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The new Culture War: Economic concerns trump defense, abortion, and gay marriage

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Recently the chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, came out in strong opposition to a continued occupation of Afghanistan. Quick to defend him against hawkish critics such as the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol - who called on Steele to resign – was conservative firebrand, Ann Coulter. In her column, Coulter suggested that Kristol resign instead, writing “I thought the irreducible requirements of Republicanism were being for life, small government and a strong national defense, but I guess permanent war is on the platter now, too.”

Even some prominent Republican politicians, like Oklahoma Republican Senator, Tom Coburn, have come out in favor of slashing defense spending, a position which has been almost antithetical to the conservative movement since World War II. Perhaps tellingly, the most prominent residue of a national defense culture war remaining in public discourse today is over the use – and definition – of torture of American prisoners by the US military. Whether this has reached full-fledged culture war status is another question.

Meanwhile, the old stand-by’s of the culture wars have become a great deal less reliable. Abortion remains a divisive topic, but few on the right or the left expect Roe v. Wade will be overturned by this or any other Supreme Court. The pro-life movement has been largely relegated to the sidelines of political debate (though they were offered a brief resurgence during the healthcare reform debate when the issue of federal funding of abortion momentarily became a sticking point in reform’s passage).

Even gay marriage has become a divisive topic within the conservative movement. While much of the conservative base remains staunchly opposed to gay marriage, many conservative pundits and politicians have begun to voice their support of marriage equality. Glenn Beck, arguably the most influential conservative talking head in today’s Tea Party movement, has voiced his support of gay marriage. Ann Coulter was recently vilified by right-wingers for her appearance at Homocon, the gay conservative convention. And long-time conservative activist and anti-tax crusader, Grover Norquist, was similarly rebuked for becoming a member of the board of GOProud, a Republican organization devoted to cultivating the inclusion of gays in the Republican Party. Several conservative organizations even threatened to boycott the Conservative Political Action Committee for its inclusion of GOProud. Nevertheless, the convention went off without a hitch despite blustering to the contrary. The legal battle to overturn the ant-gay-marriage Proposition 8 in California was helmed by conservative, Ted Olson, whose eloquent support for marriage equality is a testament to tolerance. This is a trend that is likely to continue, further dividing the conservative movement from the inside out.

These fissures and cracks in the once-solid foundation of the modern conservative movement point to several things. First, they point to the practical failings of a coalition built on three fairly disparate, and at times contradictory, positions. Fiscal conservatives and libertarians are often at odds with socially conservative policies and are even more at odds with neoconservative defense spending and militarism. The rise of the Tea Party movement has signaled an end to the predominance of social issues in right-wing American politics, and while there is still a great deal of defense conservatism in the Tea Party movement, the exuberance of the Bush era seems to have faded. More importantly, they reveal that the market for the culture war has changed from social to economic concerns.

Indeed, the last CPAC straw poll showed that only 1% of conservative attendees viewed stopping gay marriage as their number one priority. The majority listed fiscal issues as their top concern.

Perhaps this is why Arthur Brooks chose to pen his latest book, The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future, at this particular moment. The rise of the Tea Parties represents the sudden and somewhat ironic resurgence of the very sort of conservatism that was least represented the last time conservatives were in power. The financial meltdown, unpopular bank bailouts, and a jobless recovery make this a ripe time for a return to fiscal conservatism and deficit hawkishness. As Brink Lindsey pointed out in his review of The Battle, Brooks wants to push the old culture wars into the background and lead the charge on a new culture war – this one entirely based on free markets and low taxes.

Writes Brooks, “This is not the culture war of the 1990s. This is not a fight over guns, abortions, religion, or gays. … Rather, it is a struggle between two competing visions of America’s future. In one, America will continue to be a unique and exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the popular Republican governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, recently called for a truce in the culture wars, while pointing out where his fiscally conservative policies have met with success in balancing Indiana’s budget. Controversial New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, has likewise focused almost entirely on fiscal issues in his home state by engaging publicly and often quite vocally with the powerful New Jersey teachers unions, making him one of the new darlings of the right. Even the socially conservative Virginia Governor, Bob McDonnell, has been suspiciously quiet about his social conservative bona fides, highlighting instead his economic conservatism and political pragmatism.

Of course, just because Republicans and Tea Partiers are emphasizing fiscal concerns now doesn’t mean that the conservative movement has become a bastion of tolerance or more dovish on foreign policy. The fight may not be about abortion, religion, or gays but it is nevertheless about versions of America and what it means to be American. The failure of social and defense conservatism during the Bush years has simply led to fierce internecine fights within the movement itself, and the resurgence of fiscal conservatism is nothing more than an attempt by party leaders and conservative activists to once again unify the various squabbling sides under a new and more politically appealing canopy.

Part of a 3 part series:

The new Culture War: The ‘three legged stool’ is broken

The new Culture War: Economic concerns trump defense, abortion, and gay marriage

The new Culture War: Same old culture war in a shiny new suit