The Heart of American Exceptionalism

The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism

  • Jeffrey Bell
  • Encounter Books, 2012; 322 pages, $25.95

For the past twenty years, the conventional wisdom espoused in Republican circles, by establishment types and by many who consider themselves conservative, is that candidates who want to win elections should avoid getting sidetracked into “divisive” social issues. While Democrats aggressively push their liberal social platform through all three branches of government, Republicans seeking public office are admonished to focus on “pocketbook” issues. The Wall Street Journal, for example, often expressed displeasure with the chief challenger to Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination this year, Rick Santorum, for not keeping tax policy and economic growth front and center. This bias against social issues, as well as cluelessness to the interaction between social and economic issues, also explains why party bosses and elected officials have remained virtually silent on state constitutional initiatives, which have succeeded in all thirty states where they have been placed on the ballot, that prevent the courts or legislatures from changing the legal definition of marriage as the natural union between one man and one woman.

GOP-veteran Jeffrey Bell has no patience for such nonsense. In The Case for Polarized Politics, a former campaign and policy advisor to Ronald Reagan and 1978 Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate representing New Jersey advances a compelling argument that social conservatism is absolutely indispensable to Republican election prospects. He points out how GOP presidential triumphs in 1984, 1988, 2000, and especially 2004 had much to do with the victors skillfully addressing social-conservative themes—while the GOP defeats of 1992, 1996, and 2008 featured nominees who embraced the “big tent” theory of diluting social-issue differences with their Democratic counterparts.

Yet Bell is no political hack concerned only with electioneering. A first-rate political scientist and theorist—on par with any established academic in a tenured position—he skillfully navigates through European and American history to explain why social conservatism, what he calls an “ideological heir of the conservative enlightenment” that informed the American founding, is indispensable to American exceptionalism, a favorite theme of conservatives and Tea Party adherents. In Bell’s universe, both American conservatism and exceptionalism are inconceivable apart from social conservatism, which offers the only alternative to the competing political ideologies now seeking dominance on the world stage: the Islam of jihadists and the progressivism of the elitist global left.

Bell is well aware that social conservatism lies at the heart of the heightened “polarization” of American politics, a phenomenon that the media as well as elites of both parties lament and which he claims is unique to the United States but absent from the United Kingdom, the European continent, and Japan. But reflecting the title of his book, he welcomes the controversial nature of social conservatism as a badge of honor. Polarization only occurs on this side of the Atlantic precisely because social conservatives have not capitulated to the radical social agenda of the global left, as have conservatives elsewhere around the world—Prime Minister David Cameron, with his push to create the legal fiction of same-sex marriage in England, being the latest example. As Bell captures the phenomenon:

The left proposes a major change in society—e.g., unilateral divorce, removal of references to God in public places, abortion on demand, suppressing the words “husband” and “wife” as components of the meaning of marriage. Social conservatives mount resistance—at first only polemical, then legislative. If social conservatives have a measure of success at the legislative stage, social liberals bring to bear their dominance of the American legal profession. Their lawyers win judicial rulings proclaiming newly discovered legal and constitutional rights, eventually taking the social issues in question out of the realm of legislation and democratic decision-making. Any attempt by social conservatives to battle this process, particularly in its later stages, is attacked as divisive, a form of bigotry or political extremism, as demagoguery—above all as a cause of political polarization. 

The Roots of Polarization

Bell’s most important achievement is placing the American “culture wars” in historical context, seeing them as the latest version of “a much older struggle between two rival political interpretations of the Enlightenment” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In his accounting, social conservatism as a mass political movement is a stepchild of what scholars call the Anglo-Saxon or “moderate” enlightenment that birthed the politically fruitful American Revolution and founding, events legitimated by a Declaration of Independence appealing to “self-evident truths” and “Nature’s God.” On the other hand, social liberalism descends from the French or radical version of the Enlightenment, what Bell terms the “left enlightenment” shaped by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and which birthed the chaos of the French revolution. While both versions of the Enlightenment shared commitments to equality and demolishing rule by “blood elites,” only the conservative enlightenment preserved Europe’s “age-old monotheistic framework” and respect for marriage and the family while grounding an understanding of human rights, dignity, and equality as flowing from the hand of God, not from the state.

