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Alive and Kicking

Reports of the demise of social conservatism are greatly exaggerated.

Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By JEFFREY BELL
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As recently as a month or two ago, political analysts were drafting obituaries for social conservatism in America. They reasoned that for the first time in several decades, no viable, credentialed social conservative was seeking the Republican presidential nomination. They noted that in the absence of such a candidate, some social conservatives were lining up behind a former Northeastern governor, Mitt Romney, who had until recently been a social liberal. Far more surprisingly, other social conservatives were said to be preparing to back former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, not only a supporter of legal abortion, domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples, and embryo-destructive stem cell research, but one who had politely but emphatically made clear he would not modify any of those positions to win support in either the primaries or the general election.

Almost every national poll this year--including, according to the compilation kept by Real Clear Politics, the last 39 in a row, covering the period from mid-September until the string was broken last week--had Giuliani leading the GOP field. And cross-tabulations of these same polls suggested that at least a plurality of social conservatives were planning to support Giuliani in the primaries, either because they wanted a nominee strong enough to defeat Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, or because social conservatives' desire for strong leadership in the war on terror "trumped" their beliefs on social issues. What kind of future was in store for a political persuasion willing, for whatever reason, to turn over the keys of its main political vehicle, the Republican party, to an unapologetic opponent of its core principles?

It was a reasonable question, some version of which may still need to be answered a month or a year from now. But the rise of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and a simultaneous sharp decline of the Giuliani candidacy in Iowa and other states with large numbers of socially conservative voters make at least one thing clear: Social conservatism continues to exist as a mass movement that cares very much about its core beliefs. Supporters of this movement may have some unusually tough decisions to make in the 2008 presidential cycle, but anyone analyzing American politics under the premise that social conservatism will soon disappear--or that these days it amounts to little more than an eccentric sideshow--is very likely to be proved wrong.

There are several things about social conservatism that have made it easy to underestimate. For one thing, it is still comparatively new. Fifty years ago, the term was seldom used. Then as now there were many millions of Americans with conservative moral and social values, but there was no such thing as a mass political movement or political philosophy built around such values.

This was in part because social institutions like marriage and moral ideas like the sanctity of unborn human life had not yet come under broad-based assault, and therefore had not become a factor in the national political debate. As recently as the 1950s, the divide between liberals and conservatives had nothing to do with whether marriage should be redefined or abortion should be treated as a constitutional right. Beginning in the 1960s, when politics did begin to call moral and social values into question, it generated dismay and protests among holders of traditional values.

Similar challenges and social changes--the legalization of abortion and the enactment of "no fault" (unilateral) divorce, among others--were taking place at the same time in Western Europe, and dismay was expressed there as well. But nowhere else did this dismay lead to anything remotely resembling the social conservative political movement of the United States. Conservative parties in Europe largely capitulated to social liberalism and continued to base their critique of the left on economic and foreign-policy issues.

Japan's social revolution happened a generation earlier--abortion was legalized there in 1948--while the social/moral revolution in newly affluent Ireland is still playing itself out. But the bottom line is the same: The United States is (so far) the only First World democracy to have a social-conservative political movement of any consequence. The loneliness of American social conservatism on the global democratic scene is a second factor that renders it easy to regard lightly, as a kind of parochial oddity, destined soon to succumb to the secularizing, relativistic trend that has pretty much triumphed in every other affluent democracy.

The third major element that often makes social conservatism look anemic is the reluctance of Republican elites, including conservative ones, to talk about social issues. Even George W. Bush, the most influential and effective ally of social conservatives in national politics since Ronald Reagan, looks uncomfortable discussing such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. In his 2000 campaign, Bush checked all the right boxes of the social conservative agenda, but preferred in campaign appearances to talk about mobilizing faith-based groups to help solve social problems. This appealed to social conservatives and served as a kind of substitute for putting rhetorical meat on the bare bones of Bush's social-conservative issue commitments. Moreover, most other Republican leaders have shown even less willingness to talk about social issues than has President Bush.

But there are several offsetting factors at work that have made and will continue to make social conservatism hard to marginalize. For one thing, social conservatism is the only mass-based political persuasion that fully believes in the core ideas of the American founding. It has taken over that role from parties, professions, and ideologies that used to perform it, and as a result it is touching a deep chord with millions of American voters.

Most social conservatives believe that the central principle asserted in the Declaration of Independence is true: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." While almost all Americans respect these words at least as a sentiment or metaphor, it is a fact that most--not all--social conservatives believe them to be literally true, while most--not all--opponents of social conservatism do not believe them to be literally true.

As long as these key assertions of our nation's founding document continue to be taken literally by many Americans, social conservatism will resonate among Americans in a way that competing philosophies cannot--and in a way that, given the very different founding narratives of most countries in Europe and elsewhere, cannot easily be replicated beyond these shores.

A second factor making social conservatism relevant is a simple fact: The global left today defines itself mainly in terms of social issues rather than economics.

