Throwing Social Conservatism Under the Bus

John Derbyshire of the National Review observed that “The under-the-bus metaphor is getting a bit threadbare.” Yet, its applicability to a number of political situations make it  too delicious to forgo.  The latest candidate for speed-bump is the socially conservative base of the Republican Party.

Last week, erstwhile conservative Kathleen Parker stoked an inferno of outrage among evangelicals with her latest Washington Post column titled “Giving Up on God.”  In the piece, Ms. Parker opines:

Religious conservatives become defensive at any suggestion that they’ve had something to do with the GOP’s erosion. And, though the recent Democratic sweep can be attributed in large part to a referendum on Bush and the failing economy, three long-term trends identified by Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz have been devastating to the Republican Party: increasing racial diversity, declining marriage rates and changes in religious beliefs.

Suffice it to say, the Republican Party is largely comprised of white, married Christians. Anyone watching the two conventions last summer can’t have missed the stark differences: One party was brimming with energy, youth and diversity; the other felt like an annual Depends sales meeting.

Having ever the penchant for linear thought, Ms. Parker’s fix for the GOP is to oust social conservatives lest America oust the Republican Party.  Though her concerns seems a bit tardy given the November returns, apparently, Republicans stand a better chance of winning elections through diminishing their ranks by one-third.

While I disagree with her perspective, I suppose I understand Ms. Parker’s point of view: blacklisting social conservatives is quite fashionable of late, and every failure begets a patsy.  Under different political fortunes, I might be inclined to dismiss Ms. Parker’s harangue as the unfortunate missive of a wayward pundit.  But Ms. Parker’s perspective is not an unfamiliar one in some quarters of the Party of Lincoln- albeit with varying degrees of contempt.

Indeed, on these very ramparts, some my estimable colleagues have already honed their leadership focus on fiscally conservative, reform-minded governors (here, here, and impressively here).  Meanwhile, the stock of social conservatives seems to idle somewhere around the level of shares from Bear Stearns.  Gov. Huckabee is ‘done.’  Gov. Palin is a veritable ‘cheerleader.’  That both have ‘limited appeal’ goes without saying.

A few thoughts.

If we can glean one lesson from the 2008 elections it is that political talent can be found in even the most sundry places. While it is true that recent Presidents have hailed from America’s statehouses, Sen. Obama’s victory shows that this need not be the case. Though it is certainly in vogue to applaud the states for being ‘laboratories of democracy,’ and to dub their governors ‘political scientists’ as a result,  I see no reason why Republicans should winnow the talent pool so early in the game. Assuming Republicans need not seek leadership from governors by default, it makes sense for the party to consider the wide array of political talent available- including Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin.

While the argument has not been made on Ex Deserto, Ms. Parker’s plot to exorcise social conservatives from the GOP has certainly been met with enthusiasm in some quarters. But a sub-text of Election 2008 is that culture and traditional values still matter to most Americans. The simple example is that voters in Arizona, California, and Florida all amended their State Constitutions last month to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman (viz., traditional marriage). According to Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson, this makes “traditional marriage 30-for-30 when people are given the chance to decide the issue.”  Of course, California, and Florida both went for Sen. Obama, meaning that at least some social conservatives opted to vote Democrat rather than Republican.

So what?

Well, the results of Election 2008 indicate that traditional values are timeless; that they remain important to most Americans; and that they transcend the Republican Party itself.  As Gov. Huckabee famously said, “I do not spell G.O.D., G.O.P.”  The bottom line is that Republicans need social conservatives to win, and social conservatives need the Republican Party as a platform for defending the sanctity of human life, religious freedom, and traditional values. Such notions have no sympathy from the far-left elements on the other side.  Karl Rove said it best, “Winning requires addition, not subtraction.”  Following Ms. Parker’s advice would reduce the Party’s appeal rather than broaden it.  Ignoring Gov. Huckabee and Gov. Palin’s socially conservative voices in the agenda setting process would have the same effect.

