Defending Social Conservatives
In the days following a presidential election, both sides turn introspective and attempt to chart the future path of their political party. In 2004, conservative pundits started writing books like Painting the Map Red and started gloating about the influence of “values voters,” while liberals wrote books like What’s the Matter with Kansas? and griped about flyover country. The same phenomenon can be seen in 2008—both sides are frantically trying to determine what this election tells us about the political future of the nation.
Apparently, the lessons of this election are the exact opposites of the ones learned from 2004. Liberal strategists are plotting ways to paint the map permanently blue, while conservatives wonder what’s the matter with Pennsylvania and worry that they’ll be consigned to eternal minority status.
Most of this analysis is a harmless overreaction to recent events and won’t have much influence. But there is one idea, popular among many conservatives, that is potentially destructive. This view cites the Republican party’s emphasis on social issues as a reason for its unpopularity among voters.
This line of reasoning goes that social conservatives might make up about a third (give or take a few percentage points) of the electorate, but you need 51% to win and pandering to those scary social conservatives drive away moderate voters, which are necessary for victory. According to proponents of this view (David Frum is one; David Brooks is another), conservatives should propose more moderate, work-towards-the-center policies, such as accepting abortion and fighting climate change, which would, in theory, appeal to educated, upper-middle class voters.
I’m not sure what would happen to the social conservatives under this model; I think that the idea is that they would have to face up to reality and keep voting Republican.
This idea is completely divorced from reality. One of the most noticeable features about post election theorizing is the idea that anything that didn’t take place within the last two years never happened, which might explain how values voters went from cornerstones of the GOP’s success in 2004 to a millstone around the GOP’s neck in 2008. Do demographics really change so fast that embracing a certain group could be essential for victory in one election but actually harmful in the next?
Apparently so, according the many GOP moderates. But even if we accept that these instant demographic shifts as plausible, there really isn’t much evidence that the GOP’s social attitudes are driving away voters in great numbers.
Exit polls are dubious at best—they failed to predict the correct results in 2000 or 2004, and were significantly off in 2008 as well. But no matter how bad they are, pundits seem to accept their results as gospel, so we’ll work with them. They didn’t show Obama winning because the public was uneasy about a potential theocracy—for the most part, Obama voters cited the economy and a desire for change as their primary reasons for voting Democrat. Social issues didn’t depress the Republican vote—in fact, given the fact that McCain won primarily socially conservative Southern states, it might have prevented an Obama landslide.
Moving beyond exit polls, actual Republican voters spoke by voting down pro-abortion candidate Rudy Giuliani. For years, Democrats have attempted to mollify pro-lifers by supporting “safe, legal, and rare” abortions (without much success). There is little evidence that Republican opposition to abortion costs them many votes—on the contrary, it is the party’s attitudes on the economy and the war that lost the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Given the fact that there isn’t much evidence that appealing to social conservatives hurts Republicans with moderates, why do so many Republicans propose jettisoning this group? There is not, of course, only one answer, but I think much of the solution lies in the fact that many of those most vocal against social conservatives represent either the fiscal conservative or neocon wings of the party. President Bush’s fiscal and foreign relations policies have been incredibly damaging to the GOP’s reputation. Social conservatives are an insular group, and don’t have many defenders. This means that they form a perfect target for those within the conservative movement who don’t wish to admit that so many of the policies they endorsed are miserable failures.