Conservatives, and social conservatives especially, always seem to be on the losing side of politics. No matter what the issue, be it fiscal or social, conservatives eventually always seem to lose. This naturally raises the question: are conservatives really on the wrong side of history, just as progressives contend?
Some conservatives answer that the social decay of America is the result of a flaw in the liberal American project. Conservatives, they maintain, were always going to lose. Others suggest that Christians must admit defeat and rethink their entire political strategy.
These counsels contain essential elements of truth. Who can deny the flaws in the American project or conservative politics? But maybe something else is at work in the conservative debacle—something more elemental and human, and less ideological.
The Conservative Disposition
For starters, there is something in the political disposition of conservatives that always puts them at a disadvantage. Conservatives, by definition, are in favor of conserving the status quo. They do not really have a political project and only ever play defense.
Debates between conservatives are almost always about how much ground to concede to progressives—whether or not to fight particular progressive gains. They are never about what can be done to advance a concrete conservative political agenda.
Since conservatives never advance their own positive agenda, when progressives make gains, the progressive agenda of yesterday becomes today’s status quo for conservatives. The political center inexorably shifts further and further to the left. It is as though the political process were rigged from the start to favor progressives.
Under this predicament, a reversal of progressivism’s gains is not just elusive, it is impossible. If the status quo is the end game for conservatives, then there can never be hope for a long-term political victory, only momentary setbacks to the progressive agenda. The most conservatives can ever hope for is a temporary respite from the relentless advance of progressivism.
Conservative Slippage on Abortion and Homosexual Marriage
Examples of conservative slippage and progressive success abound on many political fronts, beginning with how lascivious Republicans become with taxpayer money when they are in power. But the conservative disadvantage is especially glaring on social issues. After eight years of the Obama administration, the center seems to have shifted so far to the left that no politician wants even to attempt a serious rightward correction, let alone a correction that will endure subsequent Democratic administrations and congressional majorities.
The capitulation of social conservatives to the rape exception in the abortion debate is emblematic of how eager conservatives are to find a new status quo with every progressive turn. Once thought of as a way for conservatives to restrict abortion with support from Democrats, the health and rape exceptions have now become the de facto position for the majority of Republicans.
By contrast, Democrats went from claiming abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” under the Clinton administration to championing “shout your abortion” and making abortion a litmus test for the Democratic party under Nancy Pelosi. And while pro-lifers squabble over the rape exception and heartbeat bills, abortion groups and their supporters are united in asking for restrictions on pro-life speech and the abolition of any conscience protections for medical providers.
Similarly, conservatives’ rapid capitulation to homosexual marriage shows just how quickly even something widely considered abhorrent by society can become acceptable to all but the staunchest of social conservatives.
A mere twenty years after the Defense of Marriage Act was passed with overwhelming support by Congress, and only shortly after a majority of states democratically rejected homosexual marriage, the Supreme Court imposed homosexual marriage on all fifty states. The vast majority of conservatives have humbly submitted without as much as a peep.
Again, it seems impossible to go back, because the status quo has changed. Conservatives simply do not seem interested in changing that. Some are so eager to embrace the new status quo that they are now urging other conservatives to embrace homosexuality and transgenderism. By contrast, the status quo is never enough for progressives. The anti-Christian Human Rights Campaign is clamoring for the Equality Act to force Christians to celebrate homosexual marriages, and Nancy Pelosi wants this to become a priority of the U.S. House of Representatives.
More worrying still, conservatives do not show the slightest proclivity for the kind of social upheaval that leads to political results. While pro-lifers quietly and patiently pray that Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts may one day reverse Roe v. Wade—without any assurance whatsoever that this will indeed eventually happen—angry abortion crowds hurl insults at Kavanaugh as if he already had reversed it.
If conservatives were interested in real change, the March for Life would paralyze Washington, DC for a day each year, like the Women’s March. Instead, it barely gets covered by the media. Conservatives are so calm and polite that Metro Police do not even have to attend the March for Life, or even attempt to estimate the crowd size. While this is not to encourage rioting, pro-lifers need to find ways to make the pro-life cause more visible and effective both socially and politically.
Is Liberalism or Human Nature to Blame?
