Should conservative leaders be talking about social issues? Do conservative positions on these issues still appeal to Americans? Jeffrey Bell, author of The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, visited The Heritage Foundation on Friday to make the case that they do. His book discusses the fight for socially conservative values that has been going on since the 1960s as a result of the leftward cultural change in many institutions and the sexual revolution.
The first question to be addressed is why the left chose to start a social movement rather than focusing on other important issues. Bell notes:
They wanted it to be on economic issues. The people who led that movement were overwhelmingly Marxist in one way or another. But they didn’t succeed in rolling back capitalism anywhere…What did change was the cultural climate, the sexual revolution. Institutions that had resisted the left for decades, for hundreds of years in some cases basically gave over. A whole set of institutions that had resisted the left, and in this country had been wedded to the ideas of the Founding went over and became part of a basic social left movement.
Bell believes Obamacare’s anti-conscience mandate is just the most recent example of attempts to liberalize American culture on social issues. Bell believes that the timing of this mandate involves more than simply diverting attention away from the still struggling economy. In fact, this move goes to the core of what liberals believe.
They want every institution to either fit into the Sexual Revolution or get out of the way. And making the Catholic Church provide [abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization] is a way of rubbing their nose in it.
According to Bell, some claim that the American social conservative movement will eventually fizzle out, and the United States will go the way of countries such as Great Britain or Japan on social issues. Bell responds by arguing that the unique social conservative movement in the United States stems from a set of principles that are also uniquely American – our Founding Principles:
It occurred to me that there might be some underlying reason that doesn’t have to do with just the United States being more retro than Western Europe or Japan. And it strikes me that the reason that we have had a social conservative movement here is the values our Founding and also the circumstances in which the social conservative movement arose.
These same people who dismiss social conservatism often believe that the culture is already moving to the left. High divorce rates, the breakdown of the family, and less frequent church going, they claim, are signals that Americans are becoming more relative in their approach to social issues. How can a social conservative movement possibly flourish in a society that is seemingly headed in the wrong direction? Bell answers:
Social conservatism is inspirational. It is people who sense that there is just something out there that if they could just keep from being overwhelmed by the culture, that they could live better lives. That it would be better for [children] growing up if there were a husband and a wife in the home.
Liberals want people to believe that the conservative movement is a problem for today’s society. In reality, social conservatism is the solution to societal breakdown.
Bell comments in his book that social issues have historically been winning issues for conservatives:
When the choices to be made are fundamental, then political polarization renders a service to the electorate because if the choices are clearly stated by both sides, the electorate is better able to decide which direction to go in. I do think we have fundamental differences of that type now, and I think the electorate, if it wants to go in the direction of the left and the social revolution, then it needs to be told explicitly that this is what they’re doing.
Like or not, social issues have become an important topic in the political debate during the last month. As conservatives, it is important to remember that social issues are central to preserving the Principles of the Founding.
Ryan McNulty is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm