Republican Party Factions
Libertarianism, Neoconservatism, and the Moderate Wing.
Much to George Washington’s dismay, political parties are a crucial foundation of our modern politics. These parties are large, cohabiting movements of factions, usually joined together out of similar ideological leanings, political expediency or a myriad of other factors. American political parties are broad tents for sometimes overtly different causes and voters, clashing or cohering in surprising ways. The modern Republican Party is a bold example of this dynamic. The Grand Old Party (GOP) has been, since its reformation in the early 1960’s, a political party of three predominant groups; the Christian Religious faction, the Moderate/Hawk faction, and the Business/Libertarian faction. Each of these factions brings distinct components of the Republican Party to the overall coalition. All of these groups have their own cohesive political philosophies, which can be traced to an intellectual history and specific leaders who advocated for them. These ideologies then lead to detailed policy preferences, of which there are clear corollaries within modern GOP policy. Studies and surveys in Republican voter analysis show us that constituents of the Republican party who fulfill the specific attributes of each of the factions can be found in the electorate, and examples of the effects of these factions upon real world policy can be found in Republican administrations at every level. Even as the Republican party undergoes a transformation in recent elections, the effects of these ideological blocs are still prevalent, and will likely remain in varying forms for many years to come.
Understanding where the Republican party, and the varying factions that constitute it, is currently situated ideologically requires an understanding of where the party came from. The Republican party of the 1950’s and before differs vastly from the party that exists currently. The GOP at this time was characterized by a right–wing philosophical strain titled “paleoconservatism” where it survives now, and the primary proponent of this ideology is recognized by several historians as Robert A. Taft, son of William Howard Taft. Clinton Rossiter refers to him as the “very model of the American conservative” during the Eisenhower Republican era of the 1950’s. A senator from Ohio, his positions on varying issues only partially resemble the positions taken by modern Republicans, and carry almost none of the philosophical weight; Taft favored an isolationist foreign policy, moderate to overt regulations of the free market, nationalist oppositions to immigration and possessed a big government streak that was shared by the Republican presidents of the era. Republicans at this time were skeptics of the efficacy of the Truman Doctrine, and Republicans in Congress along with Democrat Woodrow Wilson helped prevent U.S. membership in the League of Nations. Taft also didn’t share the “laissez–faire” perceptions of the market that the New Right would take on; in accordance with their foreign policy and nationalist stint they were opposed to global trade in most ways and were pro–tariffs. Indeed, the infamous Smoot–Hawley tariff, which is theorized to have contributed to the Great Depression, was a Republican bill. Republicans in the 1950’s and earlier harbored traditional views of morality that were informed by their religious beliefs, which is likely the only clear corollary between the Old Right and the New Right. What most drastically separates the Republicans of the 1950’s from today is the big government Progressive streak that was concerned with environmental conservation and social welfare programs. Theodore Roosevelt, the quintessential Progressive Republican, is responsible for much of the massive federal land protections and national parks, numbering around 200 million acres added during his administration. Modern Republicans spend drastic amounts of time and money working around this barrier to put more land into private hands for business and to cull what they perceive to be a government glut of land possession. Another example is Herbert Hoover’s pre–New Deal welfare programs, a number of which foreshadowed programs that would be created under Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation, created by Herbert Hoover in 1932, provided support to state and local governments from federal coffers, and was applauded by FDR himself. Hoover was also responsible for some of the largest peacetime tax increases in U.S. history, something antithetical to Republican doctrine now.
What characterizes the Old Right, according to the historians of the party and of the newly emerging New Right, is it’s generally milquetoast positions on virtually every issue. Kolkey describes it as a “conservatism of comfortable apathy”. It was perceived as complacent, tranquil, prepared and content to maintain the status quo. To those who were growing more and more opposed to the new left–leaning doctrines arising and dominating during the Great Depression and in post–WWII America, they required a political vehicle that could take these policies head on. It is with this purpose that William F. Buckley crafted the new Republican coalition, one that still remains intact today.
