Thursday, June 18, 2009

The End of the Tobacco Party

The Tobacco Control Act is only a small step toward reducing the influence of tobacco on American culture. But before this year, it would have been impossible. Tobacco owned one of the two major political parties. And even if Congress could have agreed on a way to address the tobacco question, the previous president made it clear that he would veto any tobacco bill that reached his desk.

In the 1990s, the Republican party’s strength was built on three bases of support. The most important of these was the tobacco industry, which provided the biggest block of funds to operate the party. To this was added the party’s traditional support among conservatives and the mobilizing energy of religious fundamentalists. This was never a comfortable coalition. Conservatives could support tobacco as a matter of respect for the individual. In the conservative worldview, if smoking is causing problems for a person, it is a problem for that individual to solve, presumably by quitting smoking, and there really isn’t anything the government has to do.

This conservative principle of respect for the individual, however, runs completely counter to the religious fundamentalists’ view of people as basically evil. The so-called conservative Christian political viewpoint, which is actually not particularly conservative or Christian in its ideas, calls for strong institutions to protect society from the actions of individuals. And as you would expect, those strong institutions should primarily be religious institutions. They would rather see a weak government, except in situations where the government can act as an extension of religious institutions. In this worldview, the success or failure of individuals is a result of their success or failure in following rules of religion, and any attempt to interfere with this, such as a legal restriction on harmful activities such as smoking or gambling, is an attempt to weaken religion by propping up weak people.

While it is possible to follow the logic in either case, you can see that it is very strained logic. It is not so easy for a religious person or a conservative person to actively support cigarette smoking as a political position.

But at least it was something the whole party could agree on. Conservatives and religious fundamentalists tend not to agree on very much. Conservatives believe in individual freedom, while religious fundamentalists believe in forcing a narrow construction of religion on everyone. Beneath this split, conservatives believe in the strength of the individual, while religious fundamentalists believe in the weakness of the individual. They are exactly opposite views.

With the passage of the Tobacco Control Act, tobacco will continue to fade from the picture. This leaves these two irreconcilable worldviews to wrestle for control of the Republican party. The party, in the end, can represent only one of them, but which one?

The voters have already spoken on this question. Political conservatives abandoned the Republicans in droves last year, leaving it as a party to be dominated by religious fundamentalists. And a purge has begun, as Republican leaders withdraw support from their elected officials who do not toe the religious fundamentalist line. Even if conservatives later become unhappy with the Democratic party — a scenario that Democrats are taking great pains to avoid — it is probably too late for conservatives to ever regain control of the Republican party.