In this week's New Yorker, John Cassidy has written a profile of Grover Norquist. It's an interesting read - Norquist is an entertaining, smart, and very powerful conservative and Cassidy does a good job of explaining (or frequently, letting Norquist himself explain) what he's about and how he acquired and maintains his influence. One passage in particular caught my attention (unfortunately, the full article appears not to be available online, but you can get a sense of the thing here):
"Norquist's theory of American politics is disarmingly simple: liberals want something from the government; conservatives want the government to leave them alone. During the Roosevelt-Kennedy-Johnson era, he says, the Democratic Party prospered because it delivered things its constituents demanded: stronger labor laws for union members; retirement benefits for seniors; and affirmative-action programs for minorities. The reason the Republicans have replace the Democrats as the ruling party is that they cater to popular distate for the federal government.
"The guy who wants to be left alone to practice his faith, the guy who wants to make money, the guy who wants to spend money without paying taxes, the guy who wants to fondle his gun - they all have a lot in common," Norquist said one day this spring in a taxi going from George Bush International Airport in Houston, to the George R. Brown Convention Center, where the National Rifle Association was holding its annual convention. "They all want the government to go away. That is what holds together the conservative movement."
Now, this is interesting in itself because Norquist is a prominent and successful conservative activist. He's obviously had a lot of success turning his ideas (among them his idea of what holds the conservative movement together) into action. At some level, then, he's right, as a practical matter, or he wouldn't be successful. But is he really "right" about this, or has he simply been very successful at persuading a lot of people that he is?
Take, for example, his assertion that liberals want something from government, while conservatives want government to leave them alone. This is a nice bumper sticker, but does it really explain why many conservatives are in favor of an aggressive American foreign policy that demands the robust use of our military to achieve foreign policy goals? Does it explain why many conservatives are comfortable with increasing government funding to religious groups? Does it explain why many liberals are in favor of repealing or reducing criminal charges for petty drug crimes? Does it explain why many liberals are in favor of permitting gay people to have the same opportunity to marry that straight people enjoy? The answer is, of course not.
Conservatives and liberals alike think that government should do some things, and not others. The disagreement is over which things government should do. This is very different from "wanting the government to go away." Norquist has been successful at spreading the "conservatives want to be left alone by the government" meme, but it's not an accurate statement of conservative practice. Likewise, the idea that liberals "want something" from the government is a gross distortion (at best) of the more-accurate idea that liberals believe government should do more than conservatives do. The liberal motive for this is not simple selfishness (although eventually, liberals believe that government action of the kind they prefer will benefit everyone).
A clear example of this is the social conservative movement, which is opposed generally to the permissiveness of American culture. Nobody is telling Christians how and when and where they must worship. Nobody is telling them that they can't pray on their own whenever the spirit moves them. They can send their kids to Christian schools, or homeschool them; they can watch what they like, when they like it; they can move to communities filled with similarly-minded people if they so desire. What they actually want from government is more interference, not less: more money for religious groups, more oversight of television and radio broadcasts, more regulation of personal relationships, more interference with the personal exercise of moral agency. How this relates to Norquist's formulation can only be explained by the fact that many social conservatives actually do feel threatened by secular American culture. But this sense of threat is a far cry indeed from government-sponsored oppression of the kind that would make them natural allies of, say, the NRA (who indeed do want the government to stop regulating the possession and sale of firearms entirely). Indeed, with self-described evengelical Christians running the White House and Congress, it's hard to see where the government is anything but an ally of the social conservatives.
And yet, it's indisputably true that many social conservatives themselves believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that what they really want is less government interference with their lives. I can only attribute it to this: that Norquist has been incredibly successful at making conservatives believe they want the same things he does.