Monday, February 26, 2007

Those nasty, nasty, social conservatives

This morning's Great Falls Tribune has a piece about the "socially conservative" measures promoted by Republicans in Helena this sesion. This shouldn’t surprise anyone – with the severe gerrymandering that was engineered by Democrats with the assistance of the Montana Supreme Court, the Republicans that do make it to Helena are going to be a more conservative and more determined bunch than the capital has probably seen in the past.

They can look for this trend only to increase, since contrary to Democrat fantasies about mass defections by moderate Republicans, there is actually a venerable history of moderate Republicans shifting to the right when the political winds blow. We are watching it on the national stage right now with Mitt Romney’s newly-discovered opposition to abortion and gay marriage and John McCain’s newly discovered commitment to “no new taxes.”

Political parties are interesting animals, and largely get a bad rap (we’ve been known to rap on them ourselves.) When a party acts responsibly, it is a vehicle for political ideas to achieve realization – but more importantly, it is a place where ideas have to ferment internally before attempts to enact them into law even begin.

The conservative coalition that has achieved such success in the last 30 years has three broad categories – economic conservatives committed to things like free enterprise and lower taxes, defense “hawks” (subsumed into this is a “tough on crime” attitude that is more relevant to state politics), and social conservatives.

Within the ranks of those with socially conservative views, there is a broader array of attitudes than one might imagine. In order to understand this, one must look back to the time prior to the left’s largely successful social revolution of the 60’s and 70’s.

Back in the day, the Republican party was primarily populated by “leave us alone” types – they understood the value of a stable social order and social mores, but they didn’t wear it on their sleeves politically, because they didn’t need to.

There was also the great mass of conservative southern Democrats – for years after WWII, Republican Sen. Robert Taft was effectively the real majority leader of the Senate because he led a coalition of theoretically greatly outnumbered Republicans and Southern Democrats (it was not an uncritical alliance – Taft almost singlehandedly engineered the extreme measure of refusing to seat Sen. Bilbo of Mississippi because of the latter’s determination to deny the vote to blacks.) Of course, due to the “Southern strategy” conceived in part by William Rusher and implemented by Richard Nixon, the south is now solidly Republican.

And we can’t fail to mention the moral crusading aspect of Republican history – think abolition and prohibition… It is here where things get interesting. The attitudinal descendents of this latter group are found in both parties. These attitudes are a combination of moral conviction and a willingness to tell other people what to do.

For the most part, this heritage has been subsumed into the modern Democratic party – just in ways that aren’t always readily recognizable as such. All one has to do is look at the Northeast.

Once, the Northeast was politically dominated by wealthy abolitionist Republicans who rightly grieved over slavery in the South -- but tended to ignore the situation that “free” workers in their own factories faced.

Today, the Northeast is politically dominated by wealthy Democrats, who because of their deep moral convictions want to force a $7/hour minimum wage on states with low cost of living, while ignoring the fact that minimum wages in their own states, adjusted for cost of living, would leave a worker much farther below the poverty level.

Those same extremely wealthy Democrats have acute social consciences that make them want Western and Midwestern farmers and ranchers to pay exorbitant estate taxes while their own money is skillfully sheltered in trusts.

Put another way – it’s a lot easier to free the slaves in someone else’s state when you get to keep your impoverished servants and workers in your own state.

The point to all of this is that social conservatism in the Republican party is not so much an extention of any old crusading spirit as it is a phenomenon created by the aggressive social changes driven by the counterculture (which is now the Democratic establishment.)

The “leave us alone” Republicans and the heavily church-going southern Republicans have reacted increasingly strongly to all of this – at first in disbelief and denial, then simple anger, and only recently, politically. There is still a remnant of the crusader spirit in the Republican party, but it is largely confined to the pro-life movement, where it is quite appropriate.

When that crusader spirit overextends and reaches into partisan politics in general, its voice is crude and ugly, just as it often was in days of yore in the Republican party and as it is on the left in more recent days. At that point, Republicans need to swat it down and teach it to talk nicely, while not rejecting the underlying beliefs.

Montana Headlines believes that the socially conservative aspect of the Republican party is an essential part of the coalition – in fact, it is in a sense our deepest unifying factor. On the other hand, all that legislation can usually do is to prevent government from actively working to corrupt public morality.

Republican political action therefore needs to stay focused on economic issues, property rights, limited government, a restrained judiciary, and all of the other things that allow us to learn and teach our morals at home, in church – and yes, even, by example and judicious words, in the public square.

So, social conservatives in Helena -- keep doing what you're doing. But continue to be civil about it, and make sure you have respectful and intelligent responses to your opponents' objections.


Hallie said...

What a great post! It is so true that the voice of moral outrage, whether coming from the left or the right, can so easily become shrill and ugly.

At the same time, the passions fueled by that moral outrage are what lead people to take actions (write letters to the editor, call their legislators, etc.).

Montana Headlines said...

Passion is a necessary component to successful political endeavors. Without it, no-one is going to be energized to do anything. We certainly wouldn't be posting, day in, day out, if there weren't a little fire in the belly around here.

What is lost in shrillness is the ability to listen for those points where common ground (not compromise ground) can be found with a working majority.

The voice of outrage assumes that everyone listening will understand and agree with the motivation for the outrage and with the proposed solution to correct the problem.

In reality, there are often multiple motivations for addressing a given moral issue -- these must be gathered together and not divided.

And there are often multiple ways of addressing something successfully -- some of which will be able to gain support more readily than others.