So why the slippage? Are apathy and retreat inherent traits of conservativism? Is the inexorable progress of immoral liberalism written into the very fabric of the American project?
Much has been written about Patrick Deneen’s fascinating interpretation of U.S. history as the progressive realization of the collection of philosophical ideas he identifies as liberalism in Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen’s analysis of the present is powerful and convincing. But our present moral slippage cannot be principally blamed on enlightenment ideology or the philosophical foundations of the American project.
There is a simpler and more direct explanation for the conservative slippage, one that has less to do with ideas or ideology and more with human error and personal failure. What if the victories of social progressivism have less to do with the ideology of the founding than with the moral failure of men and women in every generation to stop evil from progressing? What if abortion, homosexual marriage, poverty, corruption, and other such social ills came to pass because of the sins of individual men and women who had the chance to do the right thing but chose not to? As the famous saying long attributed to Edmund Burke goes, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing.”
Robert Reilly suggests as much in his 2014 book Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything. Applying an Aristotelian philosophical analysis of morality and social dynamics, Reilly identifies a collective psychology of complicity and moral failure at the root of the decadence of American society. Unsurprisingly, Reilly does not see the advance of immorality in America as resulting from the seamless progression of an ideologically consistent theory. Reilly believes that American social decay is the result of a massive coverup of sexual immorality.
Reilly explains that behind the moral slippage is a spiritual and moral phenomenon, not merely an ideological and rational one. Americans decided to hide their own personal sexual failures through contraception, abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and so on, instead of calling out their fellow citizens for their sins. Incidentally, Reilly has taken issue with Deneen’s approach, including in Public Discourse. He does not agree that the founding is a poison pill―and he has a point.
History is ultimately made by men and women. Ideas have consequences, but only because people take up those ideas and express them through action. There were plenty of good and bad ideas that converged at the founding. What matters is that at every point of U.S. history men and women made decisions either to defend life and family or not, and to accept a new social and political status quo or not.
Maybe conservatives keep losing in America because they are constantly betrayed from within their own ranks. Think of the many Christians who failed to take a principled stand against abortion in key political moments, and the clergy who gave them a pass. Think of the conservatives who become googly-eyed every time a Republican is in the White House and fanatically defend Republicans even when they are clearly slow-walking pro-life policy, much as they have abandoned the pro-family cause altogether.
Thick Conservatism Needs the Principles of Religion and the Natural Law
The only way to reverse the gains of progressives is for conservatives to embrace militantly a “thick” version of conservatism, one that is more than just a disposition to preserve the status quo. This much is clear. A status quo conservatism too often degenerates into being concerned only about the economic status quo, leading conservatives to fall back to the minimum common denominator of tax reform.
Conservatism must be about more than just conserving the present configuration of political and economic power in society. It must have substantive aims and concrete political targets. For this to happen, conservatism must be rooted in perennial principles of the natural law and religious traditions. Only through these principles can politics and economics help society flourish. Principled conservatives like Richard John Neuhaus started such a project, but it has yet to be translated into political results.
More importantly, in order to succeed, conservatives will need men and women of principle. Moral apathy is a spiritual condition. It is the reason for the complicity and complacency that have allowed the sexual revolution to spread in our society. R. R. Reno astutely noted the moral apathy of conservatives in First Things following the midterm elections, writing that “there has never been a conservative establishment—only a Republican one, which is purely political and has no cultural ambitions other than to get its children into Ivy League schools.”
If conservatives quietly retreat on social issues rather than attempt to upset the political balance of society by challenging progressives with moral demands, conservatives will continue to be on the wrong side of history; and the left will only make more and more of its own moral demands for sexual autonomy. Conservatives will just default back to tax cuts and the economic status quo as American society continues to disintegrate.
The irony is that the economic prosperity to which American conservatives cling so effectively was, in large part, created thanks to the great influence on American society of institutions like the family and churches, as Tocqueville famously observed. These conservative social institutions have been the backbone of American society, politics, and commerce. They have never before been under attack as they are now.
As conservatives capitulate to the sexual revolution and America hurtles toward demographic and fiscal collapse almost on pace with Europe, the Psalmist’s aphorism on riches rings truer than ever: “In his riches man lacks wisdom, he is like the beasts that are destroyed” (Psalm 49).