These differences are profound, explains Bell. Like the American founders, social conservatives believe that certain truths are self-evident (and non-negotiable), truths ranging from the nature of marriage and the sanctity of life to innate human dignity and equality, components of natural law that must be respected by civil authorities. In contrast, liberals not only deny the possibility of truth (or at least truth that is accessible to the average citizen), but they also posit human equality and rights only as political objectives to be achieved in the future, as enlightened elites discover secrets unknown to others and impose them on society, with or without the consent of the people. “From its beginning,” notes Bell, citing the Reign of Terror it imposed upon France in the 1790s when it first achieved political power, “the left has attempted to raise up, train, and empower revolutionary vanguards and elites to guide society to its ultimate destination.”

By naming Rousseau, rather than Karl Marx, the father of the left, Bell reveals why liberals were so quick to drop their preoccupation with economic equality to take up the banner of “comprehensive human liberation” during the sexual and feminist upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Of course, Bell concedes that Marxist intellectuals from the influential Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School in Germany, who came to the United States in the 1960s, as well as Antonio Gramsci of Italy, were “dismayed by the resilience of conventional society and morality” and dreamed of dismantling Western institutions from within by undermining bourgeois morality. Nonetheless, Bell makes the point that the sexual revolution enabled the left to recover its original vision of throwing off shackles of social institutions, including family and church, that Rousseau believed stood in the way of individual liberation. Moreover, the social revolution gave the global left a new lease on life at just the right time, when socialism and Communism were losing popular appeal:

If it is correct that Rousseau was the true founder of the left and that the ultimate aim of the left is to deliver humanity to the “state of nature” liberated from corrupted institutions and free of laws and binding obligations, then the seeming collapse in the 1960s of institutions and moral codes all over the world would surely have opened up a vista of definitive, society-wide victory for the left as had no other event or series of events since the modern left was named and took shape in the 1790s.

If these insights don’t put conservatives on guard against the left’s assault on the social order, a more serious threat to the American Way of Life than attacks on capitalism or free markets, nothing will. Indeed, Bell explains how the tumultuous 1960s, featuring student uprisings against “the system” and the counterculture’s disdain for middle-class values and norms, ushered in “a crisis of confidence in the world of elite opinion as a whole” regarding all things traditional, creating a new political fault line that Republicans preoccupied with matters economics often miss. That fault line emerged as elites both in the United States and Western Europe moved uniformly to the left on a host of issues, and increasingly so, while popular opinion in the United States, but nowhere else, “went in precisely the opposite direction—toward conservatism.” Although the development surprised everyone, Bell says the beginning of this “double realignment” is easy to mark, as 1968 “ushered in four decades of presidential politics during which a more conservative yet more populist Republican party gained the upper hand.” 

Adversarial Feminism as Conflict Theory

Driving the new tensions between elite and popular opinion, according to Bell, is “adversarial feminism,” the new “conflict theory” of the left, which since the 1970s sees more to be gained from conducting gender warfare than class warfare, a favorite of the old left. Wholly different from what Allan Carlson terms the classic “maternal feminism” of the New Deal that elevated the status of full-time motherhood and children, this mutated feminism seeks to deconstruct the family, viewing marriage and childbearing as oppressive to female well-being. It has gained traction in virtually every affluent democracy, leading to “the marginalization of traditional faith, family, and ‘self-evident’ morality” that even the triumphs of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in defeating Communism were unable to prevent.

