US election 2008: Mike Huckabee and social conservatism – contrasts with ACT

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

It’s timely to remember that there will probably be two elections interesting New Zealanders this November. Although the election date here has yet to be announced and could be earlier, it seems likely that PM Helen Clark will want to go a full term before calling an election, which if so would come in late November. But one election already has a certain date: on November 4, 2008, US citizens will go to the polls to elect a new president for the first time in eight years.

This week, the focus in the US has been on the Iowa caucuses, which constitutes the first of a string of primaries which will take place over the next couple of months. I’ve been watching the coverage this afternoon and with 86% of the votes countered so far, on the Republican side it’s been Mike Huckabee who has won his party’s primary, winning 34% of the vote – a clear margin over second-polling candidate Mitt Romney, who received 25%. The Iowa vote isn’t a decisive indicator as to who will be living in the White House from January 20, 2009 (inauguration day), but it’s a pretty good head start. And as ACT knows (because it hasn’t had any for a long time), momentum does wonders for enthusiasm.

Interestingly, Huckabee’s appeal over more highly favoured contenders such as Romney and Rudy Giuliani (although to be fair, the latter did not contest the Iowa caucuses) has been attributed to his “non-politician” image and his empathy with ordinary people. To me, this reminds me of the portrayal of former National leader Don Brash, although he was equally criticised for being “out of touch” on topics such as the “nuclear issue”.

To put it mildly, Huckabee comes from the socially conservative side of the “GOP” (as the Republicans are also known). As a commentator on television pointed out this afternoon, Huckabee harnessed the evangelical vote, no small component of a rural and white (just 2% black) US state such as Iowa. Combined with this, of course, Huckabee is “pro-life” (a euphemism for being anti-abortion). And if one believes a 1998 quote which was included on last Sunday’s edition of Meet the Press, he’s also homophobic:

It is now difficult to keep track of the vast array of publicly endorsed and institutionally supported aberrations—from homosexuality and pedophilia to sadomasochism and necrophilia [referenced here]

I watched somewhat in disbelief as Huckabee proceeded to explain in what way homosexuality was an “aberration”. Of course, one shouldn’t be surprised – in the United States social conservatism is almost the sine qua non for Republican presidential nominees now. But frankly, Huckabee makes the current president’s socially conservative views seem mild.

In New Zealand, abortion has not featured as an electoral issue for decades and even then, it was only of limited interest. But in my dissertation (p. 18), I discussed how ACT morphed from a purely right-wing economic party to a right-wing, socially conservative grouping:

  • …[W]hile moderation is evident in the economic sphere, non-economic areas display non-centrist shifts. Justice policies provide a prime example of this. In 1996, although promoting “effective enforcement of the law”, ACT also wanted to rehabilitate offenders and assist them with “community mentors”. But from 1999, the party began to advocate a stricter stance and promised to reduce the availability of parole. In 2002, and 2005, the justice policy became even tougher. Parole was now to be completely abolished under a “Truth in Sentencing” plan and ACT promised stiff penalties for minor offences, such as “graffiti, vandalism, and shoplifting”….
  • [P]olicy on Maori also became much more conservative as time wore on. In 1996, the party had centred on granting Maori independence, including the operation of parallel schools. As with crime, a “mentor” system of assistance would operate for those who required it. But from 1999, ACT ceased to promote these assistance-based ideas, instead emphasising time-limits for the “fair, full and final settlement” of Treaty of Waitangi claims, the abolishment of privileges for Maori and the removal of the reserved Maori seats…
  • In social welfare, ACT proceeded in a similar fashion, moving from promoting a mentoring system in 1996 to advocating time-limits for benefits and work-for-the-dole schemes in 2002 and 2005…
  • In defence, ACT moved from being lukewarm to “bilateral or multilateral arrangements that are inconsistent with the domestic policies in place in New Zealand” in 1996, to advocating a high level of spending on the military and the reinstatement of the ANZUS military alliance with the United States in 2002 and 2005.

