Since the election, rather a lot of ink (if not quite blood) has flowed through RightWorld in answer to such questions as: Why don’t the cool kids like us? Is it the social conservatives? Is it their primitive tribal god? Are the Neanderthals scaring away thoughtful folk with inarticulate grunting noises? How shall we taxonomize Sarah Palin — or shall we diagnose her instead? A cancer, or some non-terminal disorder?
As Ramesh Ponnuru argues very persuasively in the current issue of National Review, the evidence — the election results, the exit polls — simply don’t support the thesis that socially conservative positions have cost Republicans more votes than they’ve won. Those who feel otherwise have tended to be long on condescension and short on facts.
All the same, I think they may be on to something. But I don’t think it’s what they think it is. To me, they’re like people looking at a giant mural and describing what they see in one tiny corner as though it were the whole. I’ll tell you what I mean — but first, a little story.
The Saturday night before Election Day I found myself on the roof of a condo in Santa Monica with about twenty twentysomething Californians. We were talking about music and politics, and regarding this latter one said: “Republicans are socially awkward. They’re stiff. They have a hard time talking to people. They dislike music and the outdoors. They’re just different from us.”
I thought of offering a rebuttal, but then his remark got me daydreaming about these, my beloved skis: about the way they float in thigh-deep powder, and the way they push little clouds of snow in front of me when I turn, and the way these snowclouds spray my face as I fly through them on the next turn, and how very loathsome all of this is. Then the topic changed and my next two statements were about Abbey Road and The Art of Fugue, both of which I listen to from time to time that I might freshly experience the horror of music and better appreciate the blessed silence following a double bar.
I relate this snippet of conversation because it is representative of many comments I have heard from persons similar to me in age, educational background, and personality. It might have come from a good 70 percent of my friends. One thing such comments reveal about those who make them is that their heads are filled with pictures of what it means to be a conservative, and the pictures aren’t good. They are not political so much as moral and aesthetic, and what they add up to is: Conservatives ain’t my kinda people.
The first thing I should say about this is that I don’t really know how much it matters in tactical politicking. A good number of tacticians seem to think it matters a lot, but my interest is personal. It perplexes me that so many of my friends find my worldview so outrageous. Sometimes I think about why that might be.
Which brings me to my main point: The “Is social conservatism sinking us?” framework is too simple. It obscures, or at least distracts attention from, a number of distinctions that are relevant to understanding why the cool kids think conservatives are bogeymen. Consider:
Social issues versus moral issues.
I think recent commentary has focused on social conservatism because social issues tend to excite voter passions in a way that budgetary matters and trade policy do not. When people have debates about abortion, they aren’t thinking: “How can we exercise prudence in the service of a shared goal?” They are thinking — on both sides — “What you advocate is evil.” This makes it easy for them to suppose that those who disagree with them are not simply mistaken, but wicked.