The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, by Jeffrey Bell (Encounter, 296 pp., $25.95)
‘Faith is a very, very important part of my life,” said Rick Santorum in a recent Republican presidential debate in Florida, “but it’s a very, very important part of this country. The foundational documents of our country — everybody talks about the Constitution, very, very important. But the Constitution is the ‘how’ of America. It’s the operator’s manual. The ‘why’ of America, who we are as a people, is in the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.’”
As Jeffrey Bell claims in his new book, The Case for Polarized Politics, most social conservatives believe that the central principle asserted in the Declaration of Independence is undeniable. Bell contends that this is what divides social conservatives from social liberals: “Most — not all — social conservatives believe the words in that sentence are literally true. Most — not all — opponents of social conservatism do not believe those words are literally true.”
Social conservatives believe rights are given by the theistic God (most often assumed to be the God of the Bible) and are an irrevocable gift to all humanity, not just Americans. In contrast, social liberals believe rights are social constructs discovered by the process of progressive self-illumination. This divergence of views produces an unbridgeable chasm between social conservatism and social liberalism that has, as Bell argues, “enormous and intensely controversial implications on a wide range of unsettled issues.”
One of the most controversial implications, according to Bell, is that social conservatism creates political polarization in America: “The existence of an American political movement called social conservatism is the main factor that triggers political polarization. If the movement did not exist . . . no political polarization would exist. . . . The absence of comparable movements is why polarization is negligible in Western Europe, if indeed it can be said to exist at all.”
This audacious — and ultimately unconvincing — assertion is one of two central arguments made by Bell. The other is equally controversial, though more defensible: “We have a social-conservative movement because many Americans still believe that the words of the Declaration — that all men are created equal — are literally true. This is the defining battle of our politics.”
The book is divided into two almost equal sections. In the first, “The Rise of Social Conservatism,” Bell traces the history of the social-conservative movement from 1968 until the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. Social conservatism is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. “Fifty years ago the term was seldom used,” says Bell. “Americans with conservative moral and social values were plentiful, then as now, but there was no such thing as a mass political movement or political philosophy built around such values.”
Affluence, rather than religious affiliation, was once the main predictor of whether a person voted for Republicans or for Democrats. From the 1930s to well into the 1960s, neither of the major political parties was considered more or less religious than the other. Religious conservatives focused on their own institutions and kept issues of faith and sexual morals out of the public square. All that changed by 1968.
Over the next several decades, social issues became both more politicized and more polarizing. Demographic cohorts that had once aligned by economic class were beginning to vote based on an increasingly long list of social issues — abortion, school busing, welfare, gun control. Even the reemergence of economic and foreign-policy challenges in the late 1970s and early 1980s could not push the social issues off center stage. Social issues — and social conservatism — were firmly established in the political sphere. Despite the wishes of some conservative Republican elites, says Bell, social conservatism is not only “unlikely to collapse,” but is also “becoming increasingly unified and coherent.”
Bell deftly traces the rise of the movement from the late 1960s onward. Curiously, he devotes only half of this section to the transformative era from 1968 to 2000, and the other half to the George W. Bush presidency — an era of relative stagnation for social conservatism. His peculiar attention to Bush’s record (mostly on economic issues) ends with the provocative claim that Bush’s “chief sin” in the eyes of the Left was not that he was a polarizer or a warmonger, but that he believed that “the Declaration is true, that its values are universal, and that therefore America’s role is to promote those values in the world.” What makes this claim inexplicable is that Bell has spent the previous 60 pages in a masterly effort to convince the reader that Bush was insufficiently committed to the agenda of social conservatism.
Bell presents solid evidence that “Bush made more of an effort to end polarization than any prominent Democrat ever had.” Perhaps a case could be made that Bush’s view of American exceptionalism — rooted in the Declaration — motivated his foreign policy and was the reason he was hated by the Left. But Bell does not make that claim, or provide any reason for thinking it is true.
Bell’s presentation has other problems. For example, he says that a “clarifying moment in the resurgence of the left” was the willingness of many Democrats to polarize the 2002 election around the issue of unionizing Homeland Security workers. Another “polarizing issue” presented by Bell is the outing of CIA official Valerie Plame. However, if Bell’s thesis is correct, then these issues would not be “polarizing” at all, since they were not championed by social conservatives, nor do they have much to do with the literal reading of the Declaration. While Bell deserves credit for not trying to shoehorn the evidence to fit his thesis, he should have explained why the examples he cites do not refute his central claim.
The book’s second section, “Social Conservatism: Origin and Future,” engages in a more thought-provoking examination of the movement. Although social conservatism may have had an influence on politics only over the past five decades, Bell explains that the movement is a continuation of the Anglo-Saxon Enlightenment, or what he calls the “conservative enlightenment.” The primary strand that connects the conservative enlightenment to modern social conservatism is the belief that “there are things that are self-evident.” The most essential political truth for social conservatives is that people, by virtue of being human, are self-evidently equal in dignity.
This is why social conservatives are not shocked by Charles Kesler’s claim that, for American conservatives, the main thing worth conserving is equality. Such innate equality does not, as Bell notes, imply equal abilities by all people in all fields, much less an equality of outcome that requires redistribution of resources. Rather, “the more God-centered one’s view of equality’s origin, the more respect people’s rights must receive in the present.” In contrast, the Left prefers “management toward equality by a semi-permanent vanguard or elite.”
The type of human equality that the Left is in fact moving toward is “perfect, autonomous human freedom.” Indeed, the Left’s credo about equality is revealed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
These two political visions — conservative enlightenment and Left enlightenment — are competing with a third — Islam — for global dominance, concludes Bell. For a variety of reasons, Bell believes that the conservative enlightenment can outperform both the Left and Islam. The most important, “given the relationship of female fertility to the future of any society,” is the role of women, an area where social conservatism has the advantage over these rival ideologies.
While Bell’s arguments are enticing, they are not always compelling — even to those who, like me, are committed to the cause of social conservatism. Yet despite the fact that his thesis is not always persuasive, Bell’s book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of modern politics. Bell may not convince you that politics should be polarized, but he’ll help you to appreciate why America needs social conservatism.
– Mr. Carter is online editor of First Things and a co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus.