Social Conservatives Cannot Ignore Political Realities

John Haldane has reminded social conservatives in America of important political and moral truths, but he overlooks the necessity of engaging in partisan politics with eyes wide open to political realities.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the irritable patriotism ofAmericans, the lack of patience we show when foreigners criticize us or our form of government or our way of life: “America is . . . a country of freedom where, in order not to wound anyone, the foreigner must not speak freely either of particular persons, or of the state, or of the governed, or of those who govern, or of public undertakings, or of private undertakings . . .” I was reminded of this insightful passage when I read John Haldane’s recent “Letter to America on the Future of Social Conservatism,” simultaneously congratulating myself on the authenticity of my American patriotism and reminding myself that Tocqueville, whom I greatly admire, was not being uncritical in his remarks. A good Thanksgiving meal has made me less irritated, but no less convinced that Professor Haldane is deeply mistaken in several ways.

Of course Professor Haldane’s basic point is sound: Moral principles establishing what is right and wrong on matters as fundamental as the prohibition against the deliberate taking of innocent human life or as the basic goodness of the natural family ought to be beyond partisan dispute—as, in fact, they once were. It is also fair to recognize that questions of justice and injustice in the decision to go to war and in its conduct are often matters of serious dispute on which reasonable people can disagree. So it is reasonable to suppose that some Americans voted for the party out of power in the recent election based on a moral objection to the war pursued by the party that was in power. As for the economy, almost no serious moral thinker holds that capitalism is just if pursued without any limits, though reasonable people can disagree as to what those limits ought to be. Nonetheless, it is passing strange to suggest that capitalism necessarily leads to a housing shortage, when the current financial crisis has been caused instead by something closer to a housing glut, and even stranger to speak of the “necessity of communism” after the massive experiments in its name have proved to countenance unspeakable human cruelties and to issue in social collapse.

What struck me as off-balance about the letter was its tendency to find partisan excess only among its author’s friends. I haven’t seen a “content analysis” of political messages during the campaign, but it was hardly obvious to this observer that misguided denunciations of evil during the past campaign were all on one side—particularly when the Obama campaign emphasized the link of the Republican candidate to the incumbent, the denunciation of whom knows no bounds worldwide (and this is not to mention the vitriol aimed at Senator McCain’s running mate.) As Tocqueville noted long ago in his chapter on freedom of the press in the United States, Americans speak “violently” of their leaders in the course of campaigns, but on the whole they take the outcome of elections in stride, as the candidates themselves certainly did (though the losers of the California marriage initiative have not). As for the trend toward criminalizing the political opposition, so that the end of one’s term brings not only rotation out of office but something akin to the “scrutiny” in ancient republics whereby the departing official was routinely put on trial and punished for any misdeeds, I suspect we will see it continue, and this time it will not be the social conservatives who are to blame.

The election seems to me less of a repudiation of Republican morality and more a prudential judgment. Presidential elections are often referenda on the economy and the incumbent party’s economic stewardship, and although the Democrats already control Congress—as a result of the 2006 elections, the real referendum on the war, taken as a “wake-up call” by the administration, with the result of a more successful strategy in Iraq—the Republicans could hardly expect to win in November after the collapse of Wall Street and the banking crisis a month or so before the voting. As for the Clinton impeachment years ago, while I agree it was an odd political calculation, since it was obvious from the start that there would never be enough votes to convict, the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice were serious ones, and the electoral consequences were ambiguous: the Republicans lost some seats in Congress in 1998 as they were moving towards impeachment, but won the presidential election in 2000 after Clinton’s acquittal.

The most problematic aspect of the letter, though, is the supposition that social conservatism can simply remain aloof from partisan politics while expecting to have any political effect. Whatever Professor Haldane’s despair about the situation in Great Britain—about which he wrote chillingly in these pages a few weeks ago—American social conservatives have been significantly less marginalized to date, if likewise unsuccessful in turning around cultural decay in an integrated world. Any political coalition involves compromise and a calculation of likely advantages and disadvantages. It is a sign of political maturity to accept this inevitable fact of democratic politics in liberal societies, though it sometimes means having to stand by one’s political friends even as they press aspects of the party’s agenda in which one’s own interests are less acute. Social conservatives who feel short-changed by what we gained under the Bush administration should remember the work of the Kass Commission in developing sound policy on stem cell research and compare that what would have occurred in a Gore or Kerry administration (and is promised in an Obama one). Nor should we dismiss the achievement of Supreme Court appointments that permitted legislation to ban partial birth abortion, perhaps the first genuine progress in pro-life jurisprudence since the Hyde Amendment was allowed to stand almost thirty years ago.

Accommodating one’s coalition partners happens, after all, on both sides of the aisle. The wish to return the Democratic Party to its “historical position that was once more in line with Christian moral values and Catholic social teaching than was that of the Republicans” will have to overcome entrenched interests and loyalties among that party’s most active members, not to mention its financial elites. Of course it is critical for scholars who write about ethics and public policy to ensure that their arguments are sound on their own terms, not twisted for partisan electioneering; an honest dialectic among scholars on all sides ought to benefit everyone, eventually even the public at large. The goal of developing a conservative social philosophy that can attract all parties is noble, but any philosophy that returns to first principles will also carry implications that are apt to favor one or another existing coalition. The real challenge anyway, right now, is attracting the young, who are looking for truth, not neutrality. As active citizens, we don’t have the luxury to construct ideal coalitions; the socialist who is a social conservative and the classical liberal who is a moral radical have to decide which matters more when voting or joining a party, though of course each remains free to try to nudge his coalition partners closer to his own ideal.

If social conservatives in America are facing confinement to a political ghetto as apparently they are in Britain, Professor Haldane’s counsel might be sound. However, social conservatives face no such marginalization in America. There is still strong support in the electorate for many conservative positions on questions such as abortion and gay marriage, and the failures of the Bush administration in relation to the economy and even the war have not erased these views, even if some of their advocates in government have been beaten at the polls. The current economic crisis is a sign that we live in perilous times—just as the vicious coordinated attack by Islamic terrorists in Mumbai is a reminder that the global terrorist threat cannot be ignored or wished away. The need for serious and sober analysis—indeed, for thinking that is radical enough to go to the roots of things—is, I think, widely apparent, even as cautious pragmatism makes sense as a practical strategy in the short term. This is no time for social conservatives to retreat from the public square, or from addressing all its concerns.

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