Events during the past few years have caused many conservatives to be decidedly pessimistic about their future political prospects. Republicans fared poorly in the 2006 U.S. midterm election, losing control of both the House and Senate. Furthermore, many conservatives were uninspired by the field of candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2008, and disappointed that John McCain emerged as the nominee. In the wake of these defeats, numerous pundits have argued that the conservative movement needs to fundamentally restructure itself. However, Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist takes a far different view. In his recent book, Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, and Our Lives, Norquist makes a compelling case that the future actually looks quite bright for limited-government conservatives.
Norquist argues that future political battles will be waged between two competing coalitions. First is the loose coalition of “Leave Us Alone” voters, consisting of small businessmen, property owners, homeschoolers, and others who wish to conduct their affairs free from governmental interference. Second is the “takings” coalition consisting of trial lawyers, labor unions, government workers, and those who use the power of the state to redistribute resources. Leave Us Alone voters are natural allies of the Republican Party, which gives the GOP a distinct advantage over the Democrats’ takings coalition. After all, Democrat special-interest groups must compete against each other for the same state-directed resources. Leave Us Alone voters, who all share the same acquisitive government adversary, don’t need to compete — more often, they cooperate. Most importantly, Norquist argues that, in future, Republicans should be able to expand these coalitions of single-issue voters who just want government to leave them alone.
A large part of Norquist’s argument rests on demographic trends. Indeed, many groups that typically vote Republican — such as investors, gun owners, and homeschoolers — are growing rapidly. Furthermore, many groups whose members often vote Democrat, such as labor unions, are shrinking in absolute terms. Norquist’s argument is bolstered when he analyzes the membership trends of various religions. Religious groups whose members are likely to support Republicans, including Evangelical Protestants, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews, are seeing their memberships grow. Conversely, religious groups whose memberships are mostly Democrats, including Mainline Protestants and Reform Jews, are actually getting smaller.
To his credit, Norquist does engage those demographic trends that appear to pose political problems for limited-government conservatives. Specifically, many analysts have argued that the Democratic party will benefit from increases in the Hispanic population. Norquist acknowledges that this will pose challenges, but argues that conservatives can still capture a sizeable percentage of the Hispanic vote. First, Hispanics who are evangelical Protestants and Hispanics from Cuba, are already likely to support Republican candidates. Furthermore, Republicans have been successful in capturing a large percentage of the Hispanic vote in states like Florida and Texas, both of which have pro-immigrant governors and less generous welfare benefits. The best strategy according to Norquist might be to follow the lead of these governors and implement policies to make Hispanics less dependent on government and more sensitive toward taxes.
Norquist also argues that the political terrain should work to the advantage of limited-government conservatives as well. This is for several reasons. In close presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, President Bush won 30 and 31 states, respectively. Since Republican Senate candidates should be at an advantage in these states, Republicans should eventually accumulate over 60 Senate seats — good for a filibuster-proof majority. Second, since Republicans have won more state legislative races in recent years, Congressional Districts in many states are being redrawn to benefit Republicans. Also, Norquist predicts that Business PACs are now more likely to donate to Republican Congressional candidates because they see that Republicans are capable of winning and maintaining Congressional majorities. Finally, the rise of the Internet and talk radio has given conservatives the ability to promote their ideas, free of interference from the mainstream media.
In Leave Us Alone, Norquist highlights a number of interesting political and demographic trends that should bode well for Republican candidates in the future. However, Republican political victories do not always result in substantial policy gains for conservatives. Now, it is true that, at the federal level, Republicans have been stalwart opponents of tax increases. Americans for Tax Reform’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge has played no small role in this. However, as the Bush administration draws to a close, limited-government conservatives can boast of few substantial domestic-policy achievements. Of course, that’s just how most Leave Us Alone voters prefer it.
Norquist makes a compelling case that in the future, the demographic and political terrain may be more conducive to limited government than is supposed. Indeed, Norquist himself deserves credit for devising strategies to make tax increases more politically costly and supporting policies that will increase the constituency for small government. Still, even though many trends are favorable, political victories do not come via auto-pilot. In particular, reforms of major entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are going to require leadership and courage on the part of Republican political leaders. Indeed, opportunities to limit government will likely present themselves in the future. However, the conservative movement must remain diligent about producing principled Republican leaders capable of taking advantage of these opportunities.
– Michael J. New is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Alabama.