Grover Norquist Draws the Line
There have always been libertarian and authoritarian strains within the Republican Party. Both are very different, often to the degree of incompatibility.
Generally speaking, the libertarian strain is what generations have always thought of as traditional American conservatism—limited government, individual liberty, free markets, strong national defense, and loyalty to the Constitution. However imperfect, this is the conservatism of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. When Reagan told Mike Wallace in 1976 “I think that the heart of my philosophy is much more libertarian,” he thought it important to make this distinction.
The authoritarian strain is what many thought of as conservatism throughout the 2000s: Bigger government (expanding entitlements), attacks on individual liberty (indefinite detention, warrantless wiretapping), state intervention in the economy (stimulus, bailouts, TARP), and an aggressive national defense (Iraq War, a decade in Afghanistan). This is the conservatism of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Strangely enough, it is also generally the “conservatism” of Barack Obama, in that most of the more authoritarian policies described here have been continued or expanded by Bush’s successor.
This week, there were dozens of headlines and stories speculating that Republicans were suddenly throwing longtime anti-tax activist Grover Norquist under the bus. Some seem eager to do so. But the argument between Norquist and such Republican leaders, who now say they’ll break his pledge and raise taxes, also represents the latest tension between these libertarian and authoritarian strains.
Those who praise the few Republicans now willing to “compromise” on taxes and revenue are missing the point—these Republicans have been behaving like Democrats for some time. They were the quintessential Bush Republicans, tolerant of massive government intervention in domestic policy and exuberant about it in foreign policy. The kind of low tax, minimal spending, limited government Norquist advocates hasn’t actually existed or been promoted within the GOP for a very long time.
It is no coincidence that the Republicans who now break rank with Norquist—most notably Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain and Congressman Peter King—are also some of the most high profile advocates of a more authoritarian Republicanism.
The tired, old neoconservative mindset of more government, more war, and less civil liberties informs the current “changing” views on taxes and spending of these authoritarian Republicans. For example, the automatic cuts, or sequestration, set to occur January 1, are generally supported by Norquist and most libertarian-leaning Republicans. Said Sen. Graham “What I would say to Grover Norquist is that the sequester would destroy the United States military.” “Destroy” the military? Even under sequestration, Pentagon spending will remain about where it was in 2006.