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July 01, 2014 11:42 AM Republican Party Factions and the Hobby Lobby Decision

By Julia Azari

For liberal and feminist writers and scholars, the silver lining of today’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. seems to be the prediction that it will make religious conservatives look bad. Slate’s Amanda Marcotte predicts that the decision will make it easier to for political opponents to paint the “Christian right as little more than a movement of sex-obsessed busybodies.” In Salon, Simon Maloy pointed out that the decision, and the GOP’s reaction to it, are unlikely to improve the party’s numbers among young, single women.

The polls aren’t too encouraging for the GOP’s position on contraception coverage. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in May found that respondents supported requiring employer coverage, 55% to 40%. But coalition maintenance is arguably as important as broad appeals for American political parties - maybe more so. And coalition maintenance has been a problem for Republicans lately. A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that religious liberty might have the potential to unite Republican factions.

The religious liberty-contraception question provides an opportunity for three important factions within the Republican Party - ideological libertarians, business interests, and social conservatives - to agree on something. For years, the assumption had been that the imminent split in the Republican Party would occur between social and economic conservatives. The logic goes something like this: Economic conservatives fundamentally motivated by dual preferences for limited government and economic gain. Social conservatives, on the other hand (according to the received wisdom) are culture warriors who favor more, not less, government control over the private lives of American citizens.

As the New Deal coalition came apart and a new Republican Party came together, Reagan articulated ideas about national renewal and return to core values. This approach tied together social and economic conservatism. George W. Bush’s pursuit of policy to preserve traditional marriage brought the anti-gay strains of the coalition out, but it turns out that excluding groups of Americans is bad for business. Social conservatism was derided as a “distraction,” and as incompatible with the party’s commitment to individual liberty. In the later years of the Bush administration, a major split down these lines seemed a likely possibility. Philosophical differences can be very difficult to reconcile, as we learned with the Northern and Southern Democrats in the twentieth century.

However, the party’s economic faction isn’t monolithic. The last few years have revealed a clear distinction between more ideological libertarians, some of whom have embraced the Tea Party label. In Congress, some members of this faction have threatened not to raise the debt ceiling and praised the government shutdown. More traditional economic conservatives represent the business community’s interest in lower taxes and thinner regulations, but also in stability.

Cases like the Hobby Lobby contraception case bring a new frame to social issues. Instead of using a culture war frame, as in the 1980s and 1990s, or the idea of returning to traditional values, these debates cast social issues in terms of religious liberty. (Obviously, there are also some counter-frames on the left.) This new frame forms provides a philosophical link between libertarians and social conservatives. In other words, social conservatives may not be invested in individual liberty for its own sake, but will gravitate to the cause as it relates to religious practice. Similarly, ideological libertarians may or may not care about IUDs or gay Scout masters, but they dislike the idea of the government compelling groups or businesses to do something that violates their beliefs.

The possibility of a strong alliance between libertarians and social conservatives has implications for the broader conversation about the Republican Party, factions, and governance. As Christopher Parker noted, the insurgent faction within the party has earned itself the nickname “wacko birds” from John McCain. Insurgents also have a distinct chance of obstructing major policy reforms favored by the business community and by more established Republicans. In his remarks about immigration reform today, Obama asked GOP leaders (namely, John Boehner) to stand up to the Tea Party. A possible alliance between social conservatives and ideological libertarians would incorporate many elements of the post-policy insurgent faction - emphasis on symbolism and representation of an energized, compromise-averse base.

What, then, are the implications of Monday’s decision? As I’ve already noted, the case seems to have provided something for business, libertarian ideologues, and social conservatives to agree on. The decision in favor of Hobby Lobby and the Green family may also lend some legitimacy to the idea that personal liberty and traditional moral values (or whatever label you prefer) can go together.

Veering into counterfactual territory, a defeat for Hobby Lobby would likely have been a rallying event for a social/religious-libertarian alliance. Losses at the hands of unelected judges are great for energizing supporters. For a party faction that thrives on outsider identity and thwarting the establishment, the Court would have made an especially potent antagonist. But that didn’t happen, and my suspicion is that a victory won’t be nearly as powerful as a loss for galvanizing a social conservative-libertarian alliance within the Republican coalition.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.

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