Things are only inevitable, unstoppable and unchangeable until they aren’t. Through the first week of March, 2012, the progress of the liberal culture war agenda seemed unstoppable. Victories were seen in “same-sex marriage”, abortion, the feminist agenda and Gay rights. Then, a funny thing happened.
The Obama administration had overturned “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and issued a sweeping regulation on contraceptives under “Obamacare” to make sure Catholic hospitals and charities provided contraception and sterilization. A panel of the Ninth Circuit overturned California’s Proposition 8 which would have banned gay marriage. Planned Parenthood, facing the loss of less than one-tenth of one percent of its revenues in the form of grants from the Susan G. Komen Foundation, waged an all-out blitz to restore the funding and won.
At the same time, it seemed the social conservatives were ready to take a pass on the culture war for the 2012 campaign. The standard line was to focus on defeating Obama, and, to do that, conservatives needed to focus on the economic issues and downplay the “culture wars.” It seemed certain that Mitt Romney, the former Governor of one of the most socially liberal states in the country would be the nominee.
Then, two things happened to change the story. The Catholic Church hierarchy, which, for decades, had done everything possible to cooperate with politicians, even when they disagreed, decided a breaking point had been reached. Instead of meekly accepting the command to pay, through insurance, for services the church deemed immoral, they decided to fight. On February 7, Republicans gave a sweeping three state victory to Rick Santorum, who, until that time, had seemed too focused on the cultural issues to be taken seriously.
The assumption has been that with a bad economy, voters are more focused on jobs and employment and the social issues had fallen in importance. Liberals like Thomas Frank in his What’s the Matter with Kansas? argued that the social issues were a diversion by the Republicans to have voters vote against their economic self interest. Polling showed the cultural issues were falling in the list of voters’ concerns.
In the meantime, the Obama administration, which has had, at best, a mediocre record in job creation, has been forceful in pushing the liberal agenda. The same state governments which can’t balance their budgets and deal with their long-term pension problems are successful in passing same-sex marriage bills.
The reason for the Catholic Church’s change is fairly obvious. Many social conservatives wanted them to fight harder before now. The question for politicians of both parties is whether there has now been a serious change in the attitude of voters in general and what will be the impact in the upcoming elections.
If the voters are shifting, why now? Is something happening to make social issues more important, or are they rising as part of a larger issue?
What if the change is part of a larger issue of anger at those in power? President Obama has been trying to stir the public’s anger against the “one percent” by repeatedly pushing for higher taxes on “the rich.” Liberals are hoping the “Occupy” movement will replace the Tea Party and focus public anger on the rich. The Democrats are ready to try to paint Romney as a rich guy who doesn’t “care about the very poor.”
But the public is as angry at politicians as it is at business. The “victories” of the left have shown a combination of deceit, belligerence, arrogance and indifference to public sentiment.
In the 2010 elections, the voters took the control of the House of Representatives from the Democrats and forcefully gave it to the Republicans. Yet, in the waning days of a lame-duck Congress, “Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell” was ended.
The ruling against Proposition 8 continues the arrogance of the judiciary and the governing classes toward the public. Whenever same-sex marriage has been put to a public vote, it has failed. Yet the courts and the politicians continue to push it.
The fight between Planned Parenthood and the Komen Foundation showed the entire media and liberal political class at its most vicious. No dissent from their agenda would be tolerated. It didn’t matter that the Komen Foundation does honorable work for women’s health. It didn’t matter that the impact on Planned Parenthood was minimal. The mafia couldn’t have said it better. Don’t cross us.
The history of the contraception issue and Obamacare is one of deceit and arrogance. Everyone on the right was telling Congressman Bart Stupak and the Congressmen working with him that the Executive Order signed by President Obama to get Obamacare passed was meaningless. Stupak still went along. It is now obvious it was, indeed, meaningless.
Two beliefs have sustained liberals in the push for their agenda. The first is a conviction of moral superiority. The second is the belief that progress, as they see it, is linear and continuous
The attitude of moral superiority is very well described in Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. When one is right and those who disagree are morally inferior, there is no need to take them seriously.
The idea of linear and continuous progress in liberalizing social mores runs is also suspect. In The Fourth Turning, Neil Howe and William Strauss argue that social mores go in eighty year cycles. A period of moral loosening and a focus on individual needs is followed by a tightening of mores and a focus on putting the group first. Their book was published in the 1990’s and they foresaw 2011 as a critical year for a change in direction.
President Obama may well get his wish to have the 2012 election to be about anger, but it is likely to be an anger at the political class and other insiders. With all the talk of a “laser-like focus” on jobs, it is clear that more “progress” has been made on the social agenda than on employment issues. The same President who is willing to forego job creation by blocking the Keystone pipeline is ready to take on the Catholic Church for his social agenda.
So, where does that leave the Republicans and what are they going to do? The assumption had been that Santorum was too focused on social issues to be a successful candidate against Obama. The party needed, it was said, a businessman (Romney) or someone who had fought the Democrats on budget issues (Gingrich) in order to defeat Obama.
But, what if the social agenda becomes a stand-in for anger at the insiders? The “successes” of the left are raising social issue anger to a level matching the anger at economic issues. The resentment is simple to explain. The economy is in serious trouble and “they” haven’t fixed it. All they have done is to continue to ignore the public and push the social agenda. Given that, all the anger about both employment and social issues could come down on the incumbents.
The Republican problem is that many members of the party “establishment” want to ignore the social agenda. Does one really want to have to defend the déclassé views of the lower classes while sipping a fine wine at a Washington soiree? It is best to just hope those issues go away.
Angelo M. Codevilla has written a book about a self-enclosed upper class, The Ruling Class. He defines everyone else as the Country Class. Charles Murray’s latest book Coming Apart talks about the growing distance between the two groups. The dirty little secret in Murray’s book is the difference between the words and actions of the ruling class. As they talk more and more about how we can’t judge unwed mothers and absent fathers in the lower classes, the upper classes have steadily increased their conformance with behaviors that ensure family stability and success.
Santorum has been talking about this. He continually argues that the most important thing we can do to solve many of our social problems and reduce their cost is to reduce the impact of negative social behaviors. His advice is simple:
“Number one, graduate from high school. Number two, get married. Before you have children. If you do those two things, you will be successful economically. What does that mean to a society if everybody did that? What that would mean is that poverty would be no more. If you want to have a strong economy, there are two basic things we can do.”
It is clear we cannot support an ever increasing number of people who lack job skills and have children they can’t afford. The ruling class refusal to condemn or even advise against practices they increasing avoid is both hypocritical and socially destructive. It is absurd that a self-defined class of social experts is willing to control smoking, salts, fats and even light bulbs but unwilling to “butt in” when social behaviors are destroying society and condemning another generation to poverty.
The choice for the Republicans is simple. They can continue to push Mitt Romney, a candidate whose success depends largely on outspending his opponents and lowering voter turnout, or they can step outside the Beltway long enough to try to understand what the public is concerned about.
Santorum needs to convince the public that push for liberalized social mores, the deteriorating social behaviors and the problems in the economy are connected. In the Republican campaign, he needs to tie the other candidates to acceptance of and complicity with that agenda. In the general election campaign, he would have to emphasize Obama’s pushing the social agenda, and the environmental agenda, while Obama has failed to restore jobs.
Neither step is all that difficult to conceive. The question is how long Codevilla’s “Ruling Class” can hold out.