The election of Barack Obama gave media pundits a new repertoire of talking points. Among these points was one claim that the Republican Party was philosophically lost in the wilderness. Surprisingly, the media’s analysis had merit. The GOP emerged from the presidential election without a clear ideological platform. Republicans no longer had a firm sense of what conservatism meant. On the one hand, right-wingers lost enthusiasm for George W. Bush’s brand of “compassionate conservatism,” seeing him out of office with an approval rating about 30 percent lower than what they ushered him in with. Yet, on the other hand, John McCain’s moderate stance was no antidote to the right’s dissatisfaction. His campaign stumbled along with reluctant support from the Conservative wing of the party and lost handily in the general election. But now, three years later, the GOP’s soul-searching may be drawing to a close. The political winds suggest a Republican Party consolidating on a once-forgotten libertarian message.
Since Obama’s election, libertarian views have entered the spotlight. The Tea Party’s theme of the Constitution, limited government and free markets is no longer scoffed at as a fringe constituency of the right. To the contrary, the 2010 midterm elections brought to Washington an influx of new representatives and senators calling themselves Tea Party candidates and the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives now numbers 62 members.
In the current presidential election cycle, the uptick in libertarian interest in the GOP is no clearer than in the party’s reception to libertarian idol Ron Paul. During the 2008 Republican primaries, Paul looked completely out of place on the debate stages. While Republicans talked about increasing our troop presence in the Middle East and upping funding for the Department of Homeland Security, Paul’s aim to bring all U.S. forces home and lower spending across the board fell on deaf ears. Some of the questions asked of him during the debates included “Are you running for the nomination of the wrong party?” and “Do you have any electability in the Republican primary?”
Four years later, Republicans have shifted in Paul’s direction, though without attribution. Mitt Romney has expressed concern over our troop presence overseas. Asked about our military involvement in Afghanistan, Romney responded, “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals.’’ Rick Perry has called the Federal Reserve a harmful institution and Ben Bernanke’s quantitative easing “treasonous.” Herman Cain has voiced support for the gold standard. He has said, “We should have never gotten off the gold standard because when we got off the gold standard, that then allowed Congress to inflate our currency whenever they overspent.”
The debate questions have included topics on the Constitution (the candidates were asked their views on the Tenth Amendment) and the role of government (candidates were asked what spending cuts to tax increases ratio they would support). In the span of some four years, Paul’s ideas, once considered quirky in the most favorable light, if not outright nuts, have framed the focus of the debates and the causes of interest to the party. While he is unlikely to ever be president (and may go down in history as the Adlai Stevenson of the right), his influence has been a catalyst for and a reflection of the libertarian surge in the GOP.
If the media were right in labeling the Republican Party circa November 2008 “lost in the wilderness,” they have been wrong to call the libertarian faction of the Republican Party a recent phenomenon. Libertarianism has much deeper historical roots in our country and the GOP than the socially conservative brand of recent years. It starts with the often invoked, but rarely understood, founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were staunch libertarians. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence firmly asserts the basic libertarian principles of individual freedom in the phrase declaring man’s right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The list of grievances against King George III in the Declaration read as complaints against his oppressive taxes, violation of civil liberties in the quartering of troops and lack of free trade in navigation — all hallmarks of libertarian objections. Madison, considered the “father of the Constitution”, was also a tried and true libertarian. If the Constitution had a theme, it is clearly one of three kinds. First, representative government, established in Article I’s creation of two legislative houses. Second, individual rights, enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Third, limited government, spelled out in Article I, Section 8’s narrow powers granted to the federal government.
The spirit of Jefferson and Madison once lived comfortably in the Republican Party. Former Ohio Senator Robert Taft, known as “Mr. Republican,” championed Jefferson’s adage of “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none” in opposing U.S. membership in NATO. He echoed the Constitution’s aim for a limited government in opposing the New Deal on the grounds that government was inefficient and New Deal programs an intrusion on individual rights. Taft was once the gold standard of the Republican Party.
Former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who was the de facto head of the Republican Party in 1964 as its candidate for President, was a bona fide libertarian. He was a strict constitutionalist. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the grounds that the public accommodation provision was unconstitutional. Underlying most of his political views was a commitment to restraining the federal government’s power over the states. Goldwater’s prominence is an indication of the once dominant libertarian ideology in the GOP.
So what are the roots of the term conservatism in American politics? The ideology of the right wing, starting with Jefferson and Madison and continuing with Taft and Goldwater, has historically been much more in the classical liberal mold. In the context of our country, conservatism quite literally wishes to “conserve” the principles of the founders. In this sense, the GOP’s turn toward libertarianism is not a new phenomenon but a return to its traditional principles. And, some of us might add, a turn for the better.