observes, “the East Coast kingmakers’ standing within the party deteriorated by the early 1960s—evidenced most notably by conservative activists’ ability to seize the nomination, to the moderates’ horror, for Goldwater in 1964.”
The Arizona Senator’s triumph signaled a reordering of the power in the GOP, even though Goldwater was crushed in the general election. Establishment conservatives no longer ran the show single-handedly. While the insiders’ man won successive GOP nominations, insurgent social conservatives had staked their claim. Attention had to be paid.
And it was. Successive establishment Republicans seeking the party’s nomination were increasingly required to cater to their right-wing competitors, principally social conservatives, especially after the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson engineered legions of reactionary evangelicals to reenter the political fray. (The marginalized neocons time wouldn’t come until much later during the presidency of George W. Bush). Mostly, though, it was an unhappy arrangement for the religious right.
Social conservatives received little from GOP presidents who had promised to champion their causes on the campaign trail. Even Ronald Reagan, a veritable patron saint of all conservatives, ultimately disappointed many Bible thumpers. Writing in the New York Times, Neil J. Young points out that Reagan’s enthusiasm for school prayer, rolling back abortion rights, and other crusades near and dear to the religious right waned once he assumed office. Young quotes one Reagan staffer: “We want to keep the [Falwell’s] Moral Majority types so close to us they can’t move their arms.”
However cynical, this pattern by the anointed leaders of the GOP establishment made sense, since the religious right’s agenda is anathema to most Americans and therefore would be political suicide were it ever deployed as a governing philosophy. Savvy social conservatives recognized as much and begrudgingly settled for crumbs here and there, knowing that they couldn’t expect more.
All this may no longer hold. The current election cycle, perhaps one of the most bizarre and unpredictable GOP nomination contests ever, has upended convention. What journalist Ronald Brownstein calls the GOP’s “managerial wing” may constitute less than half the party now, leaving it vulnerable to rebranded social conservatives.
Research by David Campbell and Robert Putnam, two political scientists, found that holding socially conservative views before the rise of the Tea Party largely predict identification with the movement. “Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics…The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.”
Ironically, while the anyone-but-Mitt rebellion by social conservatives in Tea Party clothing has created a chaotic primary season, it’s largely a sideshow, as the rightward shift of the GOP has blurred the traditional distinctions between conservative factions. Fiscal and social conservatives alike support the same corporatist policies that would rollback government regulations and high-end marginal tax rates, along with social services and programs that disproportionately benefit the poor. The only meaningful difference may be on foreign policy, where the party splits between traditional realists and neoconservatives and, to a lesser degree, on “culture war” issues.
The GOP, then, may be nominally compromised of various types of conservatives, but what matters is that it’s still a stool, a sample of which we’re getting with whomever the party nominates for president.