My friend Dan Riehl has a thoughtful post about the fate of the Christian conservative movement, reflecting on a much-discussed Newsweek cover story.
The obituary of the Religious Right has been written many times before. The defeat of Pat Robertson’s GOP primary bid in 1988, the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, his re-election in 1996, his acquittal by the Senate in the Lewinsky sex-and-lies scandal — all of these were causes for self-congratulatory gloating by opponents of the Religious Right.
And I should add that this gloating has been, and is now, bipartisan: Many Republicans have been deeply resentful of the influence exercised by Christian conservatives. The fact that John McCain was able to get the 2008 GOP nomination, after infamously insulting the leaders of the Religious Right as “agents of intolerance” during his 2000 primary campaign, is perhaps the best evidence for any argument about the declining influence of Christian conservatism.
Whether or not this latest obituary is premature, the Christian conservative movement was succesful as long as it was successful because it operated on a sound principle: Politics is about people. The Democrats have always understood this. Identify groups of people with distinct interests and values — farmers, labor unions, women, urban dwellers — then appeal to their interests with policies that advance their interests and rhetoric that resonates with their values.
Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition was built by such methods, and it was not until that coalition unraveled in the crucible of the 1960s that Republicans began their steady ascent to dominance: Reagan’s election in 1980, the “Contract With America” election of 1994, and the consolidation of Republican hegemony in Washington after 2000 being the three electoral landmarks of this ascent.
Christian conservatives were essential to that success, because they supplied the ground troops, the foot soldiers of this GOP “Long March.” This was true, I should point out for younger readers, even during the Cold War drama of the Reagan Revolution. The unshakeable foundation of American opposition to Soviet aggression was always Christians who were horrified by the doctrinaire atheism of “godless communism,” a phrase I heard often in my youth.
The schism that developed in the GOP coalition over the years, and which has become glaringly apparent during the Republican decline since the 2004 re-election triumph of George W. Bush, is often described in ideological terms: Neoconservatives vs. paleoconservatives, or libertarians vs. social conservatives. But this is a mistake, I believe. The real schism is between those who see the GOP as being representative of the values and interests of identifiable electoral constituencies — that is to say, the politics of people — and those who see politics as a matter of coming up with policies and rhetoric that are defensible as intellectual truth in “the War of Ideas.”
This might be called a struggle between populists and elitists, but the fact is that it involves a conflict of identity between two fairly distinct classes of Republican operatives. On the one hand, you have Republicans out in the “Heartland” — Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon or wherever — whose main concern is organizing people to win elections. On the other hand, you have the mainly Washington, D.C.-based apparatus of policy specialists, consultants, congressional staffers and — yes — conservative journalists, who unfortunately tend to think of themselves as more important to the Movement than the tens of millions of Republican votes nationwide.
This class schism within the GOP Big Tent was highlighted during the 2006-07 battle over the proposed illegal-alien amnesty legislation pushed by John McCain and the Bush White House. All you had to do was to listen to any talk-radio program to understand that there was an intense grassroots resistance to any proposal to grant permanent residency to foreigners who were here illegally. “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t they understand?” as it was expressed to me by one talk-radio host in a 2006 interview.
That grassroots sentiment was disdained, however, by much of the elite GOP policy apparatus, just as the same policy elite disdained the pro-life, anti-gay-rights sentiment of the Christian conservative movement.
For years, Republicans won elections by framing issues in terms of opposition to an out-of-touch liberal elite in Washington. It seems to me that Republicans are now losing elections because of an out-of-touch “conservative” elite in Washington.