The Republicans and Social Conservatives: Is This Marriage Still Strong?

February 14, 2011

In my year-end fundraising letter for CFI, I expressed my concern over the results of the November elections in the United States.  I observed that the elections would likely re-energize social conservatives and we could expect a renewed effort to achieve goals dear to their hearts, such as restrictions on abortion and stem-cell research. 

Interestingly, I received about a half-dozen replies from CFI supporters who also identified themselves as supporters of the Tea Party movement.  They all criticized me for misreading the results of the elections.  They claimed the results primarily reflected a desire for fiscally responsible and limited government.  Furthermore, they maintained that not all Tea Party adherents are social conservatives. 

That last statement is undoubtedly accurate.  There is a libertarian component in the Tea Party movement.  But how strong it is remains unclear.  Moreover, it is unclear how much influence these libertarians will have on the Republican Party’s agenda, which, sadly, appears to remain rigidly aligned with the goals of social conservatives. 

Evidence of the continuing dominance of social conservatives within the Republican Party emerged this past week.  Despite all the talk about the need to focus on spending, just a few weeks into this congressional session, Republicans began pushing for various restrictions on abortion . One piece of proposed legislation removes the tax benefits from employers whose health plans provide coverage for abortion. It seems like the Republican Party’s eagerness to control women’s reproduction trumps its traditional deference to business decisions. 

In fairness, though, there was one recent development that indicated some libertarians in the Republican Party may actually be willing to break ranks with Republican Party leadership on key issues. Last week, 26 Republicans in the House, including some newly elected Tea Party supporters, joined 122 Democrats to vote against extension of the Patriot Act—temporarily delaying its reenactment. They are troubled by several of the Act’s provisions, including a provision that authorizes government access to the library and bookstore records of anyone deemed suspect. I applaud the actions of these Republicans; they have shown they understand that the call for limited government should not be reduced to a simple demand for a government that spends less. Our civil liberties should be at least as important as our purses.

But in the long run, this willingness by a few to break ranks with the House leadership, although commendable, may mean little. The overwhelming majority of Republicans appear content with the pact they made with social conservatives three decades ago. For them, fetuses and wiretaps have priority— and “limited government” merely implies that we should save a few dollars and buy our surveillance equipment from China.