Thursday, November 13, 2008

Social Conservatives

In the debate over the soul of the Republican Party, or the conservative movement, the libertarian sites on the web have started to weigh in with some consistency: throw the social conservatives overboard. They (we) scare people and they cost the Republicans more votes than they produce.

Before I tell you the many reasons that is short-sighted, let me tell you two reasons why that is a reasonable response.

In coalition politics, it is always reasonable to try and discern where you are gaining and losing votes. If the GOP runs the numbers and believes that most of us would vote with them anyway, even without "pandering" to us, and they can make up for the losses by picking up more fiscal conservative/social liberal votes, then they should at least consider that approach. Secondly, it is true that there is a group drawn from among the social conservatives that makes people nervous. While the extremity and number of those folks are exaggerated, they do exist, and they are not entirely reasonable people. Like any wing of any party, we have some all-or-nothing people who come out of the socons.

There is also a semi-valid reason for pinning the blame for election losses on us. No one has done well at keeping the fiscal conservatism promises - no, not even the libertarian-leaning elected officials - and while mutual recriminations may not be entirely fair or productive, they aren't entirely undeserved either.

But there is a good deal to be said on the other side.

I have said often that if the franchise were limited to married couples who had raised more than one child into school years, the Democratic Party would cease to exist as a force in American politics. It would elect few representatives in any district. They might get on by leaning heavily on the education funding issues, but that would be it. It would be a third party nationally. And it wouldn't be the libertarians that replaced them, at least not as currently constituted.

Marrying tends to nudge people into voting more conservatively (It may also be that more conservative people are more likely to marry, but for this argument that's tangential). Having a child nudges that a bit more, as does buying a house. But it's that second child that swells the ranks of the conservative parents. Four children - don't even ask. Even if a couple did not marry until a few years after a child was born, they start right in drifting conservative. If they divorce, both parents start drifting back to the center again, until they remarry, at which point they start their rightward march again. So it is not a product of being a rules-keeper or a rigid moralist.

I can't find where the reasons why have been studied, but let me hazard some guesses. When you raise more than one child, you see very clearly that a person's choices affect their life outcomes. Your choices, their choices, their friends' choices, their friends' parents choices - this laboratory churns out experimental data for you all the time. You get to know in your bones that life is not all luck. Luck still plays a part, and good choices do not guarantee good results, but your pendulum swings over to the life-is-what-you-make-it side. The unforgiving nature of reality is ever before you as well. One can drive stupidly (or drunk) and life can change in a moment. MVA injuries do not respond to protests that it's not fair, and he's so young, and can't he have a do-over. This reality gives you some resistance against liberal wishing and removing of consequences. Consequences can be a good thing. Buck up, little soldier.

I don't want to state that too harshly. I have already mentioned once that there aren't any guarantees even if you make good choices - you might fall victim to someone else's stupid or evil act - and parents keep that in mind as well. You pray, you teach, you admonish, and you keep trying to push the odds more in your favor. Parents tend to be firm but not fanatic.

Parents develop resistance to a second set of arguments from the left. The legacy we wish to leave is not the same as theirs. We're talking about real people, they are talking about society as a whole. No matter how many times environmentalists say "our children and grandchildren," it's pretty obvious that the activists are frequently childless - maybe one child. I think having wilderness areas, clean energy, and variety of wildlife is a good thing for my children and grandchildren. Yet I am more concerned about what values they have and what their character is. Not to put too fine a point on it, if they are not perpetuating a culture which clearly descends from my own, screw 'em. They don't have to even be very much like me individually - but if they are working toward values opposite to mine, why should I care about them? Mere survival of my genetic material does not interest me.

Similarly, parents know that animals are not people and find much of PETA's rhetoric offensive on that score. Treating animals kindly - sure. That's one of the values I was referring to above. But they're animals. People with actual children get the distinction. We note with some asperity that neither PETA nor the protectors of endangered species' habitat are noticeable among the life advocates and either end of the lifespan.

Having children also affects your own ideas of honor, of humility, of endurance. It can improve you if you let it.

This group I just spent seven paragraphs describing has considerable overlap with the socons. It votes 70% Republican - even African-Americans in this category vote almost 40% Republican, though I imagine that dropped considerably in the last election. Even Massachusetts Irish Catholics in this category vote over 50% GOP. Libertarians may have the idea that by dropping social issues from the Republican brand they are only ridding themselves of a few young-earth creationists and pro-life demonstrators. They might be correct in that. We socons might hold at 70-30 no matter what. Loyalty is also a virtue we admire, after all. It would be a helluva thing to guess wrong about that, though, wouldn't it?

Libertarians and others who want to focus intensely on fiscal conservatism, jettisoning other parts of the brand appeal might also ask themselves what they expect their own legacy to be. And who will bear it forward.


jlbussey said...

