Winning elections and losing the culture war

Why Republicans in office have been ineffective in accomplishing their social goals

By Daniel McCarthy

There are two kinds of right-wingers: those who are anti-Left and those who are anti-State. The latter includes right-libertarians and small-government conservatives. The former includes the religious right—not all Christian conservatives, but only the hard core that firmly opposes the leftward drift of American government and society—and the national right, which is concerned with preserving a distinct American heritage and identity in the face of multiculturalism, mass immigration, and human-rights internationalism.

Operationally, the anti-Leftists, whether they are religious right or national right, are cutting their own throats if they are not also anti-statist. This is because the state is the indispensable means by which the Left carries out its transformation of the country, and government in 21st century America cannot be turned into an instrument of virtue or nationhood. Mass democracy and the egalitarian rights ideology that infuses American government today reinforce one another and are natural complements. As a result, any anti-Left political activity that is not also anti-State will either fail, or worse, backfire. Whatever strengthens the State, even in the name of virtue or the nation, will ultimately strengthen the Left.

The history of the religious right bears out this contention. For 30 years, the religious right has been an organized political force that has attempted to be anti-Left without being programmatically anti-State. The religious right will support the occasional tax cut, but at root the religious right sees the State as an instrument for keeping or making America virtuous. The results of the religious right’s exertions speak for themselves.

The Christian Coalition—which at the state level did include some right-wing Christians, not just ideological chameleons and opportunists like Ralph Reed—was indispensable to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, just as the values voters were essential for George W. Bush’s re-election a decade later. Neither of these political victories did anything to halt the leftward trend of American society. The religious right has continued, steadily, to lose the culture war.

Take the issues of abortion and gay rights. At any time when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, they could have removed jurisdiction over abortion from the federal courts. Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to define the scope of the federal judiciary’s authority. This is a power that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives exercised in 2005 by passing H.R. 2389, the “Pledge Protection Act,” which would taken disputes about the constitutionality of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance out of the federal courts. (The Republican Senate never took up the bill, however.) If the conservative Republicans whom the religious right labored so hard to elect were really pro-life, why would they attempt to take the extraordinary measure of limiting the courts’ power over a symbolic issue like the Pledge while doing nothing of the sort about the federal courts’ power over abortion?

Or if President Bush were such a staunch opponent of abortion, why did he want to put his Texas crony Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court? Bush would also have liked to put another incompetent liberal Republican, former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, on the Supreme Court, if he could have gotten away with it. Miers probably and Gonzales certainly would have been pro-abortion. As it happened, Bush put John Roberts and Samuel Alito, both probably pro-life (though let’s wait and see how they actually vote) on the court. But he did so knowing full well that four pro-life justices would not be enough to overturn Roe. Again, if overturning Roe were the objective, the Republican Congress could have done that at any time.

The GOP will also fail to stop the advance of gay marriage. It is true that state-level constitutional amendments have passed in every state, save Arizona, where they have been put on the ballot. But it is also true that practically every year more states—and, more importantly, more Americans—accept gay marriage. Writing in the Washington Post, liberal Michael Kinsley recalled that in 1989, “Gay marriage itself seemed so far-out and unlikely to happen that whether you were actually for it was beside the point.” Despite all the Republican politicians that the religious right has elected since then, gay marriage has gone from being unthinkable, even in Kinsley’s liberal circles, to being a reality in many states and, seemingly, an inevitability in America’s future, since even in states that passed anti-gay-marriage amendments, younger people tend to favor gay marriage.

The acceptance of gay marriage is not simply a matter of state courts forcing the issue on a recalcitrant public. A large part, if not a majority, of the public has already come to support gay marriage, and another large part of the public does not consider the issue important enough to be worth squabbling over. If all the liberal activist judges who have so far been pushing gay marriage were suddenly replaced, the timetable would be set back—but given the tidal change in the public’s attitudes and the direction of that change, gay marriage would still be unstoppable.

The lesson that the religious right has refused to learn is that a culture war cannot be won by political means. Nor is Republican cowardice on abortion simply a function of having the wrong people in office, or the wrong people in charge of the GOP: mass democracy in 21st century America by its very nature selects cowardly and moderate politicians, who may deploy right-wing rhetoric but who will not ever commit themselves to a feasible right-wing program.

The recent Republican primaries gave a comic illustration of these harsh lessons. Religious conservatives such as Mike Huckabee recycled timeworn clich├ęs about the need to oppose abortion (while jettisoning the party’s nominal commitment to limited government) but did not apply real pressure on the Republican establishment to back up rhetoric with action. Ultimately, Huckabee ended up endorsing John McCain. Much of the conservative movement supported Fred Thompson, and when he faltered, desperately embraced Mitt Romney. Yet the movement was powerless to deliver the nomination even within its narrowly defined political sphere of activity. Because there was no credible alternative to partisan political action and no conservative subculture besides the GOP, movement conservatives were taken for granted by the Republicans and as expected, quickly fell into line once McCain secured the nomination.

Anti-immigration national conservatives such as Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter barely made an impact, garnering Alan Keyes worthy levels of support. Despite the (perhaps temporary) defeat of amnesty for illegal immigration, this has not translated into power within the GOP for immigration restrictionists, with the leading proponent of amnesty cruising to the nomination.

Only Ron Paul built anything like an independent popular movement that could have a lasting impact. As seen by his popularity on the internet, Ron Paul has had a significant cultural impact and introduced a whole new group of people to right wing concepts and ideas. Paul’s activists are educated and committed and are running for office and organizing at the local level all around the country. Most importantly, Paul’s supporters are largely outside existing conservative channels. They think, and act, for themselves, and will not turn left in lockstep with the leadership of the GOP.

The Right’s program has to mean opposing the state. National conservatives are now facing the choice that the religious right confronted 30 years ago. It can choose an ineffective or counterproductive strategy of opposing the Left by attempting to take control of government. Or it can opt for the only strategy that gives any hope at all—that of cutting away the government power that compels everyone to accede to leftist ideological demands for egalitarian conformity. Even then, in the absence of government power pushing America to the Left, the Right may lose the culture war and the struggle to defend the “pre-political” America. But the Right will at least have a chance to beat the Left once the terms of engagement have been redefined to the Right’s advantage. So long as the terms of engagement are dictated by the mass democratic egalitarian State, no appeal to “pre-political” or religious loyalties can succeed. I suspect, however, that this harsh reality will not stop the dreamers of the Right from trying—and failing.



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