This belief is what links movement conservatism to its more extreme cousin, libertarianism. Devout libertarians and movement conservatives disagree about much, especially in matters like foreign policy and the role of religion in public life. They are like squabbling family members who agree on principles and argue over their application. This is why libertarians often work within the Republican Party rather than the Democratic Party, and why libertarian economic principles find a welcome home in the GOP.
Freedom is — and should be — an important goal in American government. Our republic was founded on the idea that “all men are created equal” and that they have the “inalienable right” to liberty. No political movement to this day that has any hope of winning an American election denies this core principle.
But there is a tension in those words that has fueled most of America’s political debates in the ensuing two plus centuries. What if liberty worsens inequality? What if government action steers toward that natural equality and helps ensure that all people can exercise their natural liberty? The Declaration of Independence promised that people can “alter or abolish” their existing form of government to “effect their Safety and Happiness.” What happens when people believe a stronger government that infringes on some liberty is necessary to “effect their safety”?
That’s what Americans have been doing for more than a century. While movement conservatives and libertarians frequently denounce the progressives of Woodrow Wilson’s era and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Americans then and since have consistently voted for government that taxes, spends and regulates more than anyone in 1789 could have dreamed possible. The great mass of Americans like the modern state that provides some form of cradle-to-grave economic security and protects minorities from popular discrimination.
These sentiments have again come to the fore during the covid-19 pandemic. A recent poll shows that 56 percent of Americans are more concerned about the public health impact of the pandemic than the economic impact. A slightly larger share, 60 percent, say that it’s more important for government to control the virus’s spread than to restore the economy. Even among Republicans, only a slight majority — 51 percent — say government policy should focus more on the economy.
This latter figure is consistent with decades of Republican voting preferences. As my co-author, University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala, and I showed in our book “The Four Faces of the Republican Party,” movement conservatives are not even clearly a majority of the GOP. Other, less doctrinaire conservatives hold the balance of power within the Republican electorate, and they have voted against the movement’s preferred candidate in presidential primaries for decades. Even a majority of Republicans are mainly content with the large modern state.
President Trump must navigate these currents adroitly to avoid being swept out to sea with a movement conservative tide. If he tilts too strongly in favor of lockdowns and public safety, he breaks faith with the GOP’s most dedicated supporters. But if he tilts too much toward them, he risks alienating the larger — and more politically volatile — group of Americans who prioritize safety over liberty in the current crisis. Polls already suggest Trump’s pro-reopening rhetoric is hurting him among seniors, the demographic most at risk in the covid-19 crisis and presumably the ones who most favor safety over liberty. Trump risks throwing away the election by moving too rapidly or openly in favor of the noisy movement conservative minority who value liberty over safety.
FDR’s opponents often accused him of trampling on traditional American liberties. He turned the tables on them, asking Americans in his fifth fireside chat whether they had “paid too high a price” in terms of lost liberty for economic security. For now, most Americans believe they have not paid too high a price in lost liberty in exchange for controlling covid-19. Trump needs to hear their voices rather than those of what FDR called “theoretical die-hards” if he is to politically prosper.