The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell is a harbinger not just of the end of the public policy argument over marriage, but of our time’s intellectual poverty, disregard for the Constitution, and democratic breakdown.
Looked at another way, however, the decision forces conservatives to look in the mirror, to assess the grave state to which they have fallen. Sure, the battle for conjugal marriage has been fought ably and valiantly, and there remain bright conservative politicians and commentators. Nevertheless, any candid assessment of the current political situation reveals a disastrous political losing streak for conservatives; with the Reagan Revolution now in the distant past, the Republican Party faces a grave and uncertain future.
In the wake of Obergefell, a recent New York Times article hits the mark on at least one point. The article correctly announces that the Left has won the defining culture battles of the recent decades. According to the laws of political physics, Republicans will be required to extricate themselves quietly from many socially conservative positions, lest they fail even to attempt to appeal to 51 percent of Americans. To be sure, Obergefell apparently disrupts the perceived link between corporatism and the Republican Party.
To which issues will the party flee? Three possibilities present themselves: the economy, national security, and religious liberty. Unfortunately Republicans have not succeeded in crafting persuasive visions for any of these three issue areas in the past decade, and with the Left’s recently gained momentum, this is very unlikely to change. Republicans are still—rightly or wrongly—associated with and blamed for the Great Recession and the Iraq War, and the recent failure to pass and retain a serious Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana is probably indicative of future difficulties as far as religious liberty is concerned. In light of the gay rights movement’s resounding success in linking the fight for same-sex marriage to the Civil Rights Movement, it is a relatively small step to fit “inclusion” under the anti-discrimination umbrella.
Is there any hope that Republicans will be hoisted out of this political pit in the 2016 presidential race? Perhaps, but this appears highly unlikely. Of the now seventeen and counting Republican candidates who have come forward, virtually all have had palpable difficulties of one sort or another in crafting a coherent and consistent vision that can appeal to both the conservative base and the general public.
This isn’t merely incidental. The fact of the matter is that there is no clear idea on the Republican side of what holds the party together—the party is an incoherent hodgepodge of social conservatism, economic conservatism, foreign policy hawks, libertarian leaners, and evangelicals. The Democrats, on the other hand, do have a clear—even if clearly wrong—roadmap, and Hilary Clinton is poised to follow that map to the White House in 2016.
A 2016 defeat would throw the Republican Party into full crisis mode, if it doesn’t reach that point earlier. I for one have little confidence that the current Republican Party leadership will suddenly come up with a coherent and compelling case for a viable program of public policy. Entrenched interests and commitments, financial and otherwise, influence party organizations in ways that tend not to be in accord with the best thinking and strategy. The party needs a forceful nudge from its more thoughtful and less politically entrenched element. Republicans need to be shown the way to a successful future in keeping with their deep connection to the traditional American past.
The new Republican Party should maintain and highlight the connection to American founding principles that many conservatives and Republicans hold dear, and that remains politically uncontroversial among large segments of the general American public. This connection to the past should, however, also be clearly linked to an attractive vision for the future. How can this be done? I propose an emphasis on the theme of nature.
This theme has been brought to the forefront of recent American political discourse in intriguing ways. On the one hand, there is the extraordinary attention placed on the issue of climate change and environmental stewardship as one of the defining issues of our time, an assessment echoed by Pope Francis’s recent encyclical Laudato Si’. Relatedly, there is the powerful grassroots movement for more “natural,” organic, non-GMO foods. These issues are usually associated with political liberals.
On the other hand, nature as it figures in human nature has long served as the most persuasive foundation for arguments in favor of traditional conservative positions on the issues of abortion, same-sex marriage, economic freedom, and limited government. The unborn have a natural right to life; same-sex marriage is contrary to the natural law; there is a natural right to property that antedates government; and government exists to secure natural rights rather than to dole out artificial ones.
The connection between these apparently disparate kinds of “nature” may indeed seem unclear, and has been in one form or another a matter of debate among philosophers for centuries. For the purposes of electoral politics, however, this is of little moment: “nature” and what is “natural” have a rhetorical power similar to words such as “hope” and “change” that Obama has used so well in recent years. Whether “nature” expresses respect for Creation in general or specifically human moral principles in particular, it is a word with strong positive connotations, ample traditional precedent, and sufficient cognitive content to resonate with American citizens.
I suspect, moreover, that these varied invocations of the single term “nature” are not mere linguistic coincidences: As Pope Francis suggests in his encyclical, humankind’s reconnection to nature-as-it-is-given, as opposed to nature-subservient-to-our-selfish-ends, may be the most comprehensive and unifying theme of our age. An American political party that can articulate this theme in a clear and persuasive way, and connect it to public policies that in some cases cut across the usual conservative-liberal battle lines, could hope to begin to halt and eventually reverse the current trend of decline.
The new Republican Party platform organized around the theme of nature might be built on the following public policy cornerstones:
- Legislation reflecting the natural differences between and complementarity of men and women.
- Safeguarding the natural right to life of all people by restricting abortion and assisted suicide, attending to violent crime, and instituting a narrowly focused welfare system.
- The protection of the environment from anthropogenic destruction and pollution.
- Respect for the natural right of property and the economic freedom that flows from it.
- Support for more natural food production.
- Foreign policy emphasizing national security rather than foreign intervention.
- Protections for religious liberty.
Some of these points may seem at odds with one another—for example, points 3 and 4—but this apparent opposition stems largely from the way these issues have been framed, handled, and lobbied in the past. Once they are viewed in the new light of a common concern for nature, their potential opposition may become more manageable. With the aid of this common concern, the task of balancing divergent policy objectives becomes one that more readily admits of rational discussion. What exactly our connection to nature entails may often be unclear, especially at first; but the idea of fostering this connection through public discourse and policy is one that is capable of inspiring and uniting large swaths of the American people.
It is important that Republicans do not simply abandon the social conservatism that has hitherto distinguished them from Democrats. This is important both because there remains a sizable socially conservative portion of the electorate, and because socially conservative positions on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage reflect timeless truths. It is to be hoped, though, that a repackaging of social conservatism that persuasively associates it with currently popular causes such as environmental concern and natural food production may breathe new life into these traditional causes.
The Republican Party desperately needs guidance through the morass of unconnected and insufficiently articulated policy commitments that have come to define it in recent decades. Conservatives need to find a way to recover what has been lost without simply returning to the past. The theme of nature allows us to draw on the arguments of the past while embracing attractive visions for the future. We would do well to turn to nature now as our forebears in the Revolution once did.
Adam Seagrave is an assistant professor of political science at Northern Illinois University. He is the author of The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law and editor of Liberty and Equality: The American Conversation.