Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Will Social Conservatives Leave the GOP?

Per this AP report, some influential conservative Christians are considering breaking the GOP alliance to field a third party. Both major political parties in the U.S. are effectively alliances of groups with enough common interests to unite them on significant issues. However, both parties have a lot of internal disagreements because groups that make up the alliances have disparate and often conflicting interests. The alliances function to the point that the competing groups agree to set aside their disagreements and focus on areas where more agreement exists.

Intra-party competition is a safety valve that limits party power and narrows party focus. It is a sifting mechanism that winnows out less popular ideas in favor of those ideas where some consensus can be achieved. However, in a large party, this can mean that issues that are highly important to even good-sized blocs can fall by the wayside. This can leave fairly powerful groups feeling disenfranchised and underappreciated. This phenomenon occurs in both parties.

Party leaders are constantly working to maintain a satisfactory balance. That’s why they often speak and act inconsistently: they are pandering to groups in their alliances in order to keep the alliance intact. Both parties often ignore their own leaders’ inconsistencies, while loudly criticizing the inconsistencies of the other party’s leaders.

Four decades ago, the South was reliably Democrat. The South was filled with Democrats that were social conservatives. But things began to change in the late 60s and early 70s. The civil rights era resulted in a slow change of the political power structure in the South. When social liberals seized control of the Democratic Party, social conservatives felt sufficiently disenfranchised that they began moving to the Republican side. During this time, long-time alliances in both parties broke and there was a major realignment. Feminists that had been aligned with big business in the GOP moved to the Democrats, for example. Many groups changed parties as party ideologies shifted.

As is always the case whenever changes occur, some were able to take advantage of this shift, while others got the short end of the stick. I have often mentioned that political novice Orrin Hatch (R-UT) benefited from this shift in 1976 when was able to unseat unsuspecting three-term Senator Frank Moss (D-UT), whose power base evaporated before he realized what was happening.

The GOP alliance between social conservatives and the other major players in the GOP has always been a marriage of convenience. Social conservatives came from decades of simply having power and being naturally consulted on issues, to having to get into the filthy trenches of politics and fight for their causes. It has been a rude awakening for them as well as for competing groups. Instead of being able to stay above the fray, they have had to act like common politicians, which many competitors and some of their own have decried as unbecoming of the ideals they claim to uphold.

But what is happening today? The statement by Richard A. Viguerie, quoted in the AP article says it all when he says that social conservatives “have been treated like a mistress as long as any of us can remember.” Presumably speaking of the GOP powerful, he says, “They'll have lots of private meetings with us, tell us how much they appreciate it and how much they value us, but if you see me on the street please don't speak with me.” Viguerie is saying that social conservatives are tired of putting out for the party without getting respect for their issues.

I have previously discussed the infeasibility of the emergence of a viable third party in U.S. politics (see here and here). Social conservative leaders aren’t stupid. They know that splitting from the GOP to form a third party would not produce a viable party. But they also know that it would cripple the GOP. What these people are doing is threatening to take their ball and go home in the hope that the rest of the GOP will wake up and realize how much they need the social conservatives. They want some bones thrown in their direction. They want more than the lip service they have received over the past three decades; they want actual results on some of their hot-button issues.

Social conservatives may be asking for more than the GOP is capable of delivering. For one thing, there simply isn’t consensus among other groups in the GOP on many of the social conservatives’ major issues. For another thing, granting this group more power in the party necessarily means diminishing the power of one or more other groups in the alliance. None of these competing groups are going to willingly acquiesce on this.

Other groups in the GOP alliance are also not very happy with the party’s recent strong focus on the South. They note that GOP popularity in the more liberal Northeast has been rapidly disappearing as the party has ignored this area, perhaps figuring that it is a lost cause.

The fact is that the South cannot get much more Republican than it is today. A stronger focus on the South isn’t going to yield a whole lot more votes. To be viable, the GOP needs much more vigor in the liberal Northeast, in the labor-minded growing population centers of the Midwest, in the burgeoning multi-ethnic centers of the Southwest, and in the libertarian West. The GOP ignores or offends these people at its own peril. Besides, many GOP insiders wonder (even out loud) where else social conservatives could go. Certainly not to the Democratic Party, in which social liberals still have very strong sway.

It appears that at least some social conservatives are saying that they might be willing to leave the GOP to prove their value to the party. Other social conservatives are not ready to jump. They know that this is like the underappreciated spouse that gets a divorce to prove his/her worth to the other partner: it would leave everyone worse off in the long run.

It seems to me that rather than try to force their political will on other members of the GOP alliance, social conservatives would do better to get out and convert people in the Northeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West to their cause. To be sure, this would be a very long-term project. But I’m not sure it would require any more resources than they have been willing to put into politics over the past couple of decades. If enough people in the essential voting areas of the nation adopt socially conservative ideals, corresponding political power will grow naturally.

Researchers already know that the strongest and most diverse community structures in the nation are found in mega-churches, which are a fairly recent phenomenon. This would suggest that social conservatives need to expand the popularity of the mega-church beyond its current confines.

Now for a quick disclaimer. For those who seethe with unpleasant sentiments toward the Christian Right (and those who regularly point out that most members of the Christian Right detest my religion), I am merely analyzing what I see happening and suggesting what I think is a reasonable course. I am not making any judgments about the Christian Conservative movement or about those that politically promote socially conservative ideals. You can do that on your own time.

I understand that many social conservatives are frustrated with their lack of definable political successes. But threatening to form a third party is going to create more enemies than friends. I know that the course I have suggested is a long-term project that will only yield desirable political outcomes after years of work. But it is the only reasonable path, since social conservatives simply do not currently have sufficient political capital to get their way. Think about it. What is more likely to get you what you really want: bullying or reaching out to others?

10 comments:

Democracy Lover said...

Given what social conservatives appear to want, I doubt either bullying or reaching out will win many hearts and minds, but reaching out is certainly a more Christian approach.

Reach Upward said...

You may be right, but the old saying that you draw more flies with honey than with vinegar is probably applicable in this situation.

Democracy Lover said...

I noticed you did not directly define the term "social conservatism". There are some clues in your post however.

1. Yes, the South was once reliably Democrat and most of them moved to the Republican Party in the mid to late 1960's. That kind of social conservatism is normally called racism, or segregationist.

2. I'm not aware of any feminists that were aligned with big business in the GOP. The GOP was adamantly anti-feminist so they remained in the Democratic Party. That kind of social conservatism is normally called sexism.

3. Although you don't make it clear, the most issues most often associated with Republican social conservatives are: Opposition to equal rights for homosexual couples, Government interference in the medical decisions of women, and repeal of the First Amendment to the Constitution so religion can be promoted, free speech can be curtailed, and assemblies of citizens can be herded safely away from their elected representatives.

I cannot imagine any of these ideas gaining traction among thinking Americans committed to the Constitution and equal rights for all. Use all the honey at your disposal, it will just make your fingers sticky.

Reach Upward said...

I'm sure that folks in the Christian Right would classify their hot-button issues far differently than your negative rhetoric.

You seem to imply that because Democratic racists and segregationists once held sway in the South that today's Southern GOP members share those same philosophies. Ever since racism was discredited, it has become vogue to classify political opponents as racist. The same with fascism and Nazism.

Reach Upward said...

Also, I'm sorry that you are unaware of the history of the feminism movement. Feminism's former alignment with big business and the GOP is not really disputable. This is well known and well documented.

Feminists aligned with big busness because big business saw a whole new labor source. Some groups in the Democratic alliance strongly opposed feminism, particularly the unions, whose members felt that the entry of women into the workforce would undercut their wages and reduce their power. These groups also opposed giving women the right to vote.

