Keeping Mom, Dad, and Baby: Social Conservatism and the Republican Platform

In order to win, do Republicans really need to stop talking about abortion and marriage?

A familiar metaphor to describe the Republican coalition is the “three-legged stool,” where each leg represents social, economic, and defense conservatives. It has traditionally been said that the coalition will collapse if any of the legs is cut off. Yet every so often, we hear various commentators calling in more or less ominous tones for the social conservative leg to be whittled down.

In her new book, American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party, Margaret Hoover renews this argument. (The book’s title and inspiration derive from a booklet of the same name by Hoover’s great-grandfather, Herbert Hoover.) Here she argues that the Republican brand is damaged because social conservatives appear to dominate the party, which “has caused millennials to tune us out.” Hence Hoover writes with two aims: to convince Republicans that millennials—roughly anyone born between 1980 and 1999—are not a “lost cause,” and to convince millennials that they should give Republicans another hearing. But to appeal to this audience’s alleged hostility to the third leg of the stool, Hoover feels compelled to pull out her pocketknife and sharpen it.

According to Hoover, the three-legged stool’s fusionism emerged as a response to a common enemy: Communism. In a post-Communist era, Hoover argues that a new fusionism must rally under the banner of fiscal discipline, which, when embedded in “rugged individualism”—a sort of individual freedom quickened with “community spirit”—can appeal to the millennial generation. Hoover applies this framework in a wide-ranging tour through contemporary American policy debates.

Millennials and conservatives alike will welcome Hoover’s powerful case against “generational theft.” Millennials are rather like latecomers to a posh dinner party thrown by their parents and grandparents. After a nibble of dessert and a sip of leftover Dom Perignon, they find the party deserted and are left stuck with the tab. The growing realization among millennials that they will be footing today’s welfare state bill for many years to come means they are ready to embrace a program of fiscal sanity. And given their widespread sense that almost anything can be customized to their individual needs, Hoover persuasively argues that their natural home is the party that has coupled spending, tax, and entitlement reform with an emphasis on individual choice and responsibility in health-care plans, retirement savings, and education. Moreover, Hoover reminds us that the events of 9/11 were formative for millennials and made them vividly aware that American values are in the crosshairs. Republicans are well-situated to remind millennials that, while we are emphatically not at war with Islam, we are at war with radical Islamist supremacists.

But what should we make of her call for Republicans to “emphasize economic values and deemphasize social issues”? Hoover contends that only this decision will help Republicans avoid being perceived as a “fire-and-brimstone party.” While Hoover’s tone might strike the reader as moderate, her message for social conservatives is loud and clear: stop talking about abortion and marriage, and get with the program.

Hoover labels abortion a “second-tier issue,” as if it didn’t concern the most fundamental questions of justice and the common good. Surely this is an odd assertion for someone claiming to champion the dignity of the individual person. Some scholars would trace Hoover’s libertarian-like “rugged individualism” (however tempered by a weak-sauce “community spirit”) back to the individualism of Hobbes and Locke, the “founders” of modern liberalism. Whatever the merits of that pedigree of liberalism, Hobbes and Locke agree with Aquinas on at least this point: a necessary feature of any just government will be the protection of all human beings within its jurisdiction from arbitrary acts of violence. So when Hoover parrots the platitude of being “personally prolife but politically pro-choice” as if it were the pragmatic, reasoned alternative to “absolutist” positions, one wonders whether she has really thought her position through. Either the genetically distinct, self-moving, self-integrating, individuated human being in the womb is a person and hence deserving of basic equal protection of the laws from arbitrary acts of violence—or he or she is not a person, in which case, on what grounds would one be “personally” prolife? To be “personally” prolife necessarily entails being “politically” prolife, or it is nonsense.

The relevant polling data suggests that millennials are more prolife than their parents. Fifty-eight percent of millennials believe abortion is “morally wrong” while 74 percent favor at least some legal restrictions on abortion. Notably, millennials are now the demographic most likely to believe abortion ought to be illegal in all circumstances. If anything, the character of the new generation suggests that the GOP shouldn’t mute its pro-life credentials if it wants to win.

Given Hoover’s emphasis on fiscal discipline, one might have expected for her to call for some kind of truce on marriage. Instead, Hoover dismisses arguments that favor protecting marriage in a few paragraphs and spends a chapter citing familiar “marriage equality” arguments. She concludes that the legal recognition of same-sex unions as marriages is entirely consistent with Republican principles of maximizing individual freedom and equal opportunity. Hoover thinks that millennials will find these arguments appealing because of their more libertarian leanings on economic and sexual issues. Let us abstract for the moment from the abundant social science evidence documenting the positive benefits for civil society of traditional marriage (and the likelihood that the exponential rise in federal spending to fight poverty since the 1960s has been ineffective because policymakers have failed to see that poverty is often a symptom of the breakdown of the traditional family). Still, why should it follow that Republicans have an imperative to recognize same-sex unions in the law as marriages?

Millennial libertarianism suggests that there is still wide agreement across the generations that the government has no business regulating most of our intimate friendships. (To see the point, we need only reflect for a moment on the absurdity of the government issuing chess-buddy licenses and specially protecting permanent and exclusive chess-buddy unions or analogous friendships.) But if true, the burden would be on the government to justify the importance of singling out a new form of friendship for special protection and benefits. A centuries-old tradition of law picked out opposite-sex unions for the good reason that such unions were the kind that produce children. What could be more to the common good than what John Rawls called the “orderly reproduction of society over time”? The burden rests on same-sex marriage proponents to justify the creation of a new entity in law as a requirement of the common good.

As far as I can make out, Hoover’s justification is that the current law denies equality. Yet Hoover makes no effort to explain what marriage is, and so we have no idea whether anyone’s equal rights have been violated when some unions are denied the status of marriage. Still, through the emotive morass of argumentation, one can discern that Hoover thinks marriage is or ought to be something like “any two consenting, committed persons who love each other.” Now who is denying equality? Why does justice only require the recognition of dyadic unions? This is not a slippery-slope question but a matter of principle, if we are talking about protecting the equal rights of all—including the equal rights of people in loving, committed polyamorous relationships.

At any rate, it is not clear that Hoover’s gaze into the crystal ball really reveals that millennials are the crest of the tide of history, inevitably hurtling us toward gay marriage. With millennials favoring the legalization of gay marriage by a 50 percent to 36 percent margin, with the remainder undecided (according to a Pew Research Center study), the future seems rather more ambiguous. The challenge for Republicans is not self-censorship, but to articulate and defend marriage as an essential aspect of the common good.

Hoover set out to hew off the Republican Party’s social conservative leg to gain a hearing with millennials, but instead of offering serious arguments that demonstrate precisely where prolife and traditional marriage arguments fail, she offers quick and easy slogans and emotional anecdotes. These offerings may reaffirm the prejudices of some readers, but it is doubtful that anyone who has reflected seriously on these matters will be persuaded.

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