The historic victory of Barack Obama has left the various factions within the Republican Party scrambling to lay claim to conservatism’s mantle. I for one am rooting for the technocrats at The Next Right, the pragmatists at The American Conservative, or the crunchy conservatives at Culture 11 to prevail over the political hacks like RedState. All of these various factions are attempting to unite, launching a ten-point action plan for rebuilding the Republican Party, but their plan is focused exclusively on process rather than principle. Nowhere is there a comprehensive definition of what conservatism actually is, around which everyone can rally.
The only point of concensus between them seems to be the abortion issue, with the basic pro-life position seen as a litmus test for the American Right as a whole. And even on that issue, there are dissenters, pro-life proponents who supported Obama like Douglas Kmiec and the Pro-Life Pro-Obama organization, which taps into the evangelical movement’s dissatisfaction with the polarized politics offered them by the GOP. These types are treated as pariahs within what remains of the conservative movement.
Presently, the Right is focusing on the campaign promise by Obama to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would remove all legal barriers to abortion at the state and federal level. Even the normally restrained Larison can’t help but portray Obama as a “radical pro-abortion extremist” for promising to sign it, and speculate darkly about the bill forcing the closure of Catholic hosptals. That last bit is particularly misleading; the Catholic bishops have said that they would rather close all Catholic hospitals than be “forced” to perform a single abortion therein, which is a straw man argument since the bill does not in any way mandate that a doctor perform an abortion. The bishops warn that closing the hospitals would disproortionately impact the poor, which is certainly true; why then are they threatening to hold the poor’s health care hostage to a hypothetical that would never occur anyway? This is abortion-scaremongering, nothing more.
Given the narrow focus of the Right around being dogmatically pro-life (and reflexively anti-Obama), it’s hard to imagine how the Republican Party will succeed in building the kind of broad coalition needed to expand beyond its increasingly limited geographic base. But is there really an alternative? The Republican Leadership Council, a collection of moderate GOP politicians, is trying to argue that the GOP should return to its fiscal and libertarian roots, and disavow explicit religious and social litmus tests. The nickname of the “failure caucus” for their efforts gives a sense of the uphill climb they face, and it’s true – only the social and cultural issues are enough to excite the conservative base, as evidenced by the still-astonishing success and enduring popularity of Sarah Palin.
Amidst all this is something genuinely new – the argument that there is such a thing as a “secular right”. Notable pundits who seem to be promoting such a concept are Republican iconoclasts like John Derbyshire and Heather McDonald. This is in some sense a repackaging of the same general “Republican coalition minus the religious conservatives” that is advcated by the RLC. There’s even a Wikipedia entry, but it is rather sparse. The new Secular Right blog, meanwhile, has a picture of David Hume and a paean to “human flourishing”, but not much else in terms of unifying principle or broad vision.
Can such a thing truly exist? What separates the secular right from the secular left, or even run-of-the-mill libertarians? In discussion of the new concept at Talk Islam, Willow ponders whether secular humanism is compatible with the secular Right, or whether humanism is itself a purely Left phenomenon. And it should be noted that many of the new proponents of the Secular Right also have more than a passing belief in transhumanism, which has its own supernatural and spiritual aspects. These are all interesting questions but I confess to being skeptical whether the stranglehold on the Right of the social and religious wing can seriously be weakened. The best place for a secular right to flourish may well be the political Left. The same might even be true of conservatism itself.
Related reading: Here at Beliefnet, Douglas Kmiec responds to questions about Obama and the FOCA, among other aspectso fthe abortion issue. Also, at Crooked Timber, John Holbo talks about liberalism and conservatism in the American context.