Inside the conservative civil war: Social vs. fiscal conservatism

Conservative advocates debated the social versus fiscal divide in Tea Party and GOP circles at a Family Research Council symposium Friday, headlined by The New York Times’ conservative columnist Ross Douthat.

Douthat said the Tea Party movement, though aimed at cutting government size and spending, is electing candidates that are just as socially conservative as they are economically conservative – whether it be Joe Miller in Alaska or Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.

“In many cases, if you look at Tea Party voters, they are the same people, the same constituents who tend to be the most supportive of pro-life measures, the most opposed to gay marriage,” Douthat said. “It stands to reason that, in a time of massive economic dislocation, a time of massive expansion in government spending that the American public would shift its focus more toward specifically economic issues and the battle over health care.”

Fiscal conservative Lawrence Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) said Americans have lost the character the nation was founded on – a character that included respecting people and life – but that he thinks economic conservatism has to come first to fix the country.

“If you politically win on all the economic issues, you could lose on all the social ones and still have an avenue as a social conservative to advance what’s important to you,” Reed said. “When there’s a smaller government, families, individuals, private, voluntary organizations and churches have a bigger role. It’s on the strength of those institutions, not mandates from the government, that allow for a healthy culture to blossom.”

Social conservative Bob Patterson of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society thinks Americans must focus on social issues first, and that’s the main difference between social and fiscal conservatives. He said economic conservatives have traditionally been a lot better than social conservatives at furthering their interests, though.

“They [economic conservatives] are far more strategic than are social conservatives at driving the policy agenda,” Patterson said. “After 30 years of pushing our issues as social conservatives, we have very little to show for it. If we were a business, we would be bankrupt.”

Douthat said it’s ironic that there are so few differences between social and economic conservatives and that they are fairly tightly linked.

“There’s a reason for this so-called fusionist case, that free markets depend on stable families,” Douthat said. “I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that even if social conservatism and economic conservatism, broadly speaking, go together, in individual segments of society and individual people and individual politicians and individual populations, they’re often split apart.”

Douthat said social conservatives have to speak up more to get heard in Washington.

“It’s like what Winston Churchill said about Democracy: ‘It’s the worst system except for all the others,’” Douthat said. “The same is true of capitalism and social conservatives need to be willing to point that out.”

Patterson agreed that social conservatives need to speak up more but added that they need to reshape their political image in a more positive way.

“Social conservatives are known more for what they’re against, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, pornography, than what we’re for: lifelong marriage, the natural family, a thriving social sector in civil society and the elevation of children over the desires of adults,” Patterson said.

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  • axiomata

    That Lawrence Reed quote hit the crux of the matter:

    “If you politically win on all the economic issues, you could lose on all the social ones and still have an avenue as a social conservative to advance what’s important to you,” Reed said. “When there’s a smaller government, families, individuals, private, voluntary organizations and churches have a bigger role. It’s on the strength of those institutions, not mandates from the government, that allow for a healthy culture to blossom.”

    • logic

      That is the concept that should be so obvious to people but seems to escape them. Government does not provide the answers and in fact, is detrimental to society.

    • angst

      That’s absolutely correct. If one follows a path of economic conservatism, social conservatism will follow. And not only that, if virtue is couched in economic terms, people who are normally opposed to the social arguments are likely to see the light. After all, the three main tenets of financial success in life boils down to these:

      DOn’t have children out of wedlock.
      Get married.
      Stay married.

      The only real source of conflict that I’ve seen between social and economic conservatism has to do with government support for unwed mothers & their infants. I know people who work at crisis pregnancy centers, and they struggle with the fact that hooking up these women with gov’t resources is part of the solution to their financial problems. And financial problems are usually the reason they want to abort. I don’t know the answer for that one. It’ tough.

  • rockhard

    lets get something straight leftist have Pushed their religious values on Americans for decades. what are Christian values that you liberals hate? please do tell ?

