The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism

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The Case for Polarized Polities: Why America Needs Social Conservatism Jeffrey Bell New York: Encounter Books, 2012, 328 pp.

It might seem odd that, in a time when political pundits routinely condemn the rampant if not unprecedented polarization in American polities, one writer would try to make the case that polarized politics is a good thing, but that is indeed what former Reagan advisor Jeffrey Bell attempts in The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism. His arguments to justify an outspoken social conservatism as necessary to both the success of the Republican Party and the long-term success of what he calls "American exceptionalism," however, fall short on several levels.

Bell argues that "social conservatism is not only unlikely to collapse, but that it is becoming increasingly unified and coherent." He believes that if Republican Party elites attempt to sideline the social conservative movement, as he maintains they often have, the GOP's future could be bleak. He recites the impact that social conservatives have had on the political success of the Republican Party, particularly in the 1980s, when it brought in millions of former Democrats disappointed by President Carter's 1978 decision to revoke the tax exempt status of the so-called Christian academies then popular throughout the South. Whereas Jimmy Carter had received the support of 60 to 65 percent of Bible-believing white Protestants in 1976, according the Bell, by 1980, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan won the great majority of these same voters, based on a panoply of social issues of the time (from growing crime to school busing to prayer in the public schools to today's more familiar terrain of abortion and gay rights).

His recognition of these voters' contribution to Reagan's electoral success is understandable, but Bell never acknowledges the seismic shifts in cultural values that have taken place since then, not just among voters generally but also among Republicans. In the 1980s, support for gay rights, the one social issue Bell returns to again and again, was relatively low, and support for same-sex marriage was virtually nonexistent. Even as recently as 2004, the last time social conservative voters arguably had a significant impact on the presidential election (this time on behalf of George W. Bush), a large majority of all voters, including Democrats and independents, opposed same-sex marriage rights. According to a CBS News poll from that year, only 28 percent of adults supported same-sex marriage, while 29 percent supported civil unions mad fully 40 percent opposed any recognition of gay couples. Among Republicans, support was even lower.

Today's polls, however, show a very different America, as well as a very different Republican Party. According to most polls from the past two years, a modest majority of Americans now supports same-sex marriage, including over 60 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents. An even larger majority, around 70 percent, supports either same-sex marriage or civil unions. Support for same-sex marriage among Republicans is, not surprisingly, significantly lower, ranging from the low 20s to nearly 40 percent in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll. But support among Republicans for some kind of legal recognition for gay couples is substantially higher. A Fox News poll from May 2012 showed 57 percent supporting relationship recognition, while a Daily Kos poll from that same month showed 52 percent in support.

The same generational divide we see nationally on this issue also holds true for Republicans. GOP millennials, those ages 18-29, are evenly split on the question: 46 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed. Even among young evangelicals, 43 percent support same-sex marriage. Clearly, this is not your father's Republican Party, and nearly the entire anti-gay policy agenda advocated by the leading Religious Right organizations--support for a federal marriage amendment, opposition to the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, support for reinstating Don't Ask, Don't Tell--are all opposed by a significant majority of rank and file Republicans, let 'alone voters at large. …