Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Strange Death of Social Conservatism

George Dangerfield’s classic The Strange Death of Liberal England argued that the British Liberal Party was destroyed not because anything in its philosophy had suddenly become hideously unpopular, but because it was caught in crossfires in four radically divisive social debates, over Irish home rule, women’s suffrage, union radicalism, and the House of Lords' power to reject laws passed by the Commons. The book is memorable for the high-pitched intensity with which the narrative sustains throughout. Kathryn Blaze Carlson adduces the shock upset of Wildrose as proof that social conservatism has become an "electorally toxic Pandora's Box". I confess that the same dark thoughts had been roaming through my mind the day after the election. If a conservative party can be taken over by the Left and then, though unpopular, win an election -- in Alberta -- by smearing as too social conservative a party that had fervently pledged itself not to touch the most crucial socon issues then what hope does social conservatism have anywhere? But what is the evidence that fatal flaws of social conservatism were responsible for the Alberta disaster? Carlson's whole case against social conservatism derives from the two 'bigotry' incidents:
One pastor wrote in his blog that gays would burn in a “lake of fire,” while another MLA-hopeful said he had an advantage as a white candidate in an ethnically diverse Calgary constituency.
The social conservative cause has nothing to do with the state's taking a position on the eternal destiny of homosexuals, nor is race a forum of socon interest, except for a preference for merit hiring and a general advocacy that people chill out about the issue and stop using factitious allegations of bigotry for political advantage or as a proof of moral superiority. So what's the connection?
“It’s the social conservatism that does them in,” said Faron Ellis, a Lethbridge College political scientist who authored a book on the rise of the Reform party. “Until you draw a clear line in the sand over which you’re not going to let social conservatives drag your party, it becomes electorally toxic.” Prof. Ellis said the Wildrose Party was doomed the moment it tread into social conservatism without assuring voters it had limits. Ms. Smith chose not to draw a “clear line in the sand” and instead espoused free speech and freedom of religion, refusing to condemn candidates for making bigoted and racially charged comments.
Ah, those nasty, nasty things, free speech and freedom of religion. Danielle Smith was boxed in a corner. Allan Hunsperger's statements about homosexuals simply reflect the doctrine of orthodox Christianity, a worldview that social liberals are trying to marginalize, but he did not present what evangelicals call a winsome testimony. Smith could hardly say that the views of orthodox Christians were unacceptable in her candidates and was left drawing a distinction between the private views of candidates and their public policy commitments. The real outrage was Alison Redford's comments, which demonstrated her unbearably sanctimonious intolerance:
Progressive Conservative leader Alison Redford said Hunsperger’s comments were “shocking” and spoke to the issue of who would make up a Wildrose government. “If we have people like this making these sorts of comments in Alberta, I think that it’s absolutely wrong. Of course I disagree with it and the fact that these are people who think that that’s a legitimate perspective, just absolutely blows my mind,” she said at an event at Calgary’s Sikh temple.
See, orthodox Christianity isn't a legitimate perspective; and people holding it should refrain from espousing it publicly. So says Premier Redford, Apostle of Tolerance. Pastor #2, Ron Leech, committed the crime of trying to counter the ethnic appeals that visible minority candidates make to their own tribes more or less openly with a counter argument that he could be even more effective as a representative of Punjabi interests because he would *not* be looked on as a special pleader for that ethnic group. Here was a man who has spent time learning about Punjabi history and culture, a man who was urging that we avoid ethnic tribalism, and somehow he is the one tagged as a bigot. Redford responded to this one with another dose of sanctimony, saying that she would have fired Leech as a candidate. Smith handled herself honourably and well; Redford was obnoxious and repellent, and the only demonstrated bigot in the whole affair; Redford is Premier of a majority government. What are the lessons for social conservatism?

  1. Pastors Should Stay in Their Pulpits The kind of orthodox minister (of any religion) who will be running as a social conservative will have a career of boldly presenting the truth, and be trying to convert to a profession a large part of which involves shading, blurring and obscuring the truth. Such a person will have said things making him unelectable in a post-Christian society. Actually strong social conservative ex-ministers of this kind would have been hard to elect at any time. The occasional exception (e.g. Mike Huckabee) will have evidently unusual qualities. Anyone who follows politics keenly would know not to say the things that Leech said by the time they reached high school. He broke a taboo, and successful politicians must know where the taboos are.

  2. Social Conservatives Must Select Candidates Differently Social liberal parties can just throw out anyone with the interest to run and the bucks to win a nominating convention knowing that their previous absurd and outrageous statements are unlikely to attract lamestream media interest. Social conservatives must police themselves to ensure that candidates with large skeletal closets never make it to the nomination. They must self-police; central parties, despite their eminent interest in presenting electable candidates, cannot be trusted to do it because they don't want social conservatives anyway. One socon looks like another to them When a nomination comes up and a socon expresses interest in running, socons need to network and ask, is this guy a credible candidate? Can we find a better one? Is this the *best* socon candidate we have available? In those cases where socons have some entree into the central party and can exercise some influence, they should not oppose attempts by headquarters to grab control over nominations away from local riding associations.

  3. Social Conservatives Must Police Their Candidates Themselves Allan Hunsperger should have been told to scrub that blog the day he announced an intent to run. Ron Leech was ensnared by his *second* comment on the issue. An earlier one had gone noticed. If the first time he had ever said that, someone had sat him down and explained why he must never say that again, the incident may have never occurred. There's not much for volunteers to do in modern campaigns. Socons ought to watch their own candidates. track them as diligently as opposition researchers will.

 Social conservatism hasn't been proved to be a fatal flaw to a campaign. The Alberta disaster is just a reminder that socons have to be better at what they do than social liberals, to survive.


dmorris said...

Excellent post and observations/suggestions. Note that the many Sikh candidates who run for office do so without mention of how orthodox they are,and just let the voters assume they are of the moderate school.

Social conservatives,I know quite a few, are prone to leaping up onto the "moral high ground" to advance the arguments about the freedoms we hold precious.

We DO hold freedom of speech,etc., in high regard, but when any of us enters the political realm,idealism must be tempered with reality,and the reality is social conservatives who are vocal about gays and abortion rarely get elected.

Socons in the political arena are akin to pacifists entering the boxing ring. You'd better accept that you're in a different setting that requires different rules,or you're going to take a beating.

Literally or figuratively,the result is the same.

GritPatriot said...

Social conservatism is dead. If it had a shred of a chance of getting votes then Harper would be a social conservative.

haithabu said...

Good observations. I wouldn't say that social conservatism is dead at all. It may be a plurality rather than a majority, but it still has political influence if used properly in alliance with other interests. 34% of the vote anywhere will never lack for electoral bidders.

Also bear in mind that there are many who are social conservatives personally but not politically. They have succumbed to conflict fatigue and just want to live their lives as they believe without seeking political expression for their beliefs. They really don't want to reopen any contentious cans of worms politically.