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Is It Time for the GOP to Scale Back on Social Issues?

Posted: June 15, 2015 at 4:20 pm   /   by

I read with keen interest the results of a recent poll:

But those willing to take part in the poll did more than choose their favorite for the GOP nomination. They also answered a question about which issues they found most pressing, and the results bear further review.

To be sure, most of the conference attendees were dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed identified themselves as members of the National Rifle Association or Gun Owners of America. Forty-two percent aligned themselves with the tea party. More than one in three said they were members of the Family Research Council or the Christian Coalition. One-fourth said they were or considered themselves to be members of National Right to Life or Susan B. Anthony’s list.

And yet when they were asked by Sooner Poll to choose which issues were most important to them, 46 percent — nearly half — said national security issues such as ISIS, Israel and Russia.

Next on the list were economic issues such as taxes, government spending and job creation.

Bringing up the bottom were social issues such as gun rights, school prayer, same-sex marriage and abortion, which were cited by 14 percent of those surveyed.

That does not mean that these issues don’t matter to some—perhaps even many—conservatives. But they may not matter nearly as much as other issues. And yet . . .

This is an interesting result, because Republican candidates generally spend an inordinate amount of time trying to assure members of the GOP base that they share their concerns over social issues. [ . . . ]

In October 2011, The New York Times wrote about a major conservative event in Washington, D.C., where Romney focused on the economy but where “he also felt compelled to reiterate that he was in sync with social conservatives as he ran through his positions on abortion, marriage, judicial appointments and religious values.”

Like it or not, this country has moved leftwards on a number of social issues. Strikingly, however, there aren’t really that many of them. School prayer is not on many people’s radar. The abortion debate continues to be a toxic battle between defenders of mutually exclusive rights (though if anything, pro-lifers have been winning the issue, albeit marginally, over the last few decades). The big issue where social conservatives are fighting—and losing—is on the marriage issue. Increasingly, Americans either support the right of same-sex couples to marry or simply don’t care very much either way. Those who don’t care are going to default to the side favoring expanding the definition of marriage . . . you know, because: fairness.

Conservatives have the winning argument on issues of economics and governance, and there are large swaths of people who agree on those points, but who are put off by the GOP’s social conservative agenda. Perhaps the media’s portrayal of that agenda has been unfair, but it does not matter—they are put off.

But if the poll is accurate—if even the GOP’s own voters don’t care nearly as much about social issues—then perhaps the author’s suggestion that candidates would be wise to de-emphasize those issues is a good one.

Of course, there is an alternative that would allow for a continued focus on social issues for those who care deeply about them: Seek to change the culture rather than use the government as the enforcer of various social positions. Back in 2012, I laid out a conceptual blueprint for how that could be accomplished:


Can social conservatives and the GOP break up but stay friends?

| November 14 2012

Over the next few weeks and months, we will read and hear more quo vadimus (“where are we going?”) discussions in the conservative movement than we know what to do with. Every commentator, pundit, and rank-and-filer with even passing involvement in the movement will have an opinion. Or several opinions simultaneously. Roads to our recovery will lead through Gethsemane, Damascus, and the Norway Maelstrom. Some will call for unity, some will call for reflection and retrenchment, and others still will call for redirecting the movement’s energies away from some goals and towards others.

One of the most frequent suggestions we are likely to hear—and indeed, that we are already hearing—is that the movement should accept changing demographics and cultural norms and move away from its focus on traditionally “social conservative” policy positions. Others will argue that this is folly—that the social conservatives are a large component of the conservative base, one that the movement cannot do without.

Sarah Westwood’s article Advice From a Lonely College Republican in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal (HT: HotAir) makes the former argument. Since she is a young person, her piece serves as an excellent followup to our post on Ron Paul supporters, young people, and the future of the GOP. Her prescription is going to be bitterly received by many, but it is a prescription she is not alone in making.

She begins . . .

If the election results told us anything, it’s that the GOP has some serious soul searching to do. On paper, Mitt Romney’s history of accomplishment towered over President Obama’s train wreck of a record, so his loss seemed nearly inexplicable. But Mr. Obama carried his key groups so easily that Republicans should give him props for such a feat— and start taking notes.

In politics, as in life, perception is key. The Chicago machine and the Democratic National Committee as a whole have perfected the art of marketing, even when they’ve got nothing to sell. They’re like a used-car salesman who pushes lemons on unsuspecting drivers and never gets caught. Democrats can home in on Latinos, blacks, single women, young voters—and have them chanting “Four more years!” before they know what hit them.

I happen to be one of the latter, a college student at a time when youth is a hot political commodity. Most kids my age bristle at the word “conservative,” and I don’t blame them. The right has done nothing to welcome young people.

