Winning with social conservatism?

posted at 2:40 pm on February 20, 2012 by Karl

Best-known as a supply-sider who worked for Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, Jeffrey Bell is building buzz for his upcoming book, The Case for Polarized Politics, in an interview with the WSJ’s James Taranto:

“Social issues were nonexistent in the period 1932 to 1964,” he observes. “The Republican Party won two presidential elections out of nine, and they had the Congress for all of four years in that entire period. . . . When social issues came into the mix—I would date it from the 1968 election . . . the Republican Party won seven out of 11 presidential elections.”

The Democrats who won, including even Barack Obama in 2008, did not play up social liberalism in their campaigns. In 1992 Bill Clinton was a death-penalty advocate who promised to “end welfare as we know it” and make abortion “safe, legal and rare.” Social issues have come to the fore on the GOP side in two of the past six presidential elections—in 1988 (prison furloughs, the Pledge of Allegiance, the ACLU) and 2004 (same-sex marriage). “Those are the only two elections since Reagan where the Republican Party has won a popular majority,” Mr. Bell says. “It isn’t coincidental.”

It was probably inevitable that some would apply these observations to the current GOP primary campaign. Matt Lewis goes so far as to suggest “Republicans may be better off if the election is about values instead of money,” implying that Rick Santorum is preferable to Mitt Romney.

As much as moderate Republicans and cosmopolitan conservatives might lament the resurrection of the culture wars (which were foisted upon us, and appear to have been rekindled once again by liberal overreach), they were electorally fruitful for the GOP.


The trouble for Republican presidential hopefuls trying to make hay of a struggling economy is that, when times are hard, liberals can always out-promise and out-class-warfare their adversaries. Thus, national elections that focus instead on foreign policy or cultural issues have tended to skew more favorably to the GOP.

One could argue that times have changed — that postmodern Americans are no longer interested in preserving traditional American values — that we’re all too sophisticated or too civilized to care. I would say two things: First, prove it. Second, while today’s voters may be too sophisticated to fall for cheap “family values” pandering, I do not for one minute believe the vast majority of Americans have suddenly turned up their noses at sincere efforts to preserve a just and moral society.

I will reserve judgment on Bell’s book until I read it. Moreover, the world is not a controlled experiment, thus “proving” the issue either way is not truly possible. However, there are a number of potential problems with the narrative of social conservatism suggested by these pieces.

Bell’s thesis seems based on the standard “Southern Strategy” narrative. However, Sean Trende makes a fairly convincing argument in his new book, The Lost Majority, that the history of the Reagan coalition may be the history of the Eisenhower coalition, as Moe Lane summarizes in his review:

The traditional liberal narrative of the ‘Southern Strategy’ is that LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act in 1964, and then racist Southern Democrats switched over to the Republican party en masse. Only… they didn’t. As the author noted: voting patterns in the South began to shift a decade earlier under Eisenhower; continued with organization on the local level in the Sixties that started before the VRA’s passage; and then generally chugged along until enough older Southerners (who largely remained stubbornly Democratic) died of old age, while the younger ones largely declined to vote for a party that had been calling them racist hicks for forty years (I am paraphrasing, obviously). But it’s easier to go with the existing narrative, in much the same way that it’s easier to go with the narrative that the House was under firm Democratic control for forty years… instead of the more complicated and ideologically-hostile one that Congress was divided up between Republicans, Democrats, and conservative Democrats who felt free to vote with Republicans on key issues.

Bell’s suggestion that social issues did not exist before 1968 will come as a surprise to anyone who has heard about racial segregation, school prayer, pushback against censorship (whether from the Hollywood Ten, Hugh Hefner, Allen Ginsberg, etc.), the marketing of the Pill, passage of the Equal Pay Act, or the movements created after the publication of books like The Feminine Mystique, Silent Spring and Unsafe At Any Speed. It is fair to say that most of these issues did not become politically potent at the presidential level until the 1968 election. However, it is also fair to say that as the Democrats became captured by the New Left in the period from 1968-72, that party was pushed out of the mainstream not only on social issues, but also on economic and national security policy. Thus, it is difficult to conclude anything more than the Dems’ social liberalism was one factor pushing voters into the GOP column at the presidential level; the same center-right coalition kept Democrats in control of the House for decades after 1968.

As for the GOP’s last popular vote majorities for president occurring in 1988 and 2004, note that the first occurred prior to the end of the Cold War, while the second was our first post-9/11 election. Lewis seems to have noticed, as he slips national security issues into his analysis of various elections. Another chunk of Trende’s book suggests that after the Cold War, Bill Clinton managed to assemble a coalition that his successors (particularly Barack Obama) tended to squander, which included mushy-middle suburbanites who are turned off by overly religious politics (although Trende does not stress the latter point in his book). Neither Bell nor Lewis mentions it, but I will note that by 1992, the Cold War was winding down, Bush 41 had broken his tax pledge, the deficit had become a bigger issue under GOP administrations and the GOP played up cultural issues at the 1992 convention. Similarly, by 2006, the mushy middle saw the Bush 43 GOP as big-spending, reckless on foreign policy, and conservative primarily on social issues. This was a losing formula.

I am not suggesting that Bell and Lewis recommend that formula. I presume Bell and Lewis are making the more modest claim that adding social conservatives to fiscal conservatives and national security conservatives was the ingredient that put the GOP over the top in presidential elections. Similarly, I am not arguing against social conservatism as part of the GOP platform, but noting the difficulty of maintaining an Eisenhower-Reagan style coalition in the post-Cold War era. (For another intriguing variation on the fragility of modern coalition politics, I would recommend Michael Barone’s piece on “open field politics.”) As Bell himself notes, Democrats who won post-1968 did so in part by tacking right — if only rhetorically — on social issues (although the mushy middle also likely remembers Clinton well today — even if wrongly — for having presided over economic growth and projected budget surpluses). This suggests that part of the Eisenhower-Reagan coalition can be picked off by the Democrats if they do little more than moderate their tone on social issues, particularly in years where the economics or foreign policy are not strongly advantaging the GOP.

As for Matt’s suggestion that a struggling economy would not significantly boost the GOP this year, one need only to look at a scatterplot to refudiate it. I agree that the GOP field needs to be ready to discuss issues beyond the economy. However, it is less clear to me that Santorum’s eagerness to aggressively champion social positions that will be just as eagerly mischaracterized and caricatured by the Democrat/media axis is the way to win the 7-10% of casual voters who at the moment are the swing vote in this cycle.

As Matthew Continetti puts it in his review of Bell’s book:

Would there have been an Age of Reagan without this great migration of the faithful? I doubt it. But I doubt, too, that Republicans would have had such success had they not also appealed beyond their base to tens of millions of American independents and suburban moderates who may not be socially conservative and who may be too busy with work and family and community to worry about Du Contrat Social. The conditions in which elections take place—the state of the economy, the conduct of wars, the public’s attitude toward the future—matter a great deal more than polarization. So do the personalities and qualities of individual candidates.

The challenge for Republican politicians, most of them social conservatives, is to find a way to stand for the values of the American Founding without coming across to the public as overly sectarian or extreme.

Anyone reading this as a brief for Mitt Romney may want to review some of my prior writings (here and here, for example). I agree with Matt Lewis that nominating Romney will turn the election into an exercise in class warfare. This is why Obama has two playbooks. But one of those playbooks has Obama trying to win the West against a candidate viewed as too conservative for mushy middle voters, following the examples of Colorado and Nevada in 2010. The most recent Fox News poll of swing states has Romney and Santorum running about the same in the Rust Belt (IA, OH, PA and WI), with Mitt doing better than Rick against Obama in Ohio. The same poll has Romney outperforming Santorum in the Dixie tier (FL, NC and VA) and especially the Rocky Mountain tier (CO, NV and NM). Even assuming (as I do) that social conservatives remain a key part of the GOP coalition, Santorum has not proven his particular style of social conservatism is the more winning variant this year just yet.

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Ronald Reagan also praised the liberatarian contingent of the GOP, saying “If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism…. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.”

Santorum? Not so much. “I am not a libertarian, and I fight very strongly against libertarian influence within the Republican Party and the conservative movement. I don’t think the libertarians have it right when it comes to what the Constitution is all about. I don’t think they have it right as to what our history is, and we are not a group of people who believe in no government.”

Thanks but no thanks… I’m not gonna vote for a guy who thinks someone like me should be persona non grata in the Republican Party.

TMOverbeck on February 21, 2012 at 10:26 AM

santorum:well,that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and i think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone.

santorum:that there is no such society that i’am aware of,where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

he sounds like hillary,”it takes a village.”

santorum is the anti-reagan.

svs22422 on February 21, 2012 at 11:52 AM

Sure you do. Psychologists always ignore evidence in rushing to reach conclusions about other people’s actions in order to declare them weird. And psychologists always diss their own profession repeatedly, until it’s time to pull the “authority” card.

Have a nice day, bluegill!