Bell’s analysis explains why the so-called “women’s issues” increasingly distort political discourse, from what Bell calls the “collective mass seizure” that gripped liberals when John McCain selected the pro-life Sarah Palin, a married mother of five, as his running mate in 2008, to President Barack Obama’s attempt to make his birth-control mandate an election issue this year. Yet as Bell points out, the so-called “gender gap” or “war on women” that liberals claim conservatives are waging has little to do with tensions between men and women but more with class differences separating privileged American women in elite positions from their less educated, lower-income, and more numerous sisters who are more likely focused on their marriage and children than on jobs. While adversarial feminists, who market legalized abortion as a “woman’s issue,” dominate the media and the academy, the composition of women in Congress confirms that attitudes regard abortion, as well as other “women’s concerns” like publicly funded contraception and gender-based affirmative action, are more accurately characterized as issues of class, not gender, and transcend party affiliation. Confirming his polarization thesis, Bell finds that of the 535 members of Congress elected in 2008,

there were 72 female Democrats and only 21 female Republicans. Even in the meager ranks of 17 Republican women in the U.S. House, 7 were members of the Main Street Partnership, a publicly disclosed 38-member caucus of the GOP’s moderate-to-liberal wing. This meant that Republican congresswomen were more than twice as likely to define themselves as moderate-to-liberal as their male Republican colleagues were. There is no similar public caucus that classifies U.S. senators, but all 4 of the female Republicans in the Senate in 2009 listed themselves as pro-choice on abortion, as did all 13 Democratic female senators.

The Appeal of Social Conservatism

Odds like these only confirm “why America needs social conservatism,” as the book’s subtitle proclaims. Yet while making his case that a movement scorned by the best and brightest can protect the country from adversarial feminism and preserve American exceptionalism, Bell omits a few points that do not neatly fit his narrative. By focusing on a mass political movement that came into being in the wake of the 1960s, Bell gives short shrift to social conservatism as a shaper of successful public policy pre-dating the era. He has little to say about how the Democratic party, influenced by Catholic social teaching in the New Deal era, was the original pro-family party while the GOP was busy pushing birth-control schemes, Planned Parenthood, and the Equal Rights Amendment as late as 1976. Nor does he acknowledge how social conservatism shaped the American exceptionalism espoused by Theodore Roosevelt, a progressive Republican whom many conservatives do not consider one of their own. Indeed, TR’s creative policy ideas for protecting the average American family against the “creative destruction” of the modern economy laid the groundwork for key reforms. Those reforms include Social Security (which gained bipartisan support with the 1939 Amendments), the family-wage system, and the GOP-led Revenue Act of 1948 that helped inflate the Baby Boom of the 1950s. These substantial policy achievements demonstrate that social conservatism’s appeal may well transcend the political conservatism to which Bell sees it ideologically related.

Moreover, a robust social conservatism may not blend as easily with the Tea Party’s libertarian agenda as Bell supposes. Those setting that agenda seem disinclined to allow family concerns to shape economic policy. To his credit, Bell has advocated for the family-friendly income-tax and Social Security reform plan designed by John Mueller, who serves on this journal’s editorial board—a plan that does not call for “personal accounts” and seeks to equalize tax rates between property and wage income. This stance indicates that Bell understands that economic and social conservatives are not of one mind on tax and entitlement reform. He surely understands they differ on monetary policy, given his current role as director of the Gold Standard initiative at the American Principles Project in Washington, D.C. Yet he sees in their shared commitment to “founding principles” and mistrust of elites potential for a powerful political coalition. That might well materialize, but this reviewer fears that social conservatives will end up being used for election purposes only to have a triumphant GOP show them the back of the bus when the time comes for setting legislative priorities, policy making, and governing.

Reservations aide, The Case for Polarized Politics lays out a must-read manifesto for the social-conservative imperative. In a day when elites of both parties believe that social conservatism counts for little, a day when the GOP narrowly focuses on fiscal matters, Bell demonstrates that social conservatism counts for a great deal. Whether Mitt Romney is listening remains to be seen, but Bell’s analysis suggests that the  GOP presidential nominee will lose to President Obama unless he is willing to take on the social-liberationist left with the same vigor that Ronald Reagan took on Soviet Communism. If Romney chooses not to step up to the plate, and consequently joins the fraternity of failed GOP presidential hopes, all is not lost. As Bell reminds us, social conservatism will continue to touch “a deep chord in millions of Americans” because the movement “fully believes in the core ideas of the American founding.” We’ll just have to wait for a leader who shares Bell’s confidence that social conservatism can save the Union, as did another president who appealed to American ideals in a crisis, Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Patterson is editor of The Family in America.