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.
But the key to the libertarian triumph over Republican politics has nothing to do with political principle. It is powered entirely by the character of the American people.
Today the American character is in a strange condition. It remains strong and resourceful enough to take on new burdens just at the moment that its weakness and weariness seems most acute. The trouble with our big national projects of warfare and welfare is that, as a rule, the American character is beside the point.
Paradoxically, our various military and civil experts, charged to pursue our national greatness, fail to take advantage of the full greatness of the American people: our ability to govern ourselves at a tangibly human scale — face to face, stranger to stranger, neighbor to neighbor.
What draws us into these distinctly American encounters? Not an abstract libertarian concern for freedom. Not an abstract liberal concern for justice. Not an abstract conservative concern for virtue.
Disarmingly, habit and memory are closer to the truth. This is who we are. This is what we do. When that ceases to be true — and there are troubling indicators that our identity in this respect is not at all what it used to be — then the American character will have changed in a way that no exercise of political power will be able to do much to alter.
Together, Prosperity Republicans and Repentance Republicans have failed to free us from wars on poverty, drugs, the border and spending — perpetual yet lost, like the war they wage on each other. Neither faction has prevented liberal and progressive Democrats from securing the support of half the country or more. Trapped in perpetual deadlock, neither ever will.
The temptation born of this frustration, soon to be brutally amplified by the final act of the debt fight, is for each faction to attempt a knockout blow against the other.
Even if this were possible at the national level (and it’s not), neither Prosperity Republicans nor Repentance Republicans can survive on their own. Their respective constituencies are simply too small — not because of “the way the game is played in Washington” or anything else any more complicated or nefarious than the character of the American people.
That character is increasingly permissive and wary, jaded and determined, idealistic and humbled. It is especially poorly suited for abstract and dogmatic theories. But it is a perfect fit — at a needful time — for a new politics of practical libertarianism.
No matter which GOP faction wins, the debt ceiling fight will resolve nothing. Individually and together, both must find new ground. The original Republican fusionism of the Civil War culminated in an ambitious Reconstruction that fell far short of its task. Today’s Republicans can usher in an American reconstruction that heals, not deepens our scars — if they have the courage to rethink their political ambitions.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.