Tag: social conservatives

Jim DeMint’s Misfire on Marriage

Jim DeMint, former senator and future president of the Heritage Foundation, writes a column for USA Today opposing gay marriage. But like so many social conservatives, he supports his position with a sleight of hand. DeMint writes:

Without strong families grounded in marriage, we cannot hold back the ever-expanding power of government. As the marriage culture weakens, Big Government grows. Just look how the welfare state has expanded as the unwed childbearing rate has grown from single digits in the 1960s to more than 40% today.

Marriage policy exists to encourage a man and a woman to commit to each other permanently and exclusively as husband and wife and to be father and mother to any children. Sound marriage policy strengthens civil society and reduces the role of government.

The erosion of marriage costs taxpayers. And it’s not just conservatives who say this. Even the left-leaning think tank, Brookings Institution, attributed $229 billion in welfare expenditures between 1970 and 1996 to the breakdown of marriage.

Yes indeed. Stable families are less likely to be on welfare. As Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of Brookings write,

Our research shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children. If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent, and your chances of joining the middle class or above rise from 56 to 74 percent. 

But DeMint and other social conservatives make a logical leap when they connect that point to gay marriage. Gay people making the emotional and financial commitments of marriage is not the cause of family breakdown or welfare spending.

When DeMint says that “family breakdown” is causing poverty – and thus a demand for higher government spending – he knows that he’s really talking about unwed motherhood, divorce, children growing up without fathers, and the resulting high rates of welfare usage and crime. 

So why raise the problems of broken families and then propose to prevent gay people from getting married? Why all the focus on issues that would do nothing to solve the problems of “family breakdown” and what DeMint has elsewhere called “the high cost of a dysfunctional society”? Well, solving the problems of divorce and unwed motherhood is hard. And lots of Republican and conservative voters have been divorced. A constitutional amendment to ban divorce wouldn’t go over very well with even the social-conservative constituency. A legal ban on premarital sex would address the problem, but even social conservatives realize that it would be an imprudent exercise of state power. Far better to pick on a small group, a group not perceived to be part of the Republican constituency, and blame them for social breakdown and its associated costs.

But you won’t find your keys on Main Street if you dropped them on Green Street, and you won’t reduce the costs of social breakdown by keeping gays unmarried and not letting them adopt orphans.

Fiscal and Social Conservatives

Recently I criticized Sen. Jim DeMint for saying, “It’s impossible to be a fiscal conservative unless you’re a social conservative,” and I noted that former governor Mike Huckabee had made similar points. Yesterday on “Fox News Sunday” Huckabee said, “all social conservatives I know are also fiscal conservatives. Not necessarily the other way around.”

Well, I can tell you one social conservative who isn’t a fiscal conservative – former governor Mike Huckabee. Here’s what Cato’s “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors” reported in 2006, at the end of Huckabee’s tenure as governor of Arkansas:

Final-Term Grade, F; Final Overall Grade, D

Thanks to a final term grade of F, Huckabee earns an overall grade of D for his entire governorship. Like many Republicans, his grades dropped the longer he stayed in office. In his first few years, he fought hard for a sweeping $70 million tax cut package that was the first broad-based tax cut in the state in more than 20 years. He even signed a bill to cut the state’s 6 percent capital gains tax—a significant pro-growth accomplishment. But nine days after being reelected in 2002, he proposed a sales tax increase to cover a budget deficit caused partly by large spending increases that he proposed and approved, including an expansion in Medicare eligibility that Huckabee made a centerpiece of his 1997 agenda. He agreed to a 3 percent income tax “surcharge” and a 25-cent cigarette tax increase. In response to a court order to increase spending on education, Huckabee proposed another sales tax increase. Huckabee wants to run for the GOP presidential nomination next year. He’s already been hailed as a viable big-government conservative candidate by some. That seems about right: Huckabee’s leadership has left taxpayers in Arkansas much worse off.

Social Conservatives Offer Irrelevant Solutions

In today’s Los Angeles Times I write that social conservatives are pointing to real problems, but the only policy solutions they discuss are completely irrelevant to what they call “the high cost of  a dysfunctional society”:

… Reducing the incidence of unwed motherhood, divorce, fatherlessness, welfare and crime would be a good thing. So why the focus on issues that would do nothing to solve the “breakdown of the basic family structure” and the resulting “high cost of a dysfunctional society”? Well, solving the problems of divorce and unwed motherhood is hard. And lots of Republican and conservative voters have been divorced. A constitutional amendment to ban divorce wouldn’t go over very well, even with the social conservatives. Far better to pick on a small group, a group not perceived to be part of the Republican constituency, and blame it for social breakdown and its associated costs.

That’s why social conservatives point to a real problem and then offer phony solutions.

But you won’t find your keys on the thoroughfare if you dropped them in the alley, and you won’t reduce the costs of social breakdown by keeping gays unmarried and preventing them from adopting orphans.