William F. Buckley is one of the most influential American political figures of the last century. He succeeded in selecting the disparate coalitions of the current Republican party and joining them together under one banner, in order to wield a political efficacy Republicans had not held in politics since the Reconstruction Era. Only FDR approaches him in terms of influence wielded over their respective party’s formation. Through the clout he exerted as a political commentator, the editor of his conservative journal National Review, and as host of a TV show titled Firing Line, he brought together three disparate political philosophies and built a renewed Republican party around them. Each of the political philosophies he brought into the fold, known generally as religious conservatism, libertarianism, and neoconservatism, came together under Buckley to constitute the New Right. Bogus notes that Buckley and his journal “defined conservatism in a way that accommodated all schools of thought” and that because of this, “conservatism today is a three–legged stool. It is based upon libertarianism, religious conservatism, and neoconservatism”. He brought these differing political philosophies in by bringing aboard their various leaders and having them write for his journal, all the while speaking into the ears of politicians and thought leaders he had access to. Within 20 years, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and had directly credited National Review for shaping his viewpoints. Not only did Buckley select those thought styles that he found desirable and practical for bringing into the coalition, but he also excommunicated unacceptable and morally crippled philosophies. After a lengthy barrage of written attacks against the John Birch Society and the general ignorance of the Objectivist Movement led by Ayn Rand, these groups could find no place in the conservative movement, and are now virtually nonexistent or fringe ideologies.
Each of the philosophies William F. Buckley brought in to the Republican coalition has their own rich history and comprehensive worldview. Consider religious conservatism, which was an ideology chiefly animated by the moral relativism of the post–WWII world. Robert Bellah writes that “ Biblical imagery provided the framework for imaginative thought in America up until quite recent times and, unconsciously, its control is still formidable”. This ideology was primarily forwarded by Russell Kirk, who wrote pieces frequently for National Review. Studies in the effects of conservatism note that “Christian ideas about man, society, and divine intent are basic for conservative thought”. Religious conservatives who agreed with the Biblical perceptions of man as fallen and inherently sinful found common cause with the original vision of the Founding Fathers, influenced not only by their Biblical perceptions but by the ideas of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. For this reason religious conservatives are stout proponents of limited government and oppose government overreach of any branch. Their main target in the 1960’s (and still today) is what they considered the “hippie liberalism” of the era, an affront to Christian morality. They opposed homosexuality, drug use, pornography, euthanasia, abortion when it arose as an issue, and a popular culture they generally perceived as degradative. All of these viewpoints are rooted in a Christian morality; when other groups were attempting to withdraw their religious views from the political arena, they were studiously attempting to assert them. While many of the issues they’ve worked against have become culturally pervasive, their new issues often stem from a desire to maintain the status quo or return to the traditional, with positions like restoring prayer and Biblical literature in public schools and maintaining religious monuments on public property.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy quite different from religious conservatism. The main principle it upholds is the preservation of liberty; it is chiefly concerned with the size and reach of the federal government. Libertarians prefer an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, a strict adherence to the enumerated rights under the Constitution, removal of government regulation of businesses, free market capitalism, and low taxes. They also favor a curtailing of the “welfare state”, or cuts to entitlement spending. The group is split on the abortion issue, as they have difficulty reconciling the liberty of a woman to terminate a fetus with the rights to life many would ascribe to an unborn child. Frank Meyer was the chief proponent of this ideology at National Review under William F. Buckley; his focus in written materials was chiefly on the economic. Libertarians and business leaders who were repulsed by the big government intrusion occurring during the New Deal found a new home in the Republican Party under William F. Buckley. Most opponents of big government were disassociated with the Democratic party in the 1940’s, which became a party chiefly in line with the Keynesian economic theories and favored expanding the state to achieve this goal.
Neoconservatism, favored by James Burnham in National Review, is an elite, predominantly moderate ideology that is chiefly concerned with foreign policy. It was developed generally in response to the Cold War and the threat posed by Communism and Soviet Russia. While other foreign policy analysts favored an appeasement approach to Communist aggression, neoconservatives were proponents of the “rollback” policy, which was the idea that the U.S. should deliberately curtail the expansion of communism to different countries by active foreign intervention. Through interventionist foreign policies they also wished to spread American values and democratic ideals abroad. As a result many of the proponents of neoconservatism subscribed to the idea of “American exceptionalism” as well. This is the concept that America hold a special place among nations because of the unique elements of it’s character. Their domestic policies are far more moderate than the other two conservative ideologies. They are pro–immigration and in favor of some regulations of the private market and of the social sphere. As a generally elite, governing ideology it is also concerned with public policy goals, such as balanced budgets and preserving political norms. Irving Kristol famously described neoconservatives as a “liberal mugged by reality”, alluding to it’s liberal undertones. James Burnham not only served as a moderating force within National Review, but neoconservatism in general is a moderating force within the Republican party and in relation to the other conservative ideologies.
