The Republican Party is in danger of returning to its roots — back to the time when its two main constituencies did not belong to a single party. Before the Civil War brought them together, the nationalist, money-driven Whigs and the regional, moralist Abolitionists held little in common. Now, the debt debacle has carried Republicans back to the deep divide present at their party’s creation.
One faction declares that without prosperity, all is lost. The other insists only repentance can save us. Both Prosperity Republicans and Repentance Republicans believe they are in a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.
The Reagan-era fusionism that once held them together has hit the ash heap of history — hastened to its grave by the political and economic reckoning that Reagan could defer but we can’t.
Now, Repentance Republicans view Prosperity Republicans as inescapably corrupted by an unsustainable form of crony capitalist governance. Prosperity Republicans view Repentance Republicans as unmanageably captivated with an unstable form of politically principled purity.
With neither faction able to triumph or surrender, both must change. The only fusionism that can succeed today must defeat the claims to dominance of both big GOP factions.
Fortunately for Republicans, the new path to unity isn’t as harrowing as the fight for the Union. Some fear that libertarianism is too theoretically brittle and politically uncompromising to form the foundation of a new Republican consensus. But whatever your judgment of libertarianism in its ideologically pure form, the triumph of practical libertarianism over the Republican Party is as necessary as it is inevitable.
The two factions each already claim a variety of libertarianism. From the perspective of Repentance Republicans, social and cultural libertarianism derive from the basic tenet of Prosperity morality that economic growth produces public and private happiness. For Prosperity Republicans, economic and political libertarianism stem from the fundamental opposition of Repentance morality to progress, efficiency, equality and uniformity.
Both views are mistaken, but ideological libertarians err in thinking the problem with both the Repentance and Prosperity agenda is primarily philosophical. Actually, dogmatic libertarianism shares the same difficulty: No political program in a free country can transform the character of a people.
Repentance Republicans cannot push America in a cultural direction it is not already going. Prosperity Republicans cannot wring massive growth from a country that first needs massive repair.
Politics fails whenever the aim is great moral or economic change. The great insight of practical libertarianism is that political life can never bear the burden of our biggest dreams and worst nightmares.
A Republican Party that puts politics ahead of moral and economic engineering will push for a renaissance of regional, state and especially local politics. It will devolve power from Washington, not just to push elites apart but to draw citizens together.
And it will make clear that putting politics at the center of politics actually reveals the limits of what politics can and should do. Ideological libertarians wrongly dream of the day that politics will wither away, replaced by a sovereign economy of free individuals. What can wither away under Republican leadership is the mania for putting politics in the service of projects and agendas that will forever be frustrated by the limits and failings of mortal men.