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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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.