Lest I seem to be giving social conservatives a pass, a large part of problem is not a socially conservative agenda itself, but the fact that most social conservatives appear judgmental rather than principled.  Like many issues, the matter is one of message as opposed to substance.  Being pro-life means caring about the lives of ordinary Americans–not because government has the solutions to their every problem, but because we are morally obliged to provide leadership and solutions to these key issues.

Pro-life supporters cannot rail against abortion, and then cease to care about a child’s education.

We cannot rally against state-sponsored health care while ignoring the soaring cost of prescription drugs, and the fact that millions of Americans remain uninsured.

We cannot sing the praises of the free market while ignoring the fact that poverty abounds.

We cannot ratchet up defense spending, and then ignore our woefully underfunded aid agencies.

We cannot laud the benefits of free trade and then turn a blind-eye toward America’s blue-collar workers who are losing manufacturing jobs by the thousands.

We cannot say that traditional marriage is a part of God’s natural order, and then live our lives in a manner that undermines the environmental sustainability of everything God created.

The observations above apply as much to the Republican Party generally as they do to social conservatism particularly.  Unless our positions deviate from the tired status quo, and begin to reflect our pro-life, conservative priorities, we will continue to lose elections.

Returning to politics, almost all of the policy incongruities above were mentioned by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin during the 2008 Election.   These ideas were especially popular among young voters (ages 18-29) who broke for the Dems by a margin of 2-to-1.  It is simply bad politics to isolate the lone, Republican voices who actually connected with the next generation of American voters.

It is also bad politics to so narrow the appeal of the GOP through purist ‘franchisee’ policies, and nebulous ‘core principles.’ As I explained in my introductory post the GOP tent needs to get bigger not smaller. One area where the GOP should seriously reconsider its ideological rigidity is immigration. Republicans simply cannot afford to isolate America’s burgeoning population of Hispanic voters by advancing an unrealistic policy on immigration. During the GOP primary, many candidates were of the mind that America should lock-down its southern border a la Ft. Knox, and round-up all of the illegals and send them home. Yet, it was never explained exactly how we would round up some 20 Million illegal immigrants in America, and ship them all back to Mexico.  Such overly-rigid positions ostracize the otherwise socially conservative, Hispanic families that would have a natural home in the Republican Party.  The same can be said for Blacks, Native Americans, and Asians. This is where Ms. Parker gets it right.  America is an increasingly diverse Nation, but the GOP has not honed its message to make our conservative ideas relevant to the new pluralistic reality.

In sum, until Republicans get serious about confronting our policy hypocrisy, and expanding our base, and making our big tent more hospitable to the folks who have never been inside, we will continue to lose elections. Though Ms. Parker surely disagrees, social conservatism is one of the tools by which we make the big tent bigger.  Exorcising social conservatives from the GOP is to mistake the prescription for the malady. 

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3 thoughts on “Throwing Social Conservatism Under the Bus

  1. Worth the read?!? Belloc is just as worthy as Chesterton. His “Path to Rome” is a fun read. He writes mainly about history, but I think you would find him intriguing. “How the Reformation Happened,” “Crisis of Civilization,” and “Great Heresies” were all required reading where I taught.

  2. Aaron- Thanks for forwarding the Dreher piece. I saw it but didn’t read it when you sent the Crunchy Con link the other day. He strikes me as being a bit, reflexively anti-Palin (though he doesn’t say why…), but his point at the end gets it right: <>We must engage earlier sources of traditional conservative thought, and rethink how our faith commitments can contribute to the common good.<>I think this is the single, greatest challenge for conservatism (and for social conservatism in particular). We have the unique chance to re-cast the entire paradigm by returning to the foundations of the political philosophy, and finding new policy positions that are consistent with our fundamental beliefs. As an aside, he mentions both G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. I’m familiar with Chesterton (his <>Orthodoxy<> is on my shelf of books to read), but not Belloc. Do you know if he is worth the read?

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