Social Conservatives: The Republican Party’s Dilemma
One of the readers that I most enjoy reading is the French writer Pascal Emmanuel Gobry. He is able to give a view of American politics from a very different standpoint than most of us. He recently came up with a manifesto to reform the GOP. If you have some time, please read it. I want to life a point he makes about social conservatism and the GOP. Gobry goes contrary to some reformers in how the GOP handles this faction of the party.
The Republican Party can’t win without social conservatives. There’s roughly a third of voters in this country who are committed social conservatives. What that means is that Republicans can’t get to 51 with just those people, but it also can’t get to 51 without them. This is for “upper-middle” reform conservatives who think the Republican Party’s problem is social conservatism. There is simply no path to victory for a socially liberal Republican Party. Period. Maaaybe the GOP is in danger of becoming a “Bible Belt rump” if it goes too much in the social conservatism direction, but there’s no doubt that if it goes too much in the social liberal direction it will become a Northeastern nothingburger. More deeply, it is deeply fitting and consistent (as we’ll see in greater depth below) that the GOP be an economically and socially conservative party, since economic dynamism creates churn and disruption in people’s lives–churn and disruption which can be alleviated either through big government which destroys freedom and kills the goose that lays the golden eggs, or through vibrant cultural, social and local institutions.
This message is directed at me and others who tend to be more socially liberal. I’ve longed thought the problem with the party is it’s social conservatism. If we just got rid of them, I thought, then everything would be great. As much as I want to believe that, I’m coming to the conclusion that we just aren’t going to get a socially liberal Republican party. I can envision a party that welcomes social liberals as well as social conservatives, but I don’t see the party totally abandoning social conservatism. The problem boils down to who shows up. Social conservatives tend to be the most committed members of the GOP. They are the ones that are involved in party politics and in the footwork of getting candidates elected. The more moderate folk tend to not be as involved and in most cases tend to be somewhat standoffish in dealing with the party. I’ve learned this over my years of being involved in more moderate GOP groups; we want the party to bend to our will, we just don’t want to work that hard to get it done.
Which is why the recent op-ed by two straight interns at Log Cabin is dear to my heart, but isn’t realistic and in some cases antithetical to the cherished “big tent” we want. In the article, Mack Feldman and Lisa Schoch advocate for the party to give up its opposition to same sex marriage or face losing the vote of social moderates:
A recent study by the College Republican National Committee suggests that young voters have an appetite for a more moderate GOP. Forty-nine percent of respondents maintained that same-sex marriage should be legal, half of whom indicated that “they would probably or definitely not vote for a candidate with whom they disagreed on same-sex marriage, even if they were in agreement on taxes, defense, immigration and spending.” In other words, the GOP’s opposition to marriage equality definitively eliminates at least one-fourth of its youth vote, regardless of the relevance or appeal of its other conservative policies.
Despite efforts to convince themselves otherwise, the Republican Party needs to accept that social matters do make a difference. Indeed, as the CRNC report illustrates, social concerns — including support of same-sex marriage — are increasingly a priority for young voters, with fiscal policies threatening to take a backseat.
There are two problems with their reason and they line up somewhat to Gobry’s views. First, Feldman and Schoch assume that if the GOP modernized its stance on same sex marriage, then a whole tide of voters will come and vote GOP. But I think this view is missing some key factors. First, if the GOP does change its stance, we also have to face the fact that part of the reason that the GOP lost votes in the last general election wasn’t simply because of social issues, but economic issues as well:
In order to win, therefore, Republicans need to find a way to adapt Reagan’s core insights–”government that rides with us, not on our backs”–in a way that directly addresses the front-of-mind day-to-day concerns of the lower-middle in the 21st century. These concerns include: unemployment, economic insecurity, wage stagnation, healthcare (security and affordability), education, quality of life, etc. And remember, lower-middle people are not ideologues. Maybe capital gains tax cuts or a flat tax would create a rising tide that would lift all boats. Reform conservatives love them some tax cuts. But people in the lower-middle ain’t buyin’ it. If Republicans don’t have good, credible, conservative policies to address these concerns, lower-middle people will vote for Democrats if only by default. This is the story of 2012. Lower-middle people don’t like Obamacare but they still swung the election for Obama because Romney’s alternative to Obamacare was (perceived to be) zilch. At least the Obama agenda realized what their concerns were and addressed them.
