As a postliberal by political designation, I have both affection for and frustration with the major brands of conservatism: SoCons, NeoCons, PaleoCons, Populists, and Libertarians. There has been a lot of ink spilled – well, electrons activated is more accurate – over how torqued off many conservatives are over the social conservatives. They would come back and be good Republicans, they say, if we would just tell the Religious Right to shut up, and remind them they are not the whole conservative movement. And those others are just sure there are lots of folks like them who would vote for small-government Republicans as well if we would just kick the RR a few times. The libertarian and paleocon strains, including the younger and ideologically purer, as well as older country-club Republicans, lead this charge.
The nomination of Sarah Palin really pushed these guys over the edge. That strong a statement that the SoCons were a key part of conservative fortunes struck them as evidence that things were continuing to trend in the wrong direction.
I have considerable sympathy with this reaction, as I know enough folks from the Religious Right to be aware that some of them are a bit much. They do tend to get worked up about causes and make a lot of noise about evolution in the schools, or end-time prophecies they think are coming true. They leap to conclusions. They overinterpret.
So get over it already. As a purely practical matter, those issues bring in more votes than they lose. The individuals making noise might drive some people away – especially your friends, Muffin – but most Americans don’t pay obsessive attention to what is happening politically. They go about their everyday lives, only activating when a threshold of annoyance is reached. I don’t like this gay marriage thing. and the government is spending too much money anyway. Or, The Democrats want more ridiculous gun legislation and are becoming foreign-policy wusses again – I’ve had it. Socially conservative issues are a big part of that. It’s one thing to say we should emphasize the commonality of small-government/less-intrusion issues. I couldn’t agree more, because that’s what government is about – governance, not culture. But actively distancing yourself from socon issues is a net loss. Whatever your feelings tell you. However tired you are of your center-left friends sniggering about Palin. Suck it up. Snigger back. There are plenty of targets. Don’t go all tribal and want your coalition to all be people you’d like to go on a road trip with.
The belief that conservatives would attract just oodles of new people, or attract back the disaffected, does not have evidence to support it. It’s the spending and Washington double-standards that have pushed people away. The other flavors of conservative would like the socons to follow their lead and emphasize those issues. Persuasion might be a good idea, don’t you think? If that hasn’t occurred to you, maybe you’ve got personal issues you shouldn’t be bothering the rest of us with, Jack. Yeah, I know. It’s the Religious Right who’ve got issues. Never their critics.
It hasn’t been the socons who have let the side down over the last decades. While there are wild-spending Republican politicians who pander to the socons (Trent Lott, call your office), it generally hasn’t been the Religious-Right approved legislators who have been spending the money. They have often been the beleaguered defenders of smaller government. The socons aren’t the ones who stayed home and pouted because nominees weren’t to their liking. They’ve held their noses and been coalition players for the sake of the larger goals. They show up. They make phone calls. They put out signs. Even in less-religious, socially liberal places like New Hampshire, you don’t have a party without them. In the northeast, you might get a net gain of votes if you threw the socons under the bus. Yet I am not sure even of that.
Additionally, even though they put things in overdramatic language, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. While the libertarians have very strong points about individual freedom and may eventually prevail under the law about same-sex marriage (for example), the gut-sense opposition of the socons is likely to prove out. It’s going to be difficult to prove that same-sex marriage in Europe has caused its deterioration of marriage and wild increases in out-of-wedlock births. They may both be products of a deeper cultural force, not one causing the other. But the one has indeed followed after the other. To take another example, it’s going to be tough to prove that legalised abortion has led to tolerance of euthanasia, including the Dutch practice of withdrawing life support even without anyone’s permission. But the latter did happen after the former, as predicted, and one can make a connection that is at least superficially plausible: less respect for life.
Jonah Goldberg has noted that conservatism is not so much an ideology as an avoidance of ideology, a refusal to make grand theories about how things work and try to fit reality into them. It is an attitude toward government and society rather than a theory of government and society. The various flavors of conservatism tend to believe that people are accountable for their actions. Socons are among the most adamant about this, which is a commonality of opinion not to be despised, however much disagreement there is on specific issues.