Since many Hispanics are also socially conservative, you'd think they'd be a good match. What keeps them out of the GOP? I don't know. You'd think however, that as their numbers increase within the Democratic party that they'd start to change that party from the inside. Why hasn't that started to occur? I don't know that either. Except maybe that the power elite of the Democratic party won't let them gain any power or traction within the party. So many complex interacting factors and people that it's hard to see what the answers are.

Chris said...

Yes, I have noticed the same thing, and in some of the same places as you, I suspect.

I really don't understand the logic of accepting the meme that social conservatives are costing the GOP votes with conservative Democrats. Is the policy of restricting abortion and defining marriage as between one man and one woman really so extremist? That's basically all we're getting from the GOP in the end, besides the expected fiscal conservatism.

You'd think that the numbers would mitigate against destroying what has been a successful coalition up til now. Republicans stayed home, and the party lost badly. How does making it more likely that more Republicans stay home reverse that? Evangelicals can always go back to concentrating on personal evangelism and growth, and drop out of politics, like before Reagan. Is that really what libertarians want?

Cassandra said...

I am more sympathetic to social conservatism than you might think, AVI. However, in talking with my son and others, I do think such stances cost us votes. I also read comment after comment after comment about Republicans that tells me that in fact we are viewed as a bunch of essentially moralistic Nanny staters who want to impose our values on others. IOW, the left views us in much the same way with regard to social values as we regard them with regard to economic issues.

So, in short, the right way to counter that is with a federalist message - most social issues are more properly dealt with at the state and local rather than the federal level anyway. Why are we losing national elections over issues the President has no control over? Stupid, stupid, stupid.

It's simply a matter of choosing your battles, and we aren't doing that intelligently. I don't want to throw the social cons out of the party. I want them there. I just want them to focus their energies on state and local elections where they do the most good and tone down the harsh rhetoric that prevents the GOP from attracting the broad based support it needs to win national elections.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I wasn't think of you in specific, Cassandra.

My challenge to you would be what harsh rhetoric? While such does exist coming from social conservatives, it is much less common than accused. I have long known that liberals have the impression that socons are nanny-staters, and that some conservatives share that opinion. I contend that the impression is inaccurate. Many socons are indeed federalists, or focus their energy on economic or good government issues. Most prolifers I know have no thought that they are going to change the national will with legislation. We do resent when even such things as born-alives, partial birth abortion, or parental notification are treated as if they are some great moral intrusion into the nations affairs, solely on the basis of an overdramatic slippery slope argument. When gay marriage goes to referendum it gets defeated - not by socons, who are a minority even within the Republican party. Many socons support medical marijuana as well. We are constantly misrepresented on the stem cell arguments.

I don't see how anyone is helped by other conservatives falling for the same myths and perpetuating them. While many progressives tried to bring socon issues to the fore as a form of scare tactic in the last election, I don't see that they actually were prominent on the Republican side. I thought economy, energy, corruption, and national security dominated the discussion. I went to a Sarah Palin rally and didn't hear a whisper of a single socon issue.

In short, I think your data comes from tainted sources and are plain wrong, thus your conclusions are wrong as well.

Anonymous said...

Social Conservatives seeking to use government to legislate morality to the masses have been poisoning the well for too long by destroying the practical and ideological consistency of negative rights, thus opening the door to government cooptation by demagogues with various agendas and malignant vested interests from all sides of the political spectrum. Their religiously inspired diatribes against full American freedoms continue to alienate people in droves, particularly because most Americans today are rightfully oversensitive regarding matters of conscience, religion, social institutions, and private behavior.

Until it extirpates this reactionary faction, the Conservative movement’s defense of free markets is hopelessly doomed to intellectual impotence. Economic self-reliance through free proud enterprise on the one hand, but moral paternalism in matters confined to the bedroom or uterus on the other hand, are ideologically irreconcilable positions both of which sound hypocritical when preached by the same political voice.

Judeo-Christian values are neither sufficient nor even necessary components of Americanism. Conservatives with a mental blind spot to this reality often try to justify the institutionalization of Judeo-Christianity by deeming it to be the only absolute ideological shelter for freedom. Plato alone has spoken with more clarity and conviction about absolute transcendental values such as Justice and Goodness, than there can be found throughout the entire Bible. Natural Law has enjoyed a fertile tradition in Western Philosophy, originated by Protagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, carried out by the Stoics, and augmented by many great thinkers up to the present day.

Not only is the firm binding of natural law with religion not dictated by any philosophical necessity, it is also a strategically self-defeating position for Conservatives to take in the ongoing battle for hearts and minds. I cannot think of a more dangerous proposition for the future of American cultural institutions than the prospect that their desirability and justification depend on the dubious existence of Abraham’s God.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

medaura, you have made a set of common assertions, but you have provided no evidence for them. You have added some brilliant flourishes, but still made no case. I don't know what to do with that. From the POV of persuasion, you are assuming what you set out to prove.

As to Natural Law, I suggest googling "Tao" and "CS Lewis" on the topic. He would agree with some parts, disagree with others about the uses and implications of same.

