A common trope in social policy debates is to claim that the public’s changing opinion on the policy at stake, rather than the policy’s moral or substantive justifications, merits changing the platform of one’s preferred political party. This notion seems recently to have taken root on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, and several commentators have reacted.
Consider its November 8 editorial extolling referendums on marriage. The editors argue that views on “gay marriage” are changing so that “after 32 defeats at the ballot box, a gay marriage initiative was adopted by voters,” which shows that Americans are “capable of changing their views and the laws on gay marriage.” They praise the referendum process over judicial fiat, but their implicit premise seems to be that the policy change is a good one. Any substantive arguments to support this view are missing; what remains is only the claim of an inexorable shift in public opinion.
In a November 13 op-ed Bret Stephens wraps the inevitability argument in the flag, arguing that we ought to institute gay “marriage” because “channeling passions that cannot be repressed toward socially productive ends is the genius of the American way.” He then slides into ad hominem argument and innuendo, contending that the Republican Party should abandon its principles on abortion because they are “uncouth, politically counterproductive and, too often, unwittingly revealing.”
In the pages of November 12’s issue, Sarah Westwood, a freshman at George Washington University, makes the inevitability argument with brutal clarity. She bemoans the Republican Party’s concession to the left of the “moral high ground” on abortion. Westwood hardly grounds her complaint, besides claiming that “as a member of this all-important demographic, I know that neither I nor (almost) anybody else coming of age today supports the Republican social agenda. That's the way the country is moving—so just deal with it. Modernize and prioritize."
Does this remind you of the song “Tomorrow belongs to me" in the movie Cabaret? It should. It's the same argument.
Suppose we turn to the moral question at stake that Westwood ignores: Is abortion the destruction of innocent human life?
Yes, we can argue about the costs of an unintended pregnancy. We can perhaps even compare the prospective achievements of people born into economically difficult circumstances, like those that awaited aborted children had they been allowed to live, with the circumstances encountered by children born into affluent two-parent households. But the fact remains: abortion stops a beating (human) heart. It takes a life.
Consider, for example, the case of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was raised by a single mother in New York's Hell's Kitchen. Moynihan taught on the faculty of Harvard University and served for decades in the US Senate; he also wrote cogently and with prescience about the social costs of the breakup of the nuclear family.
Let's contrast his experience with that of Paris Hilton, a “wanted child" raised under privileged circumstances. Hilton has higher name recognition than Moynihan, but the contrast between their achievements reminds us that regardless of the circumstances of one's birth, being human means having a destiny of one's own. That destiny cannot be realized if one is killed. And so, for those who would count the costs of allowing the unborn to live, consider this question: Do you support the murder of newborn infants if their care would pose a hardship for their parents?
No! The life of a small and helpless newborn is worth vastly more than the difficulties that caring for her would impose. Yes, Virginia, the choice of pronoun was not accidental. The typical fetus who is aborted is a girl, and she's disproportionately likely to be a member of a minority ethnic community as well. Why does everything change at the moment of birth? Did the child suddenly acquire an ability to feel pain or to seek love that did not exist an instant before birth? Once we recognize the humanity of the fetus, the arguments against abortion are the arguments against infanticide.
Then there is the issue of gay “marriage.” An impressive array of major religions rejects gay “marriage,” and for many of the faithful these arguments rest on divine authority. But for them and for the rest of us, there are also both moral and practical considerations, some of them highlighted in Jeffrey Lord’s recent response to Westwood in the American Spectator, and some of them made by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and my colleague Robby George in their new book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.
Apart from these legitimate, well-principled objections to abortion and gay “marriage,” what about the practical politics of objecting? Is Westwood right that there are no voters willing to support us in defense of helpless human life? Have the youth all joined in a rousing chorus of “Tomorrow belongs to me"?
Public opinion data tell a different story. Policy preferences have not one but two dimensions—an economic axis that runs from left (with high taxes and lots of redistribution) to right (where taxes are low and government largess meager), and a social axis that runs from left (with support for gay marriage, abortion, and coming soon to an operating theater near you, euthanasia), to right (with respect for life, and support for traditional marriage, and religious liberty). The two main parties find their core supporters on the same side of both axes, and for each group the struggle is to build a majority by recruiting from voters with intermediate positions.
Before Ronald Reagan, the parties differed from each other on economic policy preferences, but were internally divided on social issues. Edward Kennedy and Jesse Jackson were once pro-life, while there were Rockefeller Republicans who favored abortion. Reagan changed this, moving the Republican Party to a pro-life position on abortion and to the right on other social issues as well.
Recent research by Stefan Krasa and Mattias Polborn shows that Reagan’s efforts ceded some Rockefeller Republicans to the Democrats, but gained the “Reagan Democrats" who leaned to the right socially, but somewhat to the left economically. The latter group of voters was much more numerous than the former, and the Republican Party gained considerable electoral heft as a result.
To the extent then that the Republican Party appears to abandon its rightward stance on social issues; to the extent that Republicans are afraid to defend their views on the value of life, on religious freedom, and on marriage, they cede back the Reagan Democrats and their children to the Democrats, and they doom themselves to minority status.
These practical realities have not been lost on conservatives, and several important commentators have sounded the alarm. At First Things Matthew Franck cogently compares the Wall Street Journal’s urgings that we abandon our social principles to the cynical political maneuvering of Stephen Douglas on the slavery issue a century and a half ago. Franck notes that had Abraham Lincoln succumbed to the apparent expediency of falling into line with Douglas’s arguments, slavery likely would have persisted.
Also on the cyber-pages of First Things Joseph Knippenberg observes that as a purely practical matter it would be bad politics for Republicans to alienate socially conservative Evangelicals and churchgoers, who are more numerous and who vote more consistently than do younger voters.
Writing in The Foundry, Ryan Anderson and Andrew Walker show that far from detracting from Romney’s popularity, the vote for traditional marriage polled ahead of the Republican presidential nominee in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, and it did so by an average of more than six percentage points.
Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, policy has worked, does work, and will work best when it is founded on moral and practical arguments. The Republican Party's defense of freedom and dignity is based on both.
John Londregan is a professor of politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs of Princeton University.