While few in either the mainstream media or the conservative commentariat have been so bold as to deny that the Republican Party is a lot more ideologically rigid than it was four or twelve or thirty years ago, there has been some regular pushback against attaching such terms as “radical” and “extremist” to the party’s views. Some conservatives like to claim that they just look extreme when compared to a Democratic Party dominated by a radical socialist president. Others admit their party is in an ideological grip unlike anything seen since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, but argue the whole country’s moved with them. (Just observe Michele Bachmann’s recent statement that the Tea Party represents the views of 90 percent of the U.S. population). But more common is the effort, which extends deep into the media, to push back against charges of Republican extremism on grounds that, well, a party that won over half the ballots of 2010 voters cannot, by definition, be anything other than solidly in the mainstream. And so it becomes habitual to denigrate even the most specific text-proofs that something odd is going on in the GOP as “liberal hysteria” or mere agitprop.
This 45-million-Americans-can’t-be-wrong meme has been deployed most recently to scoff at those progressive writers who have drawn attention to the rather peculiar associations of presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. The most typical retort came from Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller, who deplored those scrutinizing Bachmann’s legal training at Oral Roberts University or the “dominionist” beliefs common among many key organizers of Perry’s recent “day of prayer and fasting” as “raising fears on the left about ‘crazy Christians.’” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat offered a more sophisticated but functionally equivalent rebuke, suggesting that Bachmann and Perry were representing a long Republican tradition of co-opting religious extremists with absolutely no intention of giving them genuine influence.
But the recent resurgence of militant Christian Right activism, alongside its close cousin, “constitutional conservatism,” is genuinely troubling to people who don’t share the belief that the Bible or the Constitution tell you exactly what to do on a vast array of political issues. From both perspectives, conservative policy views are advanced not because they make sense empirically, or are highly relevant to the contemporary challenges facing the country, or because they may from time to time reflect public opinion. They are, instead, rooted in a concept of the eternal order of the universe, or in the unique (and, for many, divinely ordained) character of the United States. As such, they suggest a fundamentally undemocratic strain in American politics and one that can quite justifiably be labeled extreme.
CONSIDER THE LANGUAGE of the Mount Vernon Statement, the 2010 manifesto signed by a glittering array of conservative opinion-leaders, from Grover Norquist to Ed Fulner to Tony Perkins:
We recommit ourselves to the ideas of the American Founding. Through the Constitution, the Founders created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law. They sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government. …
The conservatism of the Declaration asserts self-evident truths based on the laws of nature and nature’s God.
An agenda speaking with the authority of “self-evident truths based on the laws of nature and nature’s God” and advancing the “enduring framework” of the Founders is, by definition, immutable. And in turn, that means that liberals (or, for that matter, their RINO enablers) are not simply misguided, but are objectively seeking to thwart God and/or betray America. Think that might have an impact on the tone of politics, or the willingness of conservatives to negotiate over the key tenets of their agenda?
From this point of view, all the recent carping about liberal alarm over the religious underpinnings of contemporary conservatism seems to miss the big picture rather dramatically. Both Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have conspicuously offered themselves as leaders to religio-political activists who, whatever their theological differences, largely share a belief that God’s Will on Earth requires the repeal of abortion rights and same-sex relationship rights, radical curtailment of government involvement in education or welfare, assertion of Christian nationhood in both domestic and international relations, and a host of other controversial initiatives. Does it ultimately matter, then, whether these activists consider themselves “dominionists” or “reconstructionists,” or subscribe to Bill Bright’s Seven Mountains theory of Christian influence over civic and cultural life? I don’t think so.
Similarly, the frequent mainstream media and conservative recasting of the Tea Party as just a spontaneous salt-of-the-earth expression of common-sense attitudes towards fiscal profligacy is hard to sustain in light of the almost-constant espousal of “constitutional conservative” ideology by Tea Party leaders and the politicians most closely associated with them. Perhaps Rick Perry, just like his Tea Party fans, really is personally angry about the stimulus legislation of 2009 or the Affordable Care Act of 2010, and that’s fine. But no mainstream conservative leader since Goldwater has published a book challenging the constitutionality and morality of the entire policy legacy of the New Deal and (with the marginal exception of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) the Great Society. Ronald Reagan, to cite just one prominent example, justified his own conservative ideology as the reaction of a pure-bred New Deal Democrat to the later excesses of liberalism. Reagan also largely refrained from promoting his policy ideas as reflecting a mandate from God or the Founders, and he treated Democrats with at least minimal respect.
In that sense, major presidential candidates like Perry and Bachmann really are something new under the sun. They embody a newly ascendant strain of conservatism that is indeed radical or extremist in its claims to represent not just good economics or good governance, but eternal verities that popular majorities can help implement but can never overturn. They deserve all the scrutiny they have attracted, and more.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.