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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