In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of dissent among conservatives in the US. Blogs and journalists have started covering this, as did the New York Times recently:

In recent weeks some prominent conservative intellectuals seem to have discovered they have two hands after all. In column after column, these writers have alternately praised the virtues of John McCain and Sarah Palin and lamented their shortcomings. …

The Times’s Op-Ed columnist David Brooks, who recently described Governor Palin as a “cancer on the Republican Party,” explained in an interview that the movement is now embroiled in a debate: “Should it go back to the core principles of Ronald Reagan or should it go on to something else? That’s the core issue.”

One would think this growing disaffection within conservatism is something new, but it’s not. It has, rather, been building over the last couple of years.

The conservative discontent manifested mostly in the form of dissatisfaction with the GOP presidential candidates, none of whom were able to appeal broadly to conservatives or Republicans. Some of them had some advantages (Mitt Romney was a successful businessman, Mike Huckabee a loveable Baptist minister, etc.), but they also had drawbacks (Huckabee is too much of a populist, Romney is a Mormon) … and that left John McCain to pick up the pieces, even though he had some liabilities of his own (e.g. his campaign-finance bill passed in 2002 — which made him the friend of the mass media, but made him many enemies from his erstwhile allies on the right).

Excuse me, but I can tell anyone who cares exactly what’s wrong with conservatism in the US in general, and the Republican party specifically. You might guess what I’d say based on the content of the rest of this blog, but I’ll just come out with it anyway: The problem is religion. Specifically the hyperreligion of the overwhelmingly Protestant evangelical Christians. Since they seized control of the GOP in the ’90s, they’ve become an increasingly demanding and volatile element of the party. The religious wing of conservatism were “stay-at-homes” during the 1992 and 1996 elections, due to their displeasure with the GOP candidates (Bush Senior and Bob Dole respectively). Neither was sufficiently religious for their tastes — so they withdrew their support. Having learned this lesson, and fueled by Religious Right™ gains in Congress in the 1994 midterms, in 2000 Bush Jr appealed heavily to the Religious Right™ and was rewarded by being elected.

Since 2000 the entire party has become a puppet of the US evangelicals, hewing strictly to religiosity at every step. They won in 2004 but lost big (much bigger than they would admit) in the 2006 midterms, and are on track to lose even more in 2008.

So long as Republicans keep obeying the hyperreligious will of evangelical Christians, they will continue to lose. They managed, through an understated campaign of anti-Mormon whispering, to undermine Romney, who at one time had almost sewn up the nomination. They then forced McCain to swing into religiosity, cozying up to televangelists and other religious opportunists, which contradicted his erstwhile “maverick” status, and caused the mass media to turn on him in spectacular fashion.

If the Republican party wishes to move into the 21st century, its leaders are going to have to break the chains that have enslaved them to the evangelicals. It really is just that simple.

David Brooks’s question of whether to go back to Reagan conservatism or move on to something else, implies that the Reagan route is most attractive … but it would be a mistake. It was Reagan who opened the door to religiosity in the GOP; while his appeal was not solely religious — he was also popular among “free market” conservatives who were decidedly secular — his alliances with guys like Falwell gave evangelicals a foot in the door, that they were able to exploit later. No, a more definite and explicitly non-religious tactic is called for, if the GOP wishes to succeed after 2008.

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