How Conservatives Can Win on Social Issues

by Reihan Salam

On Monday, Jonathan Martin of the New York Times reported on how Democratic and Republican candidates have been adapting to a changing cultural landscape. Rising support for same-sex marriage, for example, has transformed what had been a wedge issue for social conservatives on the right into a wedge issue for social liberals on the left. And on a wide range of issues relating to women in the workforce, including the contraception mandate and pay equity, Democrats have exploited GOP flat-footedness to build upon their traditional advantage among women, and in particular unmarried women. Drawing on the work of Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz, I assume, Martin observes that while white voters without a college degree represented 65 percent of the electorate as recently as 1980, they represented 36 percent as of 2012, and their share continues to shrink. And so, Martin maintains, “a growing presence of liberal millennials, minorities, and a secular, unmarried and educated white voting bloc will most likely force Republicans to recalibrate.”

Ramesh Ponnuru, addressing a similar set of issues in Bloomberg View, sees matters differently. While he recognizes that public attitudes on same-sex marriage and legalized marijuana have changed, and that conservatives will talk less about them as a result, he makes a strong case that abortion is a different matter: first, public opinion has not shifted to the left on abortion; and second, talking less about abortion won’t do conservatives much good. Rather, he argues that conservatives need to identify areas where social conservatives are more closely aligned with the broader public, e.g., on the question of restricting abortions after 20 weeks.

I think that Ponnuru is exactly right. Abortion is a distinctive social issue for many reasons. Recently, J. Alex Kevern and Jeremy Freese, both sociologists at Northwestern University, that differential fertility might play a role:

Differential fertility is frequently overlooked as a meaningful force in longitudinal public opinion change. We examine the effect of fertility on abortion attitudes, a useful case study due to their strong correlation with family size and high parent-child correlation. We test the hypothesis that the comparatively high fertility of pro-life individuals has led to a more pro-life population using 34 years of GSS data (1977-2010). We find evidence that the abortion attitudes have lagged behind a liberalizing trend of other correlated attitudes, and consistent evidence that differential fertility between pro-life and pro-choice individuals has had a significant effect on this pattern.

That is, pro-life adults tend to have more children than pro-choice adults, and the views of children seem to correlate with those of their parents on at least this particular issue. I would argue that we ought to think harder about the political implications of differential fertility as we consider a wide range of policy questions: it is not unreasonable to expect that the children of parents who earn low market wages due to their limited skills and social networks might be more favorably disposed towards redistribution, and so policies that tend to increase labor force participation and average skill levels will have an impact not just on this generation, but also on the next one.

I would go further than Ponnuru. While I agree that abortion is an issue where the Democratic edge on social issues is at best overstated, I tend to think that Republicans are, in theory at least, in a stronger position than Democrats on a variety of other social issues. In his New York Times article, Martin quotes Ben Domenech of The Federalist:

“Just as Democrats had to accept or pretend to accept what was viewed as the cultural center of the country, Republicans are going to have to accept or pretend to accept that the center has shifted,” said Ben Domenech, a conservative writer. “They can respond by pretending it isn’t happening or isn’t a problem. But they have tried that in recent cycles, and it hasn’t really worked. Or they can reorganize around an agenda that favors individual liberty.”

While Domenech and I might disagree on what exactly an agenda that favors individual liberty would look like, I do think that conservatives can and should be the first movers on, for example, creating a more sustainable legislative settlement around the state-level regulation of cannabis. One can easily imagine conservatives arguing that the chief federal concern in regulating cannabis and other controlled substances is in containing the negative interstate spillovers associated with their use, and so if states succeed in containing these spillovers, they ought to be given wide berth to craft their own regulatory regimes — an argument I’ve gleaned from Mark Kleiman of UCLA and Will Baude of the University of Chicago Law School, in somewhat different forms. Similarly, conservatives might try experimenting with, say, empowering states to lower the drinking age, provided (again) they make a convincing case that they can contain negative spillovers. For example, a state might lower its drinking age while also increasing its taxes on alcohol in an effort to control binge use. I can’t confidently say that being the first mover on one of these issues would necessarily redound to the GOP’s advantage. But it would certainly change the conversation, and break the GOP out of its defensive crouch.

Martin cites the recent Republican embrace of allowing for the sale of birth control pills over the counter as a way of parrying liberal attacks. Yet it is actually much more than that — it is an authentically conservative proposal that empowers women, including the many women who will still be uninsured, by choice or otherwise, even if Obamacare, and its Medicaid expansion, firmly takes hold. One hopes that this birth control shift will prefigure a new policy creativity on social issues.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.