Conservatives sometimes seem more like they are part of a family than a movement. They look up to the same political father figure—Ronald Reagan—but share little else other than a desire to fight over his inheritance. Last week, Princeton University invited four guests to its campus—Ross Douthat, Daniel Larison, Virginia Postrel, and David Frum—and asked them what the future of this sometimes fractious movement will be.
One of the most interesting disagreements between the panelists was what the future of social conservatism should be. David Frum, a former staffer in the Bush White House, argued that a successful GOP would need, among other things, to “turn down the volume” on social issues in order to appeal to an increasingly secular electorate. Would it really be a good thing if social conservatives turn down the volume, or even tune out by disengaging from politics altogether?
What do we mean when we speak of “cultural” or “social” issues? After all, economic policy and foreign policy are as much “cultural” concerns as issues related to sex and family life. One view is that the word “social” in phrases like “social issues” and “social conservatism” is a euphemism for religious. Religion, however, informs our public life very nearly across the board, and social conservatism is only one instance of its influence. American religious zeal has animated political action as wide-ranging as the progressive economics of the social gospel, the demands for justice of the civil-rights movement, and—most recently—arguments against global warming that cite the book of Genesis. If America is indeed growing more secular, its citizens will not just lose their interest in one or two issues, but also a near-universal moral vocabulary.
Conservatives today are accused by some of focusing on only two issues: abortion and gay marriage. Social conservatism, in fact, has never been limited to a narrow range of issues. An obvious example is provided by Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage. Gallagher has led the fight for upholding the traditional conception of marriage, but has also written about the effects of no-fault divorce on children and abandoned spouses. Authors writing in Public Discourse have made socially conservative arguments in favor of public transportation and against torture. The future of conservatism, then, should be modeled on its (often forgotten) past: addressing not just one or two political questions, but a whole range of social problems, with an overriding concern for the importance of the family and the lives of the most vulnerable human beings. Even if today’s hot-button issues fade, this kind of social conservatism will still remain.
Social conservatives must press their case with hard data and principled arguments. One of the leading scholars exemplifying this approach is sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia. Most recently, he penned an article in National Affairs that marshaled social-science data to argue that liberalized divorce laws have been especially damaging to the poor and uneducated. The results of social science are rarely conclusive, but to the extent that conservatives are right about the importance of family and the nature of the human person, the data will bear them out.
Politics is not simply an actuarial science, however. It is, above all, a contest of principles. Conservatives must make principled arguments for the dignity of human life and the importance of the family as a public good. Conservatives showed the need for welfare reform—one of the major successes of modern conservatism—through the analysis of data and the use of sound sociological arguments. This data, convincing as it was, would not have gained much of a hearing had there not been politicians willing to use a socially conservative rhetoric of responsibility to make the case for welfare reform.
We should not totally dismiss Frum’s argument, however. After all, the soft voice is often the most persuasive. Does this mean that conservatives should cease from making explicit arguments in defense of life and marriage? No, but conservatives tilting into a “culture war” must remember that the most ingrained cultural beliefs often go unspoken. A major challenge for conservatives will be to foster cultural institutions that are bearers of meaning, inculcating support for family life and human dignity without explicitly arguing for them. An encouraging sign could be found in recent films like Juno and Knocked Up that contained pro-life messages. Conservatives have devoted a great deal of effort to criticizing the media and some to gaining a foothold in it. What is really needed is more basic and difficult: ways of life—simple, everyday practices and public observances—that build respect for marriage and human dignity. How to foster such institutions is a difficult question, but electioneering is probably not the answer.
Frum called for a wealthier, more suburban, and more North-Eastern Republican party. Such voters tend to see social concerns like restrictions on abortion or divorce as restrictions of their personal autonomy. These constituencies are less concerned with social issues precisely because their economic and educational privilege has insulated them from the negative effects of divorce and non-marital sex. The country’s poor Black, Hispanic, and rural White communities suffer some of the highest rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and divorce and, not coincidentally, tend to be among the most socially conservative in their political views. Frum’s proposal might appeal to those safely perched on cushions of monetary and social capital who experiences these institutions as restrictions on their personal freedom rather than as necessary bulwarks of stability. But it does little for the plight of the rest.
This brings us back to the central problem with Frum’s argument. All political positions in the end appeal to a set of moral and social and cultural concerns, even if implicitly. It is difficult to elaborate the problems with massive imprisonment of black males, and the related problem of black single motherhood, unless one is willing to talk about the importance of family. Misguided attempts to reduce the role of social conservatives in political discourse will make it more difficult to address some of the most complicated problems our nation faces. The way forward for social conservatives—whether within current political coalitions or outside them—is not to retreat on social issues, but rather to show how social conservatism is a flexible, fertile philosophy as necessary today as ever. Let’s turn the volume up to eleven.
Matthew Schmitz is the managing editor of Public Discourse.