Imagine The Republican Party With No Social Conservatives

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
Font Size:

Imagine no social conservatives in the Republican Party. It’s easy if you try.

You may say North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, one of the lawmakers who caused Republicans to cave on late-term abortion legislation the day before the March for Life, is a dreamer. But she’s not the only one. Lots of Republican consultants and donors feel the same way.

Why? Many Republican bigwigs are more secular, socially liberal and Northeastern than most of the party’s voters. That’s even more true of the political press that helps form their biases. They all come into regular contact with people who say some version of the following: “I’m fiscally conservative but socially liberal. I’d like to vote Republican, but those religious right crazies scare the hell out of me.”

In the Beltway and the business class, there are plenty of people who fit that description. Anecdotally, however, I find that when you press such putative would-be Republicans, they’re not very conservative on non-social issues either. They won’t back spending cuts of any consequence or divisive legislation of any kind. They just are uncomfortable self-identifying as liberals or partisan Democrats.

Nevertheless, it’s the pipe dream of many a Republican to build a fiscally conservative party that isn’t distracted by social issues. And while few GOP strategists who feel this way would say so out loud, some of them see it as a way to cope with a diversifying electorate by unifying white voters.

After all, if you are interested in minority outreach, the plain fact is minority voters tend to be at least somewhat more socially conservative than fiscally conservative (though minority social conservatism can be exaggerated and Asian-Americans might be an exception). Percentage-wise, Latinos are more likely to be pro-life than to be for Medicare vouchers.

But it might make a bit more sense to ditch social issues if you are more worried about white voters. States where white voters agree on values questions can remain Republican even with a large minority population (think Mississippi, which is 37 percent black). States where white voters disagree on values questions and barely vote Republican while having a large minority population are Democratic strongholds (think California, which is 38 percent Hispanic).

New York City in the 1990s is the model. With social issues off the table — or more precisely, crime and welfare being the main social issues instead of gay marriage and abortion — Rudy Giuliani was able to win in a diverse, historically liberal place.

But the United States isn’t New York City, at least not yet. At the national level, Republicans are making their major inroads with downscale or working-class whites. Aside from supporting the Keystone pipeline and opposing environmental regulations that kill blue-collar jobs, the Republican economic message doesn’t really speak to them. That’s why they didn’t turn out for Mitt Romney. The party’s social conservatism does.

In 2004, white evangelicals accounted for one-third of the votes cast for George W. Bush. That happens to be the last presidential election Republicans won and the only one of the last five where they prevailed in the popular vote. If you abandon social conservatism, who are you going to replace those voters with?

Ted Cruz is probably wrong to think Republicans can successfully run every election like 2004. After all, that was more than ten years ago. But he’s indisputably right that there are more evangelicals and conservative base voters than there are truly persuadable swing voters. Karl Rove got that right too. The notion that there are legions of fiscally conservative, socially liberal independents willing to vote GOP is largely a myth.

When the Republican Party actually looked more like the socially liberal GOPers envision, it won more House seats in places like Massachusetts. But it also held far fewer congressional seats overall and was in the minority in the House for forty years. They only won the presidency when they could nominate a general who won World War II and the man who was his vice president.

Social conservatives were an indispensable part of the coalition that won the Senate in 1980, all of Congress in 1994, the presidency three times and today’s congressional majorities.

Even a lot of economic and fiscal conservatism is really social conservatism. The tea party is more animated by the Protestant work ethic than Ayn Rand. Even Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama tip their hats to the values of people who work hard and play by the rules.

That doesn’t mean that social conservatives, as distinct from social conservatism, can’t be preachy and off-putting. It’s probably not helpful to have candidates who seem overly critical of voters’ lifestyle choices, unless said choices cost taxpayers money, or obsessed with Beyonce’s bare derriere.

Right now you have a Republican leadership awkwardly trying to communicate conservative social values they don’t really believe in, like parents trying to bond with their teenaged children by using dated slang, and more principled but politically ineffective social conservatives like Todd Akin trying to overcompensate for them.

But a Republican Party without social conservatives would wake up like George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” (A pro-life movie, by the way.) Its majorities would never be born.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.