There’s a familiar political fairy tale that just about everyone has heard. It goes something like this: Once upon a time the Republican Party used to be noble, committed to individual liberty, low taxes, a balanced budget, and the free market—principles that were perhaps a bit idealistic, a bit ignorant of the plight of the poor, but at least ones that were worthy of some respect. Then, the story goes, something happened: The once-noble party was hijacked by right-wing extremists whose socially conservative views were reactionary, and this eventually led to the Republicans’ inevitable demise.
With Arlen Specter’s recent defection, a new set of these same arguments has been made. As moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe opined in a Times op-ed after her colleague’s party switch, “[I]ndeed, it was when we [Republicans] began to emphasize social issues to the detriment of some of our basic tenets as a party that we encountered an electoral backlash.” This is accepted as divine truth among Democrats and socially moderate Republicans alike.
Yet when these claims are made, rarely is there evidence presented to support them. George Bush won twice as a strong social conservative, and in 2000, many exit polls pointed to “values voters” being a decisive factor in his victory; John McCain, it seems, again based on exit polls, lost due to the combination of the economic downturn and most Americans’ belief that Barack Obama could better fix the economy. It would be particularly bizarre to blame McCain’s loss on social conservatives, since his campaign hardly emphasized social issues.
More to the point, it is by no means clear that social conservatives’ views are far removed from the public’s on the issues about which they raise the most ruckus: abortion and gay marriage.
The majority of Americans, including the president, still oppose gay marriage. Abortion polls are notoriously vexing, but no matter how you slice them, most indicate that about 45 percent of people think abortion should be illegal most of the time, and only about 20 percent who think it should always be legal. In fact, much has been made about a recent Gallup poll that finds for the first time that more Americans identify as pro-life than pro-choice. (Though some people are calling this poll an outlier.)
It’s actually worth noting just how moderate socially conservative politicians are: Another Gallup survey from just last year found that an astonishing 40 percent of Americans think that gay sex between consenting adults should be illegal. Illegal. Another poll reported that 48 percent of Americans don’t think that gay people should be allowed to teach in elementary schools.
Have any mainstream Republican politicians advocated for such positions? Reassuringly, no, despite the fact that they would have a strong constituency if they did.
While most people are against gay marriage, the trend is clearly moving toward more general support, and a solid majority of Americans is now in favor of civil unions for gay couples. Just as noteworthy is the generation gap between opponents of gay marriage—older people—and supporters—younger people. Surprisingly, that is not true about legal abortion. The proportion of Americans opposing abortion has stayed remarkably constant since Roe v. Wade, while young people are actually more conservative on the issue than their parents.
The future of the Republican Party cannot and will not be one in which social conservatism is forgotten completely. What social conservatives should do is choose their battles wisely. To a large extent, they’ve already done this—you no longer hear any Republicans talking about prayer in school or a constitutional amendment that completely bans abortion, for instance.
Gay marriage is one of these losing battles. Abortion is not, or at least it’s not clear whether or not it will be. Of course, conservatives can’t make these decisions based on polls; rather, they have to vote on their own principles. But oftentimes politics is a zero-sum game—time, money, and political capital spent lobbying for abortion restrictions are resources that can’t be used on supporting gay marriage. By social conservatives’ own measuring stick, proscribing abortion ought to be considered more crucial than stopping gay marriage. To the social conservative, an abortion is essentially the taking of a human life; on the other hand, gay marriage is a blow to the institution of marriage, a very real consequence to many, but not one that can compare to the one million-plus abortions each year.
Conservatives can also follow Barack Obama’s example on the issue: Speak softly but carry a big stick. Obama is about as liberal on abortion as you can get, yet he couches his rhetoric on the issue: “When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe—that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground,” he said about abortion during his speech at Notre Dame’s commencement.
Where our president has compromised on abortion is not clear, however. Pro-lifers can learn from this: A softer rhetoric does not mean dropping a hard-line principle. It’s time to put away the posters with pictures of dead babies, and the bullhorns from which people shout “Abortion is murder,” as one protestor at Obama’s Notre Dame speech did.
The path for social conservatives is one in which opposition to gay marriage is slowly but surely dropped. Conservative opposition to abortion, however, should—and will—remain strong. But for the message to succeed, it must be able to adapt to changing times.
Matt Barnum is a third-year in the College majoring in psychology. He is a member of the Maroon Editorial Board.