In the meantime, I am amusing myself with the picture of you attempting to convince Plato that abortion and gay marriage are none of the government's business. You may even be right, but I don't think he'd be too sympathetic.

Anonymous said...

(AVI: got here from

Cassandra is correct.

Here are two comments I've received on my livejournal and on my blog, both from 30-something men, both white-collar software-industry types in bluer-than-blue Seattle:

1. Personally, I am far more sympathetic to Burkean conservatism and well-thought out libertarianism than you would think by my LJ- the problem is there is far, far too little of either in the Republican or Libertarian parties, and far, far too much appeal to ignorance and flat-earthism, rendering me a Democrat for all intents and purposes

2. I’m probably overstating the obvious, but the reason why I and many people of my era oppose the current state of the Republican party is because of how entrenched they seemingly are with the Conservative Religious movement.

There’s no way I could support a party that continuously attempts to squash civil liberties in the name of their doctrines. That, to me, is the poison pill that I’ll never swallow.

[Emphasis added]

The GOP needs to work to change perception of its brand from "Big Brother Calvinist Moralism" to "Federalist Live-And-Let-Live" with a big helping of "Personally Setting An Example."

If that were the case, people like these friends of mine might vote Republican. And there are a lot of these people out there in our cities -- people who aren't particularly committed to the Democrats (or any politics at all, really) but who are literally frightened of the Republicans.

Social cons like yourself don't need to be exiled. You don't need to send the halfback off the field if you're going to pass, you just need to give him a different job. The playbook needs to change and must be seen to have changed to take the scare away and let us compete for these voters.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

nicely said, bryan, but I continue to have objections.

People have such-and-such an opinion of socons. Is it accurate? If it is true that we trample on civil rights, then making a show of kicking us around for everyone to see would indeed be wise. That is an exaggeration of what you suggest - I am sure you meant something gentler - but that precisely the way the libertarians are coming across on this. I have heard no offers that the libertarians are also going to de-emphasize some of their ideas that scare people to help with branding.

I submit that the trampling on civil rights characterization is inaccurate. Considering gay marriage a civil right only works if you already think so. The prolife movement has been focused on born-alives, partial birth, and parental notification for a decade. You will have a hard time convincing me that those are civil rights. Embryonic stem cell research, when adult stem cells are available, also strikes me as an odd place to declare that rights are being trampled. It's a bogeyman phrase.

If the GOP went more libertarian, it would not be suddenly free from scare tactics from the left. They would simply switch to conjuring fears about unregulated markets, urban crime because of legal drugs and guns, and a host of other put-up jobs. When such accusations are leveled against libertarians, is your first thought to pipe down about these issues because they scare people?

@nooil4pacifists said...

I started as a libertarian conservative, but have drifted towards SOCON based on this logic:

The ship sunk and you're on a lifeboat with other survivors. Who knows whether there's enough food and water to last until rescue. Who would you rather your fellow castaways be: liberals, libertarians, or social conservatives?

Anonymous said...

AVI: I stipulate that the opinion is inaccurate. But nevertheless it exists. Therefore, if the socons want to be part of a party that gets a stable sizable majority in which they can use the bully pulpit to persuade the populace toward their views (sans legislative agenda), they need to ostentatiously turn down the volume on their demands.

Pro-choice people are fond of invoking the slippery slope -- first it's parental notification, next thing you know it's back-alley coathangers. To allay the (unreasonable, inaccurate) fears (and thus get the votes), the socons are going to have to make it very very clear that it's a level playing field, unsloped in any direction.

Your example anti-libertarian scare tactics would almost certainly be levied against a libertarian-oriented GOP. But none of those are scary to nearly the degree that "they want to control my body" fears are.

Carl: In that situation, I want my fellow survivors to be Socialists and render to me according to my need. :-)

In any actual economy, however, I'd want them to be small-L libertarians with an eye toward preserving the body politic. Why does everyone seem to think in a libertarian-oriented society nobody would want to use their freedom to help their fellow man?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you, Bryan. There is a peculiar personal irrational intensity on the abortion issue. It was one of the first topics I blogged on in 2005. I won't go into that aspect further here. Outside of that, I think people are as afraid of libertarian issues as socon issues. As you note, these objections are not always just, but they are there.

Yes, the prochoice argument is entirely based on the slippery slope, far more than the extremest gun-nut or drug legalization opponent. I think most folks realize that there is going to be abortion and only the questions of state variation and select limitations still remain. The prolife people take the view that if we can't even discuss protecting born-alives or banning partial-birth abortion without being accused of rape-equivalence, then the country is insane. I'm not sure what you do when your country is insane - keep teaching calmly or go ballistic. Neither works.

See also my new post today.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

BTW, Newt Gingrich is advocating that the GOP have primary national issues and secondary regional issues, accepting that even a Republican majority legislature would not be in entire agreement and somewhat hampered in power.