The seeds of feminism's split with the GOP actually began during Theodore Roosevelt's post-presidency politicking. But it did not become complete until two generations later when radicals took control of the movement. These radicals' ideologies aligned closely with the ideologies of the anti-war Left that came to power in the Democratic Party in the 60s and 70s, so it was natural for feminists to completely and formally realign party allegiances at that time.

There are whole books that chronical this chain of events.

Democracy Lover said...

I am not implying that today's Southern GOP shares the racism of their predecessors in the 1960's. I am simply clarifying the historical fact that it was the Democratic Party's support for civil rights that caused them to move to the GOP.

In general, any group seeking to gain equal rights for a minority (or majority in the case of women) group will quite naturally align itself with the more left-leaning of the two political parties at the time. Conservatives, by definition, prefer the status quo and the maintenance of the power relationships that currently exist. While both parties have re-aligned themselves a few times over the years, it is clear that if you want change, you will eschew the more conservative party.

This is quite true today. There are certainly those who prefer to keep gays in their place (hidden), who don't want women to have the power to decide what to do with their bodies, who don't want children to be taught facts that contradict traditional religious beliefs, etc. Restricting freedom is a classic conservative position. Increasing freedom is a classic leftist position.

Reach Upward said...

I've seen enough self-proclaimed liberals seek to stifle debate and freedom of speech that I hardly think that conservatives have a corner on the market on maintaining the status quo.

And for the record, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was more strongly supported by Republicans (House: 80%-20%, Senate: 82%-18%) than Democrats (House: 63%-37%, Senate: 68%-32%). So I'm not sure how you arrive at your assumptions.

Democracy Lover said...

I don't really know many liberals who are out to stifle free speech and debate. We do insist on the right to debate and on the use of facts and logic which is a problem for some on the right.

Regardless of the vote totals, the perception of Southern democrats was that the party had abandoned their segregationist stance - which it had. Look further and you will see that in the original House version the for-against totals were:

* Southern Democrats: 7-87 (7%-93%)
* Southern Republicans: 0-10 (0%-100%)

The Senate version:

* Southern Democrats: 1-20 (5%-95%) (only Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas voted in favor)
* Southern Republicans: 0-1 (0%-100%) (this was Senator John Tower of Texas)


Clearly Southern democrats saw that the party was no longer going to support their "way of life" if it meant continued Jim Crow segregation - which most Southern democrats at the time supported.

y-intercept said...

Interesting debate. I wanted to counter DL's claim that the Democrats are the party of "facts and logic."

The very first thing the left did when they gained hegemony in education was to remove logic from the curriculum. They've replaced real math with a joke called new math. The left is skilled at making illusion appear as logic.

This process of positiong illusion and paradox as logic is more inherently against logic than those who openly reject facts.

Both parties are guilty of being fast and dirty with truth. The Social Conservatives referenced in this post are often the worst.

The Christian right who feel they must legislate their fate are as bad as the lefties who want to force their delusions on the world. As mentioned, this group was once solidly Democrat.

Of course, the social conservative who realizes that personal morality and the state are separate issues and that the state is inherently limited in what it can accomplish are probably the most atuned to logic and facts of all groups on the political spectrum.

The most troubling issue of the day, of course, is abortion. At this point in history, it is far more important to turn hearts and minds against abortion than it is to making it illegal. The left knows that social conservatives set on legislating their morality are willing to destroy the Republican Party (and even the United States) over this issue. The sad truth, of course, is that abortion can't be illegal until people's hearts are set on protecting unborn children.

If the one issue voters marched out of the Republican Party, the Republicans would be able to regroup on issues where they really can make a difference.

Anonymous said...

Reach, you are being deliberately disingenuous. I grew up in the South in the period in question. My school was first tokenly integrated in 65. Up until that time, racists (the vast majority of whites) remained loyal to the Democratic Party. Afterwards, they flocked to the Republicans. How the parties split in 63-64, before the shift, only proves that the racists did shift to the Republicans..