Conservatives are currently engaged in a vicious intramural debate over their future in the Republican Party. Like all such debates, it can seem opaque — even its participants aren’t always sure what they’re arguing about — but the implications for both the tenor and content of American politics are profound.
The debate is sprawling, but its contours are pretty well defined: One side wants to restore the old fusion between social and economic conservatism. The other wants to abandon it and embrace the authoritarian traditionalist vision embodied by President Donald Trump.
This is a false choice. There is no authoritarian traditionalist future for the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the fusionist bargain has delivered pretty well for social conservatives, and may be their only hope for future relevance.
First, consider the case for abandonment, most passionately articulated by Sohrab Ahmari, the OpEd editor of the New York Post. One of Ahmari’s points is that social conservatives naively bought into a Republican Party that has delivered tax cuts and great wealth to the top 1 percent, but done nothing to stop the decline of traditional values in American life. Consequently they should abandon that deal and use their political power to push for a top-down restoration of traditional American values, such as the promotion of larger families and well-defined gender roles.
It is true that tax cuts have been the singular rallying point for the GOP, but the trends that social conservatives bemoan are the result of forces far beyond the power of public policy to shape. Social conservatives may be growing in power within the Republican Party, but America has been moving sharply to the left on social issues since the 1960s.
Ahmari acknowledges this trend, but suggests the way to stop it is to give more power to the federal government to restore some ideal of lost values. This approach was untenable in the 1960s and would be suicidal today. Even if traditionalists could have won on such a platform, they would have found themselves hard-pressed to carry it out: Using the federal government to impose values, never mind implement policy, is harder than it seems.
Which brings us to Trump. The president is hardly a traditionalist, but he is willing to offer his services as a tireless pugilist against the Democratic Party. That rhetorical stance might get social conservatives like Ahmari excited, but look at the record. The Trump administration has struggled to fill the White House with competent managers who agree on policy. The administration has had little success, for example, with one of its supposed main priorities, restricting immigration, largely because of confusion and infighting.
Actually, it’s even worse than that: It’s the wrong policy, because it would undermine support for traditional values. Most immigrants come from countries that are more traditionalist than the U.S. Admitting fewer of them into the country would accelerate the trends that social conservatives bemoan. If traditionalists are serious about changing American culture, they should embrace a cosmopolitan vision of America.
If they don’t, their future is as an ideological minority. In that case, their best hope is to double down on the small-government, civil-libertarian alliances that have kept them viable in U.S. politics. In fact, civil libertarians have emerged as the most effective defenders of traditionalists on First Amendment grounds.
In any case, there is no future in which traditionalists are able to impose their vision on America. Buying into that rhetoric will only hasten social conservatives’ decline.
Karl W. Smith, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, is a former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina’s school of government.