In the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto discusses Jeffrey Bell’s new book, which argues that the politics of the culture wars inevitably fuels Republican electoral victories.
Social issues have come to the fore on the GOP side in two of the past six presidential electionsâ€”in 1988 (prison furloughs, the Pledge of Allegiance, the ACLU) and 2004 (same-sex marriage). “Those are the only two elections since Reagan where the Republican Party has won a popular majority,” Mr. Bell says. “It isn’t coincidental.”
Mr. Bell, 68, is an unlikely tribune for social conservatism. His main interest has always been economics. He was “an early supply-sider” who worked on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns of 1976 and 1980 and Jack Kemp’s in 1988. In 1978 he ran an anti-tax campaign for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey, defeating Republican incumbent Clifford Case in the primary but losing to Democrat Bill Bradley.
Even now his day job is to advocate for the gold standard at the American Principles Project. But he’s been interested in social issues since the 1980s, when “it became increasingly clear to me . . . that social issues were beginning to be very important in comparison to economic issues,” in part because “Reaganomics worked so well that the Democrats . . . kind of retired the economic issues.”
In Mr. Bell’s telling, social conservatism is both relatively new and uniquely American, and it is a response to aggression, not an initiation of it. The left has had “its center of gravity in social issues” since the French Revolution, he says. “Yes, the left at that time, with people like Robespierre, was interested in overthrowing the monarchy and the French aristocracy. But they were even more vehemently in favor of bringing down institutions like the family and organized religion. In that regard, the left has never changed. . . . I think we’ve had a good illustration of it in the last month or so.”
He means the ObamaCare mandate that religious institutions must provide employee insurance for contraceptive services, including abortifacient drugs and sterilization procedures, even if doing so would violate their moral teachings. “You would think that once the economy started looking a little better, Obama would want to take a bow . . . but instead all of a sudden you have this contraception flap. From what I can find out about it, it wasn’t a miscalculation. They knew that the Catholic Church and other believers were going to push back against this thing. . . . They were determined to push it through, because it’s their irreplaceable ideological core. . . . The left keeps putting these issues into the mix, and they do it very deliberately, and I think they do it as a matter of principle.”
Another example: “In the lame-duck session of the last Congress, when the Democrats had their last [House] majority . . . what was their biggest priority? Well, they let the Bush tax cuts be renewed for another couple of years, but what they did get through was gays in the military. . . . It keeps coming back because it’s the agenda of the left. They’re not going to leave these issues alone.”
American social conservatism, Mr. Bell says, began in response to the sexual revolution, which since the 1960s has been “the biggest agenda item and the biggest success story of the left.” That was true in Western Europe and Japan too, but only in America did a socially conservative opposition arise.
Read the whole thing.
I thought this review was dead on accurate.
I’m an irreligious, libertine, libertarian conservative, personally completely and totally in favor of contraception and legal abortion, and I found myself recently defending the rights of Roman Catholic institutions, and even arguing with my Yale classmates that the perspective of Right-to-Lifers is morally serious and worthy of respect.
Liberal arrogance and intolerance is so great that I think it is true that a surprisingly large number of economic conservatives who have no close personal relationship whatsoever to Religion and Family Values can see themselves supporting Rick Santorum against Barack Obama very easily. The Left is the aggressor in the culture wars, and most Americans are basically decent people who reflexively side with the victim against the bully.