Tag: Values Voter Summit

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.