Strange days, indeed: America’s premier Catholic university is preparing to host the most radically pro-abortion politician of any consequence in the United States. At the same time, the Gallup Poll reports that a majority of Americans are describing themselves as “pro life” for the first time since 1995, when Gallup began asking that question.
As Ramesh and others have been pointing out for a long time, the number of Americans who support significant restrictions on abortion, with narrow exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and real threats to the life of the mother, adds up to a solid majority. Which is to say, most Americans are well to the pro-life side of the status quo; George W. Bush’s position is right about in the middle of the American consensus.
Strangely, conservatives are endlessly informed, by the media and by our own “moderates,” that we need to eject the religious/social conservatives, among whom the pro-life camp is the most high-profile faction, from the movement. As a matter of brute politics, this is foolish: Social conservatism has a larger constituency than does country-club Republicanism, though one that is less influential among coastal elites and in the media culture. As a matter of principle, a Republican party whose political ideal can be summed up in the equation “[Barack Obama] – [Jeremiah Wright] + [balanced budget] = 2012 Nominee” doesn’t really stand for much that might be called conservative. My own read is that those who seek to combine suburbanite social liberalism with fiscal restraint would do better to try to inject a modicum of economic conservatism into the Democratic party and to forget the Republicans. (The psephology suggests that this is exactly what they have done, which is probably why Republicans have lost so much ground in the affluent suburbs.)
What is needed in the direst way is new leadership and better arguments on the Religious Right. Religiously informed social conservatism has some tremendously sophisticated and persuasive thinking to support it — think Robert George and the last two popes, for starters — but those are not the dominant voices of the Religious Right which, fairly or unfairly, is still associated with the shrill, televangelist-style approach in much of the public mind. Tone and style matter enormously on sensitive moral issues. The fact that a majority of Americans are today willing to call themselves “pro life” suggests that there’s an opportunity for conservatives here, but it’s one that will be blown if those conservatives who don’t share religious conservatives views cannot set aside their hostility to them, and if we mistake the moderates’ wishful thinking for realpolitick.