A group of rich Republicans is raising money to support same-sex marriage. By doing so, they reveal a fundamental split in conservative ranks between two very different philosophies.
On one side are Western or frontier conservatives, who truly believe in small government and individual choice. On the other are Southern or evangelical conservatives, who think government should be used to enforce moral values and determine personal decisions.
Live and let live
One key supporter of gay marriage is Paul E. Singer, a billionaire hedge fund manager who has contributed heavily to many conservative causes. He's a Jewish guy from New Jersey, not a Westerner, but he also has a gay son who is married to his partner. And when it comes to social issues, Singer identifies with the pragmatic, live-and-let-live tradition of the frontier.
"The concept of gay unions fits very well within our framework of individual liberty and our belief that strong families make for a stronger society," Singer told The New York Times. "The institution of marriage is in very bad shape in this country, yet gay and lesbian couples want very much to be part of it. ... This should be what we want as conservatives, for people to cherish and respect this model and to want it for themselves."
Singer represents a long and distinguished tradition that once flourished in the Republican Party. Barry Goldwater, dubbed "Mr. Conservative" when he ran for president on the GOP ticket in 1964, exemplified that tradition by supporting Planned Parenthood and backing a woman's right to manage her own reproductive system.
"My father," said Joanne Goldwater, "being conservative, he felt that the government should not decide what women do with their bodies."
With the movement of Southern states into the Republican Party — a trend that started, ironically, with Goldwater's campaign of 1964 — the Goldwater version of conservatism has been eclipsed by what might be called the Helms version: a philosophy advanced by Jesse Helms, the late senator from North Carolina, and fundamentalist preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
It is a philosophy inspired more by religion than experience, by preachers more than ranchers, by following rules rather than solving problems. At its core, that philosophy says: There's a right way and a wrong way to live, and government should regulate private behavior on social issues like abortion, marriage and prayer.
Many Westerners have never cottoned to that view of conservatism. Sen. John McCain, who represents Goldwater's home state of Arizona, famously and accurately denounced Robertson and Falwell as "agents of intolerance" during his failed bid for the Republican nomination in 2000. "The political tactics of division and slander are not our values," he said.
Falwell is long dead and Robertson is largely retired, but their banner of intolerance is now carried aloft by radio talk show hosts who enforce party orthodoxy and denounce heretics who dare to stray from sacred doctrine. Republican pollster Frank Luntz offered a glimpse into the struggle splintering the GOP when he spoke recently at the University of Pennsylvania.
Radio hosts — he specifically mentioned Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin — "get great ratings, and they drive the message, and it's really problematic," said Luntz.
As an example he mentioned Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is "getting destroyed" by Limbaugh, Levin & Co. for "trying to find a legitimate, long-term, effective solution to immigration that isn't the traditional Republican approach."
What Luntz understands is that radio hosts do not have the best interests of the Republican Party at heart. What they care about is "great ratings," and to get them, they have to emphasize divisions and exploit grievances. No matter that Rubio is bravely trying to save the Republican Party from itself. Effective compromises don't sell on talk radio; only conflict and anger do.
Republicans like Paul Singer and Frank Luntz are trying to free their party from the "agents of intolerance," the Grand Inquisitors who dictate doctrine and drive away women and gays, young people and immigrants. But the odds are against them.