Social Studies September 2005

America's Anti-Reagan Isn't Hillary Clinton. It's Rick Santorum.

Post-Santorum, tax-cutting and court-bashing can hold the Republican coalition together for only so much longer.

In 1960, a Republican senator named Barry Goldwater published a little book called The Conscience of a Conservative. The first printing of 10,000 copies led to a second of the same size, then a third of 50,000, until ultimately it sold more than 3 million copies. Goldwater's presidential candidacy crashed in 1964, but his ideas did not: For decades, Goldwater's hostility to Big Government ruled the American Right. Until, approximately, now.

Rick Santorum, a second-term Republican senator from Pennsylvania, has written a new book called It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. The book is worth taking seriously for several reasons, not least of which is that it is a serious book. The writing and thinking are consistently competent, often better than that. The lapses into right-wing talk-radioese ("liberals practically despise the common man") are rare. Santorum wrestles intelligently, often impressively, with the biggest of big ideas: freedom, virtue, civil society, the Founders' intentions. Although he is a Catholic who is often characterized as a religious conservative, he has written a book whose ambitions are secular. As its subtitle promises, it is about conservatism, not Christianity.

Above all, it is worth noticing because, like Goldwater's Conscience, it lays down a marker. As Goldwater repudiated Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, so Santorum repudiates Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. It's now official: Philosophically, the conservative movement has split. Post-Santorum, tax-cutting and court-bashing can hold the Republican coalition together for only so much longer.

As a policy book, It Takes a Family is temperate. It serves up a healthy reminder that society needs not just good government but strong civil and social institutions, and that the traditional family serves all kinds of essential social functions. Government policies, therefore, should respect and support family and civil society instead of undermining or supplanting them. Parents should make quality time at home a high priority. Popular culture should comport itself with some sense of responsibility and taste.

Few outside the hard cultural Left—certainly not Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who makes several cameos as Santorum's bete noir—would disagree with much of that. Not in 2005, anyway. Moreover, Santorum's policy proposals sit comfortably within the conservative mainstream. But It Takes a Family is more than a policy book. Its theory of "conservatism and the common good" seeks to rechannel the mainstream.

In Santorum's view, freedom is not the same as liberty. Or, to put it differently, there are two kinds of freedom. One is "no-fault freedom," individual autonomy uncoupled from any larger purpose: "freedom to choose, irrespective of the choice." This, he says, is "the liberal definition of freedom," and it is the one that has taken over in the culture and been imposed on the country by the courts.

Quite different is "the conservative view of freedom," "the liberty our Founders understood." This is "freedom coupled with the responsibility to something bigger or higher than the self." True liberty is freedom in the service of virtue—not "the freedom to be as selfish as I want to be," or "the freedom to be left alone," but "the freedom to attend to one's duties—duties to God, to family, and to neighbors."

This kind of freedom depends upon and serves virtue, and virtue's indispensable incubator and transmitter is the family. Thus "selflessness in the family is the basis for the political liberty we cherish as Americans." If government is to defend liberty and promote the common welfare, then it must promote and defend the integrity of the traditional family. In doing so, it will foster virtue and rebuild the country's declining social and moral capital, thus fostering liberty and strengthening family. The liberal cycle of decline—families weaken, disorder spreads, government steps in, families weaken still further—will be reversed.

"Freedom is not self-sufficient," writes Santorum. He claims the Founders' support, and quotes John Adams ("Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people") and George Washington to that effect. But, notes William A. Galston, a University of Maryland political scientist, Washington and (especially) Adams stood at one end of a spectrum of debate, and it was a debate that they ultimately lost.

Other Founders—notably James Madison, the father of the Constitution—were more concerned with power than with virtue. They certainly distinguished between liberty and license, and they agreed that republican government requires republican virtues. But they believed that government's foremost calling was not to inculcate virtue but to prevent tyranny. Madison thus argued for a checked, limited government that would lack the power to impose any one faction's view of virtue on all others.

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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