The Corner

Against Inevitability

Some of my social-conservative friends are worried that there is an inevitable leftward-ratchet phenomenon in American culture: that liberal proposals which are considered outrageous one day are eventually considered normal, and that the liberals then move on to the next social-liberal goal, which is initially considered outrageous and then inevitably accepted by conservatives, and so on in perpetuity.

Some evidence that seems to support this hypothesis comes today, in an American Spectator article by Peter Ferrara. His essay begins as follows:


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 50 years ago, in the landmark case of Griswold v. Connecticut 381 U.S. 479 (1965), that state governments do not have the legal power under the U.S. Constitution to ban contraceptives. That means that any attempted state prohibition on contraceptives would be unconstitutional and legally inoperative.

Yet, former Democrat National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, running for governor this year in Virginia against conservative Republican Ken Cuccinelli, is telling women in the state that they must vote for him and the Democrats, or else Cuccinelli and the Republicans will take away their contraceptives. Then there will be no more sex in Virginia without babies.

Never mind that neither Cuccinelli nor any other Republican has even proposed any such preposterous thing. McAuliffe and the Democrats think women in Virginia are too stupid to know what their constitutional rights are, and that they can be played for fools into voting Democrat. McAuliffe, whose career has been as a top Democrat Party fundraiser, thinks that with the millions and millions he has raised from liberal Democrats nationally he can smear Cuccinelli and the Republicans into oblivion.

The Supreme Court made a ruling 50 years ago, you see, so it’s “preposterous” and a “smear” — a smear, actually, that only women who are “fools” and “too stupid to know what their constitutional rights are” could possibly believe — to suggest that conservatives would want to take away the right to contraception. The Supreme Court made its decision, once and for all, so legal contraception is — to invoke the phrase so often inflicted upon us by liberals in defense of Obamacare – “the law of the land.” It can no more be opposed by sensible people than the Ten Commandments.

This would seem to bear out the analysis of the social-conservative friends I mentioned above. There are, to be sure, many social-conservative intellectuals today who oppose contraception — they cannot seem even to mention Pope Paul VI’s 1968 anti-contraception encyclical Humanae Vitae without adding the adjective “prophetic” to it — but their opposition has been essentially neutered and privatized. They can say they don’t like the idea of contraception, because it devastates society by striking at the heart of the family unit, by delinking sex and fertility — but the notion that they might ever try to reflect this opinion in law is an unbearable smear.

It’s easy enough to see how a parallel phenomenon might work out with gay marriage. Today, gay marriage is viewed by many conservatives as a threat to the very underpinnings of the social building blocks of the moral foundation of the bedrock of etc. etc. Fifty years from now, liberals will accuse some conservative of trying to get rid of it, and conservatives will cry “Slander!”

It seems like a rather compelling paradigm? But: no. There are simply too many compelling counterexamples for me to believe in these historical inevitabilities. When I was a boy in the 1970s, feminism was the established orthodoxy. But a couple of decades later, there was a cultural backlash against feminism — I might even invoke Mitt Romney’s delightful adjective from last year, and call the backlash “severe” — and people were making piles of money by writing anti-feminist books. This anti-feminist backlash has weakened somewhat in recent years, but it was strong, and it still has a lot of political power today. Even most people with strong feminist convictions eschew the word “feminist.”

And, to my especial delight, there is the pro-life movement. The Supreme Court has effectively legislated a right to abortion on demand — but the American political process has been moving in the opposite direction, toward greater restrictions on abortion. In a country in which 20somethings are more opposed to abortion than 50somethings, the idea that the Supreme Court has “settled” abortion on demand as the eternal “law of the land” is as ridiculous as the notion that Dred Scott couldn’t be overturned. Law and public policy, in our democratic system, eventually end up reflecting the character of the people: This fact often terrifies me, but in some important areas it also gives cause for hope. 

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