On the question whether the Republican Party ought to de-emphasize social issues, I find myself more in the Bryan Preston camp than in Roger Simon’s. That’s ironic because, though I’m drawn to the logic of Bryan’s “Where do the surrenders end?” argument, the brute fact is: the political divide in the country has almost nothing to do with logic. It is, instead, about “us versus them.” Roger thus gets closer to the heart of the matter when he contends that “fairly or not,” opposition to gay marriage – today’s hotly contested social issue – is used “to paint the right as bigots. And young people … don’t want to hang with bigots[.]”
Where I respectfully suggest that Roger goes wrong is in too narrowly applying the truth he has hit upon. It is about much more than young voters. Social conservatives can be alienated, too. While Republicans might peel off a few social liberals by shelving opposition to gay marriage, the party cannot win without the social conservatives, a major part of its base.
We are in “us versus them” politics because the Left’s positions are shot through with contradictions. The agenda is not logically compelling, whether we’re talking about paying people not to work; raising the minimum wage (i.e., eliminating entry-level jobs) and championing illegal immigration at a time of extraordinarily high unemployment; punitive taxes and regulations that shrink the wealth available for redistribution; healthcare “reform” that does next to nothing for the uninsured while booting millions of insured Americans off their policies and raising costs dramatically; closing Gitmo by freeing anti-American terrorists to return to the jihad; and so on. That is why Democrats, once they win office and become accountable to voters, prove endlessly malleable: walking away from some of these agenda items, “waiving” the dire effects of others, and banking on a compliant media’s help in blaming the inevitable mess on purported right-wing sabotage.
Logic, however, is not the point. The architects of these policies are striving for power, not coherence. They achieve power by promoting a Manichaean politics: they are the progressive lovers of humanity, while we on the right are the evil, bigoted Babbits. We can argue logic until we’re blue in the face. They will focus on the culture and the classroom, using relativism and political correctness to eviscerate the critical thinking skills that logic requires. The left’s voters are relentlessly challenged to remember not so much what they stand for as whom they stand with. This is often accomplished through ploys like the “war on women” and “Pajama boy.” These seem juvenile to us because we’re missing the point, which is solidarity not persuasion.
Roger may be right about the salience of gay marriage for young people. The logic of “traditional marriage” is beside the point; the debate has become the noble “us” versus the baleful “them.” Young voters, however, are just one demographic in a broad landscape that includes legions of social conservatives. Without the support of those legions, Republicans simply cannot win elections, especially presidential elections.
Consider the 2012 campaign. I bet that if you told the Romney folks a day or two before Americans went to the polls that Barack Obama would lose nearly four million of the voters who supported him in 2008, Mitt and Ann would have been ordering new White House curtains. Yet Romney lost because he barely edged McCain’s poor 2008 showing. Those four-million voters did not shift to the GOP; they stayed home. So, additionally, did millions of conservatives.
The right, very much including social conservatives, was indifferent to Romney just as it was to McCain – a progressive Republican notorious for bashing conservatives. As the chief proponent of Romneycare, the Massachusetts precursor of Obamacare, Romney demoralized the conservative base, largely nullifying the issue that had propelled Republicans to a smashing victory in the 2010 midterms. Moreover, Romney and his GOP establishment advisers decided that focusing the campaign myopically on Obama’s dreadful economy was the winning strategy. Social conservatives felt slighted, and many reciprocated by ignoring the candidate – notwithstanding their opposition to Obama.
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.