On Election Eve…

With Tuesday’s election widely predicted to bring a near-historic shake-up of the political establishment, here are some things we can say for certain even before the first results are tallied:

  1. This election will be a win for economic conservatives, not social conservatives.  Not surprisingly given the economic climate, economic issues dominated the campaign, with social issues barely registering.  This was particularly helpful for Republicans, since economically conservative, socially moderate suburban voters, who backed Democrats in 2006 and 2008, switched to Republicans this year. There is a lesson here for Republicans in the future.
  2. In the months leading up to the election, we have heard a great deal about the so-called “civil war” in the Republican Party.   As it turns out, there wasn’t one.  Despite some spirited, even bitter, primary fights, Republicans of all stripes were able to unify around a common opposition to the Obama agenda.  But having achieved electoral success, Republicans will now be forced to confront the serious divisions in their party: tea partiers vs. the GOP establishment; economic conservatives vs. social conservatives; budget hawks vs. neoconservatives.  The “civil war” will be back with a vengeance.
  3. Voters will choose Republicans in this election because they aren’t Democrats.  It doesn’t mean that voters have fallen in love with the Republican party.  In fact, polls show that Republicans remain only slightly more popular than used car salesmen—or Democrats.  At best, voters are willing to give Republicans one last chance.  If they don’t deliver, it will be a long, long time before they get another one.
  4. No issue hurt Democrats as much as the health care bill.  It wasn’t just that voters hate the bill—they do—but that it crystallized the average American’s antipathy to a government that was too big, too costly and too out of touch.  Voters will declare that they don’t want government running health care…and come to think of it, they don’t want government running much else either.

Krauthammer Misreads History

Charles Krauthammer calls same-sex marriage “the most radical redefinition of marriage in human history.” Really? Some might say that ending “till death do us part” was more radical. And maybe ending the requirement that the bride promise to “love, honor, and obey.” And how about the end of polygamy? Polygamy was probably the most common marital system in the broad sweep of human history, but now it is virtually unknown in the Western world; indeed, ahistorical conservatives warn that allowing two people of the same sex to make a vow of marriage could lead to polygamy.

More currently, I would suggest that the truly radical redefinition of marriage is the revolution over the past generation in the idea that people should marry before they cohabit or have children. Barely a generation ago cohabitation simply wasn’t acceptable; now it  is just assumed. Out-of-wedlock pregnancy is celebrated on the cover of People and no one seems to much care. In 2009, for the first time, more 25- to 34-year-olds were unmarried than married. A writer as smart as Krauthammer should be able to see that that gay liberation and gay marriage are a product, not a cause, of the unprecedented redefinition of sex, marriage, and childrearing.

But like socially conservative politicians, Krauthammer is not about to confront his friends, colleagues, and fans by denouncing that radical redefinition of marriage. Sensing discomfort with rapid social changes, he shouts “Look over there!”

Reducing the incidence of unwed motherhood, divorce, fatherlessness, welfare, and crime would be good for society. But it’s not easy to figure out what to do. That’s why social conservatives point to a real problem and then offer phony solutions.

What Do Social Conservatives Want?

Social conservatives talk about real problems but offer irrelevant solutions. They act like the man who searched for his keys under the streetlight because the light was better there.

Social conservatives tend to talk about issues like abortion and gay rights, stem-cell research and the role of religion “in the public square”: “Those who would have us ignore the battle being fought over life, marriage and religious liberty have forgotten the lessons of history,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) at the Values Voter Summit.

But what is the case for social conservatism that they’ve been making at the summit and in recent interviews?

  • Mike Huckabee: “We need to understand there is a direct correlation between the stability of families and the stability of our economy…. The real reason we have poverty is we have a breakdown of the basic family structure.”
  • Jim DeMint:  ”It’s impossible to be a fiscal conservative unless you’re a social conservative because of the high cost of a dysfunctional society.”
  • Rick Santorum: “We can have no economic freedom unless we have good, virtuous moral people inspired by their faith.”

Those are reasonable concerns, but they have little or no relationship to abortion or gay marriage. Abortion may be a moral crime, but it isn’t the cause of high government spending or intergenerational poverty. And gay people making the emotional and financial commitments of marriage is not the cause of family breakdown or welfare spending.

When Huckabee says that “a breakdown of the basic family structure” is causing poverty – and thus a demand for higher government spending – he knows that he’s really talking about unwed motherhood, divorce, children growing up without fathers, and the resulting high rates of welfare usage and crime. Those also make up the “high cost of a dysfunctional society” that worries DeMint.

But take a look at the key issues of the chief social-conservative group, the Family Research Council – 7 papers on abortion and stem cells, 5 on gays and gay marriage, 1 on divorce. Nothing much has changed since 1994, when I wrote in the New York Times:

The Family Research Council, the leading “family values” group, is similarly obsessed. In the most recent index of its publications, the two categories with the most listing are “Homosexual” and “Homosexual in the Military” – a total of 34 items (plus four on AIDS). The organization has shown some interest in parenthood – nine items on family structure, 13 on parenthood and six on teen pregnancy – yet there are more items on homosexuality than on all of those issues combined. There was no listing for divorce. (Would it be unfair to point out that there are two items on “Parents’ Rights” and none on “Parents’ Responsibilities”?)

