A recent article from The Washington Post argues that Donald Trump and the Republican Party no longer need to fight on issues important to social conservatives to win elections.
The article’s argument hinges on a January 2016 poll, which suggests that Republican voters prioritize issues related to the economy and national security above moral and cultural issues.
“Republican legislatures have recently passed laws restricting abortion and trying to limit the effect of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage,” the authors write, “But these new laws have apparently gotten a collective shrug from much of the Republican electorate. Trump’s rise may be a sign of the priorities to come.”
This argument has a number of issues, however. For one thing, when pollsters ask Americans open-ended questions about what they believe is the most important issue, wildly divergent answers emerge. There is no single, consistent, flawless way to gauge which particular issue is most important to Americans.
Another issue with the authors’ line of reasoning is that voters can care about multiple problems facing the country at once. No voter considers a candidate in a vacuum. Each time a citizens walks into the voting booth, he makes calculations based on morality and interest. Even though candidates like Trump may promise to address problems that resonate with a voter — the economy or terrorism, for example — he may still choose another candidate stronger on moral issues.
Perhaps most egregiously, The Washington Post writers assume the American people have come to accept a leftist status quo on social issues. The authors say that shifting priorities are in line with deeper cultural shifts, and that ordinary Americans care less about issues like abortion and gay marriage. And The Washington Post is not the only outlet reading the data this way.
In the GOP’s “autopsy” report on the 2012 election, political consultants argued, “When it comes to social issues, the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women.”
Leaders from throughout the GOP have also bought into this argument. Alex Smith, the current chairwoman of the College Republican National Committee, rejected the idea of the GOP as a socially conservative party, saying in a 2013 interview with Time Magazine, “Where we obviously think we can find more common ground among young people is on economic issues…The data shows that younger voters are more apt to agree with us on economic issue, and that is where we can start.”
However, a recent poll suggests that over 80 percent of Americans — including nearly two-thirds of those who identify as “pro-choice” — support dramatically stronger laws protecting unborn children’s lives, namely restricting abortion to the first trimester. Since at least 2008, young Americans have told pollsters that they believe abortion is morally wrong, including those who do not regularly attend church. Other demographic groups, such as African Americans and Latinos, share this view with the youth.
Even on LGBT issues, the public is more divided than those who dismiss social conservatism suggest. A CBS/New York Times poll from mid-May suggests that the battle lines on transgender issues run clear down the middle. And nearly three quarters of Americans believe the nation has become too politically correct, according to a Rasmussen poll. To suggest that these numbers mean that social conservatives have lost the fight on sexual politics is laughable. The Washington Post underestimates the importance that framing the debate holds for the outcome.
Clearly, this data mean there is a massive electoral opportunity for conservatives to appeal to demographics they have struggled with if they run toward, and not away from, a defense of a transcendent moral order. Taking a strong stance on social issues will not only energize the already conservative base; it will also bring left-leaning moderates who think that the Democrats’ social agenda is “crazy” into the conservative fold, much like Ronald Reagan did throughout his presidency.
To win the support of the American people, conservatives need to articulate a program rooted in a belief in human dignity. Economics and national security and social issues must be worked into one coherent agenda, stemming from a vision for American society rooted in a right understanding of human good.
Michael Lucchese works for the American Principles Project.