What is immediately noticeable when comparing these ideologies is the inherent contradictions they pose to each other. Libertarianism is a socially liberal ideology, and is tolerant or supportive of drug use (specifically marijuana), homosexuality and other liberal positions. This chaffs directly with the Christian morality of the religious conservative ideology, which rebels against the “popular culture” that supports drug use and other lifestyles they would consider vices. The general limited government perception of both the libertarian philosophy and the religious conservatives is not shared by neoconservatism. While it is moderate in its perception of government power in domestic issues, it is extreme in it’s activism for government exercise of power in foreign policy issues. Both libertarians and religious conservatives are skeptical of government power, but are especially opposed to the use of government power abroad for foreign influence. That these philosophies are in many ways fundamentally opposed but yet still joined together in pursuit of similar interests suggests that they do so for their electoral and political effectiveness, but not necessarily for their ideological parallels.
What is also clear is that these political philosophies are not mere abstractions. Each philosophy and the positions they hold has a corresponding faction that holds the same viewpoints and is active in politics in one degree or another, to the effect that their policies are achieved or at least discussed in the public sphere to some extent. The religious conservative philosophy is clearly the ideology of the Christian Religious faction, the libertarian philosophy goes with the Business/Libertarian faction, and the neoconservative philosophy corresponds to the Moderate/Hawk faction. Studies in voter demographics and positions find that these factions not only exist but share the ascribed political philosophies and have been impactful in politics since the beginning of their coalition in the 1960’s.
Particular running or recent studies in the ideological demographics of the Republican party demonstrate the continued efficacy of these factions within partisan politics. Pew Research Center conducts a running Political Typology survey examining the positions of groups across the political spectrum without account for party. It finds that there are eight notably distinct groups throughout the electorate, three of which fulfill the role as “partisan” anchors; these groups consistently vote with their ideologically aligned party. Of the three, two of them are right–wing partisan anchors, called “steadfast conservatives” and “business conservatives” within the survey.
“Steadfast conservatives” in the study are defined as “socially conservative populists”. This group holds social conservative opinions and is staunchly critical of the government and the welfare state. They are opposed to homosexuality and gay marriage, want limited immigration and are more likely to be religious. This would clearly describe the Christian Religious faction as theorized. “Business conservatives” are also easily categorized as the Business/Libertarian faction. Pew Research states that this group shares the support for limited government that the “steadfast conservatives” have but are primarily concerned with economic issues rather than social. This group also differs with the “steadfast conservatives’ in that they favor Wall Street and big businesses. They also support cutting taxes and decreasing regulation.
What is key to note about these two groups is not only their parallels to the political philosophies and theorized factions but how politically impactful they are relevant to other groups. “Steadfast conservatives” vote with the Republican party 87% of the time and constitute 12% of the general public, but are about 19% of those “politically engaged”, meaning they vote, contact their congressman, or protest in higher numbers than their overall percentage of the population. “Business conservatives” are similar; they vote with Republicans 84% of the time and are about 10% of the electorate, but account for 17% of those who politically engage. These theorized groups are clearly consistent facets of the Republican party, given the high percentage with which they vote with the party. The survey also shows us that both groups are overtly influential in the greater polity. They have percentages of political engagement that are about seven percentage points higher than their overall population percent, meaning they pose an outsized effect on the outcomes after Election Day compared with other groups. Not only are these groups present, but they matter politically.
Another study, presented by the New York Times and using polling and focus groups to draw out the political groups within the Republican party, found similar results. It defines four broad coalitions within the GOP, and then further delineates them to specific blocs. While it is clear that the broad coalitions correspond to the theorized factions, it is important to note the existence of blocs within each coalition; even within specific political philosophies and factions there are tensions between competing ideas and values.
The Cultural Coalition, identified as one of the largest groups in the study, is a group of traditional values voters. This coalition is religiously motivated and concerned with societal morality. They hold ordinary social conservative viewpoints and thus are in line with the Christian Religious faction. Within this coalition are blocs with curious dispositions, however. A large portion of this coalition is the “Biblical bloc”, notable for it’s strict Christian morality and dedication almost exclusively to individual causes, not the Republican Party itself. This bloc is often staunchly opposed to the party leadership and to the elected government in general. Also included is a bloc titled “America First”; it is characterized by it’s hostility to immigration and its isolationist foreign policy. This group, first noted in this 2005 study, is a clear precursor to the Make America Great Again coalition that would eventually give Donald Trump the nomination in 2016.
