Social conservatives who may be dispirited by Sen. Rick Santorum’s withdrawal from the GOP primary race need to stop and appreciate the opportunity that remains. They especially need to consider the extent to which Gov. Mitt Romney’s seemingly narrow economic focus could in fact undermine much of the liberal cultural agenda.
Consider how the fiscal reform of many states and localities (which do not have Washington’s luxury of printing money) has already advanced policies long favored by social conservatives. Louisiana, for example, has attracted national attention for adopting legislation that would make an estimated 380,000 poor and minority children eligible for private and parochial school scholarships.
The rationale for this reform may be economic — at $4,500, the average scholarship in a New Orleans pilot program costs roughly half the state’s current per pupil expenditure — but the policy outcome, combined with recent voucher victories in Virginia, Florida, and Indiana, represents an enormous victory for the Right side of the culture war.
Even in states that continue to resist breaking up the expensive public school monopoly on K-12 education, the need for fiscal discipline has resulted in less money for sex education, gay rights advocacy, drug education programs, and other curriculum add-ons typically opposed by social conservatives.
When it comes to higher education, limited state budgets have resulted in tuition increases at public college and universities. These increases, in turn, have rebalanced the undergraduate enrollment away from majors dominated by liberal faculty — sociology, gender studies, environmental science — and toward more practical, ideologically neutral subjects, such as finance, engineering, and computer science. In a complete reversal from the early 1970s, according to John Agresto, former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, business administration, health care, and teacher preparation now account for more than a third of all undergraduate majors.
The fiscal pressure on states and counties has also forced politicians to push responsibly for mental health care, juvenile rehabilitation, and other social services down to the local level of towns and cities, which themselves are broke. This has opened the way for churches and religious cooperatives, such as food banks, counseling centers, nursing facilities, employment programs, and homeless shelters, to play a much greater role in the lives of their communities.
The Big Reach Center of Hope, a non-profit ministry of Ohio’s Greenford Christian Church which serves 70,000 people in five counties, is just one of an estimated 5,000 low-cost grocery and dry goods suppliers that, with contributions from chains like Wal-Mart, are picking up the government slack.
Dr. Warren Bird, Director of Research and Intellectual Capital at the Leadership Network, says that churches “all over the country, are literally adopting (run-down) public schools,” quietly re-building their libraries, fixing their gyms, contributing supplies, and even putting down carpeting.
At the same time that state and municipal budget cutting has elevated the grass roots profile of organized religion, it has also reduced or eliminated the number of politically correct commissions on human rights, the arts, day care, education, and family welfare, which have long operated as taxpayer-funded propagandists for secular causes. In very blue Connecticut, first term Gov. Daniel Malloy (D) has recently proposed eliminating 25 state boards to help balance the books.
Even the successful 2011 effort in Rhode Island and six other states to control runaway pension costs, turning defined benefit programs into self-administered 401-Ks, represents a victory of sorts for social conservatism. Any policy that makes a public employee personally responsible for the size of his post-retirement nest egg cannot help but increase his sympathy for the kind of civil, moral, and educational values that support a healthy, growth-oriented economy.
Spokespersons for government unions, such as Doug Pratt of the Michigan Education Association, may lament the prospect of public workers investing their own retirement dollars instead of depending on “a pension system back up by structure and employers.” Yet the maturity and judgment required to run a 401-K can only be welcomed by social conservatives as a positive development.
The election of a fiscal reformer president next November would guarantee at the very least that blue state politicians will not be able to escape current financial pressures by borrowing from the national treasury.
Beyond that, Governor Romney’s clear desire to trim discretionary spending means that the kind of socially conservative fiscal reforms advancing through the states will finally surface at the federal level. Subsidies for Planned Parenthood, the Public Broadcasting Service, and other culturally liberal groups would become the new endangered species.
The almost certain nomination of Mitt Romney as the GOP standard bearer provides social conservatives with an historic opportunity to advance their agenda, not in grueling culture war battles unfairly framed by hostile media outlets, but by simply endorsing what most level-headed economists believe will revive our sluggish economy.
Enact the fiscally sound policies that by their nature promote accountability, personal responsibility, and self-reliance; and the country will be more open to the rest of the argument.
 Dr. Andrews is the Senior Policy Scholar at the Yankee Institute in Hartford, Connecticut.
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