Saturday, March 23, 2013

Pushing social conservatives out the GOP door

The root of the GOP’s problem now is the same as that of the Democrats in 1969: the party’s reputation has been ruined by a botched, unnecessary war — Vietnam in the case of the Democrats, Iraq for the GOP. This may sound implausible: every political scientist knows that Americans don’t care about foreign policy; certainly they don’t vote based on it. But foreign policy is not just about foreign policy: it’s also about culture.

This is the theme that Daniel McCarthy convincingly fleshes out in “The GOP’s Vietnam”. Basically, the Vietnam era created the templates we still use for defining political left and right; however, those templates no longer fit an electorate where “an 18-year-old first-time voter in 1992 was born the year after [Pres. Richard] Nixon withdrew most U.S. forces from Indochina” (1973). The cultural values which created neo-conservatives out of baby boomers disaffected and disenchanted with the New Left no longer obtain for the millennials, for whom “[the] sexual revolution [has] been background noise … since the day they were born.”

The GOP never learned to talk to the post-Vietnam generation in the first place; over the last decade, it compounded the problem by launching wars that, far from resolving the unfinished business of the Vietnam era, only made clear that those who are refighting the conflicts of that time are oblivious to today’s realities.

This generational disconnect showed up at the recent CPAC conference. Brad Todd of FOXNews reports, “For three decades, the locus of the Republican Party family debate has been over social issues. Today, there is no such fight — and that’s the bad news for all of us social and foreign policy conservatives. … The activists who power the elevation of Sen. [Rand] Paul and his ilk are corporately much less interested in the pro-life, pro-family agenda that drove the conservative movement for years, and openly hostile to the muscular foreign policy that has differentiated Republicans from Democrats since the Age of Aquarius.”

The disconnect didn’t just show up out of the blue; the GOP is finally coming out of a state of denial after badly losing what should have been a slam-dunk election. George Neumayr charges, “At the political level, the culture war has been hopelessly one-sided, with Republicans secretly and now not-so-secretly fighting alongside the Democrats on many critical fronts.” Todd concurs: “Libertarian-leaning bloggers routinely lambast full-spectrum conservatives as ‘pro-life statists’ — with one term a slur and the other merely a condescending shrug. They’re not motivated by two-thirds of the cause that animated the Reagan coalition.”

“Of course, there are issues where libertarians and social conservatives end up on the same side for different reasons,” Daniel Larison reminds us. “That’s usually because they happen to oppose the same legislation or court ruling for their own reasons. It isn’t because most libertarians and social conservatives share a fusionist worldview. Fusionism doesn’t ‘run through the conservative heart’” — the last sentence referring to a post in Real Clear Politics by Jonah Goldberg.

Indeed; outside of issues pertaining to business and the economy, libertarians are not all of a piece. Some follow the logic of their principles almost to moral indifferentism, a kind of “isolationism of the individual” that only grudgingly concedes the community’s right to proscribe or require anything. We on the outside thought the leadership of the GOP was merely dominated by moderate fraidycats pursuing an appeasement strategy on the social issues. Now it seems that all along those we thought were standing with us were only standing in the same room for other reasons.

And now they’re pushing us out the Republican door, just as the New Left pushed us out the Democrat door back in ’68 and ’72.

Very soon, social conservatives will no longer have a political home. Full-spectrum conservatives will hang on to the GOP, but no longer as the defining force … more as the deadbeat brother-in-law living in your basement or the crotchety grandfather you can’t afford to put in a retirement home. For the next thirty years or so, absent a visionary candidate or three, the Republican difference will be reduced to free-market economic policies; everything else will be junked in favor of “me too” endorsement of the progressive agenda — the tepid conservativism Jon Huntsman endorsed back in February. Put differently, the GOP will continue to appease themselves out of power and into a quarter century (at least) of irrelevance.

I say “at least” because, between the government monopoly on education which resists all attempts at reform, poor teacher preparation and coercive political indoctrination, public schools are no longer producing in large numbers college students capable of the rigorous, extensive, connect-the-dots thinking necessary to deep, reflective conservativism. As well, the future of higher learning appears to favor trade schools and community colleges focused on business-oriented degrees rather than the liberal arts. The conservative camp has been losing the ability to reproduce itself intellectually for the last forty years; when George Will said that opposition to gay marriage is “quite literally … dying off”, he could just as well have been talking about full-spectrum conservativism.

Ashley Pratte of Cornerstone Policy Research and Cornerstone Action said in a recent New York Times story on traditional-marriage defenders that our main problem is “messaging”: “Do you want to tell your friends when you’re out with them on a Friday night that they can’t get married? No, you don’t want to have that discussion, but you want to have a healthy discussion.”

I think getting the messaging improved is only part of the solution. As I suggest in a previous post, “Reinventing the Republican vision”, the pro-life, pro-family message has to be part of a greater, more integrated package that looks to rebuild the middle class not only economically but socially and politically at well. Nor is it sufficient merely to demonize particular candidates, such as Pres. Obama:

If the key to winning the election is to win the argument, as [Bobby] Jindal (quoting the late Margaret Thatcher) holds, it’s here that the liberals have been winning through absence of effective opposition, even unthinking concession.  The key to winning the argument is to establish the need for change, and the way you establish need for change is through a thorough and comprehensive indictment of the present system.  It’s not only liberal economic policy that’s wrong, out of date and a failure; “progressive” social and political policies are also badly flawed and counterproductive, “progressive” only if you consider a totalitarian government run by a utilitarian caste to be the goal for which we should strive.

Last, let it not de-Americanize me to suggest that much of progressivism and libertarianism is individualism run rampant. Law and regulation are not incompatible with freedom; indeed, rights need to be propped up by laws to be anything more than ineffectual platitudes. To belong to a community is to be bound to the common weal: we are bound to one another, responsible to one another, caring for one another.

When we loose that bond in the name of individualism, we lose “the public thing” — the res publica.