Sunday Night Journal — April 29, 2007
Homeless Conservatives: Making it Official?
As often happens, I’ve changed my mind at the last minute about this week’s journal. The catalyst is this post at Crunchy Con and its associated comments, which consider the place of social conservatives in a political realignment which might follow the current troubles of the Republican Party, which is something that’s been on my mind anyway.
Now, it’s not at all new for orthodox Christians to note their differences with both U. S. political parties. The hysterics about “theocracy” coming from people like Kevin Phillips notwithstanding, and the fact that millions of these Christians mostly vote Republican notwithstanding, and the visible attachment of certain prominent Christians (Falwell, Robertson, the Catholic neo-conservatives) to the Republican Party nothwithstanding, the truth, I think, is that most of us don’t have any strong sense of commitment to the Republicans. Prescinding from generalizations about others, and speaking only for myself, I’ve never had any illusions that any political party is anything other than, well, a political party.
In our system that means a coalition of a lot of different interests and a lot of different ideas, held together by the belief or hope that they have enough in common to enable them to agree on a substantial number of policies and to unite behind candidates committed to those policies. The Republican party, loosely considered the conservative party, is a unified expression of conservative ideas and sentiments only in the paranoid fevers (and fund-raising letters) of the left. At a minimum it’s a coalition of social conservatives of whom most but not all are Christians, pragmatic business interests, foreign policy hawks, and libertarians. Anyone capable of defining these terms should be able to see at once that their interests are not identical, although there may be a good deal of overlap among them. I sometimes further simplify this by combining the latter three groups under the term “right-wing,” which is, obviously, not the accepted way of using the term, but seems to me a useful way of separating aggressive nationalism and doctrinaire capitalism from conservatism. The Iraq war, for instance, I would call a right-wing enterprise, but not a conservative one (even though many conservatives support it, and most have not actively opposed it).
The Republican Party is in trouble, and it’s entirely possible that it may decide that its road to survival involves ignoring the social conservatives, who of course have always been disliked and resented by some elements of the party anyway. And whether or not that becomes a deliberate strategy, one can see several scenarios that would cause social conservatives to defect: for instance, the nomination of Rudy Giuliani for president.
This possibility produces no emotional reaction in me at all. My attitude toward the Republican Party has always been notably cold: I have never seen in it enough of my convictions to enable me to identify myself with it, and have regarded it only as the party more likely to do something I want it to do. The only leverage I have in pushing it where I want it to go is my one vote. At what point does it become reasonable for me to withhold that vote?
To withhold my vote would mean either abstaining or voting for a third party. For a number of reasons which I should think are obvious once I’ve described myself as a social conservative, I’m not going to vote for a Democrat as president. I won’t say I would never vote for one, but I don’t foresee it. The argument against this course—not voting, or voting for a third party that has no chance of winning—is that it’s in effect a vote for the party you like least. If you view one party as being at least marginally better than the other and yet do not vote for it, you’ve made it more likely by one vote that the marginally worse party will win. This logic is ironclad; it’s simple arithmetic, and you have to accept it if you’re considering this course.
It’s not, however, the end of the story. Your vote only has persuasive power to the party if they need it to win, and if there’s a chance of your withholding it. If they can take it for granted—truly for granted—you have no power. They can ignore you without risk. If the party is moving away from where you want it to be there may come a time when you have to give the leash a yank, even if it means giving a victory to the party that actively opposes you, because if you don’t you’re going to end up with neither party considering your wishes of any importance whatever. This logic, too, is ironclad, I think.
The time may come when social conservatives are required to issue that reminder to the Republican party. It may come in the 2008 election. But there’s a risk in doing this: when you pull on that leash, it may break or slip off. The party may find that it really doesn’t need you, in which case you could find yourself on the sidelines, yelling to no effect. We may be about to find out just how much purchase socially conservative principles have on the Republican Party and on the electorate in general.