    Christians are not forcing you to pray or be Christian, so what exactly is your problem? most values Christians believe in are what any decent person should support regardless of what religion you belong to or even if you have not religious,

    liberals have no problems pushing their values down the throats of all Americans but don’t want others pushing their values,

    lets take one issue for example liberals force Millions of families to Bus their children to schools hour’s away from where they live, why? they say we need to integrate kids of different races because its good for society
    well their you go again pushing your agenda down our throats, if you think that good fine Bus your own children but don’t force your values on the rest of us who are happy to send our children to schools in their own community.

    That’s you push your Agenda and believes on Americans, if you could force my children to do things because you think its good for society then we also have a right to speak up and Push our values we think are good for society.

    Again, All laws are based on someone’s value, its only matter of who’s laws you will be forced to live by.

    • des1

      “most values Christians believe in are what any decent person should support regardless of what religion you belong to or even if you have not religious,”

      You can’t just throw that out there, it’s too vague. You have to specify what beliefs you believe most people “should” believe in, so we can decide if we agree with you or not.

      Personally, I’m offended by a number of SoCon groups. They are run by money-hungry, attention-whore leaders and sound nothing like anything I’ve read in the Bible. A number of these leaders have gone down in flames with their hypocritical personal lives, which has greatly damaged the movement (which is why the Bible implores us not to set men between us and God). These leaders love big government because they get attention and huge sums of money to manipulate (or in some cases, pocket) from the politicians they campaign for.

      Nothing sickens me more than people using God as an excuse to stroke their own ego or line their own pockets. Actually that’s wrong…nothing sickens me more than someone trying to tell me or my kids how we should believe to stroke their own ego or line their pockets. I certainly don’t need it from people in the government or schools.

  • riseabove

    The Ass and His Shadow

    A TRAVELER hired an Ass to convey him to a distant place. The
    day being intensely hot, and the sun shining in its strength, the
    Traveler stopped to rest, and sought shelter from the heat under
    the Shadow of the Ass. As this afforded only protection for one,
    and as the Traveler and the owner of the Ass both claimed it, a
    violent dispute arose between them as to which of them had the
    right to the Shadow. The owner maintained that he had let the
    Ass only, and not his Shadow. The Traveler asserted that he had,
    with the hire of the Ass, hired his Shadow also. The quarrel
    proceeded from words to blows, and while the men fought, the Ass
    galloped off.

    Moral of the story:

    In quarreling about the shadow we often lose the substance.

    From: http://aesopfables.com/cgi/aesop1.cgi?1&TheAssandHisShadow

    • truebearing

      Point taken, wise one.

  • damage6

    @ truebearing
    Actually libertarians have as much (if not more) credit for starting the TEA Party. I’m hopeful that Libertarians and Conservatives will be able to concentrate on those things that we have in common and learn to respectfully disagree with each other on viewpoints that are divergent.

    I do whole heartedly agree that progressives of both flavors are the problem and that the current and previous administrations have raised that problem to a crisis point (particularly the current admin).

    Like most of the TEA Party folk I’ve talked to I’m a mixed bag when it comes to social issues. I’m Pro-Life because I believe that a human life starts at conception hence abortion is murder. I’m pro 2nd amendment because I believe that the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness includes the right to defend oneself. I’m anti illegal immigration because I believe in the rule of law. On the other hand I also believe that gay’s should have the right to get married and serve openly in the military. Despite the fact that I personally don’t condone their lifestyle it’s none of my or the government’s business. I also don’t believe it’s any of the government’s business if people view porn or smoke dope. It’s also none of the government’s business if you want to raise your kids to view homosexuality as immoral. People too often confuse tolerance with respect. We need to be tolerant of other people’s views as long as they don’t infringe on other’s freedoms. Respect on the other hand is earned.

    None of my political beliefs are dependent on a particular religious outlook. If your religious beliefs guide you to not look at porn for example that’s fine. I respect that and whole heartedly support your right to raise your family in that standard. I don’t however support laws that prevent other adults from making or viewing it.

