It was only a matter of time. First Sarah Palin and the Wasilla hillbillies were charged with spending John McCain’s political capital faster than they could max out credit cards at Neiman Marcus. Now blame for the Republican electoral debacle has been extended to all the rubes who are said to populate the religious right.
Even some right-leaning pundits are getting into the act. Beliefnet’s Steven Waldman warned before the election that “religious conservatives will have to grapple with their role in electing Obama” since they supposedly vetoed pro-abortion Joe Lieberman, whom Al Gore found to be a sure ticket to the White House, for vice president.
In his post-election column for the National Post, David Frum counseled Republicans to embrace “a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues,” a move that will “involve painful change” on such issues as abortion. There will be more college-educated social liberals whose values must not be threatened by Republicans, he argues, than Joe the Plumbers who are threatened by Democrats.
“Consider the nature of the Republican failure. That old rallying point, social conservatism, simply didn’t draw the masses in 2008,” Amity Shlaes concluded. “Truth be told, the pro-life line and appeals to piety often backfired.”
If the Republicans are ever going to win another national election, they must engage in less pandering to conservative Christians on traditional values. Or at the very least, Christopher Caldwell advises, stop identifying traditional values with “the values of the U-Haul-renting denizens of two-year-old churches and three-year-old shopping malls.”
Actually, that last example comes from the June 1998 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. A little more than two years later, the Republicans would retake the White House by nominating an evangelical Christian from Texas who was pro-life on abortion and popular among religious conservatives. Four years after that, the conventional wisdom was that “values voters” had delivered the Republicans unified control of the federal government. Liberals were left worrying that the United States — that is, the cosmopolitan “real America” — had been taken over by a mass of red states they derisively labeled “Jesusland.”
This illustrates the folly of divining lasting political trends on the basis of a single election result, as well as the perils of declaring the death — or dominance — of social conservatism. Looking back at the postmortems of the 1992 election, it is easy to find political writers arguing that it was time to abort the pro-life movement and look toward socially liberal Northeastern governors like Christine Todd Whitman and Bill Weld (remember him?) for the Republican future. Coming just before the GOP congressional takeover of 1994, such analysis — written not just by smart liberals like the New Republic‘s John Judis but also center-right commentators like Charles Krauthammer — seems as overwrought as the social-conservative triumphalism just two years before the 2006 elections restored the Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill.
In truth, there is very little evidence that the country has moved left on social issues since 2004, when values voters were said to decide the presidential election. Polls have been shifting somewhat more pro-life since the mid-1990s. Even leftward movement on same-sex marriage, which has gone from being unthinkable in the early ’90s to a live issue today, seems to have stalled around late 2003. Republicans emphasized their social conservatism much more in 2004, when they won, than during their losing campaigns of 2006 and 2008.
That’s not to say that more talk about abortion in the middle of an economic crisis would have made John McCain president, or that there aren’t demographic and generational shifts that could reduce social conservatism’s salience in the future. But there are demographic and generational factors that cut the other way too. California’s constitutional amendment reversing same-sex marriage did better among blacks and Hispanics than among whites. Black and Latino voters also broke for similar ballot initiatives in Florida and Arizona. African-Americans similarly voted against gay adoption in Arkansas.
In California, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians voted more pro-life than whites on a ballot initiative requiring parental notification when minors seek abortions. That’s not to suggest that social conservatism alone can turn majorities of these voters into Republicans. But it’s hard to come up with other issues on the right that have such multiracial appeal. And while younger voters tend to be much more supportive of gay rights, they are not noticeably less pro-life (pdf) .
Social conservatism itself can adapt to changing political and cultural circumstances. In this election, the religious right’s favorite candidate was a working mother whose eldest daughter is an unwed pregnant teenager. Suffice it to say that would not have always been the case. Social conservatives still campaign to reverse Roe v. Wade and pass pro-life laws, but few are working to overturn Lawrence v. Texas and reinstate anti-sodomy laws.
It’s easy to understand why professional social conservatives exaggerated the 2004 values vote. But why do pundits and political analysts so consistently make the opposite mistake whenever Democrats win elections, even though their epitaphs for social conservatism are usually refuted within an election cycle or two? To some extent, it’s the internecine conservative squabbling summed up by the Dougherty Doctrine: “If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. It’s failing because it’s like you.”
Other biases also come into play. People who write about politics tend to live in places like Washington and New York, where even moderate social conservatism is a genuine political liability. Even the most socially conservative among them associate disproportionately with educated professionals who claim to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Inhabiting such a cocoon, the winning formula always seems to be more Concord Coalition and less Christian Coalition equals Republican renaissance.
Here’s betting they’re wrong again.
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