Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sorta political: The problem with social conservatives

If you really want to learn something from politics, pay close attention when someone starts arguing against his own beliefs. Oftentimes, this will happen when it's time to make a choice between the good and the perfect; when it's time to choose between what someone ultimately wants and what they think might be possible this time around.

Here is an example of what I mean. This is Ramesh Ponnuru arguing against the candidacy of Rick Santorum.
In October, a sympathetic blogger asked Santorum “what we could do to advance the pro-life agenda beyond what we’ve already done.” The former senator’s answer would cause him, and other conservatives, no end of trouble over the next few months, and illustrates several of the drawbacks to his approach to politics. In the middle of a rambling response, Santorum made this comment: “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country. . . . It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” 
Now the first thing to grasp here is that, ultimately, Ponnuru agrees with Santorum. They both hold the Catholic view that the sex act must fulfill two conditions to be morally good. 1) It must be an act of love between two married people and 2) it must be open to procreation. Catholics argue that it is the abandonment of these two essential obligations that has led to all sorts of other problems. And they both belief that the moral consequences are not just individual but social; they believe that a society where everyone treats sexuality as primarily a source of pleasure will be a society that has all sorts of problems as a consequence. So Santorum is being absolutely true to the beliefs that both he and Ponnuru share when he argues that a pro-life agenda should teach that contraception prevents us from being fully moral human beings.

Now, please note, I'm not saying that you have to agree with Santorum and the pro-life movement. The point is that it is consistent with that view and it is a sign of Santorum's moral integrity that he said what he did.

And note further that Santorum did NOT say that he was going to encourage Congress to make contraception illegal. Neither did he say he was going to seek to appoint judges who would overturn the landmark legal decisions that made contraception legal. All he said is that, as President, he would use the bully pulpit to promote a certain kind of sexual morality. Everyone would be free to ignore him, just as most people ignore President Obama when he pushes moral views they don't support.

And yet, for all that, you can understand why Ponnuru and others get nervous when Santorum says things like this. And what bothers them is not that Santorum is going to lose—it's been obvious for several months now that he doesn't have a chance. No, the fear is that Santorum will hurt social conservatism by saying publicly what many social conservatives and all Catholic social conservatives believe.

And that is interesting no?

I'll tell you who else has this problem: liberals have this problem. Both liberals and social conservatives can't say what they really believe or else they will lose. And this is true because neither group is a large enough segment of the population to constitute a plurality. If they push for what they really want, they will alienate the votes they need to win.

In the long run, both groups are seeking converts and both ultimately hope to win the politics by winning the culture. Neither is doing terribly well and even if one of the two ultimately prevails, a prospect that seems unlikely, it will take decades hard work before they do.

One of the ironies here is that members of both groups are convinced that the other side is doing better. My liberal friends bore me with apocalyptic rants about how social conservatism is on the rise and we'll soon all be sent to moral education camps. My social conservative friends bore me with rants of how liberals have been winning the culture for six decades now and it's only a matter time before we are all sent to political indoctrination centres.

The truth is that neither group has any chance of "winning the culture" anytime in our lifetimes. Liberals are actually worse off than social conservatives in that they are a shrinking force. They can still launch destructive attacks on their opponents but the country has less and less sympathy for liberal views. Social conservatives don't see this.

Why not? Because the fastest growing group in our culture are the leave-me-alone faction. These are people who are terrified that others they see as busybodies are taking over. And one of the things that terrifies them most is that busybodies are going to start interfering in their sex lives*. They don't want higher taxes but then can live with higher taxes if it comes to that. But they could not live with the prospect of being able to have sex with consenting others on their own terms. The thought of losing that would be like losing the sunshine for them.

No one on the social conservative side of the aisle wants to fully confront this problem. Some, like Ponnuru, are willing to stop talking about it to win elections but aren't willing to fully face the issue; they are unwilling to admit that they ultimately do want to change the sexual culture such that people will begin living their sex lives in a much more restrained way. Ponnuru can see that what Santorum said scares people. Perhaps he might say, it needlessly scared them but he would be wrong to say such a thing. Ultimately, he believes that it would be a social good if people did not believe they had "license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

But most people love their sexual license  and while most don't think the sexual revolution was an unalloyed good thing they still think it was a good thing. They don't want anyone to take their sunshine away.

* Back in the 1980s when I was at university, there was a big push to stop sexual harassment. Most people could see that sexual harassment is a real issue and they wanted to protect people, especially women, from abuses. However, they would react with fear when feminists started proposing rules of sexual conduct. I still remember the fear that struck just about everyone at the campus paper when it was proposed that rules be put in place that would restrict sexual fraternizing between staff.

No comments:

Post a Comment