Democrats may disappoint their base, but they are never ashamed of it. Former terrorists, communists, race-mongering rabble-rousers, scandal-ridden pols, big-thinkers who’ve been wrong about every important policy question for decades – far from shoving them out the door and into obscurity, the left elevates them to stardom in academe, politics, media and entertainment. They are transformed into cultural icons, their sordid pasts rationalized as passionate opposition to the right’s backwardness. Leaders of the left have no yearning for approval from the right; conservatives are there to be caricatured, a constant source of new villains to keep the old “us versus them” themes fresh.
Republican leadership, by contrast, craves approval by the left, particularly the media. The GOP often seems embarrassed by its conservative base, which inconveniently resists the constant pressure to relent on matters of principle; to abide the imposition of immoral debt obligations on future generations rather than make adult spending decisions in the present; and to view modern problems as so complex that only government action can “solve” them.
When the GOP tells social conservatives the time has come to shelve the issues that most concern them, it is essentially telling them, “How we are portrayed by the other side is of greater importance than how we serve our side – meaning: you.” Not only do social conservatives find themselves cast as “them” in the “us versus them” drama; they also see that Republicans are desperate to be accepted into the “us” club. This is doubly disheartening: Social conservatives find nothing for themselves in the GOP’s Democrat-lite approach, and they know it has no chance of winning over the media. McCain types get the occasional pat on the head, but when it comes down to brass tacks, the press will always go with real Democrats.
The country is not as conservative as it used to be. But conservatives, including those animated by social issues, are still formidable. Republicans cannot win elections, especially presidential elections, without their enthusiastic support. And, pace Roger, I do not believe social conservatives see today’s Republicans as committed to “seriously smaller government” – certainly not enough to set their passions aside. Social conservatives’ lives do not revolve around politics; if not embraced, they abandon politics.