Growing up, there was a U-Totem just a block from my cousin’s trailer park. We used to walk there to buy candy cigarettes and a brand of gum that came in a fake Skoal can.
I developed a pack-a-day candy cigarette habit on my summer visits.
Apparently those chalky sugar cigarettes I loved as a kid were never outlawed. This summer I found them in a specialty candy store in Nashville. My kids couldn’t grasp the appeal. When I showed them the candy they looked at me like I was offering them a box of spiders and warily refused the treat.
Social conservatives could learn a lot from public health and safety campaigns of the last generation. With relatively modest legislative support those efforts transformed our culture at its core in a very short time. Instead of leading with prohibition they chipped away at the culture with a steady onslaught of reason, science and careful political pressure. Anti-tobacco activists successfully slashed the incidence of a practice that was not only a cultural icon, but a physical addiction.
This lesson is important because culture issues remain Republicans’ core differentiator. Those issues, when stripped of hysteria and extremism, are perhaps more popular than they have ever been, yet social conservatives are a serious electoral drag. Republicans need to find a strategy that preserves the high ground on culture issues while avoiding authoritarian policies that frighten voters.
Social conservatism, at its best, represents an optimism born of the understanding that law can never be separated from morality and that right always prevails over time. To borrow Dr. King’s phrase, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. This confidence, when embraced, gives rise to an open-minded fearlessness that forms a powerful draw. There is much in our modern era to fuel this kind of confidence.
A social conservative from the ‘70’s, plopped down into our age, might be thrilled by what they found as most of the greatest fears of their era have faded. Divorce rates have not only leveled off, but declined. Children are treated with near-reverence, buckled up, cherished, and sheltered from negative influences. New York’s Times Square in our time is a ’70′s conservative’s wildest fantasy made real.
Substance abuse, crime, and smoking not only halted their rise, they have declined significantly. Public disapproval of adultery has strengthened. Abortion is in steady, long-term decline. Teen sexual activity and pregnancy are in dropping.
Our visitor from the ‘70’s would be treated to one particularly mind-boggling phenomenon. Homosexuals, once mistakenly derided as lust-driven deviants, are pressing for the right to settle down in stable families and raise children. The Village People now have entirely different plans for the YMCA – signing their kids up for soccer and gymnastics.
By most reasonable measures, social conservatism has experienced a generation of triumph. So why are today’s family values advocates such a gloomy bunch?
Social conservatism can be confident when its goals are rooted in the real world of rational, measurable outcomes, but there is a tendency among the rigidly religious to view the wider world with fear rather than confidence. When social conservatism becomes dominated by insecurity, dark authoritarian impulses emerge that set it at odds both with traditional conservative values and with the mainstream of American public opinion.
We live in an age of near-continuous social transformation. That reality of wrenching, dislocating change is causing heartburn for religious conservatives of all faiths globally. Their discomfort is rising toward a crescendo of blind, apocalyptic terror as the predictable assumptions of the past all fall into question. Their paranoia is pressuring the wider political movements which depend on their support.
Social conservatism, at its worst, can be a political gateway drug, paving the way to ugly tendencies toward religious fundamentalism, bigotry and repression. When “values voters” are motivated primarily by fear, their political movements descend into identity politics. Their failures in this past election are just the tip of the iceberg. If social conservatives cannot soon find a broader ethnic and racial foundation a political eclipse looms.
The greatest real-world challenge facing social conservatives in our era is the way in which lower income Americans are seeing their lifestyle and opportunities decline relative to the more affluent. Under the pressure of falling wages for unskilled labor, rising education costs, and the growing challenge of obtaining quality healthcare, lower earners are seeing every pillar of their social networks crumble. In those communities, family life and traditional values are crumbling along with their economic prospects.
Among those who are struggling to survive many of the positive cultural trends that have improved the quality of life for everyone else are nowhere in evidence. Social conservatives have a critical role to play in spreading values that not only promote family welfare, but improve the chances of material success.
They cannot accomplish those goals while mired in racially-tinged apocalyptic fears. The Great White Freakout has hit social conservatives hard, devastating their ability to spread their message across cultural boundaries.
The insight that social conservatives could bring to the most pressing economic issue of our time is their recognition of the crucial role of moral values in economic success. The problems facing lower income Americans cannot be solved with government programs alone. By the same token, they cannot be solved with a reflective urge to prohibit, repress, and scourge.
As David Frum explained, “If social conservatives can shift away from the urge to ban and condemn, and instead think more about how to support and encourage, they can be a rich source of inspiration for the larger conservative world and the Republican party in the years ahead.”
A broad swath of Americans of all ethnicities and religions are open to the core values of social conservatism. An overwhelming majority of Americans are spiritual, values-oriented, prepared to sacrifice their own personal desires to support their families. At the same time they are generally hostile toward religious scolds who want to use the political process to impose their beliefs on others.
Can social conservatives overcome their urge to write religious dogma into legislation and instead use their influence to shore up traditional social and economic values in struggling communities? Can the lessons of the successful science and reason-focused health campaigns of the past generation form a blueprint for a new era of conservative priorities? Their success proves that a values campaign can win if it is based on something more universal than personal religious convictions.
With the right approach and a healthy dose of humility, social conservatives could have a very bright political future. You don’t need to pry the candy cigarettes from my cold dead hands to change public attitudes. Persuasion is more powerful than prohibition in changing a culture.