Jonathan Martin recently wrote an interesting conceptual scoop for Politico, wherein social Conservatives offer a surprisingly-subtle recriminatory argument: They can’t be the source of systemic weakness in the Republican Party because President Obama’s banner Presidential Election wins in 2008 and 2012 came in the face of socially-moderate Republican Presidential candidates. Sure, President Obama may have won election and re-election on the basis of energizing a majority coalition for Liberalism, but that doesn’t mean (goes the argument) there isn’t such a natural constituency for Conservatism. They assert that the Republican Party was weak in the past 2 Presidential Elections because the party’s leaders were running from their base, rather than because it alienated key demographics.
It’s an interesting, counterintuitive argument. It’s also rubbish. Christian Conservatives actually surged around the moderate-ish John McCain in 2008–and he performed about as poorly as any Republican Presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater in 1964. Furthermore, it’s curious how easily the Christian Conservatives interviewed here either forgot or skirted around the shameful cases of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, 2 Republican Senate candidates who were considered near-guarantees to win Red State Senate seats until they each argued that raped women shouldn’t be allowed to obtain abortions. Oops.
Towards the end of the article, the author notes that abortion is not gay marriage; he is right. The much-noted sea change in attitudes towards gay marriage is real and irreversible; the general spread of opinion on abortion, strangely, has hardly shifted at all since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. So, I expect the Republican Party’s positions on social issues to be determined not so much by some aggregated interest group within the party winning some abstract argument but by actual party leaders and candidates following incentives.
Gay marriage is gaining acceptance and legal recognition so quickly now because it is about people who differ from us only in sexual orientation asking for the same rights the rest of us have; once people feel safe to admit they are gay (which the bigotry of Judaism, Christianity and Islam made almost impossible for millennia), it soon becomes difficult to appraise bans on gay marriage as anything other than institutional discrimination for a difference of orientation that is both beyond one’s control and completely harmless. The very fact that one doesn’t need to live in fear means that society will be confronted with any attendant forms of exclusion or domination of their difference, and when this is seen it will be found to be bereft of justification.
Abortion is not an issue in the same class; it has never stopped being divisive. In fact, as the article notes, the Republican Party is now more consistently pro-life (and the Democratic Party more consistently pro-choice) than ever before. With the domination of several State governments–as with the much-maligned new Virginia requirement that women seeking an abortion first submit to a transvaginal ultrasound and most recently as a Republican legislative supermajority in North Dakota legally establishing personhood at the point of quickening (roughly 6 weeks)–the pro-life side has flexed its muscle and expanded its denial of women’s right to choose.
Before you opine that its pro-life stance is killing the Republican Party with women, remember that the Republican Party was, if anything, more emphatically pro-life in 2004 and that didn’t stop President George W. Bush from taking a slim majority of the popular vote in that Election. Plenty of women are pro-life; they were going to vote for Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, too–until they realized how callous they were towards rape victims. The Roe v. Wade decision remains the law of the land and the Supreme Court doesn’t seem to be interested in re-litigating it; many of the qualifications to abortion rights which Conservatives have pushed for in Congress or in the States are actually broadly popular, if perhaps their real-world impact on women isn’t well-understood by many. My point is that, disappointing as it may be to many fellow-Liberals, there is no reason to believe that Republicans will feel motivated to jettison their hostility to abortion rights, or that they will pay an electoral price for their disinclination to do so. (Much as some social Conservatives say, Republicans would pay an electoral price for giving up the pro-life cause, no less if it was explicitly done as a groping attempt at re-branding.)
So, forget about the Republican Party becoming the Libertarian Party or the culture wars simply disappearing; there is no evidence of a link between broader demographic shifts and Republican concessions on certain social issues and Republican concessions on other issues. Regarding low levels of support among women, Republicans probably just balanced their social Conservatism with support from Conservative women poorly in 2012–specifically, on account of recent extremist gestures.
Gay marriage has taken up more of this discussion–as it did in this article–but immigration reform is another example of an issue where the Republican Party is coming around, in this case to former President W. Bush’s Liberal-leaning position. A legal guest worker program for nominally illegal immigrants, which offers an opportunity for them to work their way to citizenship, has a serious chance of passing through a split-control Congress, which it couldn’t do in 2007 with a Democratic Congress due to massive opposition from Senate Conservatives from both parties. Again, here the Republican Party is simply following incentives: The party’s leaders and leading lights are anxious about their party’s growing reputation for callousness and simply need to assuage Hispanics’ fears of their intentions if it is going to remain viable in the Southwest–and eventually, in the biggest States of the South.
Add a possible cultural shift against the “gun show loophole” in favor of universal comprehensive background checks for gun purchasers (and hopefully, reasonable restrictions on the high-capacity bullet clips that allow any private citizen to mount their own assault), and we’ve probably just about seen the extent of the concessions Congressional Republicans will feel they have to make to Liberals in the Culture Wars.
Note that these distinctions represent different factors–an abrupt and broad cultural shift following open acceptance of homosexuality; Republicans mounting offensives against abortion rights and facing electoral punishment from alienated women and secular men in specific cases where the optics suggested callousness towards women; a simple need to calm the fears of and do something for America’s largest minority group; and growing public awareness of the dangerous gaps which NRA interference has left in our nation’s ability to research who is trying to buy a gun in the wake of a growing number of mass shootings. These general factors have put pressure on Republicans because they fear appearing cruel or too insular on these issues (which have identifiable constituencies). It doesn’t mean the Republican Party will become openly affirming of gay marriage in every State (at least not for a generation, perhaps), or that it will stop being pro-life (it won’t), or that we are going to see another 1986-style amnesty as President Reagan instituted (we have nearly 4 times as many illegal immigrants now as then and this has become an emotional issue) or that Republicans will stop being active supporters of the gun culture (actually, if President Obama’s gun control legislation passes Congress this year it will likely create significant headwinds for Congressional Democrats in 2014). Republican retreat on these issues is real and tangible; but in the fashion of good military metaphor, not to make strategic retreats on these issues would bring far greater injury to Republicans on the electoral front lines than the ideological space under contestation warrants. But this is by no means a wholesale exchange of a Conservative ideology for a Libertarian one, or even a Republican Party that is going to have any chance of appealing to metropolitan Liberals as merely a “fiscally conservative” party. The Republican Party still has its power base in rural areas and culturally-homogenized suburbs; there is no reason to believe it will try to profoundly alienate those people, and I really don’t think its electoral situation is that desperate.
Now, in contrast to what social Conservatives such as Gary Bauer said, limited-government Conservatism probably *is* needed to bind the party’s disparate wings together, so if the Republican Party feels more-Libertarian than it did when George W. Bush was President, well, by that general standard you are right. Whatever gays, women, Hispanics, Asians, the Millennial generation, the college-educated and metropolitan-dwellers may think it, the Republican Party has remade itself with impressive speed as a more-committed small-government party, and it has to maintain this promise to its core supporters. Hence the focus on cosmetic changes which encourages jokes: The Republican base doesn’t want “armies of compassion,” it wants to be left alone…unless someone wants an abortion, of course.