The “Leave Us Alone Coalition” is primarily characterized by it’s opposition to big government. This group is chiefly concerned with government spending and favors tax cuts. While this is clearly a fit with the Business/Libertarian faction, it is broad in the differing blocs it contains; it houses many groups more in line with libertarian thinking and other that look to be more single issue voters. The Security Coalition is the first noted group that would likely fit the build of the Moderate/Hawk faction. The study analysis defines this coalition as “neoconservative”; it’s primary concerns are the promotion of democracy abroad and anti–terrorism in a post–9/11 era, which is highlighted by the differing blocs within the overall coalition.
One aspect of the Security Coalition, and of the Moderate/ Hawk faction generally, is that it is far smaller a group in terms of electoral politics than the other factions described. The study juxtaposes each coalition and bloc against each other by size, and the neoconservative coalition is one of the smallest. This is likely because of the inherent nature of this political philosophy and faction; it is an elite ideology for several reasons. While it requires a large degree of knowledge (foreign policy is its main issue and as a subject is very involved and complex to the layman), it is also politically moderate, which doesn’t motivate voters as much as extreme, partisan ideas do. Why then, if it is not electorally effective, is it included within the theorized factions as a relevant force in our politics? Because of it’s nature as an elite policy prescription, many leaders within the Republican party ascribe to it. Notable conservatives that are characterized as “neoconservatives” include George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Max Boot, Jonah Goldberg, and other influential politicians and thinkers. Leaders often identify with this ideology, and because they hold the reins of power, they often dictate policy outcomes.Our history is replete with neoconservative policies in action; interventionism has until quite recently been a staple of American foreign policy. The Korean War, Vietnam War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are all examples of “rollback” policy or a general aggressive foreign policy stance that is a cornerstone of the Moderate/Hawk faction’s ideology. The fact that these events still occur under Republicans, even when the other two major factions of the party are opposed to foreign intervention, shows the effect of neoconservative philosophy on the party.
A Kaiser Foundation study done in conjunction with the Washington Post further cements the potency of the theorized factions, noting that parties consist of “fractious coalitions of people who converge on some core issues but whose worldviews, economic situations and attitudes on policy are far from uniform”. The first group suggested is the “Old–School Republicans”, whose politics are “economically conservative but socially moderate”. This group doesn’t as neatly fit into the other factions; it is likely a remnant of the paleoconservatives, similar to the smaller coalition noted in the previous study and titled the “Old Guard”. Two other groups in the Kaiser study more easily fit into the Christian Religious faction, titled the “Tea Party Movement Republicans” and the “Religious Values Voters”. These two groups “strongly identify with the tea party movement or are evangelical Christians”. They are more likely to attend church and are opposed to big government, like the Cultural Coalition described previously. “Pro–Government Republicans”, the study suggests, are those who “see a role for bigger government” in varying ways. This group is noted to be more moderate than the others listed.
A fascinating finding by the Kaiser study is its detailing of a group titled the “Window Shoppers”. This is a group of young voters who caucus with the Republican party a majority of the time. They are skeptical of big government but are liberal on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana. Other studies note the same; The Pew Research study suggests a group they call “Young Outsiders” fulfills the same aspects and constitutes about 14% of the general public. While they are not as solidly Republican as the main factions, their susceptibility to conservative policy positions suggests that this age cohort is not as solidly Democrat as many would like to think, and targeting them specifically could win over many young people to the Republican party.