The thing that is holding the party back isn’t simply social issues, but economic ones as well. It has to find a way to speak again to the lower middle class on economic matters. I’m guessing a lot of young people are not voting GOP simply on same sex marriage, but also on the fact that they don’t see the party really helping people like them. The same-sex marriage issue is frosting on the cake instead of the cake itself. The problem with social liberals like myself is that we have internalized the Democratic critique of the GOP instead of seeing what is the real problem. Social issues are a drag on the party. But the problems that drag the GOP down looks more like an iceberg. The social issues are on top and look imposing, but the economic issues are bigger and dwell below beneath the waterline. We can support same-sex marriage and immigration, but as long as we don’t deal with what’s below, the party will not win.
So what to do with social conservatives? Instead of trying to throw them overboard, it might make more sense to lift up more of their salient points, while downplaying that which polarizes. Earlier this year, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner wrote a piece in Commentary that got to the point: how to save the Republican Party. Gerson and Wehner suggested the following when it came to social issues:
…the GOP can engage vital social issues forthrightly but in a manner that is aspirational rather than alienating.
Addressing the issue of marriage and family is not optional; it is essential. Far from being a strictly private matter, the collapse of the marriage culture in America has profound public ramifications, affecting everything from welfare and education to crime, income inequality, social mobility, and the size of the state. Yet few public or political figures are even willing to acknowledge that this collapse is happening.
For various reasons, the issue of gay marriage is now front and center in the public consciousness. Republicans for the most part oppose same-sex marriage out of deference to traditional family structures. In large parts of America, and among the largest portion of a rising generation, this appears to be a losing battle. In the meantime, the fact remains that our marriage culture began to disintegrate long before a single court or a single state approved gay marriage. It is heterosexuals, not homosexuals, who have made a hash out of marriage, and when it comes to strengthening an institution in crisis, Republicans need to have something useful to offer. The advance of gay marriage does not release them from their responsibilities to help fortify that institution and speak out confidently on the full array of family-related issues. Republicans need to make their own inner peace with working with those who both support gay marriage and are committed to strengthening the institution of marriage. (Emphasis mine)
Yes, the ability of government to shape attitudes and practices regarding family life is very limited. But a critical first step is to be clear and consistent about the importance of marriage itself—as the best institution ever devised when it comes to raising children, the single best path to a life out of poverty, and something that needs to be reinforced rather than undermined by society.
Other steps then follow: correcting the mistreatment of parents in our tax code by significantly increasing the child tax credit; eliminating various marriage penalties and harmful incentives for poor and for unwed mothers; evaluating state and local marriage-promotion programs and supporting those that work; informally encouraging Hollywood to help shape positive attitudes toward marriage and parenthood. There may be no single, easy solution, but that is not a reason for silence on the issue of strengthening and protecting the family.
While social liberals like myself has usually seen nothing good to come from social conservatives, they are partly right about the disintergration of the family. Liberals and libertarians have been slow to see the problems with a crumbling family structure. If social conservatives are willing to work with social liberals and if social liberals are willing to see that social conservatism might have some value sans the anti-gay rhetoric, then we might be able to co-opt and harness the power of social conservatism in a way that’s beneficial for society and not divisive.
At some point social liberals/libertarians and conservatives are going to have to come to some sort of detente; a place where they won’t every agree, but are willing to live with each other and work with each other for a greater good. But for that to happen, both factions have to see the other as valuable to the GOP coalition.
Will that happen? We shall see.