by Craig White
Previously by Craig White: Replies to Neoconservative Objections
In the May 6 debate among Republican candidates in South Carolina, the moderator got a good laugh when he put the following question to Ron Paul:
"Congressman Paul, you say that the federal government should stay out of people's personal habits. You say marijuana, cocaine, even heroin, should be legal if states want to permit it. You feel the same about prostitution and gay marriage. Question, sir: why should social conservatives in South Carolina vote for you for President?"
Before looking at Paul's answer, let's consider where social conservatives stand in their political battle. Most, but not all, are political conservatives as well (although that term may be difficult to define). Since the consciences of evangelical Christians were touched by legalized abortion in the 1970s, in national politics, the politically conservative majority of social conservatives have had one big target, one political fortress they have stormed every four years: the presidency. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but every four years they take up weapons and armor and go into battle. The war plan since the late 1970s has been: elect a conservative Republican president, who will nominate conservative justices to the Supreme Court. Seeing that Roe v. Wade is unconstitutional, the eventual conservative majority on the Court will someday overturn Roe v. Wade. Win at the top, and force the rest of the country to go along. At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, many social conservatives have hoped for what Ronald Reagan called for: a smaller federal government with less of a role in American life.
Let's be frank: while there have been some social conservative successes in changing people's minds (more Americans now call themselves "pro-life," for example), and some little political victories here and there, overall, the political strategy is just not working. From abortion to gay marriage to federalism, it has been a long, slow, rolling defeat for social conservatives. The justices nominated by Republican presidents have been the greatest disappointment. Very few of these have shown any sign of wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade. Even if they had, judging by the last three decades, the American people as a whole are not really interested in leaving a Republican in the White House for long enough for the strategy to work. At the rate we are going, 200 years from now there will not be a "conservative" majority on the Court on abortion or other social issues — and if there were at some point, there would be a new "liberal" majority soon after, which would reverse it.
The old conservative slogan of getting the government (meaning for most the federal government) off people's backs wasn't even put into action by Ronald Reagan: the government grew during his eight years. The idea was quietly abandoned by the first George Bush, Reagan's heir, who made it clear that to him, more freedom and less government was not "kind and gentle." The second George Bush even made "big government conservatism" a thinkable slogan rather than an oxymoron.
After some 35 years of social conservative support for the Republican Party on the federal level, we have a gigantic government, with an enormous military and immense entitlement programs. That government is so deep in debt that our national fiscal credibility was recently questioned even by official rating agencies. (The debt crisis "fix" has done nothing about that problem.) Our government shows no sign of reversing Roe v. Wade on abortion or holding the line on traditional marriage. Our currency is incredibly debased. For over 20 years it has been impossible for poor or middle class people to actually save money, since the interest rate offered doesn't even keep up with official inflation (and we continue to be taxed on interest, as if it were "income" rather than an attempt to keep up with government-produced shrinkage of the underlying currency in our bank accounts and our pockets). Since the 1970s, real wages have not risen. Manipulated low interest rates led to the now-burst bubble in the only realistic hope for middle class people to stay even with inflation, their housing. The economy and the tax system appear to be rigged in favor of hedge fund managers and big bank CEOs, who, when crisis strikes, get rescued and bonused-up while the middle class gets foreclosed. In short, from a social or traditional conservative point of view, the last few decades have been a scarcely-mitigated disaster.
Yet can someone like Ron Paul really hope for support from social conservatives? After all, social conservatives have a reputation for favoring the kind of approach Michelle Bachman signed up for recently in Iowa with "The Marriage Vow." The basic idea in that pledge is to defend Christian values and encourage Christian virtues through legislation, or constitutional amendments, that will cover the entire United States. To put it another way, they want to increase the power of the Federal government, while Ron Paul wants to slash it. The moderator in that debate got a good laugh because his question resonated. Social conservatives, at least since the late 1970s, are known for approaching the political battlefield the way Wellington approached Napoleon at Waterloo: with the declared intention of decisively defeating their enemies and sending them into exile.
Paul responded to the question about marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc. with an answer that is unusual on the American political scene, but one based in the very earliest American approach to politics: it's about liberty. "They will [support me] if they understand my defense of liberty is the defense of their right to practice their religion and say their prayers where they want and practice their life." We have to "protect liberty across the board," without "inconsistency." "If not, you're going to end up with government that's going to tell us what we can eat, and drink, and whatever." To this, he added another note that ought to appeal to social conservatives: an appeal to personal responsibility. "How many people here would use heroin if it was legal? I'll bet nobody would put their hand up. u2018Oh yeah, I need the government to take care of me. I don't want to use heroin, so I need these laws.'"
