Inside the conservative civil war: Social vs. fiscal conservatism

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
Font Size:

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.