If Republicans hope to win in 2016 and beyond, they need to change everything about the way they sell themselves. They’re viewed by the 18-24 set as the “party of the rich” and as social bigots. That harsh, flawed opinion could be rectified if Republicans started presenting their positions in a different way. The GOP is like a supermodel who has been doing photo shoots under fluorescent bulbs without any makeup. But fix the lighting, dab on some foundation and highlight her good side, and she can take the most attractive picture.

If you go on to read the rest (as you should), you will discover her prescription: the GOP (and the conservative movement, writ large) needs to “break up” with evangelicals/social conservatives.

I have been deeply steeped in the conservative movement for over a decade, and I can tell you, though this election is now causing this prescription to be issued more forcefully and in more quarters, there has long been a highly vocal faction perpetually calling for this very thing . . . and an equally vocal and passionate faction who would resist any such move bitterly. Of all the possible “civil wars” that people are talking about within the movement, this is a biggie. It has the potential to drive a major wedge between big elements of the movement.

But it doesn’t have to.

In the midst of all the polarized arguments we will now start having in earnest on this subject, I would like to posit that there may be a third choice. Maybe it doesn’t have to be either-or. Maybe we can have our cake and eat it too.

Let us, just for the sake of argument right now, stipulate that the social issues are proving to be a drag on the GOP’s ability to attract young people and other voters in a changing cultural environment. What does the GOP do about this? I see five possible pathways. The first four present some major problems. Is it possible, though, that the fifth offers us a way out of this conundrum?


1. Drop the social issues

We have been hearing this call for years, and it’s getting louder now. The reason it hasn’t happened so far is simple: Social conservatives are huge in number and they have been an integral part of the coalition for decades. From the end of the 1970s (earlier, if you start with the fusionism of the 1950s) through today, the conservative movement dropping social conservatism would have been the equivalent of cutting off one of its limbs. It would have resulted in electoral loss and chaos, if not total collapse.

Has that changed today? Are there now enough “fiscal-conservative-social-liberal” voters and young people who would stream into the party to replace the tens of millions of social conservatives who would be alienated by such a shift? Supporters of the idea say there are, but are there? Even if there are, it would be chaotic and the adjustment period would almost certainly involve spending time in the electoral wilderness. And 30 million social conservatives would feel politically homeless for the first time in many years.


2. Change they way they present their positions on social issues

The GOP has a serious marketing problem. Whether it be social issues or core positions on government and economics, the conservative movement has long been pretty lousy at selling itself. Yes, it has the harder argument to make. It has to appeal to thought rather than emotion. Its tough-love prescriptions are better for human life, but many people only see the “tough” part in a society that has become increasingly focused on being “nice” at all costs. But even taking these impediments into account, the movement has done a pretty poor job selling its ideas to the masses.

Perhaps social conservatives could still find a way to present their issues in a way that appeals to more people. That seems like a difficult task, however, for a movement that was never very good at it to begin with, and that is now operating in an environment where fewer people are sympathetic to these social positions than ever before.


3. Change the culture itself so that social issues are more attractive

The culture itself has been sliding away from social conservatism—sliding leftwards, if you will—for decades. If the culture were to move back in the other direction, then social conservatism would become more attractive because the societal environment would be more favorable to it.

The problem with this solution should be obvious: conservatives have virtually no influence over the culture. The left has hegemonic control over most of the mechanisms for disseminating information and packaged cultural products (media, academia, entertainment). Over the last 10 years, conservatives have really started an effort to make progress on this front, but the day when that progress has reached the point of widespread influence is still a ways off.


4. Double-down

The movement, of course, could stay the course: Insist that the social conservative positions are the right positions for people and society, and fight for them harder than ever.

The notion that social conservative positions are better for people and society is not without merit.

Marriage is clearly better. The statistics are unmistakable: Married people are healthier; make more money; have happier lives; produce more wealth; commit less crime; enjoy a higher standard of living; and more successfully raise children. Single parenthood—as much as we honor and respect single parents for the difficult task with which they are saddled—is the single-greatest predictor of marginal behavior and failure in the children and adult children of such homes.

And on the abortion front, whatever one thinks about the merits of the legality of abortion, there is something deeply horrifying about a society that is aborting its children at the rate of a million a year.

No doubt social conservatives could make many more arguments to support the double-down position. Whether it would work or not is an open question, especially given that society appears to be headed in another direction. The counter argument is, of course, that we’ve already tried this approach, and we’ve lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. The aphoristic definition of insanity—trying the same thing and expecting different results—will no doubt be cited by those favoring a move away from social conservatism.

