Let me set the stage thusly. Troy Senik excerpts Mike Murphy:
The Republican challenge is not about better voter-turnout software; it is about policy. We repel Latinos, the fastest-growing voter group in the country, with our nativist opposition to immigration reform that offers a path to citizenship. We repel younger voters, who are much more secular than their parents, with our opposition to same-sex marriage and our scolding tone on social issues. And we have lost much of our once solid connection to the middle class on kitchen-table economic issues.
Over on the thread about "anti-intellectualism" in the GOP, there's a full-blown debate pitting science vs. religion. One undercurrent there is that social conservatism = fundamentalist Christian = anti-science ignorance.
And finally, watch this admittedly inspiring video of Daniel Hannan, British conservative MEP, speaking at CPAC 2012 earlier this year:
Trust me; I'll connect the three.
So... here's what I'm wondering: what exactly does social conservatism mean in 21st century American politics? I ask because I think I'm a pretty doctrinaire libertarian and have become more and more hawkish in military terms, but I don't think I would qualify as a firm social conservative. (Though compared to Democrats, I'm probably seen as the equivalent of Glenn Beck.)
Does it mean an explicitly Christian movement that forces people like Rubio to nod towards creationist beliefs?
Does it mean an aesthetic movement that is simply rebelling against cultural innovations, like the S&M Club at Harvard? (In other words, a variant of the "Get a haircut, you hippie and get off my lawn" thing that is the privilege of older generations to level at the younger one. I imagine that George Washington's mother tut-tutted her son for his fancy wigs.)
Does it mean a focus on moral components of civilization, taking its cue from the Founders like Ben Franklin, who once said that only a virtuous people are capable of freedom?
I'll confess now that I never thought social conservatism included what Mike Murphy calls "nativist opposition" so I'll just leave that to the side.
The Religion Thing
While there is little doubt that SoCons and religion are mutually reinforcing, at least in recent years, I've seen very little from SoCons that suggest that they want to impose some sort of theocracy on the rest of America. Mainstream social conservatism, seems to me, is motivated by religion, but is not explicitly religious today. Are there fringe guys out there who actually do want a Biblical Republic? Yeah, but there are lots of guys who think 9/11 was an inside job, so...
In fact, environmentalists are far more explicitly religious than most Christians I've met in the GOP.
My take on where religious conservatives are today is that, much like gays of a generation ago, they just want respect and to be left alone. It's sort of a, "Hey, you may not approve of my lifestyle choice to go to church on Sunday, but I don't think that has any bearing on my ability to do this job." And you also have the whole, "Just because you don't like my lifestyle choice doesn't mean you can force me to pay for stuff I don't want to, like abortion for my employees."
But that's my take. I would like to hear more from religious conservatives about what social conservatism means to you.
The Aesthetic Angle
I do think, however, that many SoCons are also motivated by the aesthetics angle. Most of them are older, but not all. For them, contemporary American culture just seems to go from inane and silly to disgusting and vile.
For example, I've never met a fan of rap music at a conservative event. Paul Ryan admits to having AC/DC in his iPod, but I doubt he's got Notorious BIG and Snoop Dogg on it. Mark Steyn is famous for his love of Broadway and the pop standards of Tin Pan Alley, and I don't think he's particularly fond of progressive trance or dubstep.
And of course, the pornification of American culture is not to be countenanced.
There are other examples, of course, of this sort of soft-lit admiration of the past and distaste for contemporary culture, but... I'm not entirely sure. So you tell me, if you are a SoCon: how much of your social conservatism is motivated by aesthetics?
The Civic Virtue Thing
Finally, you have the civic virtue thing. This is the case that is most often made explicitly by all conservatives, even those like me.
A democracy simply cannot exist unless the citizens have certain pre-requisite virtues. People may disagree on what those virtues are, but most would agree that faith, industriousness, and charity are among them.
Social conservatism then is not necessarily about telling other people how to live, but about preserving the foundational moral codes that underlie a free democratic society.
I find this the most attractive and most convincing angle, but ... again, I'd love to hear from actual SoCons how much of your activism/beliefs are really motivated by preserving civic virtue as opposed to religious beliefs or aesthetics.
Mike Murphy, Daniel Hannan, and the Institutions
Why does any of this matter?
Because Daniel Hannan repeatedly makes the point that culture isn't some inchoate thing that sits "out there" like a fog. He believes that institutions create culture. He attributes American culture to its institutions, specifically to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
At one point he says in the speech that if we allow our institutions to become Europeanized, then Americans will behave just like the French.
I find that compelling. Are we not seeing exactly this play out in our elite coastal cities and on our college campuses?
In contrast, Mike Murphy's view appears to be that if Republicans stop repelling Latinos and young secular people, we'd be fine. There are plenty of other voices after Romneycalypse 2012 that are calling for dialing down the whole social conservatism thing.
But to what point? If Hannan is correct, then Ben Franklin had it backwards. It's not that only virtuous people are capable of freedom; rather, it is that freedom creates virtuous people.
A century of Progressive politics transforming our political, educational, and cultural institutions has meant that Americans are now more like the French than they are like the Pilgrims. So if we do as Murphy suggests, does that give us the ability to reverse the transformation of our institutions?
I'm not sure. Certainly, without victory, we can do nothing but whinge. But victory at the cost of continuing the transformation of American institutions into European ones does not strike me as particularly useful in the long run.
A Thought for Social Conservatives
So let me come at last to a possible suggestion for both the Republican Party and the social conservatives.
Perhaps what is needed, especially if Daniel Hannan is correct, is a focus not on behavior, but on institutions. Maybe our notion that civic virtues lead to better institutions is wrong; maybe, it's that better institutions will lead to civic virtues. Maybe restoring the Constitution as much as we could would naturally lead to a more moral, more just, and more aesthetically pleasing society, rather than the other way around?
The institution we may be able to restore at least partway back to Constitutional framework, and the one that would most protect and most benefit the interests of social conservatives, is federalism. Hannan spoke of it admiringly, and for good reason.
Perhaps the way forward is to end every one of our political statements with, "Restore the 10th Amendment." And by decentralizing power, the goals and aims of social conservatives may be fulfilled far easier.
What do you think? Does that strike you as too much of a "keep quiet" thing? Because that is not my intent at all. I meant it more as a "If you'll respect our lifestyle over here, then we'll respect yours... over there" thing.