A divided Republican Party tests the conservative faithful

American Bald Eagle

America's symbol seems to be looking for direction

It has become evident that the race for the Republican nominee for President of the United States is completely different from any campaign in history.

Some Republicans have been scratching their heads wondering how the race produced four such disparate candidates. Candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul appear to have very little in common with each other. And you would think that would not be the case with a political party where doctrinal lockstep has been the hallmark of the ruling class for so many years.

You can analyze the cause of the shakeup all you want. The Tea Party. The collapse of the Bush presidency. On and on goes the analysis as to why Republicans are fighting among themselves. But there’s really a simple reason why Republicans have four such strange candidates to choose from: Sooner or later, it had to be this way.

The Republican platform in the last 30 years has relied on four doctrinal pillars that have had to work together to deliver Republican candidates to power. And for a long time, it worked. But now those four doctrines are set apart in stark outline.

Fiscal conservatives are the branch of the party that focuses on monetary policy and prefers to let economic markets determine distribution of wealth. “Less regulation” is their call to action.

Political conservatives contend that the freedoms of democracy (especially as originally outlined in the Constitution) are sufficient to provide opportunity for every citizen to succeed. “Less government” is their mantra.

Social conservatives promote the value of traditional institutions and cultural laws as a foundation for government and society. “Less liberalism” is their war cry.

Religious conservatives bring God, faith and moral values to the cultural and political table. Hewing most closely to fundamentalist approach to the scriptures, their political action plan is “Less God means a weaker country.”

So, do you know which candidates fall into which conservative category by now?

Romney is the most obvious. His background as a venture capitalist is how he became fabulously wealthy. And his statement on the campaign trail that “corporations are people, my friend,” illustrates his worldview. Definitely playing the role of the fiscal conservative.

Next up is political conservative Ron Paul, who would prefer that government be shrunk down to almost nothing. The man with the Libertarian bent occupies a political conservative space so far to the right no one dares to reach out and touch him, for fear of being sucked into an invisible vortex.

Newt Gingrich should be functioning as a political conservative. As the key proponent of the Contract For America in the 1990s he led the Republican charge to distill politics down to a laundry list. With its politically fundamentalist bent, that tactic appealed to political conservatives at the time. But as Gingrich succumbed to his own hubris and drew breach of ethics charges that seemed to have destroyed his reputation as a political conservative, he was forced to abandon that strategy for a political future and came back through a different channel, and he chose that of a social conservative. But first Gingrich had some baggage to unload, so he conveniently joined the Catholic Church, that portal of confessional virtue, and briefly surged as a frontrunner leading up to the Florida primary where social conservatism is so highly valued. But playing the social conservative has been a strange and difficult role for Gingrich, and he has ultimately failed, in part because he walks sideways and talks out of the corner of his mouth about everything, at least figuratively. In  other words, he ultimately wasn’t believable as a straight-talking social conservative. But it was the only card he had to play.

That’s because Rick Santorum had locked up the position of religious conservative well before the campaign even began. Santorum’s views on virtually every subject are so heavily tinged with a conservative brand of Catholicism that many Republican voters early in the race shied away from such a marginal candidate. His recent rise in popularity is a sign of conservative desperation. The label “authentic” is being applied with some pride to Santorum, but what they really mean is “suitably extreme,” and we’ll get to what that means in a minute.

Because you see the electoral process for Republicans worked like a centrifuge this time around. The tightly spinning centrifuge of debates, caucuses and media exposure have slung the substance of Republicanism hard against the walls of the conservatism. And this time around the ideology produced four completely separate candidates, each of them pushed to the extreme limits of the ideology as a means to look convincingly clear about their respective subjects. In fact it has been the extreme failure of Republican policies under Bush that put so much centrifugal force to play upon conservatives in general. Economic policy: Costly Fail. Political and foreign policy: Damaging fail. Social and education policy: F+. Religious policy: Just plain creepy and hypocritical. Republicans tried everything they believed would work in America and got four “F’s” for the effort. So the pressure was on, especially now that President Barack Obama’s policy’s have actually had time to correct some of the mistakes made by conservative legislators the last decade. Obama rescued the automotive industry. Slowly stimulated the economy and didn’t overheat it. Provided intelligent support in foreign policy and military action that led to the death of Osama bin Laden and the fall of several dictators. These actions have got Republican heads spinning. And now the economy is bouncing back as well.