    • truebearing

      I agree that libertarians have had a major role in the Tea Party formation, and I don’t care that much who started it, I’m just glad it got started.

      I also agree that we all need to work together against the clearly defined enemy. In my opinion, this is all or nothing. We don’t have the luxury of failure in this country. Not any more.

      If you start looking at morality not as a restriction of people’s rights but as an enhancement of the survival and thriving of people you might change some of your beliefs.

      The people who get girls addicted to drugs and then force them to humiliate themselves on film are slime, and evil. The girls who work in porn have extremely high rates of drug addiction, disease, and suicide. Not all of them, but it is definitely the majority.

      Porn is implicated in the break up of many marriges, and is easily accessed by children. Aren’t these all serious problems?

      Drug use is the same story. It destroys lives, and we all know many people who fit that description. most of us have family members who have struggled and lost the battle with addiction. I’m sorry if I can’t buy into the it’s-my-life argument. Drugs effect more than just the addict. They effect the addicts children, parents, spouse, etc.

      My opinion on DADT is that it has worked reasonably well, so leave it alone.

      Marriage is by definition between a man and a woman. If we’re going to let special interest groups redefine every word, we won’t have a language that means anything. If Gays aren’t ashamed of being gay, they shouldn’t be ashamed of a specific designation for their civil union. I don’t care if they have all of the benefits of marriage, just that it isn’t called marriage. Meaning is important.

      We have bigger priorities right now than all of these issues, but morality is at the center of all of these battles. If we don’t turn back the neo-communists we won’t have to worry about any more debate, we won’t have the free speech to do it.

      In spite of our dust up on the other thread, I knew we saw things more alike than different. I run a little too hot sometimes.

      • damage6

        I think our biggest point of agreement is that if we don’t stop the socialist take over of America everything else is a mute point. Everything else we can debate about at our leisure once the pressing and essential task of preserving the right TO debate our issues is accomplished.

        Don’t get me wrong Just because I say that I don’t believe the government should be involved in things like drugs, porn etc doesn’t mean I approve of them. To have a truly Free society unfortunately means people have the freedom to destroy themselves. I’m a firm believer that the only place we can make any positive gains on what I call “social morality issues” like porn and drugs is at the individual family level. I liken it to the Prohibition. If people want something whether it’s pot or porn they’re going to get it. Prohibition is a perfect example. We as a country outlawed booze and created a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences. Crime utterly exploded with the profits from illicit booze manufacture/importation and distribution. We spent untold millions trying to stop it and didn’t so much as make a dent. It’s exactly the same thing with Pot today except that instead of untold millions it’s untold billions. It’s not that government can’t stop drugs it’s the fact that government can’t make the slightest dent in the drug problem. We’ve spent an utterly insane amount of money proving that fact over the last 3 or 4 decades. In my humble opinion we should secure the border (If East Germany had a 99% secure border so can we). Put Americans to work growing the crap and TAX THE SNOT out of it. I would however support the right of employers to drug test and fire anyone they want. You have the right to be a pot head but not the right to force a private employer to put up with your crap.

      • damage6

        Post Script: Think nothing of the dust up dude I’ve got thick skin and a BIG mouth. No blood no foul. Look forward to standing shoulder to shoulder with you as we roll back the clown calvalcade masquerading as federal Government. It’s gotta piss off the Media Matters observers assigned to this site that folk on the right can have a spirited disagreement on matters of principle and still come to the conclusion that progressives are scum ;-)!

  • truebearing

    Why is it that people, including some confused conservatives, seem to think conservatism can be bifurcated and still remain vital, or even viable? Every time conservatism does the splits, the left wins.

    Social Marxism preceded the eventual increase in leftist power that now has resulted in a neo-communist being elected as the president of this great nation. You won’t hear the left saying “we need to get rid of Social Marxism, or we’ll never win”. They stick to their political correctness and other degenerate, immoral positions religiously, and don’t apologize for their immoral, amoral beliefs.

    What is the left most concerned about on the right? Social conservatism, not fiscal conservatism.