Not only do these theorized factions exist and exert influence over the Republican party electorally, but they also command policy preferences within the party overall. There are a number of examples that can be drawn even from recent developments; the outcomes of religious liberty cases like the Masterpiece Cakeshop suit are a core issue for current Christian Religious voters, while the tax cuts worked through Congress by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are bread and butter for the Business/Libertarian faction. Not only are our enacted policies replete with examples, but the Republican party makes commitments to each of these factions in order to appease them, even if the commitments are untenable. The party platform is a clear example; in any given year each faction can source language and commitments made in it that correspond with the goals of that theorized faction. For example, the party platform is replete with commitments on taxes that are right in the wheelhouse of the Business/Libertarian faction. They propose to “reform the tax code by reducing marginal tax rates by 20 percent across-the-board in a revenue-neutral manner”. They also discuss restructuring entitlements, in order to curtail the expansion of debt and the “welfare state”. The Christian Religious faction is thrown a bone mainly in the platform’s discussion of social issues. The platform notes the GOP’s adherence to “preserving and protecting traditional marriage” and how an “unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed”. The Republican platform’s notes on curtailing the power of government also fall within the purview of this faction. Most of the discussion in line with the Moderate/Hawk faction occurs, not surprisingly, in foreign policy. Here the platform describes its need for a “strong national defense” and as “professing American exceptionalism”. It is clear that the Republican party is privy to the philosophy of each of the theorized factions, and crafts its platform in such a way as to appeal to those in each of these factions, in whatever way is most suitable or politically effective.
While much has been proven regarding the effectiveness of the theorized factions within Republican politics since the 1960’s, there has been some controversy as to whether or not these factions are still relevant, in light of the election of Donald Trump. Many suggest that, because the philosophical bent of Donald Trump does not align well with any of the described factions or even with the Republican party overall, that their ability to describe the voters who elected him president is waning or already irrelevant. Our running data, not only the most recent study but those previously that hinted at the existence of the MAGA coalition, suggests that this is hyperbole; while the factions may be split internally or even beginning to fall apart, they still existed and voted during 2016, and their combined efforts elected Trump president. The most recent study of coalitions within the Republican party, and the smaller blocs that constitute them, still suggest the existence of each of the main coalitions that paralleled the theorized factions. Where this study diverts is on the question of Donald Trump, as it was well known during the primary that many Republicans were conflicted on voting for him for a variety of reasons. Each of the broad coalitions returns, roughly in the same size; they hold the same policy positions as before but are now confronted with the ideas of Trump regarding trade, social issues, and other problems with which they agree or disagree. For example, within the Cultural Coalition, there was a difference between the “Biblical bloc” and the “Biblical Refuseniks bloc”. The former was captivated by the same ideas generally as the other but supported Trump as a result. The “Biblical Refuseniks” bloc opposed Trump on the same merits and pointed to his raunchy personal history as evidence of his disdain for religious morality. The Anti–Tax coalition, which is generally libertarian, is also split between a “Free Market” bloc is economically liberal while the “Populist Pessimist” bloc is considered the heart of the Tea Party movement. For that reason they become a group known for their opposition to big government and in favor of slashing federal spending. Even the “Security Coalition” is split between traditional neoconservatives and “America First” proponents who are opposed to interventionist foreign policies.
An interesting observation between the blocs in this study who voted for Trump and their corresponding blocs who did not is the discrepancy between their degree of principle and their corresponding support for Trump. Those blocs who, arguably, hold more cohesive worldviews and have more principled positions tended to support Trump less than the generally nationalistic, less coherent ideological blocs. For example, the traditional neoconservative “Interventionist” bloc supported ordinary neoconservative goals, while the corresponding “America First” policy holds conflicting viewpoints that are difficult to reconcile. The latter supports decreasing foreign aid and intervention, yet also want the military to take active steps to defeat ISIL. How do you defeat a foreign enemy proactively without an interventionist policy? The other blocs that supported Trump are similar in many respects, in that they seem more bound by their support for the president than by any of the ideas that have been described.
While these coalitions are fractured as a result of the 2016 election, they still exist nonetheless; their exertion of electoral power is still prominent and effective. But the future is in question for many of them. As noted above, principled and informed leaders and voters were less supportive of the Trump presidency than other voters. Many prominent Republican leaders or writers are quitting the party or have actively voiced their opposition to Donald Trump, but there is an equal or greater number of leaders who are quietly appeasing him even as he pursues policies that are antithetical to Republican ideology. Can these political factions and philosophies stay together after more than 50 years of caucusing together? It remains to be seen if the election of Donald Trump has more profound impacts on the ideological makeup of the party or if it is a temporary blip in the otherwise smooth running party machine that William F. Buckley built. What is clear, however, is that these factions elected the president, just as they helped elect every Republican president and politician following Reagan. Republican politicians ignore the preferences and power of these factions at their own peril.