At first it was widely assumed that the collapse of Soviet communism, and of government ownership and/or direction of business as a serious economic recipe, had dealt a devastating, possibly mortal, blow to the left. But after a brief period of licking its wounds the international left found itself far from devastated. The truth is that old-fashioned, state-administered socialism had become something of an albatross for the left, impeding rather than advancing its ability to benefit from the worldwide political and social upheavals of the 1960s.

Indeed, not long after those upheavals peaked in 1968, it became obvious that the enduring, truly revolutionary impact of the 1960s was moral and cultural, not economic. By the end of the 1970s a new and adversarial form of politically engaged feminism not only became all but unassailable among North American and European elites, but also took a central political role almost everywhere the left was strong.

The quick recovery of the left from the collapse of socialist economics could not but be surprising to analysts, perhaps especially conservative American ones, who had long been in the habit of defining the left in terms of its push for bigger and bigger government, culminating in socialism or something very like it. And it's undeniable that this push had been a key feature of the left (and of world politics) since the middle of the 19th century.

But when it first arose in recognizable form in Europe in the closing decades of the 18th century, the left was primarily about other things. Among these were ending monarchy, eliminating or at least circumscribing the role of traditional religion in society, and liberating humanity from what it saw as repressive institutions. Often included among such institutions was the traditional family, anchored by the Christian ideal of monogamous marriage.

Drawing on aspects of the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the left argued that in the state of nature people are completely free, bound by no laws, and that institutions and laws erected by civilization are, of their nature, a force for repression.

Many of the first-wave leaders of the French Revolution were admirers of the two most celebrated conservative revolutions of the modern age, the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 in England and the American Revolution, which had just unfolded in the 1770s and 1780s. But in the 1790s the left concluded that early attempts to erect representative assemblies in France were corrupt and, led by Robespierre, it took dictatorial power and began the series of arrests and executions known as the Terror.

Who or what was the left? The term was invented precisely in these years, in the 1790s prior to the Robespierre coup d'état, to specify the side of the National Assembly in Paris on which radicals--the Jacobins and their allies--sat. Rousseau died in 1778, and thus did not live to see these beliefs gain the upper hand and reshape the French Revolution and go on to achieve preeminence in setting the world's political agenda for the ensuing two centuries. But that is what happened.

The striking thing about the history of the left is its singleness of vision amid a breathtaking variety of means. The goal of the left is the liberation of mankind from traditional institutions and codes of behavior, especially moral codes. It seeks a restoration (or achievement) of a state of nature, one of absolute individual liberty--universal happiness without the need for laws.

The proposed political way stations chosen by the left in its drive toward this vision have varied greatly. To name a few: abolition of private property (socialism); prohibition of Christianity and/or propagation by the political elite of a new civil religion to replace it; confiscatory taxation, especially at death; regulation of political speech to limit the ability of certain individuals or classes to affect politics; the takeover of education to instill new values and moral habits in the population; confiscation of privately held firearms; gradual phasing out of the nation-state; displacement of the traditional family in favor of child-rearing by an enlightened governmental elite; and the inversion of sexual morality to elevate recreational sex and reduce the prestige of procreative sex. This is, it must be emphasized, a partial list.

For the last several decades of its political vitality, from roughly the 1950s to the 1980s, Marxism had lost its earlier belief in itself as the modern world's logical path to economic efficiency. Faith in Marxism was sustained by its continued credibility as a means to achieve social equality by way of income redistribution, even at the expense of an overall diminution in society's wealth. In a sense, Marxism survived on the plane of social values rather than economics.

Indeed, as John Fonte of the Hudson Institute has pointed out, the "Frankfurt School" of Marxist intellectuals and their ally Antonio Gramsci, who died in one of Mussolini's prisons in the 1930s, long ago sensed the economic weakness of socialism and struggled, with some success, to reorient the left toward what has been called cultural Marxism--the deconstruction of traditional institutions such as church and family, and transfer of power to oppressed or underprivileged classes, races, and genders.

But this tendency of the left long predated Marxism. It would be instantly recognizable and attractive to the left's visionary founder and first successful politicians, Rousseau and the Jacobins of Paris. They would also recognize American social conservatism as their most implacable enemy.

The final big reason social conservatism isn't going away is the most cold-bloodedly practical of all. Contrary to the stereotype of the GOP "base" as a crazy aunt locked away in the attic, when social issues have come to the fore in general elections, Republicans, not Democrats, have invariably benefited. This was particularly striking in the three presidential elections of the 1980s.

In 1980, the nomination of Ronald Reagan was accompanied by the appearance of a pro-life plank in the Republican platform, just as Democrats moved definitively to affirm the right to abortion as a core party value. Economic and foreign-policy crises were central in the 1980 campaign, but abortion and other social issues helped give Reagan unexpectedly large gains among newly energized evangelical voters, and stunning victories in liberal but heavily Catholic states like Massachusetts. In 1984, "religion in politics" dominated the campaign from July through September, with vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro engaging in an extended debate over abortion with New York archbishop John O'Connor, while presidential nominee Walter Mondale accused Reagan of being an "ayatollah" for welcoming socially conservative Protestant clergymen into the public square. This debate coincided with a substantial Democratic decline in the polls in the two most religious sections of the country, the South and the Midwest.