Back then, conservatives still defended sodomy laws, as Santorum continued to do as late as 2003. These days, after the 2003 Supreme Court decision striking down such laws, most have moved on (though not the Montana and Texas Republican parties). Now they just campaign against gays in the military, gays adopting children, and gays getting married.

Why all the focus on issues that would do nothing to solve the problems of “breakdown of the basic family structure” and “the high cost of a dysfunctional society”? Well, solving the problems of divorce and unwed motherhood is hard. And lots of Republican and conservative voters have been divorced. A constitutional amendment to ban divorce wouldn’t go over very well with even the social-conservative constituency. Far better to pick on a small group, a group not perceived to be part of the Republican constituency, and blame them for social breakdown and its associated costs.

But you won’t find your keys on Main Street if you dropped them on Green Street, and you won’t reduce the costs of social breakdown by keeping gays unmarried and not letting them adopt orphans.

Social Conservatives Left Behind?

Lots of the criticisms of the tea party movement as “extremist” assume that the movement is some sort of “American Taliban” – theocratic, censorious, antigay. The reality is that the highly decentralized tea party movement has done a remarkable job of staying focused on a specific agenda that is nothing like that. The Tea Party Patriots website proclaims its mission as “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government, Free Market.” Many tea partiers say that “tea” stands for Taxed Enough Already. Toby Marie Walker, lead facilitator for the Waco [not Wacko] Tea Party, told NPR Thursday, ”Well, we focus around three main issues, is constitutionally limited government, free markets and fiscal responsibility.”

In fact, some social conservative activists are annoyed that President Obama’s big-government agenda and the robust tea party response have focused the country’s attention on the issues of spending, debt, and the size of government rather than cultural war. On that same NPR interview Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association complained that “the leadership of the Tea Party movement is at a fundamentally different place … when it comes to social issues” and demanded that the movement “send a clear note on the culture of conservative issues.” Walker explained that the tea party isn’t opposed to social conservatism, it just doesn’t take a position on those issues: “It would be like asking the NRA to take up an abortion issue. That’s not what the NRA is about. They’re about gun rights.” As she said:

I think that the Tea Party movement is more of a Libertarian movement. I think that that’s one of the things that has been like a myth out there, that it’s a Republican-based. But not all of us are Libertarians. You know, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, all over the spectrum. And that’s why we stick to the issues that brought us together.

In the Washington Times social conservatives complain about the tea party movement’s emphasis on fiscal issues:

“There is suspicion among our social-conservative base that the new tea party/libertarian Republicans might soon view restrictions on abortion as they would any government proscription of private conduct,” said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating. [Not clear if this is also the position of his current employer, the American Council for Life Insurance.]

“Some of my law enforcement friends have expressed similar views about a worrisome second look at drug laws,” Mr. Keating added. “Perhaps it is fringe thinking and a fringe worry, but it is still a worry.”

In fact, many libertarian-minded Republicans - among them Senate nominee Rand Paul of Kentucky - have raised questions about the wisdom of the country’s strict laws on drug use.

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal quotes me in a discussion of the Values Voter Summit and social conservatives’ griping about the tea party:

[Christine] O’Donnell’s appearance at the Values Voter Summit in Washington put a spotlight on the challenge facing social conservatives, prominent in GOP politics earlier in the decade, as they try to hitch themselves to the fiscal insurgents of 2010. They may be ideological soul mates, but that doesn’t mean they’d govern the same way.

“My sense of the average tea party-endorsed candidate this year is that what motivates them is their concern over spending and the national debt,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute. “If a gay-marriage ban came before Congress, they’d probably vote for it, but that’s not what motivates them.”

Mr. Boaz predicted tea-party congressional freshmen would push for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, not an amendment to ban gay marriage. “I don’t think there’s likely to be a lot of social activism coming out of them,” he said….

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in June found that just 2% of those identified as tea partiers put social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage at the top of their priority lists for federal action. 

The tea party is not a libertarian movement, but (at this point at least) it is a libertarian force in American politics. It’s organizing Americans to come out in the streets, confront politicians, and vote on the issues of spending, deficits, debt, the size and scope of government, and the constitutional limits on government. That’s a good thing. And if many of the tea partiers do hold socially conservative views (not all of them do), then it’s a good thing for the American political system and for American freedom to keep them focused on shrinking the size and cost of the federal government.

Liberals spend too much of their time being deathly afraid of the religious right. Brink Lindsey described contemporary American politics as a “libertarian consensus that mixes the social freedom of the left with the economic freedom of the right” in his book The Age of Abundance. Over the past 50 years, social conservatism has lost its battles against civil rights, against feminism, against sexual freedom, against gay rights. It hasn’t even managed to reduce the illegitimacy rate.  The real challenge in American politics today is to constrain and reverse the past decade’s accumulation of money and power in Washington. And in that effort the tea party movement is on the front lines.