Jeff Bell: Don’t Knock Social Conservatism

James Taranto has a fascinating interview with legendary supply sider Jeffrey Bell in this weekend’s WSJ. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s an excerpt:

Social conservatism, Mr. Bell argues in his forthcoming book, “The Case for Polarized Politics,” has a winning track record for the GOP. “Social issues were nonexistent in the period 1932 to 1964,” he observes. “The Republican Party won two presidential elections out of nine, and they had the Congress for all of four years in that entire period. . . . When social issues came into the mix—I would date it from the 1968 election . . . the Republican Party won seven out of 11 presidential elections.”

The Democrats who won, including even Barack Obama in 2008, did not play up social liberalism in their campaigns. In 1992 Bill Clinton was a death-penalty advocate who promised to “end welfare as we know it” and make abortion “safe, legal and rare.” Social issues have come to the fore on the GOP side in two of the past six presidential elections—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.”

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.”

One of the more interesting points Bell makes later on is that the Tea Party’s brand of populist fiscal conservatism is more friendly to social conservatism than one might expect, primarily because of an equal emphasis on natural law. It’s an intriguing concept, and I look forward to reading Bell’s book.

  1. Tom Meyer

    I’d feel more comfortable with this analysis if Santorum hadn’t made it clear that he considers libertarianism his enemy:

    Last June:

    I am not a Libertarian and I fight very strongly against Libertarian influence within the Republican party and the Conservative movement. I don’t think the libertarians have it right about what the constitution is all about.  I don’t think they have it right about what our history is. 

    And 2005:

    One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. You know, the left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they touch each other. They come around in the circle. This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. 

  2. Tom Meyer

    The wonder of the Tea Party is that social conservatives and libertarians renewed the fusionist alliance, as libertarians and social conservatives set aside their differences to unite against Obama’s Leviathan.  Santorum represents the rejection of that partnership.

  3. liberal jim

    The idea that moral and economic ideas can can be divorced is nonsense. Only establishment Republicans fail to grasp this.  Progressives argue their big government socialism is moral and free market capitalism immoral.   Classic liberals( true limited government conservatives) argue the opposite.  The argument between Libertarians and “social conservatives” is about when the law is the proper instrument to enforce morality.  Establishment Republicans have been conceding the moral argument to progressive for so long they no longer realize there is an argument going on.  The Republican Party by refusing to engage progressives on moral grounds have done more harm than the progressives.  ”Conservatives don’t care about the poor” is a moral not and economic argument.  Someday the GOP may wake up, but I doubt it.

  4. cbc

    I agree that conservatives do not agree with the perfectly autonomous individual.  They are not libertarians in that sense.  But they also believe (and have from the days of Williams and Locke) that social control of individuals should not come from the government.  It should come from other institutions of civil society — like their churches, their families, their fraternal organizations.  None of these institutions can use force against individuals.

    What worries me about Santorum is that he may believe that government should impose its “moral” codes.  Is that the case? 

  5. Peter Robinson
    C

    Drat, Ben, you beat me too it; I was going to post on this interview with Jeff Bell.

    Fascinating, just as you say.

  6. James Of England
    cbc: I agree that conservatives do not agree with the perfectly autonomous individual.  They are not libertarians in that sense….

    What worries me about Santorum is that he may believe that government should impose its “moral” codes.  Is that the case? 

    He’s been touting his support for title X lately, which I think is a pretty effective argument against his being overly interventionist. Set against that, the top “issue” on the “issues” page of his website is about prosecuting pornographers and he promised in October that he’d talk about the harm contraception does to the country and called it an important public policy issue.

    In the past, Santorum has been a truly great campaigner for social conservatism and the Republican party. The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act brilliantly reduced abortions, helped other pro-life legislation pass in the states, and got republicans elected.  Santorum’s leadership on the serious social issues would be a great boon to the party. We’ll see over the next few months how good he is at not talking about the losing trivial issues (or, more charitably, important issues that he can’t do much about as President).

  7. Ben Domenech
    C
    Peter Robinson: Drat, Ben, you beat me too it;I was going to post on this interview with Jeff Bell.

    Fascinating, just as you say. · 43 minutes ago

    You made up for it by posting that NYT Mag Nate Silver piece!

