A favored cliché of current politics is “It’s the economy, stupid!”—coined in 1992 by Clinton strategist James Carville, who insisted that the candidate and his organization focus on economic issues to take advantage of a weak U.S. economy poorly administered by the incumbent President George H. W. Bush. When Bill Clinton defeated Bush (with a little help from third-party candidate Ross Perot), the cliché became conventional wisdom and has guided most presidential campaigns ever since.
But not all. George W. Bush ran and won as a “compassionate” conservative in 2000, stressing the importance of “character” in a president and advocating the mobilization of faith-based organizations to solve social problems. Two decades earlier, Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter with the help of an estimated six million Southern evangelicals although Carter was a Southerner and his sister was a well-known evangelical preacher. In his acceptance of the Republican Party’s nomination, Reagan summed up his forthcoming campaign in five words: “family, work, neighborhood, peace, freedom” that resonated with Americans of faith.
When Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008 followed convention and stressed the economy, deliberately avoiding social issues, they lost and by rather wide margins. What are we to make of these results? How important is the economy in a political race? Are social issues an advantage or a detriment?
Fortunately for those interested in politics, Jeffrey Bell, a policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a long-time conservative activist, has written a remarkable book, The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, which provides convincing answers to these questions.
Social conservatism, he writes, is not just an essential component of Republican election victories, but “a defining characteristic” by which Republicans know themselves and are known to each other.
Furthermore, he says, “social conservatism has been in recent decades the only mass-based political persuasion that fully believes in and defends the core ideas of the American founding.”
Those ideas are summed up in the second paragraph 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.”
We have all read these words a thousand times. But Bell stresses the cumulative effect of certain words—“truths,” “self-evident,” “created equal,” “Crea-tor,” and “unalienable Rights”—which taken together lead to the conclusion (obvious to social conservatives) that we have been given equal political rights not by government but by God. Furthermore, the rights given by God our creator are given to all peoples and all lands.
In contrast, Bell writes, social liberals believe that equality and human rights are the product of “human enlightenment.” Liberals see a constantly evolving humanity seeking to free themselves not only from political tyrants but “from traditional religion—particularly monotheistic religions.”
All this is laid out for the reader in clear, compelling language in the opening pages of The Case for Polarized Politics. Bell spends the rest of the book persuasively proving his thesis, even suggesting that social conservatism “has a chance to alter the trajectory” not just of U.S. politics but of world history.
The book is filled with brilliant political and historical insights such as:
For the Left, George W. Bush’s “chief sin” was not that he was a polarizer or a warmonger but that he believed the Declaration of Independence to be true and its values universal.
The “conservative enlightenment,” centered in natural law, believes certain things are always wrong—for example, the taking of innocent life is wrong in the present and at all times.
Regarding the Tea Party, Bell points to its respect for the Constitution and its comfort with the idea of American exceptionalism—that is, the universality of the ideas of the Founding. Whether the Tea Party formally joins American social conservatism, says the author, remains a question.
In any event, Bell concludes on a Reagan-like optimistic note, America remains significantly influenced by the conservative enlightenment and therefore a New World able to attract immigrants, thrive in a global economy and live with purpose in an ever changing world.
The Case for Polarized Politics is must reading for social conservatives and all conservatives committed to forging a governing majority. Jeffrey Bell is not a fast writer—his last book appeared in 1992—but what he produces is always exceptional.
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