While these were clearly socially-conservative shifts, this analysis should be tempered when one looks at someone like Huckabee. ACT never campaigned against issues like abortion: indeed, if it had, it would have alienated most voters. Yet this is a bread-and-butter issue for conservative US politicians. Conversely, tough stances on crime and social welfare are just as likely to be promoted by Democrats in the United States, as former ACT MP Stephen Franks pointed out in a response to my dissertation, published on this blog in November. And as for strong defence policies, well, Democrats might be keen to “get out of Iraq”, but they are still big spenders on the military and I don’t think they’re going to remove the combat wing of the US air force any time soon. By US standards, then, ACT was merely “socially-conservative lite”.

As part of my research, I asked focus group participants what sort of party they thought ACT was – the answers were usually “right-wing” or almost as commonly, “far right”. Yet when one considers the US comparison, it is wise to bring some perspective. ACT might be far-right for New Zealand, but if the party were transported to the US, Rodney Hide could well be a Democrat.

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7 Responses

  1. Oliver Woods says:

    Geoffrey, I absolutely agree with your comments regarding the fact that Rodney Hide could easily fit in with the Democrats in the United States. And the Democrats have always had a more pro-free trade record than the Republicans (who have a lot of anti-free trade dissenters – perhaps a bit like National during the 50s, 60s and 70s).

    Don’t forget though that Huckabee advocates the total removal of income taxes (‘FairTax’) and the replacement of them with a new fangled form of GST.

    Interestingly, he is also supported by a number of unionists (he’s been targeting the working class quite heavily) and has even had official union endorsements in the race for President. That’s not to say he’d have anti-labour policies once elected, but it’s just an interesting campaign strategy of his.

  2. peteremcc says:

    I think you’re looking too much at what happened between 1999 and 2005. Since 2005 act has become quite socially liberal.

    Just look at the speeches and voting record on the anti-terrorism, drinking age and party pill bills.

    Rodney and Heather are both socially liberal and all of the socially conservative act mps lost their seats. I expect most of the candidates for 2008 to be socially liberal too.

  3. Thanks for your comment Oliver, it’s nice that’s someone’s reading the blog over the holiday period.

    I’m not sure how pro-free-trade the Democrats are to be honest. It’s true that NAFTA was passed under a Clinton administration, but I think this was with a lot of kicking and screaming. And anyway, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think NAFTA might have gone through only after the Republicans took over the House in 1994 (NAFTA was passed that year). But at the moment one hears a lot of protectionist sentiment from some Democrats, particularly with regards to China and calls for it to stop devaluing its currency.

    The key point to remember though is that the Republican and Democrat parties are broad churches – look at the differences between Mike Huckabee (social conservative) and Rudy Giuliani (very liberal, in the US sense of the word).

    But I would still agree with you that the Republicans have a lot of anti-free-traders, especially from the southern states. This is possible a legacy from the changeover of these states from being Democratic to Republican from the 1960s. The Bush administration has not been overly pro-active on free-trade, such as pushing forward the WTO Doha round, probably because it’s been preoccupied by the “1000 pound gorilla” in the room – the so-called “War on Terrorism”.

    Thanks for the point about Huckabee removing income taxes. I’m going to look into this further, and also at another candidate, Ron Paul, who advocates abolishing income taxes as well. This is what Roger Douglas initially advocated with ACT and it’s interesting to see the idea is still alive. I wonder if ACT will pipe up and say that the US candidates “stole” the idea from them, as with National and “One Law for All”!!!!!

    And as for unionists backing Huckabee, that’s very, very interesting. It would be hard to imagine the PSA or EPMU backing National here! Again, another example of the broad churches that the US parties are.

  4. Peteremcc – a very good observation and I thank you for pointing this out. It is true that my comments contrasting Mike Huckabee with ACT especially referred to ACT during the 1999-2005 period.

    But although ACT appears to have become more socially liberal since the 2005 election, I think it’s more a case of de-emphasis of socially conservatism in favour of economic policies.