All this centrifugal force has left the formerly unified party to wonder aloud, “What happened?”

The fact is, reality happened. Conservatism as a social movement is, after all, a deeply hypocritical and confused mess. In fact, if you look close enough, it is possible to argue that the ideal we know as conservatism does functionally exist at all.

We’ve seen the effects of literalistic capitalism in America. The less we regulate the more things blow up in our faces. Like a bad chemistry experiment gone awry, the economy definitely needs a set of processes and ground rules and regulation performs that function. So conservatism likes to talk ideologically about the power of the free market to govern itself, but that is an exceptionally Darwinist notion that is not at all acceptable for civil society.

The claim of political conservatives that “less government is always better” is hypocritical by definition. If you don’t believe in the power of government to do good, why run for office?

Social conservatives simply fail to account for the fact that the world is not only changing all the time, but it has to change. Even if something was good in the past, the environment in which it functions is altering daily through technology, science, social progress and globalization. But if social conservatives had their way we would still have slavery, women would not have the right to vote and Jim Crow laws would still exist. Prohibition would still be in force. The list goes on and on. Anachronism is not a force for social good.

The archest forms of religious conservatives want to impose theocracy on America, and the Constitution defies that. Plus the belief system of fundamentalist Christians ignores and distorts the true meaning of the bible in ways that are simply irreconcilable to the natural laws and science upon which modern society depends.

Jam all four of these dysfunctional worldviews together and you have a real mess on your hands. And that’s what we got under 8 years of the Bush II presidency. A near total collapse of our economy, the 9/11 tragedy, illegal wars, torture and flaunting of Constitutional laws like never before, and Bush claimed his actions were the will of God somehow.

The dysfunctions of conservatism as a conglomerate doctrine complicate matters by trying to reconcile ideologies that stand for different truths. These are meant to balance each other out, but instead conservatism tries to pretend the differences don’t exist.

For example, if one truly believes in the literalistic version of market capitalism, then sharing your wealth as Jesus recommends in the bible is a ridiculous and socialistic notion. But in fact the Bible shows Jesus frequently requiring the wealthy give away their riches if they hope to gain entrance into heaven. Recall the parable of the camel going through the eye of the needle?

So based on dichotomies such as these, it was inevitable that the conservative wad of ideology would someday blow apart. We should be surprised it didn’t happen sooner. But people desperate for political power will cling together under the most egregious of banners, and conservatism has served that purpose for many people too many years.

Now we have Romney, Paul, Gingrich and Santorum standing before us like they don’t even want to be in the same room together. They argue and claw at each other furiously, proving forever that the four pillars of conservatism really have little to do with each other. Not if you look closely enough, and we’re getting that chance now. Real Republicans, the kind that understand the art and benefit of political compromise, want to puke. But one of these candidates will either get the nomination or the Republicans will arrive at an ugly conclusion too late and throw the whole lot out in favor of a brokered nominee. We can only hope it is not Jeb Bush.

But it’s quite obvious the Republicans prefer a messy wad of a candidate to the clearly defined truths that divide their party. Republicans have been so busy dismissing the various faults of their highly flawed candidates… even the strident bellows of Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly and Fox News are almost squeezed out with the effort. But like always, they’ll find a way to justify whatever they believe is good for the country, even if it’s not. Based on what we can learn from this year’s electoral race, it is still power that matters to Republicans and conservatives in the end, not principles.

It all seems like art imitating life. The Burt Reynolds character in the original football flick “The Longest Yard” once said, “I’ve had my shit together a long time. It just doesn’t fit in one bucket.”

Truer words could not be said of this year’s Republican nomination race.

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