The Magazine

Loyal Opposition

Democracy flourishes with conflict.

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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On one side are American social conservatives who believe that the central proposition of the Declaration of Independence is true: Every human being is born equal. On the other are the global followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for whom “people in the state of nature are completely free, bound by no laws,” and “institutions and laws erected by civilization are inherently a force for repression.” Whereas social conservatives seek a limited government that does not tread on the natural rights of individuals, the global left—whether in America, Europe, or Asia—seeks an expansive, centralized state that levels material inequalities and bulldozes over the institutions and moral codes which purportedly stand in the way of true freedom, happiness, and authenticity.

Why has the left been so much more successful elsewhere than in the United States? Bell’s answer is polarization. And the cause of political polarization is the persistence of a social conservatism based on the teachings of the Founders. America, in this view, is exceptional not in the size of our economy or in the scope of our global responsibilities, but in the fact that we, and we alone, are a creedal nation. The American belief in moral truths that apply in every time and every place undermines the left-wing notion that morality is historically determined and subject to revision and relativism. If not for the social conservative movement, there would be no polarization because the left would reign unchallenged. America would undergo “a peaceful social revolution, utterly changing the face of society in ways that would have been both recognizable and pleasing to Rousseau and his heirs.”

The argument that the descendants of Jerry Falwell are the only thing preventing America from turning into a larger and warmer Denmark may strike some as ironic and others as self-congratulatory. But it is also a less shocking proposition than one might think. Foreign visitors from Tocqueville on have noted the high degree of religiosity among our people. The separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment has coincided with, and perhaps fostered, a delirious array of sects and confessions. Decisions by the Supreme Court, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Carter administration in the 1970s prompted millions of people of faith to enter politics, under the auspices of the Republican party, to reverse policies like Roe v. Wade and create spaces free from the influence of liberal elites. In so doing, these religiously observant voters became the base of a Republican party that would control the presidency and/or at least one house of Congress for 28 of the last 32 years.

Would there have been an Age of Reagan without this great migration of the faithful? I doubt it. But I doubt, too, that Republicans would have had such success had they not also appealed beyond their base to tens of millions of American independents and suburban moderates who may not be socially conservative and who may be too busy with work and family and community to worry about Du Contrat Social. The conditions in which elections take place—the state of the economy, the conduct of wars, the public’s attitude toward the future—matter a great deal more than polarization. So do the personalities and qualities of individual candidates.

The challenge for Republican politicians, most of them social conservatives, is to find a way to stand for the values of the American Founding without coming across to the public as overly sectarian or extreme. The political field is littered with Republican candidates who failed this test. Still, readers of The Case for Polarized Politics—indeed, anyone concerned with the future of American constitutionalism and limited government—can take comfort in the fact that there are many more candidates who have passed it.

Matthew Continetti is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon.