A review of The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, by Jeffrey Bell

Jeffrey Bell, a longtime conservative activist and former president of the Manhattan Institute, has written a book that attempts a novel reinterpretation of American social conservatism and of American exceptionalism. His thesis is that what distinguishes the U.S. from Europe, socially and politically, is the social conservative movement, a claim in which this movement's friends and foes alike may find merit. The distinctive characteristic of this movement, according to Bell, is literal belief in the most-quoted sentence of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Bell acknowledges that other Americans prize freedom and equality, as they understand them. But those Americans who believe that truths can be self-evident, or that rights are the gift of God and not of governments, are very likely to be social conservatives.

In the first half of the book Bell discusses the rise of social conservatism and the replacement of a class-based party politics with a values-based one. He dismisses the widely accepted idea that social conservatism has made the Republican Party less electable. Democrats won seven of nine presidential elections from 1932 to 1964, during an era of class-based politics. Since social issues began to rise in prominence in 1968, however, Republicans have won seven of eleven presidential elections.

It was a social conservative backlash against hippies and protesters that created Richard Nixon's "silent majority" and began to propel hard-hat Democrats rightward. The Democrats tried to bring social conservatives back into their coalition by nominating a Southern evangelical Christian, Jimmy Carter, for president in 1976—and it worked, temporarily. But for a number of reasons, of which Bell considers the increasing opposition of conservative Protestants to abortion the most important, this gambit had clearly failed by 1980. During those four years, Bell writes, the Democratic percentage of conservative white Protestant voters went from the low 60s to the high 30s.

It sank further, to the high teens, in 1984, after a campaign in which moral and religious issues played a significant, though not the dominant, role. President Ronald Reagan had not only allied with social conservatives, but stood for (as a 1976 platform plank he fought for called it) "morality in foreign policy"—something Bell considers a logical extension of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

The Democratic presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, called President Reagan an "ayatollah" who favored a dangerous blurring of the lines between church and state, but this attack did not seem to benefit him. The Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro, was a Catholic who favored abortion, which led the archbishop of New York to criticize her. Reagan's landslide victory confirmed the new shape of religious politics in the U.S., as conservative Protestants and Catholics began an alliance.

Bell sees 1988 as the first presidential election swung by social conservatism: George H.W. Bush erased the Democrats' summer lead in the polls by portraying Michael Dukakis as an aggressive secularist who was soft on crime and ambivalent about patriotism. Bell argues that notwithstanding this success, Republican elites were always uncomfortable with social issues, and sometimes disdainful of the voters who care about them. They were uncomfortable, too, with the polarization that naturally attended social-issues politics. As president, Bush downplayed the social issues (as well as the missionary character of U.S. foreign policy). Republicans in the Clinton years were reluctant to run political advertisements concerning abortion, even on specific issues, such as partial-birth abortion, where the public strongly favored the Republican position.

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Bell sees a similar pattern in the presidency of Bush's son. By the 2000s the country was firmly divided on social issues, with George W. Bush winning almost no socially liberal states. Social conservatism and foreign-policy moralism produced polarization and political gains in his first term. It was the social issues—Bell especially credits the burgeoning controversy over same-sex marriage—that won Bush re-election. A fifth of the electorate said that their top voting concerns were issues of moral values, and they overwhelmingly preferred Bush. His opponent John Kerry carried the rest of the electorate. Bell believes that the beginning of Bush's undoing in his second term was a vain attempt to reduce polarization in Washington. In pursuit of this objective Bush dropped the constitutional amendment on marriage he had earlier proposed.

This portion of the book ends with the election of Barack Obama, which some observers at the time thought might end the red-blue polarization of American politics, but obviously has not. Bell then steps back to take a broader historical view in the book's second half, which traces the conflict between Left and Right back to the disjunction between the "conservative enlightenment" and the "left enlightenment." The former—basically, the Anglo-Saxons plus Montesquieu—opposed monarchy and favored formal political equality. The latter sought a more thoroughgoing, far less attainable form of equality, thus requiring the empowerment of a political elite to guide society through the many necessary transformations. The Left enlightenment's ultimate goal is to abolish or at least tame institutions—notably the family and organized religion—that restrain individual autonomy.

The conservative enlightenment was hobbled in Europe, first by the persistent strength of supporters of the old regime, then by the necessity of a throne-and-altar alliance with those supporters. State support for churches, which enervated religious practice and belief, made the situation worse. The sexual revolution did not lead to any conservative resurgence in reaction there, as it did here. Instead, socially conservative forces in Europe simply collapsed. Today Europe is unchurched, and in consequence, Bell suggests, is proving unable to sustain itself demographically.

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While optimistic about the U.S., he worries about our demographic future as well. He notes that adding the abortion and birth rates would yield a fertility rate above the replacement level. These statistics persuade Bell that "abortion is doing much if not most of the work in reducing birth rates."

On this point he seems to me simply mistaken. His error is the common one of ignoring how the availability of abortion brings about increased non-marital sexual activity and diminished reliance on birth control, thereby increasing the rate of conception. If that effect is strong enough then even a large percentage of pregnancies could end in abortion, as they do today in the U.S., with only a modest impact on the birth rate. One study suggests that the legalization of abortion increased conception rates by 30% and reduced birth rates by only 6%. It may be that the same cultural changes that made abortion more acceptable in the U.S. have also suppressed the birth rate, but the link is less direct than Bell believes.

He also leaves us with some unanswered questions. Several concern the nature of contemporary social conservatism. It is easy to see how a belief in equal rights given by God would undergird social conservatives' opposition to abortion. But it is harder to see how it fits with their other top priority over the last decade: opposition to same-sex marriage. In that debate it has been social liberals who have invoked equality.

Bell draws a line from the social conservatism of Nixon to Reagan and then to the Bushes. But Nixon's law-and-order campaign was also not, at least in any obvious way, egalitarian; it was not logically connected to the anti-abortion position, which in any case in later years he indicated he did not share; and it was not especially Christian in sensibility. Whatever connects Nixonian social conservatism to contemporary social conservatism may have little to do with the Declaration of Independence. The same ambiguity in the definition of a "social issue" plagues Bell's discussion of the 1988 campaign, which treats Dukakis's positions on prison furloughs and the Pledge of Allegiance as of a piece. In an important sense of course they were of a piece: They were pieces of the liberal orthodoxy of the era. But these were issues that socially unconservative politicians such as Pete Wilson and Bill Weld were perfectly willing to debate, suggesting that something sets them apart from abortion, marriage, school prayer, and the like.

Bell also neglects the possibility that overreaching social liberalism, not social conservatism, accounts for America's distinctive political polarization. It is true that the U.S. has a robust social conservatism that other developed countries lack, and it is true that the relative religiosity of Americans has long been noted. But it is also true that no other developed country, save Canada, has an abortion regime as liberal and undemocratic as ours. Roe v. Wade (1973) overturned the laws of all 50 states and effectively made abortion legal at any stage of pregnancy, for any reason. And it read that policy into the nation's fundamental law. It thus raised the already-high stakes of the debate, made compromise in that debate even harder than it would have been, and gave opponents of abortion reason to feel that the system had been stacked against them. It is at least possible that Roe v. Wade accounts for the strength and assertiveness of American social conservatism. By the same token, it is plausible that same-sex marriage would have proven a less polarizing issue had it advanced primarily through legislatures, rather than primarily through courts.

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There is, finally, a curious blind spot obscuring the political role of public opinion in Bell's account of social conservatism. The timidity of Republicans on abortion circa 1990 reflected the fact that public opinion on the subject had been moving left for years by that time. The comparative boldness of Republicans on the subject during the last decade reflects that this trend has reversed. (Probably for four principal reasons: the diffusion of ultrasound technology, the growing acceptability of illegitimacy, the campaign against partial-birth abortion, and the decline of anti-abortion violence.)

Bell is quite persuasive in arguing that conservative positions on social issues are not an albatross for Republicans. But he is less persuasive in arguing that Republicans have no reason to be careful in raising those issues. It's important to distinguish these two propositions, and Bell does not. There is good evidence, for example, that being opposed to abortion wins a presidential candidate votes, all things being equal. But there is also good evidence that most voters do not much like hearing (or thinking) about abortion policy.

At one point Bell describes it as "paradoxical" that social issues should have become the organizing principle of party politics even though both parties have been reticent about them. But if the parties have largely sorted themselves out on moral issues, isn't that what you would expect? If social conservatives almost all belong to one party and social liberals to another, neither party will be able to expand much by emphasizing social issues.

As it happens, though, that isn't a good description of the American political situation, because a large group of social conservatives remain firmly in the party dominated by social liberals. If social conservatives find a way to bring these voters, many of whom are black and Hispanic, into an effective coalition, then I suspect that Bell would be quite pleased to find that American politics had become, if still polarized, much less evenly matched.