"The Tory Party today is united by its fiscal conservatism whereas Republicanism today is principally concerned with social conservatism." So wrote one James Kanagasooriam in the London Daily Telegraph early in the New Year. He was attempting to explain how it was that, in his view, "British and American conservatives are speaking a different language," though the differences are pretty obvious and have been around for a long time. Much more interesting are the similarities--or at least they would have been if they hadn't been obscured by the blaze of hostile publicity which accompanied former Senator Rick Santorum's strong showing in the Iowa caucuses a few days earlier. Mr. Kanagasooriam, who disarmingly described himself as "a Westminster anorak with an interest in all things political," may never have spoken to an actual American conservative, but his anorak--a sort of hooded winter jacket that Britons metonymically associate with nerdishness, rather as Americans do pocket-protectors--must have served as an echo chamber for the American media who had their own reasons for portraying the opposition to President Obama as being "principally concerned with social conservatism."
To be fair, this impression was not created ex nihilo. The Republican candidates were, like most Republicans, to a greater (Mr. Santorum) or lesser (Mitt Romney) degree social conservatives and self-described Christians. So, ostensibly, is Mr. Obama. But few if any of them would have based their challenge to the President on the so-called "social issues" had they not collectively made a devil's bargain with the media for the free publicity of a seemingly endless series of television debates among themselves, beginning a year and a half before the election, in return for which the media got to set the Republican agenda on the candidates's behalf. Most of them were smart enough to know that, in practice, diere can be few things less relevant to a politician in office than his moral and religious beliefs. The American system offers almost no opportunity to him to "impose" such beliefs on others. But there is a large bloc of voters who like to have their own religious beliefs flattered by candidates for the nation's highest office and vote accordingly. For their sake, then, the candidates have to pretend to be intent on oudawing abortion or reining in the judiciary when they know that there is virtually no chance of their doing anything of the kind.
The media surely know this as well as the candidates themselves. If they were genuinely interested in reporting the political contest, they would treat such matters as the symbolic issues they are--interesting to a significant number of strong partisans on both sides but practically irrelevant to the prospective performance in office of those seeking election. But the media are not interested in reporting the political contest. Dominated as they are by Democratic partisans, they use the professed sexual morality of Republicans as a wedge issue in order to portray them as "extremists." Temperamental Utopians themselves, they imagine or pretend to imagine that those with traditional views of sexual morality are intent on setting up an ideal state in which such morality is written into the law and zealously enforced on a reluctant population that, like Shakespeare's Vienna in Measure for Measure, has grown used to sexual laxity--widi no doubt similar results. They often speak of this ideal state as the Republican "theocracy," which is the great straw man of this political season and very useful for distracting people's attention from their real political concerns as measured by pollsters, which are mostly economic and not so favorable to the incumbent.
The public may, indeed, be catching on to the trick. During the first debate after the Iowa result, George Stephanopoulos was booed by a New Hampshire audience for pursuing an absurd hypothetical question about the legal status of nonexistent state efforts to ban contraception. …