Here at Ordered Liberty, I weighed in a few days back on the discussion Roger Simon and Bryan Preston were having about whether the Republican Party should de-emphasize social issues. Some other points are worth making.
The first is that not all “social issues” are created equal.
I don’t think either Roger or Bryan suggested otherwise. To recap how we got here, while Roger’s headline referred generally to “social conservatives” (“How Social Conservatives Are Saving Liberalism”), his post homed in on gay marriage. In rebuttal, Bryan did not delve deeply into the substance of gay marriage; instead, he broadened the debate to consider how a conservative retreat on gay marriage would fit into a pattern of surrender on social issues across the board. It is those issues that inspired the demographic known as “social conservatives” to, as Bryan says, “get into politics in the first place.” Thus, he contends, de-emphasizing them would cause social conservatives to disengage from politics. I agree. As argued in my post, the GOP cannot win elections with major defections from this critical component of its base.
Yet, it confuses matters to speak of “social issues” as one indiscriminate bunch, and to imply that each should be handled the same “no compromise” way. Just as every skirmish in the culture war is not equally significant, different social issues are of varying importance.
Abortion, for example, is the great civil rights issue of our time; marijuana legalization (also discussed in Roger’s critique of social conservatives) is not nearly as consequential, regardless of how one comes out on it.
Gun rights, free speech, and religious liberty are explicitly protected by the federal Constitution; their erosion thus raises grave concerns about the vitality of all constitutional guarantees and about the future of constitutional governance itself. To the contrary, because abortion and marriage are not addressed by the Constitution, the assumption by the federal courts or Congress of the power to regulate them imperils state sovereignty — absent the guarantee of which the states would not have ratified the Constitution. And the fact that an issue is a matter of states’ rights implies that different states may have different solutions.
Bryan is wise to focus on the effects of an across-the-board retreat on social issues. Still, each different issue needs to be taken on its own merits. The fact that I’d be unwilling to compromise on life does not mean I’m closed-minded on marriage. The fact that I would fight hard to protect the Second Amendment does not mean I think all gun restrictions are unworthy; it means I think the core of any express constitutional protection may only be narrowed by constitutional amendment, lest all constitutional protections be imperiled.
Roger’s focus was on gay (or “same-sex”) marriage, so let’s stick with that. He is certainly right that young people, as a class, are much more sympathetic to it than previous generations. That is the main reason polling of American attitudes on gay marriage has swung, in less than 20 years, from overwhelming opposition to clear support. In the Left’s “us versus them” approach to political issues (the main thrust of my previous post), “us” undoubtedly lines up on the pro side of same-sex marriage — notwithstanding that the anti side includes two notable Democratic constituencies: black Americans and Muslims (homosexuality being regarded as a capital offense under Islamic law). In just the last six years, Latinos, another Democrat-leaning constituency, have swung from opposing gay marriage to favoring it, driven by 18-to-29-year-olds.
Roger observes that young people now equate opposition to gay marriage with bigotry, which so offends them that he fears “the whole house of cards goes down” — i.e., if pressured by social conservatives to maintain their opposition, Republicans will lose young voters over this single issue, even though their economic self-interest and libertarian streak should cause young adults to reject the Democrats’ extreme statism.
As I countered in the last post, even if Roger is right about that (which he may be), Republicans considering a course reversal would still have to weigh any potential gains among young voters against the effect of alienating an essential part of their base.