What if, while we were distracted by the ongoing culture war, conservatives surrendered the social contract—the implicit agreement between citizens and the state? I think we are witnessing that right now. While Fox News was focused on Dr. Seuss and “owning the libs,” Democrats passed a wildly popular $1.9 trillion stimulus package billed as COVID relief.
Republicans unanimously voting against it belies the fact that, unlike the Tea Party movement that arose during the Obama era, there was never an organized, much less coherent, attempt to sway public opinion against it. What remains is something akin to Obamacare on steroids. Whereas Americans only gradually came to expect that health care was a birthright, we are starting from a premise that American families should expect a monthly check from the government. For a party that cries “socialism” at the drop of a hat, the GOP’s response to this was, shall we say, underwhelming.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the GOP is completely embarrassing itself and being historically and morally irresponsible—they’re voting against help for their own constituents and instead trying to get people riled up by Dr. Seuss. But my take is different. I think the culture war is legitimate. And it’s not just about Dr. Seuss—or even Mr. Potato Head. It’s about Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
But what we are not fully appreciating is the silent surrender by congressional Republicans of a limited government worldview that once held that earned success and hard work give us meaning and purpose. That deficits do matter. That there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That taking money from the government comes with strings, ultimately leading to less freedom and (not to sound extreme) a form of quasi-servitude. This was once a mainstream view among conservatives.
I’m not saying that COVID relief is necessarily a bad idea. I do believe, considering we just spent $600 billion and that vaccines are being distributed, that the amount should have been much lower. And the telling thing isn’t that this massive bill passed so much as that it aroused such little vocal conservative opposition. Once upon a time, fiscal conservatism constituted a third of the Republican three-legged stool (along with social conservatism and national security conservatism). The fiscal conservatives were arguably the first leg of the stool, having been motivated initially in opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the welfare state. This coalition endured, more or less, until Donald Trump’s election.
Today, thanks largely to Trump’s presidency, conservatives have abandoned fiscal conservative concerns about things like limited government, free markets, and government spending. Aside from likely costing Republicans two Senate seats in Georgia (that would have blocked this bill), the individuals and institutions who would once have stood athwart big government “picking winners and losers” were either coopted, discredited, or neutered during the Trump era. They have subsequently abandoned the larger concerns about losing our individual autonomy and now eschew the Horatio Alger “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ethos that once animated the American Dream.
My guess is that this spending bill merely foreshadows what is to come when the next disaster strikes (or when some of these temporary programs will inevitably become permanent). Once the public becomes used to expecting something from the government, it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Depending on your politics, this may or may not be a positive development. But we should be clear that it is a very big change, and one that has largely gone unnoticed. When the GOP shifted from the party that at least paid lip service to “compassionate conservatism” to a MAGA #war party, the shift was obvious and clear. Almost nobody is talking about the party’s shift to the notion that the government should dole out this much money. If they are talking about it, I clearly missed the meeting.
I don’t want to downplay the significance of the culture wars. As Andrew Breitbart said (borrowing from a Daniel Patrick Moynihan truism), “politics is downstream from culture.” And while I agree that culture is an important issue for conservatives to address, isn’t abandoning our economic worldview also a big deal? Instead of distracting us from a losing vote, the focus on the Lorax has distracted us from complete surrender.
What is more, there is an argument to be had over specific items included in this bill. One could even argue that another small dose of socialism might inoculate us from something worse. The failure by liberals to appreciate the economic plight of working-class white America at least partially contributed to the rise of Trump.
So there are aspects of this stimulus bill—like the child tax credit—that at least warrant debate and discussion. For example, old-school conservatives might argue that giving money to people who don’t work creates moral hazards and unintended consequences. On the other hand, “common good” conservatives and old-fashioned social conservatives might cast aside those 1990s classical liberal arguments in favor of incentivizing and subsidizing the having (and raising) of children.
But should there be work requirements? Or should the spending be offset by others welfare cuts? This is a debate worth having—except we’re not. Instead, Fox News has been fascinated by The Cat in the Hat.
Rather than focusing on such substantive debates, the entertainment wing of the conservative movement is banking that the culture war will pay off both in terms of ratings and electorally. And that might be a valid assumption. One could imagine that Republican voters will be happy to get free money (like everyone else)—even if they don’t punish their GOP heroes for voting against it. Or maybe they will simply forget about it come 2022. Simultaneously, one could imagine even some minority voters might be turned off by left-wing cultural revolution). The point being that Dr. Seuss could be on the ballot in 2022, and that would benefit the GOP.
But what good is it to win short-term elections if your fundamental beliefs are lost? The whole premise of fighting against these culture war issues is that they are prior to, and thus more important than, elections. Future electoral results are predicated on winning past culture war battles. The whole point is to win the argument so you can later win the vote. What Republicans are doing right now is more akin to switching arguments (or, at least, emphasizing one while abandoning the other). As recently as a decade ago, conservatives acutely understood that spending was inextricably tied to the culture wars.
Remember the Tea Party? Remember Glenn Beck’s show? Thanks to Donald Trump’s presidency, conservatives have seemingly surrendered an entire front of the culture war—approximately one-third of the territory occupied by the Reagan Revolution—and we barely noticed. The era of small government is over.