  8. Andrew Quinn

    Without speaking specifically to the thesis that campaigning on social issues is always good politics, I think much of Bell’s point speaks to the deep fallacy that obtains in liberals’ distaste for focusing on moral questions (I tried to unpack this the other day over on the College feed).

    The same liberals who constantly implore the most productive Americans to put ethics (specifically, the ethics of self-sacrifice) ahead of economic considerations do not hesitate to denigrate as reactionary rubes any American voters who do just that – prize their moral compass more highly than their finances.

    We’re promising you a big basket of governmental goodies, and you still vote your moral principles? You really don’t know what’s good for you, do you?! 

    How empty. And how condescending.

  9. Jerry Broaddus
    Tom Meyer:

    In the Last June paragraph, replace “libertarian” with “Ron Paul”.

    The And 2005 paragraph does not exist at the link provided. Did you just make that up? Or did you provide the wrong link? The text strings “libertarian” and “personal autonomy” are not used in the link.

  10. Eric Rasmusen

     The value of social conservatives to winning elections is particularly interesting when contrasted with how little the winning Republican  presidents have done for them in return.

  11. Ed G.
    Tom Meyer: I’d feel more comfortable with this analysis if Santorum hadn’t made it clear that he considers libertarianism his enemy:…..

    Much depends on what you mean by “libertarian” and on whether the level of governmental unit plays at all into Santorum’s views.

    Based on my interactions with self-described libertarians, many dont seem to acknowledge the that a potential tyranny of the individual is a problem to be reckoned with. If any such thing as a community is acknowledged, it doesn’t go much beyond a mere collection of individuals living in close proximity; community must remain private, toothless in its lack of formal authority.

    Not all libertarians think this way. It’s getting to the point, though, that the label is just as meaningless describing political views as the term rock and roll is describing music genres. But if we’re talking about those who deny communal rights altogether then I think Santorum is correct that such a view is just as wrong as the top down statism of the left for those of us who believe that community is a desirable and legitimate extension and expression of natural individual rights.

  12. Crow
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Douglas

     Todays libertarians are mostly libertines that want low taxes. They want “government to stay out of their business” because vice is a virtue to them. Abortion, drug use, gay marriage, polygamy… all have strong support among libertarians. They’ve completely rejected the argument that the virtue of a society and it’s civic and economic health are in any way related. In this, they’re simply no different from Democrats.  

    Oh yes, Mollie Hemingway, that abortion-lovin’, God hatin’, polyamorous crack-fiend. No different from a democrat, she is.

    Better add Charles Murray and Jonah Goldberg to the list….

    In fairness, Douglas, I agree that there are some people who identify as libertarians who are libertines, but I think you’re painting with far too broad a brush.

  13. Andrew Quinn
    Eric Rasmusen:  The value of social conservatives to winning elections is particularly interesting when contrasted with how little the winning Republican  presidents have done for them in return.

    Really?

    Resistance to embryonic stem cell research culminating in a courageous veto of the SCREA, appointment of Roberts and (though it took way more prodding than it should have from the base) Alito, signature on a federal law banning partial-birth “abortion,” Mexico City Policy, signed Laci’s And Conner’s Law. . .

    Insofar as I am socially conservative I will take Bush 43′s record on those issues eight days a week.

  14. Tom Meyer

    Jerry,

    As Greg said, the transcript is not complete, though Santorum absolutely states that in the interview, starting at the 1’00″ mark. I’ve no idea why NPR didn’t transcribe it.

    As to the other comments, if Santorum means to single-out Ron Paul and Objectivism for criticism, then he should do so explicitly. For the record, I’d provably agree with many of those  criticisms.

  15. David Limbaugh
    C

    This is a fascinating subject and one that has intrigued me for some time as I’ve feared potential schisms in the conservative movement, or should I say “on the right?” I understand the concern some people have about Santorum’s emphasis on social issues and I’ve watched some of the clips wherein he appears to be taking issue with Libertarians. I think all he is saying is that he doesn’t want Libertarians to be the dominant force in the conservative movement; not that he wants them out of the movement. I happen to believe that most Tea Partiers — not all — also happen to be sympathetic to social conservative concerns, though the TP’s driving emphasis is on fiscal issues and constitutional ones. I just think Santorum is a guy who is a strong social conservative; it’s who he is and he is open about it. I don’t believe he wants Libertarians out of the big tent. I’m sure he doesn’t. I also don’t believe they have any reason to be too concerned about his policies — he’s not a theocrat — except possibly those who agree with Ron Paul on foreign policy.