But perhaps there is a different way out . . .


5. Private social conservatism

Okay, now stick with me here . . .

If you were to boil down the characteristics of the political left and right to their most essential cores, they would be these:

The Left sees a social question and asks, What can government do about this?

The Right sees a social question and asks, What can the civil society (individuals, families, communities, private organizations) do about this?

The ideology of the right, properly understood, is one in which government is seen as a last resort, to be used only when there is a market failure, or for things that private entities cannot or will not do. And even then, the solution should always be undertaken by the most local branch of government possible. So, with that understanding . . .

 . . . why is social conservatism so wrapped up with government? 

Has the civil society become so weak that we are no longer able to determine the course of our own culture, our own lives, our own civilization, without involving the heavy hand of government? Has statist thinking so infiltrated our society that even we conservatives cannot easily conceive of solutions outside the state?

I believe that the solution to the question we are exploring here may lie in reinvigorating the civil society, and starting a movement of private, civil social conservatism. Granted, as stated in number 3 above, conservatives’ ability to influence the culture through mainstream media and entertainment is still limited. But there are plenty of other channels in the civil society, channels that could be strengthened even more if we turn our focus away from government and back to the power that we, the people, have to govern the course of our own lives.

A lot of people just want the government to stay out of people’s personal lives, and they see any social conservative involvement in lobbying for government policies as an attempt to get government to exercise social control. The facts are, of course, significantly different: The left is attempting to get government to change certain long-standing social norms, and the social right are reacting by fighting back against those policies. Social conservatives are not the aggressors in the culture wars—they are defending ground, not trying to take new ground.

But most people do not see it that way. Again, largely because of the left’s excellent marketing and the right’s ineffectual attempts to defend itself against being wrongly branded, the social right has now been painted as the aggressors in the culture war, as the “mean” people who are trying to take away people’s rights. That perception is not going away any time soon, if at all.

So then, we must ask—what is the social right’s endgame? Is it to make society a better place, with people holding to better values? Or is it to get government to make that happen? Because I’ve got to say, the government approach doesn’t appear to be working out.


On abortion . . .

The social right has been fighting to overturn Roe for 40+ years, and all we’ve had is 40 million abortions during that time. How much longer until Roe gets overturned, if ever? How many more abortions will take place between now and then? And then, even if Roe is overturned, the decision simply reverts to the states. How many states would outlaw abortion entirely? How many more abortions would continue to take place? This legal fight is getting the movement nowhere.

But you know what has worked? Ultrasounds. Private crisis pregnancy centers. A shift in consciousness spurred by a vigorous evangelical movement, and by the unwavering support of life by the Catholic Church. No, these things haven’t reduced the number of abortions nearly enough, but they have changed the culture: more people are now calling themselves pro-life than have in many decades. That hasn’t happened because of efforts to get government to change—that has happened because of private efforts to get people to change.

So why stop there? Like it or not, abortion is a nearly insoluble question because it involves mutually exclusive natural rights. If the right of the fetus to life is protected, then the right of a women to exercise control over a process taking place in her body is violated. If the woman’s right to exercise that control is respected, then the fetus’ right is terminally violated. Now, you and I may believe that the voiceless, defenseless fetus has the better claim, but that doesn’t change the fact that this issue is going to remain poisonous and nearly insoluble because of the conflict of rights. And in that climate, the notion of criminalizing abortion in anything more than a handful of jurisdictions is far-fetched.

So why keep trying? Why not shift efforts to the civil society? Create a national adoption movement—a “manhattan project” of adoption—the likes of which has never been seen or even conceived before. All those resources, all those committed volunteers . . . think what they could do if they shifted their focus to changing the culture, to changing people’s attitudes, and to providing real support to mothers to help them carry to term and go through the adoption process.

I know this sounds scary, and perhaps even offensive, to those who are committed to the notion that abortion is murder. But think of where we are now. Calling it murder and fighting on the legal/governmental level isn’t getting us very far. But a massive shift of focus to the civil society just might. Maybe we could see a significant reduction in the number of abortions. And maybe, just maybe, those people who now sit on the fence would come over to the pro-life side . . . not only because they are convinced by an argument for life on its merits, but also because they respect and appreciate that the movement is not trying to use government to leverage control over them on the issue.


On marriage . . .

In spite of efforts to “protect” marriage on the legal/governmental front, it has been on the decline for decades. Does anyone see that ending anytime soon? More and more states are redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. No-fault divorce isn’t going away any time soon. Fewer people are marrying, fewer people are having children, and people who do marry are waiting longer than ever. Divorce rates are still high, and show no sign of ebbing by more than marginal amounts. More people are cohabiting, and producing children out of wedlock, than ever before. What is the legal fight over marriage getting us? Is the legal fight going to stop any of this?

“Marriage,” as we discuss it today, refers to having government license a union. Granted, government licensure of marriage has been around a long time. But stop and think for a moment . . . does it need to be? If we were living in a society with a minimalist government and no licensure, we would still get married. We would still have our unions blessed by private religious institutions. We would still have children. If government has the power to license marriage, then government has the power to define marriage. Is that what we want? Is that what we need?

Government licenses marriages to do two things:

1) codify (and hopefully foster) a stable matrix in which children can be raised, and

2) provide a legal framework to govern the disposition of property and children in the event of dissolution.

Could these things be accomplished without government involvement?

For number 2, the answer is easy: YES. Marriage contracts can be drawn up in a private legal context, and these could be used in courts in the event of dissolution. Thus, government would not need to be involved except in a court of last resort. In that event, the contract would serve as the framework for adjudicating the dissolution. Different people would choose different kinds of contracts, depending on their needs. No doubt, certain standard contracts would arise, and most people would just go with one of them.

For number 1, the answer is a bit more difficult. Without government licensure, would people still get married? Would fathers stay in the home? Well, we have government licensure now, and marriage is falling apart. What makes us think that continuing to try to get government to save marriage will work? It’s not working now, and we’re not gaining more allies in this fight, we’re losing them.

What if we get government out of marriage entirely? Things could hardly get worse, and they might get a lot better. Religious and private institutions would once again take primacy in blessing marriages. The state would no longer hover above them, telling them what marriage is and what it is not. People, in getting a marriage contract drawn up, would be forced to think about what the union means to them. They’re in control, they’re responsible. They’re considering the consequences of their actions, and the potential long-term ramifications, up front. Could that perhaps create stronger marriages?

Yes, some nonstandard couples would find a nonstandard religious institution to bless their union, and they could easily find a lawyer to draw up a contract in to govern things in court in the event of dissolution. That’s part of the price, and the advantage, of freedom. The truth is, though, the fraction of same-sex (and other nonstandard) couples who actually want to get married is small when compared to the whole population. But because this is a political issue, it seems as though their numbers are legion, and it has become this huge, divisive cultural issue. If government no longer had the authority to license marriages, a tiny number of nonstandard marriages would occur, but no one would know about it and few would care. No one on the left would be trying to redefine marriage, because the question would no longer be a political one. The vast, huge, overwhelming majority of marriages would be standard heterosexual unions. It would stop being a big issue in the culture.

If you’re a conservative or libertarian, you should already understand that government is not very efficient, and should be a last resort. You should already be aware that what government touches, government often perverts. Is government licensure of marriage a desirable thing at all? Or could marriage be at least as strong—if not stronger—if we, the people, once again take responsibility for it?


The subject of making abortion, marriage, and other social issues into private crusades rather than government ones is a subject worthy of far more space and discussion than is possible here. I do not purport to have all the answers. But if we’re talking about a breakup in which social conservatism is cashiered out of the conservative movement, we’re talking about something generationally huge. Something the consequences of which we cannot completely foresee. In that context, it behooves us to ask if there isn’t perhaps a third way. One in which the conservative movement becomes far more libertarian in its approach to government, and where social conservatism shifts its focus away from changing government and towards bringing about social change through a groundbreaking reinvigoration of the civil society. Not quietly or meekly, but in a big, public way, one that says, WE ARE SHIFTING FOCUS!

Prominent libertarian Andrew Napolitano is pro-life. Ron Paul is pro-life, and he has attracted millions of young supporters. There are ways for these two strains to work together. We should be looking for ways to make that happen, because as long as we remain divided, statism will grow ever-more powerful, and we cannot afford to let that go on for too much longer.



Source: Wikimedia Commons
License: Public Domain

Christopher Cook

Christopher Cook

Managing Editor at Western Free Press
Christopher Cook is a writer, editor, and political commentator. He is the president of Castleraine, Inc., a consulting firm providing a diverse array of services to corporate, public policy, and not-for-profit clients.

Ardently devoted to the cause of human freedom, he has worked at the confluence of politics, activism, and public policy for more than a decade. He co-wrote a ten-part series of video shorts on economics, and has film credits as a researcher on 11 political documentaries, including Citizens United's notorious film on Hillary Clinton that became the subject of a landmark Supreme Court decision. He is the founder of several activist endeavors, including (now a part of Western Free Press) and He is currently the managing editor of and principal contributor to
Christopher Cook

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Is It Time for the GOP to Scale Back on Social Issues?