JannyMae on February 21, 2012 at 11:28 AM

They say the Santorum’s kept the dead child overnight. Where do you think they kept it while they slept? Hmmmmmmm.

Actually, I tried to change the subject to more of Santorum’s insanity (if you look back in the posts you’ll see), but you’re obsessed with the baby-thing and won’t let it go. Now you’re busy trying to prove you’re not the Christian bigot you appear to be.

jan3 on February 21, 2012 at 12:25 PM

They say the Santorum’s kept the dead child overnight. Where do you think they kept it while they slept? Hmmmmmmm.

Actually, I tried to change the subject to more of Santorum’s insanity (if you look back in the posts you’ll see), but you’re obsessed with the baby-thing and won’t let it go. Now you’re busy trying to prove you’re not the Christian bigot you appear to be.

jan3 on February 21, 2012 at 12:25 PM

You are the one obsessing, you won’t drop this kind of ignorant halfwitted comments, and think that makes you smart?

My son died at birth, and they encouraged me to hold him, as I was still stunned at the news… I held my son, and I wouldn’t let go, till they had to force me to. He was my son, he had the face of my other children, and he was as mourned as any family member.

Judge me now you f***..

How weird were my actions, he was just tissue after all.. right?

You Santorum hating putz’s apparently neer heard of the old tradition of a wake, taking the body home.. it was common till we all started dying in ICU’s instead of at home in bed. Body’s were iewed at home, a very normal practice.

but you, in your rabid hatred of anything outside your comfort zone, judge them freaks.. you have the right to be a bigot..

You don’t have the right to rub our faces in a tradgedy the Santorum’s under any just observation would be gien some slack on.. but not you the robotic inhumantron, YOU would never do it, so that makes all other options “weird”…

I hope to God you never have to know just how goulish and ile you hae been, because that kind of lesson is expensie to the one who’s life is lost, and the deastated families left to mourn..

but not you..

oh no,… you’re so much better than us mere mortals who struggle with death and grief..

you F***ing know it all.

How sad, that anyone would waste emotion and care for you, you’d never be able to return that emotion.

mark81150 on February 21, 2012 at 1:02 PM

My son died at birth, and they encouraged me to hold him, as I was still stunned at the news… I held my son, and I wouldn’t let go, till they had to force me to. He was my son, he had the face of my other children, and he was as mourned as any family member.

Judge me now you f***..

mark81150 on February 21, 2012 at 1:02 PM

I notice you didn’t bring the child home to meet the family.

I’m sorry you had a child die, but that has nothing to do with Santorum. And, your pain doesn’t make you right, and shouldn’t be used as a weapon to try and hurt others. You should contact Hope Hospice. They offer grief counseling. Don’t spend your time attacking anonymous people on the internet trying to discuss politics. Leave your baggage out of your posts.

jan3 on February 21, 2012 at 1:36 PM

DHChron calls himself a Christian when in reality he is a person of the lowest moral standards imaginable. I recommend everyone link to this post the next time he says “I’m a Christian folks!” This post exposes him as the fraud and liar and weasel that he REALLY is.

Big effin’ surprise.

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 3:04 PM

think of our sin? THIS is why we will LOSE!!

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 3:12 PM

economy? nah! let’s make this about the evil gays

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 3:18 PM

eff you libertarians!

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 3:28 PM


DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 3:31 PM

[email protected]

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 3:43 PM

A fake effin’ Christian

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 3:43 PM

hehehehehe. you’re right. God really cares if I say fvck… sorry God.

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 3:56 PM

are you effin’ kidding me!

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 4:40 PM

I say fvck.

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 4:46 PM

Don’t come at me with your self righteous bs.

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 4:56 PM

stfu seriously just stfu

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 5:01 PM

I don’t care what the fvck you think…

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 5:05 PM

stfu tesla

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 5:43 PM

santy is a huge biatch

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 5:43 PM

Social Cons!! you’re effin’ stupid as balderdash and stuff!

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 5:48 PM


DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 5:50 PM

Rick’s (Santorum) wife married a baby killer.

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 6:52 PM

I’m a Christian folks! but I realize most people aren’t

DHChron on February 20, 2012 at 3:31 PM

Yeah right. You DHChron, are what we call a PHONY and by your fruits we shall know if you’re a Christian (Matthew 7:16). The Bible warns, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). If I were in your position, I would probably have trouble sleeping at night doing such a thing to the Bible. Some day it’s gonna smack you in the face on the day of Judgment. Be ready for that. Thank you so much.

apocalypse on February 22, 2012 at 2:58 PM

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