The Magazine

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.