Social conservatives, more than any segment of the Republican Party, have suffered a grievous blow this presidential cycle. They have proved themselves entirely powerless to stop the impending nomination of a thrice-married, lying casino operator with no affection for their issues (e.g. defunding Planned Parenthood, reversing gay marriage). Worse, characters such as Jerry Falwell Jr., who endorsed Donald Trump, have helped make Trump respectable and acceptable. The message to all future GOP contenders is: It’s perfectly fine to ignore evangelical voters or treat them as fools.
It’s understandable that social conservatives are frustrated, but attacks on Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson verge on comical. Timothy Carney rages:
[William] Weld and Johnson held their first post-nomination joint interview on Tuesday, on liberal network MSNBC. “We’ve never bought into this anti-choice, anti-gay…sense of the Republican Party,” Weld said, as his first comment to the national television audience.
The message was clear: We don’t need those backward Christian Right bozos as much we need as you MSNBCers.
Actually, Trump carried that message, and from the results, Trump, Johnson and Weld are astute judges of the electorate.
Let’s begin with the obvious. Johnson and Weld don’t believe in the social conservative agenda. Agree with them or not, but they are personal-liberty folk who do not think the government should be restricting marriage or abortion (or drugs, for that matter). They are under no obligation to “reach out to social conservatives this election,” as Carney says, nor would it necessarily “expand the coalition, and maybe help persuade some social conservatives that the fight today is mostly about limiting government’s role in our lives.”
For one thing, Libertarians would lose their base, and for another, most social conservatives are not going to be lured by the prospect of fudging on abortion or gay marriage. (Johnson and Weld ascribe to the “serve all comers” side in the wedding cake wars, in keeping with Johnson’s affection for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)
If the social conservatives have no home, it is not the fault of Johnson or Weld. The fault lies elsewhere.
First and foremost, social conservatives dug their own political graves when they treated lost causes as make-or-break issues. Gay marriage is not going away, and continued determination to defy the Supreme Court or to pass a constitutional amendment reveals how marginal they are in 21st-century America. They’ve made themselves into fringe characters, unwilling to accept a changing American landscape. Even young evangelicals now favor gay marriage in large numbers. When you cannot convince your own side of your position, it’s time to give up the ghost. In counseling defiance of the Supreme Court, they ceased to be constitutional conservatives and became cheerleaders for lawlessness.
Second, social conservatives failed to attend to meaningful problems in which they could have been major players. Social conservative leaders who poked and prodded the candidates in “values voters” gatherings did not quiz candidates on their anti-poverty positions, nor did they take up the cause of prison reform. That might have expanded their reach, making them relevant and the GOP more accessible to voters. They’ve been largely silent as Trump broke new ground in vulgarity and cruelty. Those concerned with a coarsening culture demanded virtually nothing of candidates who simply checked the box on their issues.
Third, social conservatives have come to resemble the negative stereotypes perpetrated by liberals. In harsh and scolding tones, they declare their support for mass deportation (which tears apart families, making a mockery of “family values”). They’ve ignored character as a factor in public life. Those on the “Impeach Clinton bandwagon” show zero concern over Trump’s serial adultery, dishonesty and cruelty. Where were evangelical leaders (other than Russell Moore) to condemn Trump and deny him support after he mocked a disabled reporter, used vulgar taunts against women and insulted POWs?
Social conservatives after 2016 should, like all Republicans, engage in some self-reflection. They’ve lost credibility and influence. They represent a declining segment of the electorate. To reclaim their political influence — if that is what they desire (as opposed to devoting themselves to communities and repairing the culture) — they are going to need to consider a different issue set and a radically different tone. Screeching at Libertarians is no way to start.