Tuesday, June 5, 2012

My Advice To Social Conservatives

I said last week that social conservatives have not done a great job winning over the public on social issues. There are some minor advances here and there, but for every advance there is full retreat in some other area. I think a change of strategy is called for on all fronts.

Let me start with three broad principles:

Principle One: It’s time to get rational about the goals social conservatives want to achieve and how to achieve them. This means putting an end to pie-in-the-sky ideas like constitutional amendments to force change. Not only is that easily lampooned in light of the conservative claim to states’ rights, but it’s pointless because there is simply no way to get any constitutional amendment through the Congress and then passed by enough states. It is impossible, and talking about it wastes time and diverts resources from better causes. Moreover, talking about changing the constitution, scares the public, who will automatically see this as extreme and dangerous. So drop the idea of trying to solve everything with one shot and learn the art of incrementalism, i.e. achieving your goal little by little. This isn’t sexy, but it’s the only effective way to achieve controversial goals under our system.

Principle Two: Drop the harsh rhetoric. The fiery pulpit speeches may work well in church, but the public sees them differently. To the public, they are evidence that social conservatives are hateful people who can’t deal with the modern world and who want to judge everyone else. This is a self-inflicted wound.

Principle Three: You can’t win with religion-based arguments. Those simply don’t work with the modern public because the vast majority of the public doesn’t see the Bible as the thing which runs their day-to-day lives. Indeed, while 90% of the public claims to believe in God, only 40% claim to go to church “regularly” (there is reason to believe the real number is closer to 20%). And even of those who go, there is a disconnect between what the churches teach and how people live their lives -- the classic example of this are Catholics, who love the Pope, but ignore his rules. And even then, different denominations and different religions have different views about what their religion tells them, e.g. some accept gay marriage, some don’t. So premising arguments on religion is a bad start because you lose most of your audience. Moreover, in making these arguments, social conservatives end up bypassing the stronger arguments they should be making.

Ok, now let’s look at specific policies.

Abortion: Abortion is an area where social conservatives are largely doing it right because they’ve adopted incrementalism. In the 1980s and early 1990s, abortion opponents kept looking for the home run, and it never came. It wasn’t until they learned to take the issue step by step that they began to make progress. The goal right now should be to entirely eliminate public funding, which is what keeps the abortion lobby alive, and to impose restrictions which the public will find reasonable.

One thing that needs to be dropped is this ridiculous idea of extending 14th Amendment rights to fetuses. Not only does this scare people, and thus is counterproductive, but it cannot pass, and it is almost the classic example of unintended consequences. Give fetuses rights and they can sue pregnant women if they don’t stop smoking or drinking or otherwise fail to follow doctor’s orders. This is a Pandora’s box of legal insanity which liberal interest groups will gleefully use to invade families. Think twice people.

Gays: The gay marriage battle is lost. Yes, it won’t gain any more support in conservative states for the moment, but this issue is inevitable because the younger public really doesn’t see gays as a threat. Indeed, gays have pretty much proven there is nothing to fear from gay marriage. So so-cons better find proof fast to refute this.

A better strategy would be to switch over to a religious freedom argument. Right now, social conservatives have let themselves by placed on the wrong side of the gay marriage debate because gays have argued they are the ones seeking “freedom.” The reality is they have freedom and they are really seeking to use government power to impose their beliefs on others. But so-cons aren’t arguing that. Instead, they talk about “morality,” which is a loser. What they need to do is argue the religious freedom aspect, i.e. that gays are seeking to take away freedom by forcing others to accept them. Americans always vote for whoever is offering the greater freedom, so-cons need to learn to explain this better.

I also recommend giving serious thought to getting the government out of the marriage business entirely, as I discussed HERE.

Drugs: Social conservatives are losing the drug war, particularly marijuana, because they’ve adopted the wrong argument. They’re arguing that drugs are bad for you/society. But that’s a nanny state argument. And indeed, the pro-pot people have merely had to argue that pot isn’t that bad to slowly win over a near-majority. The better argument involves civil freedoms. If we allow people to take drugs, then we either need to change negligence laws dramatically (in ways people really won’t like), or we will end up imposing huge costs on employers, employees and the economy because of the need for widespread drug testing. Why? Because any company that makes any product or provides any service which can injury someone (i.e. any company) will need to take steps to ensure that their workers are not high when they are working. That means widespread drug testing of everyone with a job. Right now the argument is “should the government be allowed to stop Person X from smoking pot at home.” But the argument should be, “are YOU willing to undergo constant drug testing to protect your employer from lawsuits just because the government decides to legalize drugs for the few who want it?” That’s a very different matter. I’ve discussed this HERE.

Religious Freedom: This one’s a can of worms. A lot of social conservatives are going down a very dangerous path with the idea of religious freedom laws. Specifically, they are pushing bills which prohibit employers from stopping employees from engaging in religious practices or wearing religious items, e.g. crucifixes. This should send up huge red flags for conservatives. For one thing, conservatives have opposed employment-discrimination-based lawsuits almost across the board when it comes to gays, blacks, women and disability. Why make an exception for religion? Shouldn’t a private employer be entitled to impose whatever restrictions they want on the people they pay to be their employees? Can’t the employees just go elsewhere if they don’t like it?

Further, there is an obvious flaw here which social conservatives are overlooking because they tend to equate the word “religion” with their brand of Christianity: our Constitution doesn’t allow discrimination amongst religions. Thus, if you give people absolute power to act out their religious beliefs at work, that would include things like the wearing of the Islamic veil or separation of men and women, the handling of snakes, the smoking of peyote and whatever other crazy ideas these fringe religions can dream up.

This also applies to things like prayer in schools. If you seek legislation to allow that nice Protestant Principal to say a prayer each morning, except that your kids may also find themselves forced to sit through an Islamic prayer or Buddhist ritual or even an atheist’s speech. Unless you want other religions forced upon you and your children, it is best to always keep in mind that any new power you give yourself can be used by others as well.

Frankly, the best bet here is to vote with your feet and your wallets. Don’t support businesses which are hostile to your religious beliefs. Do support friendly ones. Stop seeing movies, watching television shows, or buy videogames with bad messages in them. Use the power of boycott. Send your kids to religious schools and volunteer to make sure those schools are the best (a shining example). In this regard, support legislation which lets federal money follow the students to whatever schools they choose -- trust people to make the right choices rather than trying to use the government to force the right choices upon them. Remember, you have to win people over, you can’t force them to believe what you want them to believe.

The big takeaway here is that social conservatives need to learn to speak to people who don’t share their religious beliefs -- framing things in religious terms simply will not work for anyone who doesn’t agree with your religious beliefs. They need to learn that a thousand small victories are better than the false hopes of complete victory in fell swoop. And they need to think more about the unintended consequences of the policies they propose and they need to realize that others will get to use the same powers they create in the law.


P.S. Don't forget, it's Star Trek Tuesday at the film site.

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