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The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism Hardcover – March 6, 2012
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About the Author
In 2010, Bell became director of policy of the American Principles Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. His most recent book, Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality, was named the most important political book” of 1992 by Fred Barnes in The New Republic. Bell and his wife, Rosalie O’Connell, have four children and live in Annandale, Virginia.
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Author Jeffrey Bell tells us right off the bat:
The central contention of this book is that social conservatism is not only unlikely to collapse, but that it is becoming increasingly unified and coherent. It is already driving much of the national debate, and its issues are playing a steadily greater role in voters' decisions on whether to vote Republican or Democratic.
Bell believes that Conservatives tend to win elections when they bring Conservative Social issues into their campaigns. I actually disagree with the premise. I think most Americans, at least 70% and maybe even as much as 90%, are guided by a moderate common-sense philosophy that seeks to avoid discussion of social issues in public life. For example, Abraham Lincoln said that he would never consider voting for any candidate on the basis of the candidate's religious affiliation or lack thereof. On the other hand he would also never vote for a scoffer of religion. Like most voters he felt that religion was a private matter that should not be discussed in campaigns for public office. But he also did not trust anti-religious bigots. Americans are like that on most issues:
* They believe that legalized abortion is a necessary evil and don't want it outlawed. On the other hand they don't want to hear candidates trumpeting it as some sort of badge of militant feminist honor.
* Like Lincoln, they don't want to hear a candidate using religion as an appeal for votes, but they also won't vote for any candidate who ridicules people of faith.
* They believe that gun ownership is a legitimate right for hunting and self-defense, but they don't want armed vigilante groups patrolling the streets.
* They want the immigration laws enforced, but they don't want police asking every foreign-looking person they encounter to show papers.
* They favor granting gays the legal protections of civil unions, but they don't favor granting them the full rights of marriage, especially the right to adopt children. They favor toleration of the gay life style, but not its imposition on children.
* Likewise, they favor a ban on discrimination by race, gender, and sexual preference, but they oppose reverse discrimination that would provide favored treatment to minority groups.
IMO it's expected that candidates will express their personal preferences on these social issues, but they should avoid any hint that they would use their position in public office to impose their personal preference on the public.
Bell argues otherwise. He makes the case that Conservatives bringing social issues into play has helped them win elections. My own memory doesn't bear this out. I don't remember Ronald Reagan EVER talking about social issues. In fact I vividly remember some on the Religious Right condemning him for NOT bringing social issues into play. I also don't remember either of the Bushes bringing social issues to the forefront. It is an urban legend among Democrats that George H.W. Bush defeated Mike Dukakis in 1988 because the "Willie Horton" ad (aired a couple of times by an independent PAC) allegedly portrayed Dukakis as a criminal-coddler, but that is hogwash. Dukakis got beat because he was a weak candidate who didn't have a coherent economic agenda.
It IS true that in the past Democrats have often lost elections by sneering at Conservative social values. I've listened to unionized workers in a factory plastered with Democrat Party propaganda saying that they will vote Republican. Perhaps that is because the Democrat Party's national leaders look down their noses at people like them who are patriotic, go to church, and own guns. Democrats who ridicule conservative social values hurt themselves, but it does not necessarily follow that Republicans can help themselves by trumpeting these values.
I also question Bell's portrayal of the "Teaparty" as a social issues movement. Based on the "Teaparty" folks I know, the movement seems to be built around the economic view of small business owners who are tired of being taxed to pay for the Welfare State that they think supports people who are too lazy or too incompetent to support themselves by hard work as the did. These people are more worried about whether they will be taxed into oblivion than about social issues like gay marriage and abortion. I'm also puzzled by Bell's inflation of "social issues" to include Reagan winning the Cold War. I'd think that this was more a traditional national defense issue than a social issue.
I also wonder if maybe Bell goes a bit overboard in stereotyping Liberals, especially in portraying Liberals as being anti-religious. Liberals have historically opposed religion only in instances when state-supported religions have been corrupted by governments into instruments for controlling their subjects. Of course there are many Liberal atheists today who are hostile to people of faith, but I also know many Conservative/Libertarian atheists. Thus, religious affiliation may not be the great Liberal/Conservative social divide that Bell believes it to be.
In spite of these disagreements I thoroughly enjoyed the book and must acknowledge that Bell presented his points effectively. I'm sure he'll find many Conservatives who are in 100% agreement. Liberals may enjoy the book even more than Conservatives because it is sure to challenge their thinking on social issues in a well reasoned and open minded way.