The Republican Party’s Identity Crisis

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America: A Christian Nation?In the aftermath of the substantial Democratic victory in last November’s election, Republicans nationwide are reported to be doing a great deal of “soul searching.” Indeed they should. After all, times are not looking good for the Republican Party. Former President Bush left office with record-low support, and both houses of Congress, along with the White House, are now solidly Democratic. Michael Steele, a former lieutenant governor and recently elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, attributed the Republican loss in the last election to a lack of understanding of what the party stood for. In his words, “We didn’t have anything to say to the American people other than, ‘We’re not Democrats.’” Saxby Chambliss, the newly re-elected Republican senator from Georgia, has echoed Steele, calling on the party to return to its principles.

But what principles are those? Historically, the political philosophy of the Republican Party has been an amalgam of advocacy for small government and capitalism, combined with support for religion and traditional values. The more capitalist element of the party tends to concern itself primarily with economic policy, traditionally supporting less government spending, lower taxes and deregulation. By contrast, the religionist element of the party tends to focus on social policy. It is the driving force behind Republican support for increasing the role of religion in public life, the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and various attempts to ban gay marriage.

But the line between economic and social policies has become increasingly blurred. Though the capitalist and religionist elements have each tried to grant the other autonomy within its own area of interest, the differences in their fundamental principles have resulted in conflicting policy approaches. Most religionists, for example, don’t seem to have a problem with the growth of the welfare state, as long as faith-based initiatives get a piece of the pie (as they did in the case of the Bush Administration’s “social service grants” for religious organizations, which handed out $2.2 billion in one year alone). The capitalist Republicans, on the other hand, tend to advocate for reducing government programs and handouts. A reduction in welfare recipients, for example, was a key ingredient of the Republican Party platform in the mid-90s.

The conflict between the two camps is not limited to entitlements. While the religionists support greater policing of the airwaves for objectionable content, the capitalists are inclined towards less government control over media outlets. The religionists want to maintain and improve public schools but ensure religion has an influence on the curriculum (such as how evolution is taught), while the capitalists have tended to support things like school vouchers, which some see as a step towards privatizing education.

This clash in policy positions is the result of two distinct sets of political principles. In the past, both sides coexisted in an uneasy alliance, but over time the disagreements between them have become too great to reconcile. This is unsurprising: the two sets of political principles are grounded in two opposing ethical systems.

Capitalism upholds each individual’s right to exist for his own sake, independent from any group. Its moral foundation is rational self-interest. According to this morality, the good is the pursuit of one’s own happiness. Religion, on the other hand, implies a system where each individual exists to serve the group or greater good. Christian tradition is rife with admonishments against selfishness: “we are our brother’s keepers” is an obvious example. This sentiment represents the moral code of altruism, which holds fulfilling the needs of others as a moral imperative. The welfare state is a natural extension of this tenet. People need money, education, sanitation, transportation, etc. Under a religious (i.e. altruistic) morality, we are obligated to satisfy these needs for those unwilling or unable to do so themselves.

How can one reconcile these opposing beliefs? How can one unite the religious demand to selflessly help the needy through welfare state agencies (such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) with the capitalist insistence that an individual’s primary responsibility is achieving his own well-being? Where is the compromise between the religionist’s call to force children to pray in school and the capitalist’s call to maintain a barrier between church and state? How can one bring together the principle that a woman’s life is her own (the morality of rational self-interest), with the edict that a woman has a duty to protect the growth of an embryo (the morality of religion)?

The answer is that one can’t. There is no way to reconcile an individualistic, self-interested morality and an altruistic morality of religious duties. Politically, this means there is no way to support both capitalist and religious policies. “The party of principle,” as the GOP often calls itself, is currently governed by two sets of principles that fundamentally contradict one another.

The first years of President Obama’s administration provide the Republican Party with an opportunity to redefine itself. To do so, Republicans first need to decide what they stand for. They can become the party that promotes individual rights, small government, and capitalism, or they can become an ever more theocratic, intrusive, and socialist party.

Thus far, the signs are not good for those Republicans who support capitalism. The Bush administration solidified the prominence of religionists within the party. As evidence of the party’s current direction, Sarah Palin, McCain’s devoutly religious running mate, is already being considered as a candidate for 2012. But the opportunity for a new direction remains.

Republicans who support capitalism need to understand that those who combine religion with politics are their enemies, and must be ostracized from the party. In order to be successful, they need to defend capitalism on ethical grounds, which means recognizing that their best pitchman is not Jesus Christ, but John Galt.

Jared holds an MS in Medical Device and Diagnostic Engineering from USC and a BA from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He currently manages product development for a medical device company, and plans to found a neurotechnology startup.

Posted by on February 23, 2009. Filed under Government & Law, Winter 2008-09. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry