The midterms are over and Republicans have come up smiling. We have the momentum we need to get things moving for 2016. It’s time for conservatives to come together around a “consensus” agenda.
Everyone understands this, but it’s more easily said than done. Recent victories notwithstanding, conservatives are still divided on a million issues, with perhaps the thorniest of all being the social questions. What do we do with them? Ditch them completely? Relegate them to the tiniest, furthest, most unobtrusive of back burners? Hope they just go away?
These options are all tempting, because everyone understands that we don’t want the next election to be a social issue slug-fest. The economy, health care, and national security are high voter priorities right now, and Republicans are in position to speak to all of them. That’s the key to winning the middle class. The social issues won’t win the election for us, and may end up being a drag. That’s why so many political strategists are anxious to put social questions behind or beneath us as quickly as possible, so we can get back to reforming Obamacare.
It’s an understandable and popular position, but wrong. The social issues shouldn’t be the centerpiece of the next election, but they do need to be handled with both integrity and finesse. That should be clear even if you don’t think (as I do) that they raise significant claims of justice, and are critical to the long-term prosperity of our nation.
The Conventional Wisdom on Social Issues Is Wrong
On a certain kind of conventional reading, social issues are a millstone around Republicans’ neck, which they can’t quite escape because their reactionary red-state voters won’t let them. Religious conservatives still care intensely about social issues (especially abortion and marriage), and they still represent a major portion of the Republican base. But, as the rest of the country drifts in a more libertine direction, these issues can become a major liability. Owing to this problem, Republican strategists are probably a little balder than they might otherwise be, and they engage in a fair amount of wishful thinking while simultaneously haranguing social conservatives. This was especially true in the wake of the 2012, where the social issues were handled very poorly, and contributed significantly to the GOP’s defeat.
Let’s refresh that analysis, however, in wake of what just happened this Election Day. Socially conservative candidates were elected in some fairly blue states. Democrats made strident efforts to drag them down by their consciences; it didn’t work. Sometimes voters do reward candidates for integrity, especially in the face of opposition that seems overwrought and hackneyed. That seems to have happened in Colorado, where the staunchly pro-life Cory Gardner survived a blitz of reproductive-rights attacks from his opponent, who will now forever be remembered as Mark “Uterus” Udall.
To some extent, this success depended on deft handling of hot-button issues like contraceptives. By supporting the over-the counter sale of birth control, conservatives maintained their stance on religious freedom without coming across as anti-contraceptive zealots. Also critical was the avoidance of Todd Akin-like gaffes. But the take-away is that we don’t need to sell out the social issues to win in 2016. Handled correctly, they can even be a strength, and not just with regular churchgoers. The key here is to be reasonable, and let liberals be the crazy ones.
The Good News: Liberals Are Already Acting Crazy
We all know that politics is cyclical, and social issues have their cycles too. That’s because we all (both liberal and conservative) tend to overplay our hands when we feel like we have an edge. At both extremes are people with deeply rooted convictions on social questions. We win an election or two and tell ourselves, “Ah! The public is with me!” Then we try to drag them a little further than most want to go.
Conservatives have done this dance before. But now, it’s liberals who are in overdrive. Their successes on the marriage front have given them boatloads of confidence, which they’re using to effect all kinds of wonderful, welcome social change. Hooray for the harassment of pastors and small business owners! Who doesn’t want people of the opposite sex to be welcome in their public restrooms? Aren’t we all excited to hear about schools where teachers are discouraged from referring to children as “boys” and “girls”?
These episodes of apparent insanity should be gold for the GOP. Americans who benevolently agreed to “let same-sex couples be happy” now find themselves wondering, “What’s going on here?” The smart political move is to take advantage of this overreach by adopting reasonable positions, and calling the Democrats to account for their extremism. If we play our cards right, it could be Democrats who find themselves sprinting away from any discussion of the birds and bees.
Abortion: The Winning Issue We Somehow Keep Losing
It’s ironic that abortion dragged Republicans down in 2012, because the Democrats have been well to the left of the American public on this issue for quite some time. We put ourselves in a bind by nominating a presidential candidate whose record on abortion was inconsistent. Downplaying the issue left conservatives vulnerable to being branded by a few ill-judged remarks from particular candidates. Meanwhile, voters were largely ignorant of the president’s own extreme record on abortion. The whole thing became a fiasco.
With smarter handling, this issue should be a winner for conservatives. A significant majority of Americans support restrictions on abortion by 20 weeks or earlier, and even larger majorities support bans on late-term abortions. And there’s even more good news: these trends hold among younger voters as well. As a society, Americans do not love abortion.
But Democrats do. Their platform supports legal abortion literally up to the moment of birth, for everyone, regardless of circumstance. They work tirelessly to secure public funds for a procedure that most Americans regard as immoral, or at least morally problematic. On a cultural front, Progressives have grown frustrated with these anti-abortion trends, and we now see them dropping the pretense of viewing abortion as a “sad but sometimes necessary” eventuality. Instead, they’re celebrating the “moral good” of abortion with beat poetry and a plethora of pieces trumpeting the view that killing unborn babies is ethically trivial.
Will the public find this endearing? The smart money says they won’t.
Republicans can take advantage by focusing their advocacy on eminently reasonable restrictions on abortion that Democrats will feel obliged to oppose. Now Democrats will be in the hot seat explaining why they think it’s okay to kill a healthy third-trimester baby girl, just because her parents preferred a son. Or why it’s fine to get cold feet about parenthood at the last minute, and have your healthy child impaled with scissors mid-birth canal.
The Harder Road: Marriage
Marriage, clearly, is a trickier issue. Opposing abortion ought to be easy (with proper finesse), because there the Democrats are way out of step with the general public. On marriage, public opinion really has shifted significantly over the past several years, which is why Republican strategists are so anxious to persuade religious conservatives to get over themselves and jump on the bandwagon. They don’t want the party to be doomed to irrelevance over reactionary views on marriage.
It’s a challenge, but not so intractable as some suppose. Make no mistake: social conservatives will feel utterly betrayed if the party makes some grand gesture of embracing same-sex marriage. But that really shouldn’t be necessary to retain our electoral hopes. We can finesse this issue without selling out core conservative principles. To see how, we need to realize three things.
First, the general public views the marriage battle as mostly over. In a way, that’s a sign of how badly we’ve lost, but there’s a big silver lining: voters aren’t that energized by this issue anymore. They don’t care about the details of state-by-state legislation. They’re ever less interested in submitting Republican candidates to orthodoxy tests. Today’s twenty-year-olds seem to be trending Republican, despite mostly taking for granted that same-sex coupling is fine. That’s not because we’ve won them over on the marriage argument. They just see it as a settled issue, such that there’s no good reason to vote on it.
This leads to the second point: homosexuals as a group are doing well in our society. On average, they earn more money and get more education than heterosexuals. They are well represented in the elite professions. Given these facts, efforts to present them as a downtrodden minority have a limited shelf life. Conservatives can happily agree that, of course, we don’t want homosexuals to be hurt by discrimination and bigotry. Of course, they’re grown-ups who can order their own romantic lives. And it’s appropriate to accommodate such relationships by ensuring that partners can visit one another in hospitals and so forth. But is any of that really controversial anymore? Americans have recently shown they have an ample supply of goodwill towards homosexuals, and as a group homosexuals seem to be doing fine. There’s no reason to make this a major policy issue.
Downplaying might go a long way towards defusing the marriage issue. But, admittedly, it can’t be a complete game plan in itself. At some point candidates will be asked, “do you support same-sex marriage, or not?” If they say yes, social conservatives will depart in wrath, and even more middle-of-road voters may conclude (rightly) that the GOP is crassly opportunistic on what it used to advertise as an important issue. If they say no, Democrats may succeed in lambasting them as bigots.