In his short, time-pressured answer, Paul also hinted at but did not express what is really the heart of his approach to politics in the United States. That approach might appeal to social conservatives if they would really consider it. First, responding to the words "federal government" in the question, he used the phrase, "if I leave it to the states, it's going to be up to the states." Packed into this handful of words is the fact that Ron Paul is a consistent constitutionalist. Here is where Paul is unique: unlike some maverick who grumbles like Ross Perot that we are "off track" somehow, Paul is both a seasoned politician and a consistent thinker and writer with a track record that goes back decades. When he argues that we should go back to the Constitution, he has thought that through even into the details, he means it, and he will talk about it, third rails and all.
In effect, Paul offers a deeply divided electorate a startling compromise: a return to the U.S. Constitution. That compromise could win votes of social conservatives and liberals alike, if he can persuade them that the federal government cannot afford most of what it is doing, and that returning to the Constitution would both save the country from drowning in debt, and leave each state free to make its own choices on most issues. That was, after all, the public aim of the Founders.
The original aim of the writers of the Constitution, written into the document itself, was an amazingly restricted federal government. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution is a very short list of areas in which the Congress is meant to be able to legislate — and the President's job is to execute the laws, which, again, cover a very few areas. Arguing for the ratification of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton insisted that the State governments would do far more of the day-to-day work of governing than the federal government, because the federal government's scope was so limited. Madison poured contempt, in Federalist Papers no. 41, on those who claimed that the "general welfare" clause meant that the legislative powers of the federal government were unlimited, rather than confined to the skeletal list in Article I, Section 8. His scathing attack on this idea begins, "No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction." Both he and Hamilton assumed throughout the Federalist Papers that the Constitution was written in plain English that normal educated persons could understand, and that the job of the courts ("beyond comparison the weakest" of the three branches of government, wrote Hamilton in no. 78) would be simply to interpret it — not to help it "evolve" to fit a people with evolving ideas (that was the job of the people through the amendment process, not the courts). They also insisted, again and again, that the proposed federal government had limited, defined powers — and actually reading that list in Article I, Section 8 explains how Hamilton could argue with a straight face (in no. 84) that the proposed Constitution would save the people of the United States money, by giving them a cheaper government, considering the state and federal levels together, than they had under the Articles of Confederation.
That shows up the problem with the big strategy of the majority of social conservatives, who expect a conservative president to appoint judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade on constitutional grounds: what about the New Deal, the Great Society, the War on Drugs, and the undeclared foreign wars of the last 60 years? What about the vast body of Federal legislation that has nothing to do with the short list in Article I, Section 8? What about the Patriot Act? None of these are any more constitutional in terms of the clear original intent of the text and those who ratified it than the basically unlimited abortion right proclaimed in Roe v. Wade and subsequent decisions. (The moderator's question would have been unthinkable to social conservatives in 1788: no one dreamed the federal government would ever get involved in such issues, or would dare to do so without amending the Constitution.) Social conservatives who want to eat their cake and have it too, who think they can get Roe v. Wade overturned on constitutional grounds, but leave the rest of these programs and activities untouched, are either ignorant of the text and original understanding of the Constitution, or deluding themselves, or indulging in rank hypocrisy. If they are intelligent and know any history, it looks like the latter.
The rest of the conservative candidates, and almost all conservative leaders, seem stuck with that "hypocrite" label regarding the Constitution. In that document's name, they thunder against programs they don't like, without revealing that they have no intention of dismantling the unconstitutional programs (or stop getting into unconstitutional undeclared wars) that they do like. They appear eager and willing to share the "constitutional hypocrite" label with their supporters. Paul, however, offers an escape from hypocrisy: a consistent originalist approach to the Constitution (as amended, of course). On those grounds, he would begin to put an end to the entire federal welfare and entitlement apparatus, all of which are outside the arena of the powers of Congress as listed in Article I, Section 8. Paul has stated that such programs must be brought to an end completely, but in a gradual way, so as to minimize harm those who have built their lives around them.
Note that this is a far more specific, and sweeping, promise to cut government than Ronald Reagan ever made, and that Paul has the credentials, beyond any other conservative politician, to prove his sincerity on this issue. For decades, he has not voted in favor of programs he believes are unconstitutional (his yes votes are rare indeed). He wants the states and churches and other voluntary organizations to take up the slack, gradually, as the federal government lets go, in anti-poverty efforts — using the money that would be left in their pockets due to a Federalist Papers-sized federal government. He wants individuals to save for their own retirement, and look after their own families. That ought to warm the hearts of social conservatives, and set those of small government conservatives on fire. No other conservative politician is anywhere near this constitutional consistency and credibility on the issue of a smaller federal government. And by the way, on abortion, Paul is on the record calling for Congress to exercise its power, granted in Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, to exclude the Supreme Court from appellate jurisdiction on the issue, moving it right back to where it was in January 1973, with the states.
