European liberals, American conservatives, and the 'social issues'

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 18, 2012

Now that the contest for the Republican presidential nomination is effectively over, we can expect the presumptive winner, Mitt Romney, to tack leftward as he prepares for the general election in November. While he was wooing the true believers of his own Republican party, and trying to allay the worries of Tea Party activists, Romney portrayed himself as a “severe” conservative. But now his goal is to capture the undecided voters—the millions of Americans who fancy themselves as free of ideology, occupying the middle of the political spectrum. Severity might not play well with these unattached voters. Romney will be doing his best to persuade them that he really isn’t much more conservative than they are, after all.

So how will the Republican challenger frame his message in the coming months? If Romney follows the advice of most GOP strategists—and the pattern of most Republican candidates in past years—he will avoid speaking on the social issues. From time to time he will pause to reassure his conservative supporters that he really does oppose legal abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research. But he will not mention those issues in his presentations to wider audiences; he will not include them in his stump speech. He will have been warned: these issues are “divisive.”

Pat Buchanan took a very different approach in his own campaigns for the presidency, deliberately emphasizing the issues that other candidates shunned. A “divisive” issue is a hot-button issue, an issue that energizes voters, he reasoned. Any successful campaign begins with a solid base of loyal activists, and the “divisive” issues are often the ones that convince people to become involved. Moreover there is nothing inherently wrong with exposing the divisions among voters. Buchanan also enjoyed reminding his campaign audiences in parliamentary language, a “division of the house” is, quite simply, a vote. Someone who “divides” voters, then, is someone who asks the people to make a clear choice.

The title of Jeffrey Bell’s new book, The Case for Polarized Politics, suggests that the author takes Buchanan’s side of this argument over political strategy, and indeed he does. But actually Bell travels a different route to reach a similar conclusion. While Buchanan reveled in his political role as an upsetter of applecarts, Bell argues that effective campaigns based on the social issues would help put the American cart back in apple-pie order. The essential message is the same: a call for restoration of fundamental American principles. But the difference in approach is crucial.

Jeffrey Bell burst on the American political scene in 1978, when he ran as an outsider for a US Senate seat from New Jersey, dethroned an incumbent liberal Republican in a remarkable primary upset, and narrowly lost the general election to a popular Democrat, Bill Bradley. He later served as an economic adviser first to Ronald Reagan, then to Jack Kemp. It is worth noticing that each of these Republican leaders—Reagan, Kemp, and Bell himself—was viewed at times as a “divisive” candidate, insofar as each took strong stands on controversial issues, and each encountered ferocious opposition from liberals in the media. Yet somehow all three avoided being stereotyped as negative campaigners. One might say that Reagan, Kemp, and even Bell exemplify the “sunny side” of American conservatism.

As a political operative, Bell has been best known for his support of supply-side economic arguments: arguments that nicely illustrate his overall approach. Supply-siders are controversial; their views are regularly denounced by liberal pundits. Yet their fundamental insight—that tax cuts can stimulate economic growth—is quite congenial to the American public. Liberal Democrats love to stir up class warfare, and in this year’s presidential campaign we can be sure that Barack Obama will do his utmost to capitalize on envy of the wealthy citizens who profit most from tax cuts (since they pay the most taxes). But Jack Kemp had an important insight into a healthier aspect of human nature: the ordinary wage-earner will not spend much time worrying that economic policies are helping the rich grow richer, as long as they are helping his family grow richer, too. Resentments against the wealthy go only so far, since most Americans hope that they, or at least their children, will be wealthy themselves some day.

The Case for Polarized Politics is not primarily a book about supply-side economics, of course. Bell concentrates mainly on the “social issues,” the issues of sexuality and life and family. But he argues persuasively that the conservative arguments on these issues—the arguments for reviving traditional moral standards—are also popular with voters when they are presented in a positive light. Bell is persuaded that the GOP strategists who instruct their candidates to shy away from the social issues are entirely wrong. An attractive candidate who seizes these issues and makes winsome arguments will prove a winner, Bell believes.

Moreover, he reasons, a conservative approach to the social issues is fully compatible with sound public policies on other matters. Solid intact families are the basis for a solid intact economy; they are the mainspring of society’s economic mechanism. A prudent emphasis on the social issues can be part of an overall vision that recalls America to its political heritage as a society based on freedom, self-sufficiency, and opportunity; on family and on faith. This is a vision that most Americans—and therefore most voters—would willingly embrace.

For roughly 100 pages of the book, Bell bolsters that claim with an interesting analysis of recent American political history. He shows how conservative candidates profited at the polls when they emphasized the social issues, and yet, paradoxically, how Republican leaders were often persuaded to leave those issues behind, and pass up some important opportunities to advance not only their own electoral prospects but also the welfare of American society as a whole.

Then, having completed that review of contemporary American political trends, Bell gives the reader an unexpected bonus. He goes on to make a much more ambitious historical analysis of ideological trends in the Western world over the past several centuries. The second half of his book is devoted to the thesis that American conservatism represents a unique strain in Western political thought: a strain that he calls the “conservative enlightenment.” Here I think Bell could make a significant contribution to the understanding of American Catholic readers who struggle to understand the political outlook of Vatican officials.

In Europe, two stream of thought emerged from the Enlightenment. One favored secularism, the rule of reason, and the rights of commoners; the other supported religion, the natural law, and the established authority of the nobility. That division did not, indeed could not, take place in America, where the colonies did not have the same tradition of an established church and titled nobility. In Europe today, to be “conservative” still implies sympathies for the ancien regime; in the US there is no ancien regime to defend.

Consequently, the terms “liberal” and “conservatives” mean quite different things in Europe and in America. A European “liberal” who supports laissez-faire economic policies would be more comfortable with “conservative economic policies in the US. An American “conservative” of Reaganite stripe cannot be easily classified as either Whig or Tory. Confusion over political labels often interferes with Americans’ understanding of Europe, and Europeans’ understanding of the US. In America, Jeffrey Bell argues, there is a unique strain of political thought that is almost unknown in Europe. The “conservative enlightenment” embraces both religious faith and democratic government, both individual freedom and moral law, both economic liberties and family duties. Rooted in the natural-law reasoning that informs the Declaration of Independence, the defenders of the ‘”conservative enlightenment” (which is to say most Americans, according to Bell’s analysis) are as comfortable with classically conservative arguments on the social issues as they are with classically liberal arguments on economic affairs.

Since the 1960s, Bell argues, American liberalism has jumped the rails of the “conservative enlightenment” tradition and become more closely identifiable with the European Left, militantly secular and socialist. All the more reason for conservatives to maintain the best of a distinctively American political tradition. In the process, American Christians might help their European counterparts to grasp the critical importance of defending life, faith, and family on the political battlegrounds of the 21st century.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Apr. 20, 2012 5:19 PM ET USA

    Great column from Phil. Maybe in his next one, he'll take note of the invoking of the Catholic principle of SUBSIDIARITY by Cong. Paul Ryan and the fact that this principle seems to be unknown at the USCCB.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 18, 2012 1:31 PM ET USA

    The trick here is that you have to be very tactful and diplomatic in your strength and clarity. Although Santorum was strong and clear, he lacked the necessary tact and diplomacy to avoid damaging sound-bites and went from leading polls with double-digit leads to losing within a matter of weeks because he chose to use his new-found fame as a soapbox for important but contextually irrelevant issues. As evil as our media can be, you can't avoid the new requirement of being media savvy.