It’s Time to Focus On Children
Here we turn to our third point. Marriage in general is in trouble, and its decline is hurting children. The data on this have been piling up for some time now. On same-sex parenting, the fairest thing to say is that the jury is still out, sociologically speaking. Because the phenomenon is relatively recent, there is paucity of direct data, and the issue is so heavily partisan that it’s very hard for anyone to study it fairly.
However, we can say several other, related things. Children are dramatically better off growing up in a household with two stable, married parents. They are better off with fathers, and boys especially do much better with a paternal presence in their home. (It’s possible moms contribute something, too.) Having a sense of family history, and a strong feeling of connectedness to an extended family, helps kids to face challenges with greater confidence. Putting these points into one big picture, it’s hard not to see a pretty strong endorsement of a traditional family model.
Even when bound by civil marriage, homosexual couples have shown less stability than heterosexual couples. Same-sex families don’t provide children with both a father and a mother. Also, because same-sex couples lack the wherewithal to make a child naturally, they must rely on various workarounds to replace the natural process, necessarily diminishing a child’s natural connectedness to a larger family. Lesbians acquire sperm from men who likely will not be invited to assume a paternal role in children’s lives. Gay couples commission women to carry babies for them, with the intention of tearing them away from their mothers shortly after birth. As everyone understands, it isn’t always possible for children to be raised by their biological family. But endorsing same-sex parenting as a new norm cannot but undermine our appreciation of family ties, which are so critical to children’s well-being.
Republicans should not barrel into debates with ham-fisted statements about the evils of same-sex parenting. Instead, they should ask probing questions, and gently suggest to Americans that we may be spending too much time validating adult relationship choices, when the higher priority should be the protection of children. Of course, we can recognize that certain family structures are non-ideal without mounting efforts to persecute people who are in them. Divorce and single parenthood are now widely agreed to be non-optimal for kids, but they still happen. Likewise, if two lesbians want to have and raise a baby together, they can do it. No one will stop them.
But we also should not stop people from considering in a serious way how these social changes might affect children. We should be mindful of ways in which our efforts to help realize the family plans of adults might injure children. And we should use the things we do know about family structure to bolster a family model that clearly is good for children, for example by eliminating marriage penalties that often dissuade women from marrying the fathers of their children.
Contextualized within a broader set of concerns about the welfare of children, a continued interest in the unique benefits of traditional marriage (which perhaps we should refer to as “child-centric” marriage, or even “mother-and-father” marriage) will not look insane or bigoted. People who are sympathetic to the aspirations of same-sex couples may still be sensitive to the point that children are getting lost in this family-structure shuffle. Meanwhile, liberals will probably help us out by continuing their crusades for gender eradication, polyamorous marriage, and other developments that moderate voters tend to see as a bridge too far, and definitely not optimal for kids.
Now, Back to the Bigger Picture on Social Issues
Recent victories notwithstanding, it seems fair to say that Republicans could stand to infuse more pathos into their public image. People are still apt to view Democrats as the nice people who stick up for the little guy. Defending children is a great way of showing that we care about “the little guys” that our political system truly overlooks. Best of all, it enables us to be “nice” without playing identity politics. Every demographic group has children.
In thinking through marriage questions, we also need to consider the long game. The GOP has a strong track record of attracting married middle-class voters who are living prudent, sensible, productive lives. Lonely, lost, and insolvent voters tend to favor Democrats. Selling out on marriage at exactly the moment when voters are starting to lose interest in the “marriage equality” crusade could be one of the worst political calculations ever. Republicans would lose support from social conservatives, and with it the moral authority to speak to worsening family-structure problems. That will make it more difficult to bolster the voting base that both they and America need. Meanwhile, even those voters who favor same-sex marriage probably won’t give them much credit for coming around this late in the day.
Instead of scrambling pathetically for eleventh-hour Progressive credentials, let’s settle for being honest, sensible, and circumspect. Allow Americans to see what we on the Right already know: Liberal progressives are crazy. And they’ll keep acting crazy until somebody stops them.