The Future of Fake Social Conservatism
by James R. Kelly
James R. Kelly is a professor emeritus of sociology at Fordham University.
Susan Bevan and Susan Cullman, co-chairwomen of the political action committee Republican Majority for Choice, wrote a much commented-on op-ed in the June 24 New York Times entitled “Why We Are Leaving the G.O.P.” For their abandoned party, for the upcoming elections, and for responsible thinking about abortion, I thought it highly significant that Bevan and Cullman never ask the key political question, “Why did the Republican Party come to support opposition to abortion in the first place?”
The Republican Pro-abortion Tradition
After all, Ronald Reagan brought legal abortion to California when he was governor, Nelson Rockefeller did the same in New York, Barry Goldwater became an outspoken advocate for abortion, and Donald Trump’s anti-abortion advocacy (let’s be civil here) is belated. Meanwhile, the first political allies for abortion opponents (just check the congressional record) were mostly Democrats.
After all, support for legal abortion is utterly congruent with Republican fiscal conservatism, which includes a plethora of positions dovetailing with access to completely legal abortion, such as unrestricted economic markets, limited federal regulation, limited government interference in business, and no support for families that have children they can’t afford.
Why the Change?
Let’s succinctly answer the unasked Bevan-Cullman question: Republican fiscal conservatism loses elections; social conservatism wins elections.
Republican fiscal conservatives can’t win elections unless they attract the votes of the non-wealthy, who are more likely to be social conservatives who think that the government has responsibilities to contribute to the common good. This includes the needs of family and children for health care, schooling, job training, and support for those with disabilities.
We’ll soon see if fake social conservatism can continue to win elections. As our history teachers insisted, if we don’t remember the past we won’t understand the present. So, let’s do a brief memory check of the contemporary abortion wars.
The pro-life movement’s initial post-Roe v. Wade political hopes resided largely with the Democratic Party, which included a disproportionate number of Roman Catholics. Ellen McCormack, the housewife leader of the Long Island, NY, “Women for the Unborn” ran a knowingly quixotic 1975 campaign for president in twenty Democratic state primaries. Regarding abortion opposition, the Republicans were politically passive but also politically attentive to the fact that powerful grassroots mobilization contesting legal abortion had outlasted the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
Among his presidential campaign promises Ronald Reagan included efforts to reverse Roe. The Republican elite was not pleased. In her 1996 “insider’s” account of this period, The Republican War Against Women, Tanya Melich reports that the 1976 Republican Convention delegate vote to include an anti-Roe constitutional amendment in the party platform was scheduled after midnight, with debate limited to four speakers. There was no state roll-call on the proposed amendment. The convention chairman, John Rhodes, called for a voice vote and then immediately declared Convention approval for the unlikely Republican position of reversing legal abortion, thus conflicting with what all previous polls of Republican voters and donors had shown, namely that fiscal conservatives are overwhelmingly social liberals, conjoining unrestricted legal abortion with free trade and consumer choice.
It’s the opposite with social conservatives. Polls have shown that the second most common reason women give for abortion is that they can’t afford the baby. It’s harder to welcome new life when life itself seems unwelcoming to parents if they face cuts to medical care, growing economic inequality, and job insecurity. It’s significant that the subgroup with the highest abortion rate is also the subgroup with the highest rates of disapproval of abortion – Black Americans.
Although for most Republican office seekers the best abortion word is “mum,” prominent pro-choice Republicans abound – think Arnold Schwarzenegger, Christine Todd Whitman, George Pataki, and the never-fully-disappeared Rudy Giuliani.
Republican Party fiscal conservatives can be expected to continue to attract the votes of working class and lower-middle class moral traditionalists – the “Reagan Democrats” the Party sorely needs. However—and this is key—they can do this only by supporting moral-social issue positions that require no appreciable tax revenues, such as school prayer, the teaching of creationism, and the promotion of conservative Supreme Court justices.
Where Are We Now?
Let’s look at the now-dominant issue of the future Supreme Court. At first glance it would seem that President Trump’s opportunity to replace retiring Anthony Kennedy with Brett Kavanaugh, a fifth conservative judge, thereby making it possible (though not inevitable) to reverse Roe v. Wade, will ensure that a significant number of “Reagan Democrats” vote for the party Bevan and Cullman have abandoned. But politics is tricky, especially Republican abortion politics. So, let’s give some space to another insider’s revealing account of Reagan’s not-so-exemplary fidelity to his campaign promises to oppose abortion.
Douglas W. Kmiec directed the Office of Legal Counsel during the first Regan administration, and he observed that while the Justice Department contested Roe’s extension of the privacy doctrine to abortion and promoted a state’s right to protect the unborn after viability, the Reagan administration briefs never explicitly challenged a right to legal abortion (detailed in Kmiec’s 1992 book, The Attorney General’s Lawyer). Here’s why: Kmiec recalls that on numerous occasions he was unsuccessful in persuading the Reagan Justice Department briefs to use the term “prenatal life,” rather than using the Roe Court’s phrase “potential life.” Kmiec ruefully recalled that his effort to explicitly raise this core right to life principle in the Reagan administration’s Supreme Court abortion law interventions resulted only in finding himself “out of the loop.”
While Kmiec’s account is complicated, it again shows the altogether simple point that social conservatives can’t trust fiscal conservatives to embrace their pro-life aspirations to help women bravely choose life rather than abortion. Both hard empirical facts and prayerful hopes point to the efforts of the just over 20-years-old Democrats for Life of America to win back the Reagan Democrats and to the even more central efforts of the Consistent Life Network.
The stakes are high, and not just for this year’s midterm election. The effort to continuously challenge American society, to grasp the connections among the violence of abortion and the violence of poverty, and the violence of war, will take several generations.
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