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More on the values vote

Social conservatives complain that their issues—abortion, “gay marriage” and whatnot—aren’t taken nearly as seriously by politicians on their side as by those on the other side. For Republicans, it seems, those issues are mostly vote getters that can be compromised or negotiated away, while for Democrats they’re religious absolutes that take precedence over everything. Leftists have noticed the situation on the Right, and find in it yet another argument against social conservatism: its own proponents in public life don’t believe in it, but use it as a demagogic talking point to induce the rubes to vote against their own real (economic) interests.

The leftist analysis has a point, but it’s flawed. Bush wouldn’t have won the election without the social issues, but it was social conservatives themselves and not Republican operatives who pushed them into the spotlight. At bottom, the social issues are anything but a Republican ploy. People believe in them without being told to do so, and they think they’re important. But what do those issues amount to, what’s behind their appeal, and why do they leave political professionals so cold? Why do so many intelligent and educated people find them utterly incomprehensible, to the point that all they see in the deepest political views of the majority of their fellow citizens is either Big Money flimflam or Taleban-style theocracy?

At bottom, it seems to me, the oddity of social conservatism in present-day politics is that social conservatism by nature is radically opposed to the outlook of those who define politics today: national journalists, policy wonks, political operatives, and social scientists. The reason it’s at odds with present-day politics and its practitioners is that it views not policy but pre-political factors as the things that matter in our lives together. Policy wonks can’t create pre-political factors, but they can try to stamp them out in order to clear an open field for policy to operate. That’s what they understand and think is good, so it’s what they naturally want to do. Their approach to “cultural issues,” if they decide to take them up, is therefore likely to be manipulative.

At bottom, social conservatives view society as natural and not an artifice put together for the goals we happen to choose. In the end, they don’t really believe in “social policy.” Take “gay marriage” as an example. Until very recently, marriage has never been viewed as basically a legal artifice or instrument of self-fulfillment or state policy. It’s been understood to be a fundamental social institution, based on nature and rightfully supported by a network of understandings that made it the legitimate setting for procreation and rearing children. It preceded the state, although the state had an obligation to recognize and support it.

In that traditional understanding, which is still that of social conservatives, marriage and the family gave every participant a certain legitimate concrete status and respect that couldn’t be taken away. Outside of marriage and the family it seemed very unlikely that children could be reared properly or ordinary men and women find fulfillment. The understandings supporting marriage have been weakening, and social conservatives don’t like it. Recognition of “gay marriage” would bring the trend to fruition and definitively deprive marriage of its recognized status as a fundamental natural institution with a definite and necessary social function. “Gay marriage” is not an isolated development that might equally happen or not happen without affecting the rest of the social ecology. It means a final definitive change in fundamental social understandings, and therefore a different way of life for everyone.

The question in regard to “gay marriage” and related developments should then be whether the new way of life will on the whole be better or worse than one that treats some concrete social institutions, the family for example, as natural and in any event prior to the state. It’s not sensible to reduce the issue to a question of individual rights, because everyone is more or less stuck with the way of life that finds social support in the society in which he lives. We have to live on the same planet as other people, so if “gay lib” is finally successful we will all have to live with the consequences. Furthermore, basic social principle is always backed up by a system of coercion. Rights that matter have teeth. In the case of “gay rights,” we’ve already seen hate speech laws, indoctrination in school and workplace, and requirements that everyone accord “gay marriage” the same status as marriage. Very likely we will see more things in the future.

Social conservative complaints about liberal oppression puzzle liberals. The point’s not one that’s easily articulated in the language of current (liberal) public discussion, but it’s nonetheless real. At bottom, the complaint is that the changes “gay marriage” would bring to final culmination mean that principles based on natural human tendencies that constantly pop up in all societies would get replaced by principles based on radical abstractions like the advanced liberal understanding of equality. Those changes imply replacement of institutions (family, neighborhood, normal self-generated moral feelings and standards) that mostly grow up and and run by themselves by other institutions (welfare and equality bureaucracies, various professional “helpers”) that are consciously designed and administered, supported by taxes, and enforced by formal legal penalties. They therefore mean expansion of the coercive state apparatus and alienation of those who operate it from the general run of humanity. How, social conservatives ask, can any of that be good? What value is its conception of freedom? And even putting aside the comprehensive scheme of administrative control the sexualized multigendered society will require, what possible reason is there to think that ordinary people will find life in that society at all satisfying?