alien & sedition.
Monday, October 01, 2007
  Social Cons, Econo-Cons

Ramesh Ponnuru raises some interesting arguments, building off a debate with Thomas Edsall from May. His original point was that "The relative social conservatism of the Republican party has increased over the last twenty years, not decreased."

This comes up now in the context of a related question: can socially conservative candidates prosper even as society in general becomes steadily more liberal? Ponnuru argues that yes, they can. I'd say this point is self-evident, given the history of the post-war U.S., but let's look at a couple of his arguments.

One is particularly interesting in light of the last post.
Abortion has been the biggest of the social issues. For three decades, Gallup has asked Americans whether they think abortion should never be permitted, should always be permitted, or should sometimes be permitted. The results from 2005 do not look markedly more liberal than the results from 1975. So these polls give us no reason to think that opposition to abortion has lost political power, or is likely to do so.
If this is so, then it's all the more ironic that abortion has lost political power -- not thanks to public opinion, but thanks to the maneuvering of the economic conservatives who have been consolidating their control of the GOP coalition. Abortion was one of the political pillars of the Republican party, and now the party is abandoning it altogether? Either the issue really has lost salience, or the GOP is undertaking a curious strategy indeed. I think it's a little of both, myself, but time will tell.

At any rate, I think Ponnuru gets the larger dynamic right:
A society can simultaneously become more socially liberal and create new political opportunities for social conservatives. It is, after all, the liberalization to which the conservatives react.

Now of course public opinion on an issue can change so much that the old conservative position is no longer tenable, and successful candidates can no longer take it. If only 10 percent of the population still opposes gay marriage in 20 years, it won’t be an issue then, either. When public opinion changes that much, however, the issues get redefined. A new conservative position emerges, more liberal than the previous one but less liberal than the contemporary liberal one. And this new conservative position sometimes has a lot of political power.
This speaks to why I think that social conservatism represents a stronger electoral future for the GOP than economic conservatism. Particularly so considering that the so-called fiscal conservatism embraced by the party's current opinion makers isn't really fiscal conservatism at all, but the weird cult of supply-side economics.

Bigger picture: I think the Rudy Giuliani model represents a very bad option for the GOP. But don't tell them I said that.

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I'm undecided on this issue. While I understand your reasoning, but...given America's Jeffersonian cum laissez-faire history, along with my personal experience teaching college students from a range of backgrounds, I have to say that the hedonistic libertarianism underlying the modern consumer economy has tremendous appeal among broad swathes of the population. Not that I agree with this point of view, but it does have an undeniable attraction to a lot of people.
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