  16. Lucy Pevensie

    I saw this article on RealClearPolitics, arguing that while social conservatism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Santorum’s social conservatism is too extreme for him to be electable.  I have no idea whether or not that is true, but I do worry.   If I weren’t already sympathetic to social conservatism in general, or if I hadn’t spent a lot of my twenties around devout Roman Catholics, I might find the idea of electing a guy who didn’t approve of contraception somewhat bizarre and scary.   I think Professor Rahe is right; we are going to have to see how well he can calm people’s fears about him going forward, before we figure out whether he can be an effective candidate.

  17. David Limbaugh
    C
    Lucy Pevensie: I saw this article on RealClearPolitics, arguing that while social conservatism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Santorum’s social conservatism is too extreme for him to be electable.  I have no idea whether or not that is true, but I do worry.   If I weren’t already sympathetic to social conservatism in general, or if I hadn’t spent a lot of my twenties around devout Roman Catholics, I might find the idea of electing a guy who didn’t approve of contraception somewhat bizarre and scary.   I think Professor Rahe is right; we are going to have to see how well he can calm people’s fears about him going forward, before we figure out whether he can be an effective candidate. · 16 minutes ago

    People may be nervous but in fact Santorum said he would not try to impose his views on contraception through public policy, so I don’t know what all the hype is about, other than that is so easy to demonize outspoken Christian conservatives these days.

  18. Mothership_Greg
    James Of England

    Again, I know most presidents don’t talk about those things, and maybe people don’t want us to talk about those things, but I think it’s important that you are who you are. I’m not running for preacher. I’m not running for pastor, but these are important public policy issues. These have profound impact on the health of our society.

    Korbe says that he would end federal funding for contraception, which is at odds with his current defense that he supported it in Congress. I support him wanting to end it, but I don’t think it’s an example of his being inactive; ending funding is the Constitutional maximum of his actions, and probably the political maximum, too. · 6 hours ago

    Fair point, saying he’s voted in the past for Title X and saying he’ll end federal funding for contraception are at odds. Not sure if “imposing his views” is how I’d describe stopping funding to Planned Parenthood, but I guess other people might call it that.

  19. liberal jim
    Douglas

    liberal jim: The idea that moral and economic ideas can can be divorced is nonsense. Only establishment Republicans fail to grasp this.  

    Sorry, but it’s the Libertarians that fail to grasp this. They’re the ones saying things like “I didn’t vote out Democrats to get a theocracy”. They are diametrically opposed to social conservatism. Again, let me re-iterate, today’s libertarians are not the same breed of cat as yesterday’s libertarians. Todays libertarians are mostly libertines that want low taxes. They want “government to stay out of their business” because vice is a virtue to them. 

    Nice try but calling Libertarians names doesn’t refute my claim.  When was the last time the GOP made a moral argument about the Dems?  Dems routinely do so against the GOP.  Why are even the most staunch supporters of partial birth abortion(infanticide) always referred to as misguided and never evil?   While Speaker B and Cantor are called demons?  The establishment GOP needs to wake up!

  20. Leporello
    Tom Meyer: The wonder of the Tea Party is that social conservatives and libertarians renewed the fusionist alliance, as libertarians and social conservatives set aside their differences to unite against Obama’s Leviathan.  Santorum represents the rejection of that partnership. · 22 hours ago

    Seeing as libertarians sat on their hands or voted for the other side in 2008 because they were in a tizzy about the Patriot Act, Gitmo, and the Iraq War was not “setting aside their differences” and uniting with conservatives against a common enemy.  They might have seen – it was obvious from his voting record and his policy proposals – that Obama represented the worst threat to our liberties since FDR and LBJ.  I don’t remember libertarians declaring that Obama was the biggest threat in two generations; they were blinded by their opposition to Bush.  They might at least have acknowledged, as Thomas Sowell did on Mr. Robinson’s “Uncommon Knowledge,” that while McCain would be “a disaster” as president, Obama would be “a catastrophe.”  It’s rich now to hear libertarians claim they are uniters and conservatives are the dividers.  (In sum, “Splitters!”)