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Books and Culture

Herbert London
Social Conservatism’s Staying Power
A philosophy that the Right must not abandon
April 27, 2012

The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Need Social Conservatism, by Jeffrey Bell (Encounter, 322 pp., $25.95)

I recently attended a political meeting in New York City at which the people tended to identify themselves as “fiscal conservatives and social liberals.” They argued that conservatives should focus on the nation’s economic challenges while either ignoring or downplaying social issues. It’s a point of view shared by Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, among others. When he was considering a presidential run, Daniels memorably told an interviewer that the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues.”

But in The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, Jeffrey Bell argues that social conservatism is uniquely and idiosyncratically American, emerging from basic principles of our national politics, and that it would be ill-advised for those on the libertarian right to try to make it go away. Social conservatives remain a key constituency in the Republican Party; socially conservative principles continue to come to the fore in public debate; and social issues have helped Republicans more than hurt them at the polls. In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan argued in an address to Protestant clergymen that people of faith should unapologetically defend their values in the public square. Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee, castigated the president for inserting religion into politics and compared him with an “ayatollah.” Yet in the two months after the speech was delivered, Reagan took a huge lead in the polls that he never relinquished.

Four years later, GOP strategist Lee Atwater persuaded George Bush to highlight his disagreement with Michael Dukakis on a variety of social issues, helping turn Bush’s deficit in the polls into a resounding triumph: an eight-point winning margin in the popular vote and victories in 40 states. The 1988 election set the stage for further social activism within the Republican Party. More recently, President George W. Bush argued that the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence were universal, a position held by most American social conservatives; the Left, unrelenting in its battle against traditionalism, detested him for it. Bush served two terms. As Bell notes, Republicans who shift to the left on social issues won’t simply alienate the substantial number of Americans who remain committed to our founding precepts; they’ll also make political enemies of the many recent immigrants who are socially conservative.

The book’s thesis—that Republicans who embrace social conservatism can win, and that social conservatism is in keeping with American tradition—is a useful one in this political season. Bell holds that the narrative of the nation is tied inextricably to religious influences. To deny these influences comes with a hefty political price; to embrace them requires courage, but in the end, they foster respect for the national purpose. As Bell sees it, America needs social conservatives, even if their presence leads to polarization.

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