Now taking his third shot at the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from New Jersey, Jeffrey Bell has spent his career warning of the risks of kicking the cultural leg out from under Ronald Reagan’s coalition of defense, economic, and social conservatives. Indeed, his 2012 magnum opus, The Case for Polarized Politics, argues that social conservatism, rooted in the moderate Enlightenment that informed the Founders, is indispensable to American exceptionalism and to any Republican resurgence in our time.
But the political theorist overstates the ability of even the most skillful defense of bourgeois social norms to help a party that, in the post-Reagan era, has delivered few economic benefits to Middle America, the very segment of the population where social-conservative ideals have the most traction. Given the social and economic dislocations of the past 25 years, which have downsized the middle class — and thus the once-great Reagan coalition — such appeals motivate fewer voters than they once did.
Consequently, social conservatives face a dilemma. While rightly insisting that the party take their concerns seriously, pro-family leaders have largely gone along with the shift in U.S. economic and trade policies, starting with the George H. W. Bush presidency and the Bill Clinton–Newt Gingrich era, that have left their own constituency behind. This ominous departure from the Reagan consensus — via policies sacrificing a national high-wage economy to the gods of globalization and financialization — has pampered the upper-income set, Wall Street, and multinational corporations but has liquidated the GOP’s natural base of religious conservatives, Reagan Democrats, and middle-income voters.
No wonder the Republican electoral batting average has plummeted over the last six presidential elections. Bell thinks that consistently and properly framing social issues would reverse the free-fall. Yet the two most recent of the four GOP presidential victories that he lifts up as models (1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004) were anything but triumphs. George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000; he barely squeaked by four years later, winning fewer electoral votes than Richard Nixon won in 1968. The party’s failure to rack up even 300 electoral votes in those two contests suggests that the GOP no longer understands what Bush 41 veteran Lloyd Green calls the transactional nature of elections: that voters expect something in return from a party to which they give their votes.
Republicans surely acted upon these realities from 1952 to 1988, when they went seven for ten in presidential elections, averaging 367 electoral votes in those ten contests. All three Republicans who won second terms — Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan — promised and delivered tangible benefits to a broad swath of the American public. Those deliverables included millions of stable family-wage jobs with dependent benefits, higher Social Security checks for retirees, and bold defense and infrastructure initiatives that kept domestic manufacturing alive, turned the wheels of innovation, and boosted living standards. In contrast, the last two-term GOP winner, George W. Bush, presided over a lost decade, the first since the 1930s to record zero net job creation.
Social conservatives raise a good point: The legal deconstruction of family- and child-centered mores — pursued since the 1970s by a rising American adversarial class in cahoots with the global Left — cannot be ignored as a source of the current malaise. Nevertheless, they could really help the party with an alternative economic agenda that would reverse the descent of Middle America into a Hunger Games–type wasteland even as stocks surge to record highs.
Indeed, pro-family strategists can draw on a respectable history of economic thought that begins with the pioneer of their movement, Theodore Roosevelt, who considered the natural family a critical component of American identity. Although some conservatives balk at his brand of progressivism, the 26th president leaned on Pope Leo XIII, the British journalist G. K. Chesterton, and Dutch prime minister Abraham Kuyper to protect motherhood, children, and average working stiffs from the naked forces of industrialization. Policies he championed as “the highest and wisest form of conservatism” kept America from turning socialist.
Social conservatives have nothing to lose in drawing on that heritage. The party’s hopes will only be dashed again in 2016 if Republicans bring out the same old talking points, even if dressed up as “reform conservatism,” the latest attempt among the party’s best and brightest to salvage an economic message that the voters have rejected. This influential crowd still accepts outsourcing and the free-trade regime, offers no plan to rebuild our defense and industrial infrastructure base, and entertains notions of helping the poor and illegal immigrants — never reliable sources of GOP votes — while advancing a strategy aimed at cutting popular earned-benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare.
But with a promising vision that elevates the needs of average Americans above the demands of global markets, and a commitment to delivering tangibles to an anxious electorate, social conservatives could help restore the Eisenhower/Nixon/Reagan magic. And Jeffrey Bell might find more Americans siding with his social-conservative underdogs, not with powerful elites, in the ongoing struggle to define the meaning of America.
— Robert W. Patterson, a veteran of the administrations of President George W. Bush and Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, was editor of The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, from 2009 to 2012.