Social Conservatism and Imposing Freedom.

On his show today, Rush Limbaugh was talking about James Taranto’s interview with Jeffrey Bell in the WSJ.  Bell’s argument is that “social conservatism” is very useful for winning elections for Republicans. He, and Taranto and Limbaugh, all seem to feel that this is a novel idea. It sounds to me like he’s just reiterated Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter With Kansas?, except without the part about how, once elected, Republicans immediately go back to pursuing their economic agenda.  But in fairness, as I haven’t read Bell’s book, I don’t want to dismiss his work.

So, what is this “social conservatism”, anyway? Well, I guess it’s opposition to abortion, contraception, homosexuality, agnosticism, atheism and so on. Bell defines it broadly as opposition to the sexual revolution. And, in the Taranto interview, he elaborates:

Mr. Bell notes that social conservatism is largely a working-class phenomenon: “Middle America does have more children than elite America, and they vote socially conservative, even though they might not necessarily be behaving that way in their personal life. They may be overwhelmed by the sexual revolution and its cultural impacts.”Mr. Bell squares that circle by arguing that social conservatism is “aspirational” and “driven by a sense in Middle America that the kind of cultural atmosphere we have, the kind of incentives, the example set by government, is something that has to be pushed back against.” [Italics mine]

Since Bell’s whole book is about social conservatism, this seems surprisingly vague. Maybe he’s just saving up the real “nuts-and-bolts” description of social conservatism for his book–you don’t want to give away the big plot twist on the posters, after all. Still, it’s kind of weird.

As usual, my opinion is that everything begins to make a lot more sense if instead of “social conservatism”, you insert the word “nationalism”. I hope talk about this more thoroughly later this week, but the short version is that I have come to believe that “nationalism” covers far more than just jingoism; it pretty much accounts for all the things that are typically labeled “social conservatism”.

Anyway though, for now, let’s just focus on Bell’s point, which is that this is a winning strategy for the Republicans. Of course, he’s right. I think we can all agree on that. He even makes a point very close to one I made awhile back about the Democrats being willing to trade extending the Bush tax-cuts for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. So, he’s basically right in his assessment of how this dynamic works.

Where I think he’s wrong is when he implies that “the Left” is “imposing” social liberalism on people. Forgive me, but I don’t quite see it. “Liberalism” is derived from the Latin word for “free”. Liberalism is about freedom. Is it possible to impose freedom? Maybe, but it’s an odd way of putting it. You could say the Founders “imposed” freedom from the Proclamation of 1763 on the colonies, but it sounds strange.

Since what the social liberals are arguing for are things like “freedom for gays to serve in the military” and “freedom to use contraception”, I don’t quite understand why you would choose to couch this as “imposing” it. You could argue that perhaps these are freedoms that people ought not to have. I happen to disagree with that, but it’s an argument you could make, because it is widely agreed there are some things that people are not free to do. But that is different than saying these ideas are being “imposed” upon people.

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