Why would anyone on the left, or middle-of-the-road independents, vote for such a program? For two possible reasons: first, the other half of this constitutional consistency concerns the power to declare war, which the Constitution gives to Congress, not the President. As Tom Woods points out, George Washington and many subsequent American presidents understood that they could order the armed forces to defend themselves or America's territory, but anything beyond that required them to go to Congress for a declaration of war — that they had no power to start wars, only to lead them after Congress started them. This is, in fact, the only serious originalist approach to the text of the Constitution. Whenever Democrats or Republicans have promised to end the wars in recent years, they have forgotten the pledge when they got the power. Left-wing or independent Americans who are tired of seeing their armed forces involved in endless, undeclared wars, and tired of seeing that no vote seems to change that, might just jump at the chance to vote for someone who really would bring the troops home, even if it meant they would have to shift efforts to have government take care of poverty, or to sculpt society as they wish, to the state level. One left-of-center
American who has made that choice is Robin Koerner, who recently called for Democrats who care about "peace and civil liberty" to become “Blue Republicans” for a year and vote for Ron Paul.
Second, more and more Americans, including many independents, appear to be realizing that the government's official commitments are far beyond its ability to pay in today's dollars (battered as those are compared to those of even, say, ten years ago). Many of these same Americans realize that the government has a tempting "stealth" escape: gradual further debasement of our money will enable the government to pay its commitments, in money with the same numbers and presidents' faces, but with vastly reduced value. Creating digital dollars in the trillions with nothing to back them is guaranteed in and of itself to make everything in the world more expensive in dollar terms, but the government can blame oil producers or other wicked foreigners, or greedy corporations, for what it is doing itself. Given the size of entitlements (along with the Pentagon budget), the government's clear inability to pay them, the Federal Reserve's full control over ex nihilo currency creation, and the average American's lack of economic sophistication, who can believe the government is likely (or will want) to resist this sneaky escape from insolvency? Independent voters who see these facts may decide that getting the federal government out from under its crushing obligations honestly is the only approach with a hope of avoiding economic catastrophe.
That leaves one horsefly in the milk jug, from the social conservative point of view: their enthusiasm for military action abroad clashes with Paul's "non-interventionism" pretty badly. Perhaps Paul's approach is impossible for them to swallow. There are several arguments in favor of change that social conservatives might heed, however. First, non-intervention is the original foreign policy of the United States. This is the clear message of Washington's farewell address. It was restated in glowing words by our fifth president, John Quincy Adams: "wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been unfurled, there will [America's] heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." Adams continued that an America that used force to change the world for the better would gradually lose her own virtues, gaining instead "an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power." Adams, repeating the wisdom of his parents' generation, the Founders, believed in American "exceptionalism" all right, but not in American power to impose its ways on the world. Like the Founders, he also didn't believe exceptionalism was guaranteed to last, and impervious to our actions. Even Dwight Eisenhower, hardly a lily-livered liberal, warned Americans of the dangers of an uncontrolled military-industrial complex. This is a current in American thought that was the mainstream for centuries, and perhaps some social conservatives can bring themselves to see it as such. Next, they might even read fellow social conservatives such as Andrew Bacevich for a different perspective on what our military forces are doing and achieving beyond our shores. According to CIA expert Michael Scheuer, the former head of the bin Ladin unit (and no pacifist!), it is not true that "we’re hated because of our freedoms…in fact we’re hated because of our actions in the Islamic world." Attacks on a non-interventionist U.S. would likely shrink to the level of attacks on, say, Switzerland. (If they hate us for our freedom, why aren't they attacking the Swiss?)
Social conservatives might also consider my own exhaustive, non-partisan argument in Iraq: the Moral Reckoning that launching the U.S. war in Iraq was unjust according to just war theory. A variety of well-known religious conservatives, including Chuck Colson, Richard Land, George Weigel, Robert George, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (RIP), all made brief defenses of the justice of that war before it was launched in 2003. However, there has been little or no serious acknowledgement of the other side of the argument, at least by pro-war religious conservatives. It is true that many of the opponents of the war were "liberals" or even radicals in American terms — but arguments deserve to be heard, no matter where they come from. In the scholastic tradition of the high Middle Ages, no important thesis was considered safely proven until it had been "chewed in the jaws" of a rational disputation. Thomas Aquinas found the best objections available to his own ideas, published them with his ideas, and answered them. Surely the best traditions of social conservatives include a careful look at opposing arguments, and an attempt to answer them. So far, my arguments, far more extensive than any arguing that the Iraq war was just, have not been addressed by those who disagree with me. Some social conservative ought to do it — he or she might even find that my arguments change minds.
