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Newton's Third Law of Politics

With Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Sir Isaac Newton proved himself one of the brighter bulbs in the world of numbers. More’s the pity that Newton never turned his considerable intellect to matters of government with the same vigor. Had he done so, his third law of party mechanics would likely have run along the following lines:

ON matters of warfare in the political arena, when seeking equal footing for the battle, each issue-based action must be balanced by an equal and opposite reaction.

He could probably invite Max Planck along to develop a new constant for our purposes. It would need to define the precise ratio between the level of rage a potential voter will exhibit and the issue upon which they just found out you disagreed with them. The need we have now for such groundbreaking research became clear last week as I read Melissa Clouthier’s article on the general uselessness of moderates in today’s Republican Party:

I’m tired of the self-important smugness. Most of all, I’m tired of losing big elections and being lectured by the losers about how to win. And I’d just like to say this to moderates feelings tweaked in the current Grand Old Party: get over it.

The underlying message was clear: Social conservatives will not be scolded by moderates and RINOs (who can’t win an election to save their lives anyway) about compromising their values. It was exactly such compromises, they assure us, which caused the Republicans to lose their way during the last two election cycles.

This argument was the final spark required to dislodge my attention from the tiresome battle being waged between moderates and “hard-core” conservatives. Instead, I began to ponder the very nature of various political issues themselves. Why do some issues — which are normally lumped into the basket of “social conservative” questions — seem to strip moderates and independents away from the GOP today at a far greater rate than companion questions on the liberal side of the aisle?

The answer may be far more pragmatic than we imagine at first blush, having less to do with the intellectual heft of the ensuing debate than the emotional currency people are willing to invest in the question itself. This imbalance is what brings us back to Newton’s third law: some political actions simply lack an equal and opposite — if not massively greater — reaction, and these tend to play in the Democrats’ favor.

For a glaring example we need look no further than the standard issue bugaboo of abortion. It’s one of those politically divisive issues where everyone seems to have an opinion and the lion’s share of them tend to run to the extremes. If you are pro-life, you tend to be very, very pro-life and there is little room for dissent among the ranks. Murder is murder, after all, and it’s not a subject suitable for the drawing of gray lines or a discussion of nuance. If you run across a potential Republican who happens to be pro-choice, the sad fact is that there simply isn’t much room in the rowboat for him or her. Parallel examples of this can be made on the issue of gay marriage and a few other touchstone debate topics.

The Democratic Party, by contrast, has a long history and wealth of experience in operating as a coalition of loosely attached, single issue groups. The secret of its success, it should be noted, is that the various interests rarely contradict each other to the point where civil war erupts over the margins. If your major concern is the environment, the Democrats will provide you a comfortable home with many like-minded souls. But the key point is that there really isn’t a big pro-pollution group out there to oppose you. Some folks may rightly oppose excessive regulation of industry, but they’re not going to hit the streets fighting for their right to toss empty beer bottles out the windows of their pickup trucks.

Among your fellow Democrats you are equally unlikely to meet a hostile response. Your neighbor may not be terribly concerned over green energy questions, preferring instead to focus his efforts on concerns over racial inequity in our country. Again, the point is that neither of you is likely to look aghast at the other and scream, “You believe in what!?!? Even if your focus is on pollution, you’re unlikely to be a card carrying member of the KKK at the same time. You’re far more likely to give a mild shrug of your shoulders to the other person’s issue and march side by side with them down to the poll booth and vote the Democratic ticket.

The bottom line here is that, unlike men, all issues are not created equal. They may attract similarly ardent supporters, but they don’t all elicit the same level of rage in potential opponents. Social conservative issues tend to run toward the more fire and brimstone, battle hymns of the Republicans, while liberal issues are frequently a Forrest Gump box of chocolates, happily coexisting with one another.

Social conservative issues, in the end, would likely be crafted by Isaac Newton into his first new law of politics: An argument in motion tends to remain in motion. But as you seek to define the limits of the Republican Party heading into the battles of 2010, you’ll want to ensure that the motion in question isn’t headed toward a very large cliff.