Forseen and predicted: The conservative rout on social issues

Libertarian Republicans at a pro-choice rally

WASHINGTON, September 29, 2014 — Back in 2008, the various Republican candidates for president unanimously stated their staunch opposition to same sex marriage. It was a given, or so it seemed. Indeed, even Barack Obama expressed his opposition in the run up to that general election, although one wondered at the time if such a stance were just a pose—apparently it was, as he quickly shed such opposition as it became politically expedient and his base seemed to demand it.

On abortion the GOP adopted a pro-life plank more than thirty-five years ago, while the Democratic Party began a not-so-slow transition to “choice” in the 1970s.

Over the past several years there has been a not inconsiderable movement among Republican and so-called “conservative” elites to soften, if not alter, their opposition to both abortion (e.g., most recently Scott Brown in New Hampshire’s US senate race) and same sex marriage. It is no secret that a number of prominent neoconservatives have now “come out” in favor of same sex marriage. As I wrote in a September 5 column on this site, “in recent years we have witnessed a growing parade of Republicans and so-called ‘conservative’ leaders announce their support for same sex marriage: both Laura and Barbara Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton, Jonah Goldberg, Senator Rob Portman, just to mention a few. And in 2013, George W. Bush declared ‘that straight people should not cast the first stone when it comes to judging gay couples’. [Timothy Stanley, Citizen Hollywood, 2014, p. 225]” And I seem to remember that both Barbara and George H. W. were honored guests at a lesbian wedding in Maine….

Now, hold that thought for just moment. Just recently the German Ethics Council, the official national commission set up by the German Bundestag to address moral and ethical issues in the German federation announced that the legal prohibition preventing incest and sexual relations between siblings should be legislatively removed. As one news source reported it: “The 26 member German advisory council on ethics, which was created to advise the German government, voted earlier this week (by a two-to-one margin) to move towards the decriminalization of incest between consenting adults in Germany in response to a case in which a brother and sister in Saxony had four children together.” The article does go on to say that the majority Christian Democratic/Christian Social Party will no doubt reject this proposal. Christian Democratic spokesman Elisabeth Winkelmeier-Becker offered this response, “The abolition of the offense of incest between siblings would be the wrong signal.”

“The wrong signal”?  Indeed! And this tepid response represents the “opposition” of the German “conservatives.”

One more strand of straw in the wind: New York Magazine recently published (September 7, 2014) a profile of transgender millionaire tycoon Martin Rothblatt in which the emphasis was that transgender equality and liberation was the next major civil rights issue in the US. Indeed, Rothblatt has published a manifesto applying the narrative of racial segregation and oppression to his own desire to become a lesbian, titled The Apartheid of Sex.  And Rothblatt is not alone. In its May 29, 2014, issue TIME magazine ran a major piece by Katy Steinmetz heralding “The Transgender Tipping Point” as “America’s next civil rights frontier.”

Lest we think such chatter or events in faraway Germany have little chance of generating eventual legislation and social change here, just recall our grandparents’ general rejection of divorce. The social and moral stigma once associated with it has virtually disappeared, both in European and American society, save for the seemingly forlorn opposition by traditional Catholics (and it’s increasingly under attack among Catholics).

Back on September 5 I attributed this conservative retreat and surrender to a fundamental belief in egalitarianism that prevails not only in the thinking of the Left but also on the dominant and now mainstream Neoconservative Right. Establishment Left and Mainstream Right may differ on means and specific programs and proposals, but in the end, despite the weak protestations of a John Boehner, Jonah Goldberg, or Charles Krauthammer, positing “egalitarianism” as the fundamental American principle “includes, implicitly, the eventual and logical normalization and acceptance of across-the-board sexual and gender equality.”

Of course, this “trahison des clercs” and conservative self-redefinition is nothing new, certainly if the Lincolnian revolution and reinterpretation of the Declaration of Independence and the American Founding is accepted as dogma. In the 1950s Russell Kirk and a few others attempted to partially recover an older Constitutional (and Christian) tradition, and for a twenty year period Mel Bradford engaged in a scholarly debate with Harry Jaffa (in the pages of Modern Age and elsewhere) over Lincoln and the meaning of the Declaration. Most recently Colgate Professor Barry Shain, in his important work, The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context, convincingly demonstrates that that document was never intended as an ideological and egalitarian road map for the new nation. But despite such cautionary evidence, the triumph of Neoconservatism as the intellectual brain trust for Republicans and the almost Stalinist whiting-out of any other kind of conservative/traditionalist view, has certainly had its effects.

Well over a century ago, it was debate over women’s suffrage that dominated much of the discussion concerning social issues. One of its foremost opponents was the great Southern writer and philosopher—and former chaplain to “Stonewall” Jackson—Robert Lewis Dabney. Elected a member of the Royal Philosophical Society and internationally known at the time for his writings, Dabney even in the 1890s enjoyed the reputation as perhaps the most intransigent opponent of the “idea of progress.” But not only did he criticize progressivists, he also harshly critiqued “the failure of conservatism” to oppose egalitarian advances and conservatism’s egalitarian misinterpretation of America’s Founding.

Without re-starting the debate over suffrage, Dabney has much to say to our generation’s conservatives. In words, both prescient and that might have been authored later by Russell Kirk, Dabney describes the conservative collapse:

This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is to-day one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will to-morrow be forced upon its timidity, and will be succeeded by some third revolution, to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious, for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always—when about to enter a protest—very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent rôle of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy from having nothing to whip. No doubt, after a few years, when women’s suffrage shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to asses. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position. [from his essay, “Womens’ Rights Women,” published later in Discussions (1890-1897), C. R. Vaughan, edit., pp. 491-493]

Have we not reached that tipping point when all that basically remains for us is to valiantly refuse “civil rights” for asses?


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  • Tim Kern

    “Conservatives,” by definition, don’t stand for anything except perhaps the status quo, which itself is always changing. That’s why they always lose, if slowly.

    Libertarians believe in freedom, except the freedom to harm others. Constitutionalists believe in the limited government mandated by the Constitution, and thus have a ready platform. They believe in something that has a chance of winning: FREEDOM.