The GOP’s Growing Vulnerability on Cultural Issues

Published July 7, 2014

Commentary Magazine

Several weeks ago I met with an influential Republican lawmaker to discuss economic matters. Yet I found myself raising another set of issues: Republicans need to prepare (especially in 2016) for an assault by Democrats on a range of cultural and quasi-cultural issues, including contraception, gay marriage, abortion, religious liberties, immigration, evolution, and climate change.

What I told this GOP lawmaker is that what cultural issues were to Republicans in the 1980s–think welfare, law and order, and George H.W. Bush’s criticism of Michael Dukakis over the Pledge of Allegiance–is what they are to Democrats in the 2010s. This conversation took place before the Supreme Court ruling on the Hobby Lobby case, but the reaction to it confirmed the observation. Democrats, in their frenzied overreaction to the Court ruling–none more overwrought than that of Hillary Clinton–clearly believe this is an issue that will help them politically.

In many places, they’re probably right.

With that in mind, I’d commend to you an article by Ron Brownstein of National Journal, in which he writes:

While Republicans took the offense on most cultural arguments through the late 20th century, now Democrats from Obama on down are mostly pressing these issues, confident that they represent an expanding majority of public opinion. Veteran pollster Stanley B. Greenberg captures this almost unprecedented Democratic assurance when he declares flatly: “Republicans are on the losing side of all of these trends.”… amid public unease over Obama’s economic and foreign policy record, cultural affinity has become the Democrats’ most powerful electoral weapon.

Many Republicans don’t want to focus on cultural and social issues, fearing the issues will damage them while also believing that economic and foreign-policy topics are where their attention should be. But progressives, in combination with a sympathetic press, will push cultural issues front and center. Which means it’s imperative that high-profile Republicans prepare themselves for the coming wave of attacks.

To be clear, I don’t believe the correct response, morally or politically, is for the GOP to become a socially liberal party. But I do think that there are ways to re-frame some of these issues in a manner that will benefit not just the Republican Party but social conservatism itself.

Precisely how to do so is beyond the scope of this post. For now, it’s obvious that Republicans with national ambitions need to gird themselves for the coming offensive; to prepare themselves not just in terms of public policy but also to find a vocabulary to discuss these issues. This means adopting a tone and countenance that is principled and non-censorious, that can articulate one’s views in a way that is not seen as angry and intolerant. (It doesn’t help when one Republican running for president in 2012 promised that if elected, he would talk about the dangers of contraception.)

Obviously one has to approach things on a case-by-case basis. But generally speaking, Republicans need to be seen as speaking out on behalf of moral truths in ways that are more winsome than judgmental, in a way meant to persuade rather than inflame, and making sure their views align with science rather than against it. What this means, in part, is the individuals making the arguments need to radiate some measure of grace rather than zeal. What we’re talking about is using a light touch rather than a heavy hand. To understand the difference, think about how the language (and spirit) of the pro-life movement shifted from accusing people of being “baby killers” to asking Americans to join a movement committed to enlarging the circle of protection to the most vulnerable members of the human community, in which every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. (In addition, science, in the form of sonograms, has been a friend of the pro-life movement. It’s no accident, then, that Americans have become more pro-life in their views over the last 15 years. In 2012, for example, Gallup reported that the 41 percent of Americans who identified themselves as “pro-choice” is one percentage point below the previous record low in Gallup trends, recorded in May 2009, while 50 percent now call themselves “pro-life,” one point shy of the record high, also from May 2009.)

Social conservatism, if it ever hopes to succeed, needs to be articulated in a way that is seen as promoting the human good and advancing human dignity, rather than declaring a series of forbidden acts that are leading us to Gomorrah. That alone isn’t enough to turn the tide in a nation that is trending toward liberal social views on many issues. But it is a start.

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