American family today . . . An invaluable
resource for anyone wishing to stay on the
cutting edge of research on family trends.
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
What Social Conservatives Offer the Party of Lincoln
The Republican victories in Massachusetts (Scott Brown), New Jersey (Chris Christie), and Virginia (Bob McDonnell), coupled with growing disenchantment with President Obama’s initiatives, has the Republican party feeling bullish about its prospects for congressional elections this fall. Many strategists are predicting a repeat of 1994, where the Grand Old Party takes control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate. Indeed, the party has rebounded dramatically from the beating it took in 2006 and 2008. Even divisions among conservatives within the party that New York Times columnist David Brooks characterizes as pitting “traditionalists” against “reformers”1 do not appear to be dampening Republican hopes. As historian George H. Nash reminds the faithful, factions have been a feature of American conservatism since the 1950s and reflect the movement’s vitality.2
Yet among the contradictions that have worked against the ability of the party of Lincoln to become, in the hopes of Karl Rove, “a permanent Republican majority,” is the disconnect that separates the GOP and conservative establishments—including elected and party officials, think tanks and activist organizations, political strategists, and even talk-radio hosts—from registered voters outside the Washington Beltway that the former depend upon for electing Republicans to public office. As Brooks observes, “most professional conservatives are life-long Washingtonians who live comfortably as organization heads, lobbyists, and publicists.” While Brooks applies his characterization to the traditionalists that he finds wanting, it applies equally to the reformers that he champions. Indeed, nothing separates the professional class of Republican thinkers and players from the voting public more than the issue of how the party should position itself vis-à-vis the “social issues.” As much as the media like to portray the GOP as beholden to the Religious Right, the reality is that Republican elites, with rare exceptions, are more beholden to economic conservatives and foreign-policy hawks than to social conservatives. Paraphrasing Jeffrey Bell’s observation in The Weekly Standard, Republican elites would rather talk about anything but social issues.3
The Conservative Pass on Social Issues
The reluctance to discuss, let alone embrace, social issues is widespread. Turn on Fox News in the evening, and chances are Sean Hannity will be dispensing, as he did frequently through 2009, policy prescriptions to help the GOP recover its promise, including “a strong defense,” “national security,” “energy independence,” “fiscal responsibility,” and “low taxes.” But the popular broadcaster never includes, in his litany, principles that would encourage, for example, a recovery of the child-rich, married-parent family as the centerpiece of American life. He claims to be a pro-life Catholic and traditional family man, but these commitments do not appear to inform the “free-market policy solutions” that he encourages the GOP to advance.
Likewise, the numerous Tea Party rallies protesting President Obama’s expansion of government do not reference social issues, even though these events attract a good number of social conservatives. With the exception of Sarah Palin’s key-note address at its Nashville convention in February that was heavy on national security and foreign policy, the focus of the movement is more domestic and more economic, reflecting the “core values” posted on the Tea Party’s website: “fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets.” The tea parties are not venues where speakers explore how the family crisis of the past thirty years, a crisis driven by the assault of American ideals like marriage and the two-parent family that began with the Great Society and was reinforced by Supreme Court rulings, has contributed to the present economic and social crisis. That silence may be intentional, given the role that two economic action groups based in Washington—FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity—appear to have played in the movement.4 Judging from the blog categories and policy issues listed on their respective websites, neither activist group will broach the social issues.
The social issues are not entirely absent from the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), sponsored by the American Conservative Union. At the three-day 2010 conference in Washington, D.C., several socially conservative organizations were among the 88 cosponsors, including the American Principles Project, Americans United For Life, Concerned Women for America, Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family Action, the National Organization for Marriage, and the Susan B. Anthony List; some of these groups even sponsored special events and seminars. However, the subject breakdown of the twenty-five panel-discussion sessions that explored the conference theme, “Saving Freedom,” is revealing. Only two of these general sessions could be classified in the social-issues category—“Saving Freedom One Life at a Time” and “Saving Freedom from the Enemies of Our Values”—and the registrant would only know that beforehand by the identity of the panelists listed on the conference literature and website. Like the Tea Party movement, nothing at CPAC explicitly explores the political implications of the American crisis brought on by the decline of marriage and the two-parent family.
The avoidance of social issues extends to many elected Republican officials, even those with pro-life and pro-family credentials, who couch those commitments as subordinate to economic concerns. In an interview last summer in the Wall Street Journal, Governor Rick Perry of Texas made it clear that he does not see social issues as all that important. “You may elect me if I am pro-life. You may elect me if I’m pro-family values. But you probably will not elect me if I’m not a proven fiscal conservative.”5 Likewise, when GOP House Whip Eric Cantor, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney convened a caucus in May 2009 to discuss the future of the party, “talk of cultural issues like abortion,” according to journalist David Paul Kuhn, was “notably absent.”6
Fiscal Conservatism Is Not Enough:
What Social Conservatives Offer the Party of Lincoln
The Family GDP:
How Marriage and Fertility Drive the Economy
A Capital Catastrophe:
Why a Little-Noticed Crisis Portends Economic Disaster
The Crushing Burden of Student Loans:
How Debt Weakens Family Formation among Generation X
Thinking that He’s Learned Keynes, He Writes the Wrong Prescription
The New American Economy
Reviewed by David P. Goldman
Feminism Reconsiders Motherhood
Reviewed by Janice Shaw Crouse
Enough about Marriage, Let’s Talk About Me
When Gay People Get Married
Reviewed by William C. Duncan
How Liberalism Puts Children at Risk
Reviewed by Susan Orr