Fiscal Fundamentalism

When I first became interested in politics in the early 1980s, I described myself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. At the time, it elicited a chuckle or two, because it was perceived at the time that social liberals liked to spend money on social programs and thus those two values were inherently contradictory. Thirty years later, I would still describe myself the same way. Given the state of the two political parties – neither of which I strongly identify – it no longer seems as contradictory as it once was.

The Republican Party tries to lay claim the mantle of fiscal conservatism, but that isn’t what is going on with the GOP these days. Webster defines conservatism as “tending or disposed to maintaining existing views, conditions or institutions.” For the majority of American history, we have had fiscal discipline and most self-described political conservatives would agree that fiscal discipline is a conservative value that we need to rejoin.

Let’s look at the political environment in my adult lifetime. Before Ronald Reagan, our debt was $1.0T dollars [1]. Reagan nearly tripled the debt to $2.9T, due largely to peacetime defense spending and permanent tax cuts. That violated my sense of fiscal conservatism and I was critical of Reagan’s break from the past. George H.W. Bush added another 1.5T to the debt, but he did the right thing and raised taxes after vowing, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” He was a true fiscal conservative and the math mandated raising government revenues. He is vilified by the current Republicans for having done the right thing.

Clinton added $1.4T to the debt, but ended his presidency with a budget surplus. Since he is the only president in my adult lifetime with a budget surplus, that makes him the ideal of modern fiscal conservatism. George W. Bush, with one of the most failed presidencies in American history, added a whopping $6.1T to the debt, bringing the total to $13.9T at the start of the Obama administration.

By what measure can the GOP make any claim to fiscal conservatism? The only modern Republican president that can claim fiscal conservatism, George H.W. Bush, is vilified by his own party.

What we have in the GOP isn’t fiscal conservatism, it’s fiscal fundamentalism.

Webster defines fundamentalism as “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.” We can see a fundamentalist mindset in the non-political domain. Fundamentalist Muslims believe in a set of principles that haven’t changed in the last 500 years. To the fundamentalist mindset, there are no shades a gray – just black and white. Fundamentalist Christians see the world much the same way as fundamentalist Muslims. To maintain their beliefs, they have to reject much of modern science, such as evolution, and the dating of the age of the universe. They must reject much of the progressive changes in attitudes toward gays and racial relationships. It is an overly simplistic mindset that fails in the face of critical thinking.

Starting with Reagan, the Republicans have courted fundamentalist Christians as a key voting block. It should come as no surprise that the fundamentalist mindset has become pervasive in the political domain of the Republican party. The current fundamentalist belief is that there should be no new taxes, under any circumstances. Like any other fundamentalist belief, it is absolute and can not be questioned or overturned when the changing economic global picture suggest that the thinking should be challenged. Any fundamentalist belief, including those of the Republican Party, does not withstand the scrutiny of critical thinking.

Most Muslims are not fundamentalist Muslims. Most Christians are not fundamentalist Christians. Just because they share the Christian moniker, fundamentalist Christians think and act differently than most Christians. Most Republicans are fiscal conservatives, but I think few are fiscal fundamentalists.

I encourage voters to shed their party affiliation at look at the actions and attitudes in the last quarter century. Should they do that, I think most Republicans would have to conclude that their party has left them.




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