Can the GOP ignore social conservatives?

For years it has been conventional wisdom that the GOP needs the votes of social conservatives to win elections.  Defined loosely, a “social conservative” is someone who has very traditional, restrictionist views on so-called “social issues” like abortion and same-sex marriage.  These voters are mostly white and evangelical Christians.  They support strong restrictions on abortion and oppose any recognition of gay couples.  In short, they are basically anti-libertarians.  As such, the moderate wing of the party has always them as a necessary but disliked coalition partner.

In recent years, though, the tide has started to turn against this strategy.  The portion of the electorate that votes strictly on social issues is shrinking.  Attitudes are changing on gay rights and, while the country tends to lean pro-life, it’s fairly clear that most voters are repulsed by the extreme views held by some pro-life polticians.  It’s clear, then, that the GOP can’t rely on anti-gay rhetoric and severe positions on abortion to win.

The call, then, naturally is coming from those who never even liked social conservatives to push this portion of the voting population to the wayside.  Some, like my colleague Jeremy Kolassa, argue that the GOP should entirely ignore social conservatives.  The thinking goes that moderating on abortion and gay rights will gather enough new votes to make it possible to live without hardline social cons.

The first problem is, I don’t think the numbers bear this out.  In Jeremy’s own post, he quotes a stat that 26% of the public are white evangelicals.  Now, anyone who has seen recent election results knows that 26%, while not enough to win an election, are certainly enough to lose it if they simply don’t turn out, or even vote third-party.  The GOP has already gotten itself into this pickle with libertarians.  You can’t totally ignore a sizable group without risking this group totally leaving your party.  There’s no way the GOP can live without social cons, as much as Jeremy (and sometimes myself) might like.

The second problem is that it’s not accurate to treat social cons as a strictly monolithic group.  Jeremy quotes Richard Land, a well-known social con who can be seen as representing the extreme end of the group - the part that will never vote for anyone who accepts abortion in any case, or who tolerates homosexuality.  That part of the social con world absolutely must be jettisoned at the nearest airlock and left to shiver in the coldness of space, far from any political power.

But there are also millions of self-described social cons who can see a bigger picture, who care about abortion but also about the economy and fixing entitlements.  Many have made peace with the idea that gay couples should be recognized in some form, even if they don’t believe it should be “marriage” per se.  They may be very traditional but also get that tradition can sometimes be questioned and isn’t infallible.  In short, they are reachable, and shouldn’t be totally ignored.

The key becomes crafting a message that opens the doors to both moderates and reasonable social cons.  Without question, the anti-gay rhetoric simply must be toned down.  Will you lose some voters who think being gay is a sin?  Sure, but they are shrinking in number and don’t matter.  In turn, you’ll gain far more people who can’t support a party that seems to hate so many of its fellow citizens.  And as for abortion, that is more complex… but smart pro-lifers can understand the issue will take time and is best done by changing minds and hearts.  There is a way to make the case without invading privacy and individual rights.

I honestly believe that moderates and many social cons can come to an understanding if we focus on what really affects all of us - the economy, getting government out of our lives, and ensuring we leave a stable, sustainable country to our children.  We’ll disagree over how old the earth is, but that’s really not important in the end.  If we can understand that these arguments pale in comparison to the larger task at hand, I do believe it can create a winning coalition.  So yes, let’s leave behind the Lands of the world who want Christianity enforced at gunpoint.  But for those who care more about the country than legislating morality, the door should still be open.

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