But finally, perhaps social conservatives will consider today's situation in the light of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Under the Articles of Confederation, taxes were not collected, the bills were not getting paid, and the loose coalition of basically independent states was not getting a lot of respect in the wider world. For a long list of rather ordinary kinds of decisions, the votes of nine out of thirteen states were necessary, and no amendment of the Articles was possible without the states' unanimous consent. The larger states, like New York and Virginia, were fed up with their inability to over-ride smaller states' insistence on the status quo in everything that worked in their favor, and wanted a legislature that reflected the population of the states. Smaller states, on the other hand, saw no reason to give up the "one state-one vote" situation. Rhode Island, which was infamous for this approach, had even boycotted the Convention for fear it had nothing to gain from any change. Deadlock seemed cemented into place. When the Convention had come to a standstill, the Great Compromise of 1787 was suggested by the Connecticut delegation: the lower house of the new congress, with certain powers, would provide delegates to each state based on its population, but the upper house, with a different set of powers, would provide equal representation for each state. When the situation seemed impossible, everyone gave something up, and a compromise provided a way forward.
Ron Paul offers the country a unique compromise, a return to constitutional government. The situation is perhaps even more deadlocked than that of 1787. From the perspective of the Founders' design, our federal government is a flagrantly unconstitutional, bankrupt Leviathan, controlling huge swathes of our lives, trying to control much of the world as well, and spending our great great grandchildren's notional money to do it. Social conservatives are not changing American minds in large numbers on domestic issues. On foreign policy, their affection for maintaining and expanding military action abroad seems like a major electoral handicap in light of the sweeping election victory of Barack Obama, the only major candidate who had openly opposed the Iraq war. For 2012, one more conservative candidate who offers Americans even more government control over their lives, with more toughness abroad and more national coercion on moral issues, is unlikely even to win the Republican nomination (consider the "moderate" Bushes and McCain). Such a candidate will be a hypocrite on the Constitution — surely an important consideration. If he or she somehow wins the nomination, and somehow wins the general election as well, Americans are almost sure to divide their votes so as to frustrate him or her with a Democratic congress. There are millions of non-theist (or theist but pragmatic) Americans who strongly disagree with social conservatives on what ought to be illegal. Thus, in the best business-as-usual scenario social conservatives are likely to get, the nation would also keep its "imperial diadem," with its "murky radiance of dominion and power," if John Quincy Adams is to be believed. At home, the moral issues stalemate would continue, and the debt burden would go on growing.
Given this choice, might social conservatives consider Ron Paul's Great Compromise of 2012, a return to constitutional government? Consider again the details: a massive tax cut for all, the end of the death of the dollar by a trillion cuts, and a return of real saving by ordinary Americans. A gradual transfer of almost all the assumed, unconstitutional powers and burdens of the federal government back to the states and the people. A truly defensive "Defense Department." (Under Paul, it might even get back its old, honest name of the War Department.) Liberals would have to give up social engineering on the national level. Due to democracy itself, liberals could work in each state to make it whatever kind of left-leaning welfare state they liked, but social conservatives could go on fighting them on the state level, and could also work in conservative states for whatever laws they liked. New York and California might end up with gay marriage and easy abortion — not much of a change there. Texas or South Carolina, though, might ban them both — a big change. Radicals on the left and right would suffer an end to American attempts to reshape the world — but realists would at least get an American government that would not go broke. Might social conservatives decide it sounds like 1787?
If they don't, it appears likely Paul will do better than last time around, perhaps far better, but still fall short of the Republican nomination or the presidency. In that case, the political status quo will almost surely continue, with either a Republican or a Democratic nominal head. We will continue to live under what Bacevich calls Washington Rules, a phrase that could describe our domestic as well as foreign policies. Social conservatives will get full-throated pledges of allegiance from Republican candidates, "Tea Party" and otherwise, but, based on decades of evidence…not much else. And perhaps we will stumble down Status Quo Road for another decade or two, the dollar's decline will gradually halt, and tens of trillions of dollars of misbegotten debt will gradually work themselves out of our system (as in Japan?). Perhaps we will "grow our way out" of our problems, perhaps with tax cuts! If so, we will all forget about that foolish false prophet Ron Paul. But if investors like Jim Rogers, Marc Faber, and Peter Schiff, who predicted the current credit crisis, are right, we will either shrink the welfare/warfare state, or it and its mountain of debts will shrink our economy, soon.
Social conservatives who have hitched your wagon to political conservatism in America: You can't get everything you might like, you really can't. You are not a majority in today's America. If you insist on going for victory, like Wellington at Waterloo, you will instead get the status quo one more time: the independents, the leftists, and the middle-of-the-roaders will throw their weight against you, and all together they outnumber you by a mile. Standard political conservative candidates, if they win, will throw war and some rhetoric in your direction, but not domestic substance. But four more years of the status quo might prove the final straw. Is it time for a new Great Compromise?
Craig White [send him mail] is the author of Iraq: the Moral Reckoning and Peace & War in Today’s World. He has been a teacher and an American diplomat (for 20 years), and is now a PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder. The opinions expressed above are entirely his own.