Effective political movements can transform conventional wisdom and seemingly immutable moral principles over time, turning once controversial and extreme ideas into common sense accepted by all good people.
Conservatism has somehow found a way to reverse this formula, waging a slow motion retreat over a period of decades and clinging to an abstract creed of “values” that changes over time.
As a thought experiment, who can doubt that the conservative movement will some day be apologizing for Rick Santorum? Given current trends, in five years the conservative movement will abandon traditional marriage as a core principle, in ten years gay marriage opponents will be banned from conservative conferences, and in fifteen years National Review will be writing that gay marriage is a conservative idea and we came up with it in the first place.
For that reason, the more ambitious career conscious conservative knows instinctively to downplay social issues, sensing that if he or she doesn’t, there will be a number of awkward apologies to make when there is finally a run for office.
One dramatic exception is the case of abortion. It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but pro-choice Republicans such as Christine Todd Whitman were seen as the future of the Republican Party only a little over a decade ago. Today, one is hard pressed to think of any pro-choice Republicans seen as national leaders or even serious primary contenders. Even Ron Paul, the libertarian who got his backing from college students took care to tout his pro-life credentials. Yet, the 2008 Republican platform continues to call for a constitutional ban on abortion, and we can expect that it will preserved without much opposition in 2012.
It’s easy to point out that this was not a triumph of the fabled party “establishment,” but neither did it belong to the conservative movement. It was no less a figure than Barry Goldwater thought that abortion had no part in the 1992 Republican Party platform, with pro-choice Republicans sporting buttons that said “Barry’s Right.” While he later underwent a Romney-like shift, Ronald Reagan actually signed a liberal abortion law in 1967 as governor of California, which would permanently disqualify him from the Republican Party of today.
While the classic trifecta of movement conservatism is traditional values, limited government and a strong national defense, in practice the movement often delivers on economic concerns (especially those of large contributors) while giving short shift to even extremely popular grassroots causes. Nonetheless, a pro-life stance has become non-negotiable in order to be taken seriously as a Republican.
Pro-life forces accomplished this by building a force that was in, but not of, the conservative coalition. The pro-life movement was a cultural movement before it was a political movement, taking control of conservative Christian denominations to the point that the entire movement has a religious character. This was not inevitable – even the Southern Baptists defended abortion in extreme causes in 1971.
Nor could the loyalty of the “Christian Right” once be taken for granted by Republicans, as evangelicals formed an important part of Democrat Jimmy Carter’s 1976 victory. Pro-lifers had a movement rooted in powerful institutions based outside normal conservative channels, forcing politicians to actively bid for their support.
The first Republican president to welcome the emerging Moral Majority into the fold was Ronald Reagan. That movement’s founder, Jerry Falwell, went on to rally thousands of spiritual leaders and millions of voters to help a former Hollywood actor win the White House. Despite Reagan’s checkered past on the issue, he went on to speak passionately about the importance of life and change the political landscape and the nature of the Republican coalition forever.
The complete takeover of the GOP came in the 1990’s. The great champion of the Religious Right in 1992 and 1996 was Pat Buchanan. Buchanan is remembered for his insurgent campaigns built upon opposition to free trade and illegal immigration, but pro-life activists were a critical component of the Buchanan Brigades and crucial to his victory in New Hampshire in 1996. Most importantly, Buchanan threatened to leave the Republican Party and run for president on a third party ticket in 1996 if Bob Dole picked a pro-choice running mate.
As a result, Dole picked the pro-life Jack Kemp and the pro-life plank in the GOP platform has become holy writ. Paradoxically, pro-lifers have succeeded in taking over the GOP because they have displayed their willingness to destroy the whole thing.
Pro-lifers have also shifted their emphasis in how they make their arguments. Rather than advocating moral traditionalism, sexual restraint or strict gender roles, pro-lifers today base their arguments in a kind of extreme egalitarianism, nothing that just because an unborn child is smaller, weaker, or (temporarily) less intelligent than a fully developed person doesn’t justify killing it.
This means that the pro-life movement may have conceded critical ground in trying to repair a fallen culture, but they have remained relevant with young people, and especially young women, uninterested in returning to older ideas about “family values.”
This is also why the pro-life movement has become especially concerned with preventing abortions of the mentally handicapped, an issue specifically championed by fmr. Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (R). Palin has spoken openly about momentarily considering an abortion for her disabled son Trig before going on to call him “the best thing that ever happened to me” and “want[ing] other women to have that opportunity.”
Pro-lifers have gained at least some measure of control over the framing of the issue, with the unborn child rather than a woman’s “rights” as the central focus. Movies such as Knocked Up or Juno reflect even contemporary secular society’s discomfort with the idea of an abortion, with the act seen as tragic at best, rather than liberating. Pro-lifers flipped the script so that the issue is not about the equality of men and women, but the equality of born and unborn people.
In a modern democracy, even traditionalist causes are forced to use the language of liberation and egalitarianism.
While Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land, pro lifers have successfully constructed a movement that can independently sustain itself and a narrative that can appeal even to a degraded culture. They have secured dominance over the Republican Party because of their willingness to privilege their individual issue over party loyalty. Both the committed single issue activists and the weary political operators who have to deal with them should remember that control of an institution is not determined by whose name is on the letterhead. It is determined by who has the power and willingness to destroy it to get what they want.