In the summer of 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush, caricatured as a "wimp" and a "lap dog," at one point trailed Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis by 17 percentage points in a national poll. Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, convinced the vice president to begin attacking Dukakis on a selection of social issues. These included Dukakis's opposition to the death penalty, his opposition to requiring students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in public-school classrooms, and his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union. Above all, Bush harped on a Dukakis-backed program that awarded extended furloughs to Massachusetts inmates convicted of serious crimes, including one named Willie Horton who used his leave to commit rape and kidnapping in another state.

The social issues had impact, and the election turned. Bush overtook Dukakis and wound up winning by 8 percentage points in the popular vote, carrying the electoral votes of 40 states. In the 1980s, social issues were unquestionably a Republican plus in three out of three general elections. In these elections, Democratic candidates averaged 42 percent of the popular vote and 58 electoral votes.

For various reasons--one of which was intense elite disapproval of the Atwater-injected social issues in the wake of Bush's 1988 victory--social issues did not reappear as major factors in the general elections of 1992 or 1996, the two victories of Bill Clinton. Whether Bush's faith-based emphasis in 2000 qualified as a reemergence of social issues can be argued either way. But most analysts believed the faith-based issue, combined with Bush's personal testimony on the role of his own faith in overcoming a drinking problem and stabilizing his marriage, proved a net benefit in helping Bush to his narrow Electoral College victory. Social conservatives found themselves with a seat at the presidential strategy table for the first time since the late 1980s. Yet none of this made George W. Bush look any more comfortable talking about abortion or (especially) the new social issue, same-sex marriage.

Then in 2003, two judicial decisions, one at the Federal level (Lawrence v. Texas) and one in Massachusetts (Goodridge v. Department of Public Health), made it clear to social conservatives that if left unchecked, judicial elites would before very long (by use of the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution) make same-sex marriage the law of the land in all 50 states. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry stated that he believed marriage is between a man and a woman, but he vehemently opposed all efforts to lock this belief into federal law, either by constitutional amendment (the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment) or by statute (the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, signed into law by President Clinton, with Kerry one of only 14 senators voting no).

Social conservatives mobilized, and with aid from sympathetic Republicans accomplished the following: Amendments to state constitutions went before the voters in 13 states, passing everywhere and greatly enhancing GOP turnout efforts, including in pivotal Ohio. In February 2004, President Bush (though with some reluctance) endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment. In votes in the House and Senate the amendment fell well short of the two-thirds needed to send it to the states, but when the vast majority of Republicans voted for the amendment and the vast majority of Democrats against, the issue of same-sex marriage was further nationalized, taking the form of an explicit disagreement between the two parties.

In John Kerry's final debate with President Bush on October 13, 2004, the issue of same-sex marriage occasioned what most observers saw as Kerry's only serious misstep of the three debates--a misstep that arguably deflected momentum Kerry had achieved by his otherwise adroit performance in the debates. After a strong Bush answer to a question by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS--an answer that outlined why a Kerry victory would surely result in judges who would make same-sex marriage the law of the land--an annoyed-looking Kerry said, "We're all God's children, Bob. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, who she was born as."

This answer of Kerry's was to become the most widely remembered moment of the three debates. It came across as a cold, gratuitous use of Mary Cheney as a debating point. Unlike his running mate John Edwards in a similar exchange with Cheney in an earlier vice presidential debate, Kerry neglected to soften his attack with praise of the vice president and his wife for being supportive of their daughter, or even by referring to Mary Cheney by name. In context, it's hard to see Kerry's answer as anything other than an attempt to demonize Bush for daring to open ideological space between himself and Kerry on their approach to dealing with judicially decreed same-sex marriage.

On Election Day, the National Election Pool exit poll asked voters what issue (or issue cluster) influenced them the most. Of the choices provided, the surprise winner was Moral Values, running ahead of Economy/Jobs, Terrorism, and Iraq. Among the voters whose top concern was Moral Values--22 percent of the national vote--Bush bested Kerry 80 percent to 18 percent. So of all voters, 18 percent were Bush "Moral Values" supporters, 4 percent Kerry "Moral Values" supporters. In an election in which he carried the popular vote by just under 2.5 percentage points, Bush carried "Moral Values" voters by 14 percentage points, while losing all other voters combined by 11.5 percentage points. And Bush received 50.7 percent of the national vote in 2004--the first Republican popular majority since the elections of 1980, 1984, and 1988.

Put aside the stereotypes. Whatever its virtues or flaws, social conservatism isn't going away. It is not, and never was, the crazy aunt in the attic. It continues to be the essential building block of Republican presidential majorities.

Jeffrey Bell, a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is author of Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality (Regnery 1992), and is writing Social Conservatism: The Movement that Polarized American Politics, to be published by Encounter Books in 2009.