The Four Flavors of Republican

As I’ve explained elsewhere, the news media does a good job at telling us what is new today, but a bad job of explaining the context-providing frames that the insiders have known all along.

That is showing up big-time in the coverage of the Republican presidential campaign. Let a new poll come out or one candidate launch a new sound bite at another, and CNN is all over it, whether it actually makes any difference or not. That’s how we wind up with so much coverage of manufactured events like August’s Iowa Straw Poll, which in retrospect did not even say much about last Tuesday’s Iowa Caucus, which in itself was a bit of a manufactured event.

On the other hand, the background truths that insiders take for granted are never “new”, so they don’t make headlines.

I thought I’d fill in one of those gaps by asking: What is this thing called “the Republican Party”? What are its components? How do they fit together? And how do the various candidates relate to them?

The four components. Republicans come in one of four basic flavors: NeoCons, Corporatists, Libertarians, and Theocrats. I don’t call them factions because the boundaries between them aren’t clear-cut. You can pitch many of the same pitch ideas to all four, but each requires its own spin.

Take global warming. All four flavors are potential climate-change deniers, but each requires its own argument: Tell Corporatists that regulating or taxing carbon will cut profits. Tell Libertarians that global warming is a conspiracy to impose world government. Theocrats will also buy the conspiracy angle, if you emphasize that the plot was concocted by the same evil scientists behind the evolution conspiracy. Tell NeoCons that any carbon restrictions we accept will work to the advantage of the Chinese.

But they aren’t just tribes speaking different languages. Their substantive differences show up most clearly on drugs. Libertarians want to legalize drugs, because what business is it of the government’s anyway? This position is anathema to the Theocrats, who see the government as the guardian of public morality. NeoCons fundamentally don’t care, while Corporatists would happily make money selling either heroin in elementary schools or helicopters to the DEA or both.

Get the idea? Now let’s go through them one by one.

  • NeoCons are the people who gave us the Iraq War. Their highest priority is that the United States remain the top military power in the world, and that we use our power to prevent the rise of any rival powers. Their #1 issue in this election is Iran. When a candidate says we have to do “whatever it takes” to prevent Iran getting a nuclear weapon, he (now that Bachmann has dropped out I’ll refer to candidates as he) is appealing for NeoCon support. Of all the remaining candidates, Newt Gingrich is the clearest NeoCon choice.
  • Corporatists champion the interests of corporations and want to weaken government, unions, or any other power that might resist corporate dominance. Often they borrow the individualistic rhetoric of the Libertarians, but their motivation is different: They want decisions made by individuals because individuals are no match for corporations. Mitt Romney was the corporatist candidate even before he said, “Corporations are people, my friend.
  • Libertarians want government restricted to defending people and property against crime, defending the borders against invasion, and enforcing contracts. If you don’t want the government to restrict your neighbor’s right to build a nuclear power plant in his back yard, you’re a Libertarian and your candidate is Ron Paul.
  • Theocrats (a.k.a. Social Conservatives or the Religious Right) believe that morality is eternal and established by God, and that society will collapse if it diverges from this God-given script. Therefore the government should promote true morality and punish deviance. They are especially obsessed with anything that changes gender roles: abortion, gay rights, and even contraception.

It’s possible to organize them on two axes, as in the diagram: Corporatists and Libertarians want weak government, while Theocrats and NeoCons want government strong enough to control your bedroom and tap your phone. Libertarians and Theocrats have a populist/outsider mentality that is suspicious of experts and prone to conspiracy theories. Corporatists and NeoCons have an elitest/insider mentality, believing that people are stupid and need to be manipulated into doing what’s best. Insiders see outsiders as useful idiots; outsiders sense this attitude and resent it.

Trust and volatility. This coalition goes back to Reagan, who virtually invented the useful-idiot theory, using social issues as bright, shiny objects to get Theocrats’ attention, but not actually doing anything about them once in office. As Thomas Frank put it in What’s the Matter With Kansas?:

Values may “matter most” to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. … Vote to stop abortion, receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors, receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists, receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.

The outsider groups have been catching on lately, which is how they turned the tables in the 2010 elections: The Tea Party was supposedly all about economic issues, but once in office the first priority was restricting abortion.

That’s why the Republican electorate has been so jittery in the 2012 cycle, jumping from candidate to candidate and asking who the “real” conservative is. Everybody is afraid of getting played — except for the Corporatists, who have complete confidence in Romney.

Agree/Disagree. Four groups means six relationships.

  • Corporatist/NeoCon. Agree: Control the world’s oil. Install pro-capitalist, pro-globalization governments. Disagree: Iran (Corporatists want to make money trading with them) and immigration (NeoCons worry about the border, Corporatists want cheap labor).
  • Corporatist/Libertarian. Agree: Cut taxes and regulations, including regulations on campaign contributions. Disagree: convergence of Wall Street and Washington (Libertarians want to abolish the Fed, Corporatists want cheap loans from it).
  • Corporatist/Theocrat. A diagonal relationship; mostly they can co-operate because their issues have so little to do with each other. Agree: oppose anti-poverty programs, see wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. Disagree: globalization.
  • NeoCon/Libertarian. Another diagonal relationship, but more fraught. Agree: on substance, not much. Disagree: foreign wars, civil liberties.
  • NeoCon/Theocrat. Onward Christian soldiers. Agree: American exceptionalism, Pro-Israel, anti-Muslim, no gays in the military. Disagree: NeoCon indifference to social issues.
  • Libertarian/Theocrat. Agree: against liberal judges. Disagree: government as a moral watchdog.

Unifying rhetoric. Talking out of four sides of your mouth is a good trick, even for a professional politician. So spinmeisters have developed variety of rhetorical tropes so that the same words are heard differently by different people.

To give just one example, Theocrats and Libertarians share attitudes, but not policies. Both are nostalgic: Libertarians for the Robber Baron era of the late 1800s, Theocrats for the Great Awakening of the 1700s.

Worshipful rhetoric about the Founders is designed to appeal to both. Theocrats believe the Founders established a Christian Republic, while Libertarians identify the Founders with limited government — too limited to get into your bedroom or your medicine cabinet. So a candidate need only say “the Founders” and each group will fill in the picture it likes.

Fault lines. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush unified the four flavors, but this year no candidate does. NeoCons can’t support Ron Paul, Libertarians can’t support Rick Santorum, and Theocrats can’t support Mitt Romney. That’s why Republican insiders keep having fantasies about some new candidate — it’s basically the same fantasy they had about Rick Perry before he turned out to be an idiot: a tough-talking, pro-business, Christian Reconstructionist who wants to abolish the EPA.

Each non-fantasy candidate exposes a different fault line, so expect Obama to run differently depending on who the Republican nominee is. His increasing economic populism of late is evidence that he expects to run against Romney.

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