It’s one of the most frequent questions people ask me about conservatives: “When they say X, do they really mean it?” Does, for example, Rick Santorum really mean it when he says about Nelson Mandela, as he did in a recent interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, “He was fighting against some great injustice, and I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever-increasing size of government that is taking over and increasing people’s lives—and Obamacare is front and center in that.” And I have to answer that largely, as astonishing as it may seem, they do.
Never mind that the size of government is not “ever-increasing” (see here). Empirical debunking cannot reach the deepest fear of the reactionary mind, which is that the state—that devouring leviathan—will soon swallow up all traces of human volition and dignity. The conclusion is based on conservative moral convictions that reason can’t shake.
Recently the outstanding political reporter Brian Beutler, now writing for Salon, wrote in a piece headlined “Right-Wing Extremists Face New Moral Conundrum” that as long as Healthcare.gov isn't working like it is supposed to, Republicans could “ignore the moral imperative they face” to help their constituents get healthcare. “A working site that can service a million people a day destroys that excuse. Some conservative groups have been craven and reckless enough to actively discourage people from enrolling in Affordable Care Act coverage.” I guarantee, though, that few or no conservative politicians are losing sleep over this. Instead, they judge themselves heroes. Waylaying their constituents’ ability to avail themselves of federally subsidized healthcare is not a “moral conundrum” for them. It is a deeply moral project. The immorality, as they see it, would be to allow people to become dependent on the state for their health.
I’ve been repeating myself, but clarity is very important here: know thine enemy. (OK, we’re liberals; we don’t have enemies. Know thine adversary.) Theirs is a morality entirely incommensurate with liberalism—but it is a morality.
One of its theorists was the Christian reconstructionist theologian Dr. Rousas J. Rushdoony. He wrote in his 1972 book The Messianic Character of American Education that since “the nuclear family is the basic unit of God’s covenant,” undermining the vaulting ambitions of the secular state was a godly duty. But you don’t have to be a Christian Reconstructionist or advocate, as Rushdoony did and his followers do, returning to biblical punishments like stoning to share the same intuition. Even mild-mannered Gerald Ford, usually not judged a frothing right-winger, used to love the nostrum “A government big enough to give everything to you is big enough to take everything away.”