    Why? Because they know that the true believers in conservatism are firmly based in the foundational tenets of conservatism, those being Judeo-Christian morality. This is the real enemy to the perverse “values” of the left.

    The left recognizes that these beliefs are hard to defeat and that those with religious faith aren’t suckered into leftist lies as easily as the wind driven independents and so-called “fiscal conservatives”. The left has recognized that fiscal conservatism, isolated from social conservatism, has no staying power in and of itself.

    As a matter of fact, when the left gets in trouble, they start spouting fiscally conservative sounding ideas, just like they are now, until it’s safe to go back to their tax and power grab ways.

    In the battle between the left and the right everything eventually boils down to morality. Lack of morality equals no integrity. No integrity equals lying, stealing and cheating. Immoral politicians do immoral things, as we have seen ad nauseam. Unless we elect people of substantial moral character, we will continue to slide into the sewer of political corruption, and this is why social conservatism is necessary if we are to successfully turn things around.

    The underlying cause for the surge of the Tea Party has been the corruption, or immorality, of the left. It isn’t just their ideas and policies that upset people but the immoral, corrupt way they were forced through. Now tell me that morality isn’t a huge factor in the Tea Party movement.

    The solution? A moral electorate will elect moral politicians. You can’t expect politicians to be moral when you aren’t. It won’t happen, and fails under the weight of its own hypocrisy. (We’ve tried that, to no acclaim)

    Democracy fails when the majority becomes uneducated and immoral. Evil men rule when good men don’t. Morality is a gift, and precedes any freedom or true prosperity. Morality is the human survival code, and as we can all see, this country needs it’s citizens and leaders to recognize this, or we will continue down the path less survivable.

    Fiscal and social conservatives should unite, as well as libertarians, Independents, and Conservative Democrats, against the specter of Statism that Obama is forcing upon us, but be clear on this: this is not merely a economic battle. This is a struggle that at the very core is over values. Freedom isn’t measured only in dollars.

    • bigsigh

      I completely agree that a lack of morality equals no integrity. True conservatives may be guided by their Judeo-Christian values and I applaud that. However, many libertarians, Independents, etc. do not. I have never claimed to be conservative and apparently I’m not. I’m not sure what you want from Independents. Are we “out” because we don’t share your enthusiasm for legislating moral values? That is not meant to be sarcastic, but a sincere question. It bothers me that the “religious right” appears to have as much faith in the individual as the “social justice left”. It is possible for people to self regulate and live very moral lives. I thank God that I have the freedom to go “back” to church someday, but until that day, I will continue to live an honest, moral life and question organized religion. I agree that freedom isn’t measured in dollars. I just believe that most individuals, given the choice, will make the right choices. I think it is easy to judge a person’s character by the life they have led. We all saw the church Obama attended and the friends he surrounded himself with. I don’t think anyone should be surprised at the the way he is governing. I want my children to have the freedoms our founders intended. For me that means not being enslaved by a bloated gov’t, but it also means they have freedom of religion. I have raised them to be good people with the understanding that decisions have consequences. In my opinion, less gov’t means more personal responsiblity and that’s a good thing.

      • bigsigh

        You are also correct that the left fears the social conservatives more than the fiscal conservatives. The middle fears the far left and far right. Fiscal conservatism and social conservatism generally go hand in hand because fiscal responsibility is generally a value shared by moral people. Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more clear to me that the individual has lost respect from both sides.

      • truebearing

        I’m not saying you are “out” at all, I’m just trying to show the essential nature of social conservatism as it relates to what I consider true conservatism. I’m not saying it’s bad to be fiscally conservative, and no conservative I know pushes away those who want many of the same things we do just because we don’t agree on everything. Hell, conservatives don’t agree on everything.

        When you talk about “legislating morality” I’m not sure what you mean. Are you for laws against murder, theft, corruption, rape, kidnapping, drunk driving, etc? Those are all examples of legislating morality.