    From the last chapter (p. 44) of my dissertation:

    Perhaps more interesting [about ACT’s 2007 brochure] is what is not included: no mention is made of conservative social policies in areas in crime, social welfare and Maori issues. While these are only broad ideas and not a full election manifesto, it is clear that hard-line socially conservative stances do not suit the positive image Hide is [now] seeking to portray. Hide says that he wants “to paint a picture that’s more positive for the country than grumpy…“One Law for All” and such things are quite a grumpy side of New Zealand politics”

    The key reasons why I believe ACT is deemphasising socially conservative policies, rather than eliminating them are:

    1. In the 2007 brochure it was stated that ACT wanted “law and order policies that protect our citizens and deal forcibly with thugs and bullies”. This was also emphasised in a letter to members from party president Garry Mallett in December 2007.

    2. Hide told me that policies such “One Law for All” have become incorporated into the Regulatory Responsibility Bill – indicating de-emphasis rather than disappearance.

    3. In my judgment, the rank and file members of ACT tend to be more socially conservative than socially liberal now. One indicator of this was that at the 1996 election, ACT was very socially liberal and attracted many younger members. These drifted away in the late 1990s as ACT became more socially conservative.

    4. Party president Garry Mallett is himself a social conservative, as evidenced by comments he made to NZPA regarding homosexuality prior to winning the presidency in March 2006 (I’ll dig up the exact comments later and post). This comes through in his communications to members.

  5. peteremcc says:

    it should be noted (and you have) that the letter also mentioned the anti-terrorism bill and civil liberties.

    also, I don’t see any contradiction with being socially liberal and being tough on crime.

    A libertarian approach would be to have a very limited number of rules and laws but to police them well.

    Oh and yes, Ron Paul is very popular among ACT members. You should note that (while he doesn’t emphasise it) he’s also very ‘liberal’ on civil liberties, drugs etc… infact on everything other than abortion (after all, he is an old, christian, ob/gyn).

  6. Oliver Woods says:

    I guess the EPMU and PSA are lucky that they are given so many benefits from Labour. I’m not saying this in a necessarily critical sense, because the unions still have far less influence on government policy making under Labour governments than business peak associations like the NZBR, Employers Federation, and Business New Zealand have during National governments. Unions really are taken for granted by the Democrats (as the recent American Campaigns and Elections magazine pointed out).

    Interestingly, on Ron Paul’s wikipedia page, it is noted (with references) that “He supports free trade, rejecting membership in NAFTA and the World Trade Organization as “managed trade”. and additionally he wants no federal involvement on most social issues, including the death penalty and gay marriage, and letting states decide (which to me is not necessarily socially conservative or liberal).

    And Peter, I must say I agree with Geoffrey’s analyses here that ACT appears to be quite social conservative to political watchers. Considering the President and Vice President could easily both be described as social conservatives, I really struggle to see how ACT is still liberal on issues like sexual minority rights and drug policy.

    Loudon posted some time ago that he’s opposed to abortion (though he did seem to say that he supported the right of others to make the decision themselves on whether to have one or not.)

    I’m not saying that you and many other members of the party don’t believe in social liberalism, because I’m sure you do, but I more mean in terms of how the current party actually votes in Parliament. The fact that you pointed out that there were socially conservative ACT MP’s in the first place shows that there is a strong wing of the party. I’ll accept your assertion that you think the candidates will be social liberals considering you know more about the internal party of ACT than I ever will, but still I do not remain fully convinced.

  7. peteremcc says:

    “Loudon posted some time ago that he’s opposed to abortion (though he did seem to say that he supported the right of others to make the decision themselves on whether to have one or not.)”

    thats exactly the point. being socially liberal doesn’t mean having an abortion or taking drugs or being gay yourself – its about letting other people make that decision for themselves – ie: freedom.

    i consider myself, personally, a conservative, but i don’t want to force that on anyone else (which makes me a ‘liberal’)

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