The Moral Minority: Should Republicans Stop Preaching And Win?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Yesterday, I wrote about how the GOP is in the process of sawing off the social conservative leg of the three-legged stool. Today — in the form of this quote from Republican strategist Alex Castellanos in Time — I present Exhibit B:

“Increasingly, there is less room in the GOP for ‘big-government’ social conservatives, i.e., social conservatives who believe in using the power of the state to tell people whom they can love or marry. Instead, there is growing agreement, in an ever younger and increasingly libertarian Republican party, that the role of the state in prohibiting relationships should be minimized.”

(Note: In terms of analysis, it’s hard to say he’s wrong. Castellanos is, in fact, accurately describing today’s GOP. And, in fairness, he prefaced his remarks by saying, “The GOP is a culturally conservative party and should remain so” — an opening that seemed to contradict the rest of his remarks. I hate to pick on him, since he is specifically talking about one aspect of the culture war. But for the sake of an interesting discussion, let’s unpack this, a bit, and think about the implications of all of this. Because I suspect his argument will be extrapolated as the cultural trends continue to shift and libertarianism becomes even more fashionable on the right.)

Here’s the problem: Much of what passes for public policy is based on someone imposing their values or morals or judgment on someone else. Even laws which deal with “whom they can love or marry,” such as age of consent, prohibitions on polygamy, etc., remain uncontroversial. For now.

It’s cute that Castellanos refers to “big government” social conservatism, but here’s the truth: The question isn’t whether or not values influence laws, but rather, whose values will influence the law. For example, today’s political climate means an allegation of campus rape is more likely to outrage us than our president using a drone to kill an American abroad. My point is not to diminish the seriousness of the former, but to point out that this is relativistic — that both sides insert their values into public policy decisions. In the long run, conservatives can leave the culture wars alone, but will the culture wars leave us alone?

Since most laws are based on values, some of which seem arbitrary (why is .07 legal, but .08 is not?), the implications of a “Who are we to judge?” mentality is intellectually dangerous. Even the prohibition of horrific acts like rape and murder that we, as a society, view as malum in se — things that are obviously evil and should be prohibited — could plausibly be viewed as the imposition of someone else’s values or morals or religious views on others.

To get around this trap, many libertarians hew to something called the Non-Aggression Principle — which sounds good in theory, but which opens its own pandora’s box of ethical conundrums. Similarly, some conservatives stress a federalism position, which argues that these sorts of decisions ought to be decided by the state and local government. While I am sympathetic to these points, one can’t help but suspect the recent popularity of the latter has more to do with escapism than it does with state sovereignty or the principle of subsidiarity.

Politics is messy, and there seems to be no easy way around having to make tough choices that will offend someone.

That’s because, ultimately, politics is about choices and, yes, values — it’s about standing for things and saying that certain things are more valuable than others — and other things are to be discouraged.

At least, the politicians and movements capable of exciting and inspiring people realize this. And while we might agree that a strong Republican Party should stand for free markets, lower taxes, and a strong national defense, the notion that one might simply eschew the uncomfortable cultural issues strikes me as more cowardice than pragmatic.

I’m not suggesting the Republican Party should be the pro-gay marriage party or the anti-gay marriage party. But I am suggesting that instead of grappling with this policy question, Republicans are reverse engineering their entire governing philosophy, in order to suit the times and the public. This is the opposite of leading. They’ve determined that they have lost on one cultural issue, so they are rethinking the fundamental question of whether or not it’s even appropriate for government to even care about such cultural institutions.

So where does this end up? The Republican Party, I suppose, can become the sterile and technocratic party that stresses competence over values — the party that makes the Metro run on time (wait, they wouldn’t do that, either!). Or it could become an Ayn Rand-esque “money” party for anyone who cares about cutting spending and taxes (though, let’s be honest, the Gordon Gekko image doesn’t work much better than the Jerry Falwell stereotype).

… Ah, but there’s a problem! As I stated earlier, a lot of public policy decisions are values-based, which means Republicans would essentially be ceding moral issues to the Democrats. Democrats see all sorts of issues — gender equality, abortion rights, equal pay, global warming — as moral issues. As conservative leader Morton Blackwell says “Moral outrage is the most powerful motivating force in politics.” Republicans might find themselves the right side of logic and reason, but on the wrong side of emotion. And people don’t tend to turn out to vote in high numbers for abstract philosophical positions, so much as for deep and personal moral reasons (whether or not they call it that or admit it to themselves.)

But if feels like this is where things are headed. There has been a lot of talk recently about the need for the GOP to present coherent, if wonky, policy proposals. The notion is that a party has to be for something (not just against Obama). But one gets the sense that these conservatives are more interested in fleshing out technical details about an earned income tax credit than wrestling with any fundamental moral questions (granted, even economic public policy questions are, at some level, moral questions — which sort of proves my point, doesn’t it?).

I’m arguably less concerned with what the GOP stands for than with the notion it should essentially stand for nothing — an ironic fate for a Republican Party whose raison d’être was premised on taking a firm stand on the divisive and significant moral issue of the day.