I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The War begins: Social conservatives v. mainstream Republicans

The first four years of the Bush Administration, particularly after 9/11, were characterized by a highly unusual, and at times downright creepy, uniformity of opinion. It was almost impossible to find a Republican anywhere expressing any criticism of George Bush -- on any issue, ever. And other than a few humiliating attacks launched by the party's most extreme elements against so-called GOP moderates made for the purpose of showing who was Boss in the GOP, Republicans almost never spoke ill of one another either, despite glaring differences in their views on a whole host of critically important issues.

In many ways, over this time period, the GOP more closely resembled a cult than a political party, and the cohesiveness of the cult was centered around Personality -- a glorification of, and blind reverence for, George W. Bush.

With Bush's plummeting approval ratings -- and with the Administration's competence and integrity being assaulted on all fronts -- this is all changing now, and it is changing rapidly and dramatically. As it becomes unavoidably clear just how insatiable and extreme the social conservatives' appetite is for using unlimited governmental power to impose their religious agenda on all aspects of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, many mainstream conservatives are waking up -- finally -- and realizing how incompatible that agenda is with true conservatism.

In what is sure to be a potent bellwether of the imminent war, George Will uses his column this week to expressly accuse the "social conservative" wing of the GOP of being decidedly un-conservative in its objectives and ideology, and all but warns that the GOP will be destroyed by the continued ascendancy of this sector of the Republican Party. Using the truly embarrassing (but quite illustrative) decision of a Kansas school board to literally re-define science in order to permit the teaching of warmed-over creationism in the public schools, Will warns:

"It does me no injury," said Thomas Jefferson, "for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." But it is injurious, and unneighborly, when zealots try to compel public education to infuse theism into scientific education.

The conservative coalition, which is coming unglued for many reasons, will rapidly disintegrate if limited-government conservatives become convinced that social conservatives are unwilling to concentrate their character-building and soul-saving energies on the private institutions that mediate between individuals and government, and instead try to conscript government into sectarian crusades.

There is not and has never been anything remotely conservative about these religious extremists. They do not favor limited government in any way. They believe so faithfully in the righteousness of their political agenda that they see any means to achieve their objectives as justifiable -- including exploiting and increasing the powers of all 3 branches of the federal government in order to achieve them.

But Will's dire warnings are too late. The GOP is already hopelessly dependent upon the enthusiastic support of this strident, power-hungry minority. And these social conservatives are tired of waiting. They believe that their time for true power has arrived and they are not going to modify their demands or be satisfied with token gestures. They believe that they twice delivered the Presidency to George Bush and that the GOP needs them if the party is to stay in power. These beliefs have made them drunk with power and they are insisting upon carte blanche to control the areas of federal policy they care about. And they have been given that control by a captive Administration which has no choice.

Almost nothing happens of any domestic significance without the prior consultation and approval of the James Dobson's of the world, and entire sectors of federal law are being shaped to comport with their highly intrusive vision. There is nothing conservative about it, but by operating in the bureaucratic crevices of Washington where little attention is paid, they are slowly but inexorably re-creating almost every sector of federal law and administrative agency regulations in their own image.

Mainstream conservatives were willing to tolerate these creeping theocratic intrusions because they, like almost everyone else, were cowed into submission by the Bush Administration's cynical post-9/11 exploitation of war and patriotism rhetoric, and because they thought they would get the things they cared about (reduced federal spending, enforcement of immigration laws, a reduction in the scope and reach of the federal government) in exchange for a few token, tolerable crumbs symbolically being thrown to the social conservative crowd in order to placate them.

But, as it turns out, the joke is on the mainstream conservatives. It is they who have been placated with token crumbs as they watch federal power and federal spending explode, often in order to promote the fundamentals of the social conservative agenda. With Bush now becoming weaker and weaker, they are magically re-discovering their beliefs and their courage and are beginning to crawl out of their cages and survey what is taking place. And they aren't happy about it.

Like Yugoslavia when it was ruled by Tito, these simmering conflicts among the GOP constituencies have been suppressed and prohibited by the unchallenged rule of George Bush, but the conflicts were never truly eliminated. They lurked under the homogenized surface. And as Bush's hegemonic rule over his party disintegrates, so, too, does his ability to suppress these disagreements. Without the unifying authority behind which they all obediently followed, these conflicts are bubbling to the surface again, ready to explode.

It is about time. The social conservatives have bought into their own PR, and have been aided by a dumb, uncritical media which, almost immediately after Bush's re-election, got collectively bullied into reading the 2004 election as some unmistakable sign that the true face of the American populace is James Dobson. That is not true and never was. Social conservatives are a loud and organized minority, but a minority to be sure. And their liberty-restricting, regressive agenda is plainly anathema to the majority of Americans, and even the majority of Republicans, who enjoy their individual liberties and freedoms as much as anyone else and do not want the Federal Government annexed by a crusading crowd which wants to use and radically expand Federal power in order to dictate how Americans live and die.

This war has been a long time coming and it is long past the time that it plays out. But better late than never. It is the mainstream conservatives like Will who permitted this takeover of the GOP by these religious extremists, and it is their responsibility to clean up the mess they made.

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