Roger L. Simon

How Social Conservatives Are Saving Liberalism (Barely)


Can the GOP avoid getting suckerpunched this fall?

Reading David Harsanyi’s well-reasoned article  “Sorry, America Isn’t Destined To Be More Liberal” in The Federalist, I was struck once again how we are at a point  where only social conservatives can save liberalism.  Harsanyi was responding to what he calls “wishful thinking” in a Washington Post op-ed by Steve Rosenthal, a former political director of the AFL-CIO,  “America is becoming more liberal.”

Harsanyi correctly points out that most of what Rosenthal cites as evidence for this tilt are social issues — most prominently same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. And certainly it’s true that gay marriage and legalized pot are more popular than ever. Rosenthal also makes the claim that anti-big business feeling is on the rise, as if that were an indication of a preference for liberalism — or am I mistaken and George Soros is a “small businessman”?

In reality what is really going on is not a liberal revolution but a libertarian one. More Americans than ever, or at least during my lifetime, distrust the federal government and think it’s too big.  Indeed, in the latest Gallup poll of America’s problems, government itself leads the way among our citizens with 21% followed by the economy with 18%.  The president’s bugaboo, “the gap between rich and poor,” registers a paltry 4%.

That doesn’t sound like a liberal revival to me, not in the modern statist sense anyway.  It sounds like the reverse. As for gay marriage and “le-mar,” they have both been on many libertarian agendas forever.

This analysis of the (admittedly macro) political trends in our country tracks well with my personal observation. Being an older guy with a teenage daughter, I have been blessed in many ways — not the least of which is considerable contact with the younger generation.  Much of that contact is circumscribed, but not all of it. Recently I have had the opportunity to interview high school students from many different social classes and ethnicities.

Although I didn’t ask them directly about their politics — that was off the table for the interviews I was conducting — I got a fair glimpse of their views as time went on just through the flow of the conversation.  Worry about their economic future is, not surprisingly, pervasive, but there was practically universal skepticism of government’s ability to solve it.  They saw themselves as individual actors, libertarian, in most cases, without even realizing it. They were also highly aware of Obamacare and its innate unfairness to the younger generation, as well as its overweening bureaucratic disorganization.

In fact, when you come down to it, virtually nothing associated with the liberal platform met with their approval — even legalization of marijuana was dealt with in most instances with a shrug — except, you guessed it, same-sex marriage.

That appears to be the one issue militating against a coming Republican majority, but it is an exceptionally potent one because it is used, fairly or not, to paint the right as bigots.  And young people, again not surprisingly, don’t want to hang with bigots — so the whole house of cards goes down.

On the other hand, I sensed no hostility toward religious people.  Several of these kids were religious — a few devoutly. They were quite thoughtful on the subject of abortion with a variety of  views. But to them gay marriage was a done deal. Remember, they come from a generation in which nearly all of their gay contemporaries are out. These are their friends and classmates that are being discriminated against.

Now you will say this was Los Angeles. It wasn’t Des Moines. That’s true. But unfortunately for Des Moines, what starts on the coasts drifts to the center. Indeed, it may already have arrived.

While I respect and recognize people’s religious traditions, what concerns me is this — this issue will be used effectively as a wedge to sabotage a whole lot of change at a time when it couldn’t be more necessary. It dovetails perfectly with the mythological “war on women,” which we all will be sure to hear about incessantly.

Now I readily acknowledge I have been pro-same-sex marriage for many years.  So I am not a perfectly honest broker.  But  as an observer of society,  and as a writer that’s what I’m paid to do, I have to say in all candor that political opposition to same-sex marriage is the Achilles’ heel of the right going into 2016. Social conservatives who intend to make a serious issue out of it should realize that the fallout from their views could adversely affect all of us in a catastrophic way.

No one is going to be happy here. SoCons who continue to press this issue on the political (not the personal or religious) stage have to realize that they are damaging many of us who have other concerns domestic and foreign, many of which we would probably agree on more easily.

This is a great moment.  A seriously smaller government is a real possibility with electoral victories in 2014 and 2016.  Let’s not jeopardize them by emphasizing an issue more properly, and unquestionably more successfully, dealt with in the private realm.

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