Is Social Conservatism the Problem?

Both Ramesh Ponnuru and Rod Dreher make the case against scapegoating social conservatives for recent Republican defeats. Though they both come from very different places — Ramesh is a rock-ribbed Reaganite and Rod is an unorthodox Aristotelian — they reach a similar conclusion.

Here Ramesh replies to John Avlon’s contention that Republicans should “reconnect with independent and centrist voters who are fiscally conservative but socially progressive and strong on national security.”

Avlon is mistaken in thinking both that all centrists are social liberals and fiscal conservatives and that all people who talk about “the center” have this type of voter in mind. The latter mistake accounts for his recruiting of Lowry to his side of the argument. The notion that “a balanced budget and flat tax” plus abortion rights is a formula for political success, meanwhile, borders on the fantastical — particularly when you bear in mind that keeping both economic promises would require either tax increases on the middle class or massive spending cuts.

Avlon has also cited a 2007 Kaiser Foundation/Washington Post study that suggests that independent voters are closer to the Democrats than the Republicans on abortion and same-sex marriage. But that very same study showed that only 16 percent of independents match the profile of fiscally conservative, socially liberal voters that Avlon wants Republicans to court.

Though Rod focuses on a somewhat broader set of issues, he writes:

White evangelicals (and, to a lesser extent, Mass-going Catholics) are the GOP’s backbone. Just more than a third of President Bush’s 2004 vote came from white evangelicals — and they turned out for McCain in comparable numbers. Cut social conservatives loose and you get a GOP that, as blogger Daniel Larison archly puts it, is “the party of all the remaining Episcopalians, Californians and New Yorkers who prefer lower taxes.”

Both agree that upper-middle-class soft libertarians are not the “ducks” Republicans should be hunting. I agree with both of them, but with a small caveat. Like Ramesh and Rod, I think the Republican should be the more culturally conservative party. But, as I think both of them would agree, cultural conservatism is a moving target.

Younger voters are, as we all know, far more likely to support equal rights for lesbians and gays, and this is true for younger conservatives as well. At the same time, younger voters are more inclined to favor restrictions on abortion. So I think Ramesh is being a bit too harsh on David Frum.

David Frum … has recently written that a “painful change” on abortion and a “less overtly religious” message is “the only hope for a Republican recovery.” This kind of sweeping language ought to be backed up by more evidence than the critics of the social Right have yet produced.

This “painful change” doesn’t necessarily refer to jettisoning the party’s pro-life stance. Only David Frum knows for sure, but I think he has in mind changes at the edges, e.g., emphasizing local democracy. As for his call for a “less overtly religious message,” Gertrude Himmelfarb once made a related argument — religious revivals often evolve into broader moral and civic revivals, and it makes sense that that the evangelical movement is, at the elite and increasingly at the popular level, embracing a broader set of concerns. I doubt that Frum fears a Republican party composed in large part of devout religious believers — rather, I think he’s worried about the perception that the GOP has become narrowly sectarian. Note that Huckabee did very well with white evangelicals, but very poorly with pro-life Catholics, this despite a message that was arguably tailor-made for Reagan Democrats. A “less overtly religious message” could nevertheless hold fast to the core concerns of cultural conservatives.

And, as an added bonus, it could put at least some of those upper-middle-class soft libertarians at ease. Ramesh is right to suggest that this is not the crucial voting bloc. Yet it is certainly true that the number of college-educated liberals and moderates is growing at a fast clip. Republicans won’t win voters for whom social liberalism comes first, and they shouldn’t. But it makes sense to be competitive with those for whom social liberalism comes fourth or fifth after support for an open economy and cheaper, more effective government and a strong national defense. An emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity would help this along.