        There has been a lot of propaganda and outright lies from the left about the extreme agenda of the right. Just remember this: the conservatives want small government. Small government can’t enforce tons of social legislation, can it? Lots of rules and regulations is the left’s Big Brother fantasy.

        You have to remember, the founders were all Christians, and they are the ones who framed the constitution to protect freedom of religion. Keep in mind also that they were trying to protect religion from government more than government from religion.

        There has been a concerted effort on the part of the evil left (and they are evil) to paint all Christians as extremists and all conservatives as rigid ideologues, but it just isn’t true, and I think you will find that the opposite is true. The Tea Party is mostly conservative Christians, but there are plenty of libertarians and Independents as well. Everyone gets along just fine, and we all know who the enemy to freedom is.

        If you believe in morality you are already are a bit of a conservative, and to the leftists a bit of an extremist! LOL!

        • bigsigh

          As I read through the comments, I see what appears to be a lack of tolerance for anyone that suggests social conservatism is not their top priority. I realize yours is one opinion, but I appreciate the clarification. I was beginning to think conservatives didn’t actually believe in small government. I think there are many independents, libertarians out there that are not completely convinced the social conservatives are not going to try to grow gov’t for their own agenda. I understand that many christians cannot seperate their religious beliefs from their political beliefs (I appreciate their strong faith). You can see how that would turn some off and scare some away.

          • truebearing

            Lack of tolerance is not in short supply when it comes to political opinions. Many who claim to be independent or libertarian aren’t tolerant of social conservatives either, and there are some here who posture as something they aren’t to try to confuse people. Sometimes it gets heated.

            Social conservatives do not believe in big government, and are the ones who essentially started the Tea Party movement. The Progressive Republicans do believe in big government, even though they won’t admit it. They were the ones in office during the Bush presidency, and they spent money recklessly, though nothing compared to the Progressive Democrats have recently.

            Generally speaking, there are a lot of conservatives, and libertarians of one degree or another on this site. They don’t necessarily agree with social conservatives, and vice versa, but we all agree Obama is a disaster.

            True libertarians don’t believe in hardly any government, which is of course, too far to the right and would result in anarchy.

            Anyone who thinks true social conservatives want big government and intend to do what the left is doing in using the government to force their agenda is falling for propaganda by the left. Conservatives are for smaller government than most Independents. The problem with all of this is that Republicans were always associated with conservative ideals but became more and more liberal, and spent more and more money, and many people thought that because it was the Republicans it was therefore the conservatives. Not true. Many conservatives criticized Bush constantly for being too liberal.

    • bigsigh

      That was supposed to be a reply to truebearing, not myself. I’m new to this.

  • bigsigh

    Most of my beliefs are very much in line with social conservatives, however, I strongly disagree that they should have any part of the political discourse. Life is about choices. We will all be judged on the decisions we make one day. We have more than enough laws on the books. We should probably focus on repealing most of them. That would cut down on all the frivolous lawsuits that bog down our court system and all of the gov’t waste to enforce them. Most of the legislation that is brought before congress is a waste of time and money. It shouldn’t even be a full time job and there should definitely be term limits. The end of the career politician! If we could get fiscal conservatives in office that weren’t willing to spend money to make any voting segment happy, I think we would all see the quality of our lives improve. There is always going to be injustice and immorality in this world. That threshold will be different for every single person. Those that are living an immoral life will pay the price, now or at the end. We can only live our lives according to our values and hope that we can set a good example for others. When we stop trying to legislate values, we will be able to provide more choices. We may not agree with our neighbors values, but I would rather have the choice to send my children to a different school rather than try to make my neighbor think the way I do. Abortion is always going to be a hot button issue. 20% think it’s murder (hard to let that go), 60% think it is a choice (another freedom to lose), 20% consider it a eugenic practice (most of them don’t even realize it). I say get our fiscal house in order and let the churches and civic groups stand up to immoral behavior. The silent majority doesn’t have the luxury of being silent anymore. That doesn’t mean they should look to the government for answers.