08 September 2012

Will Christian Conservatives Stay Evil?

Christian conservatives remain at the core of the Republican Party, while it could go a variety of directions on foreign policy and economic issues. This analysis is based largely on the importance of Christian conservatives in the core of the Republican party that remains loyal, notwithstanding a wave of support for President Obama and Democrats generally in 2008.

"Steve Balboni," at Steam Powered Opinions made something of a permanent Democratic majority argument in 2009, referencing an astute statistical analysis that shows that demographic trends in the United States favor Democrats, quoting the following from the National Journal:

To grasp how powerfully demographic change is reshaping the political landscape try this thought experiment about the 2008 election.

Start by considering the electorate's six broadest demographic groups -- white voters with at least a four-year college degree; white voters without a college degree; African-Americans; Hispanics; Asians; and other minorities.

Now posit that each of those groups voted for Barack Obama or John McCain in exactly the same proportions as it actually did. Then imagine that each group represented the share of the electorate that it did in 1992. If each of these groups voted as it did in 2008 but constituted the same share of the electorate as in 1992, McCain would have won. Comfortably...

[P]itch the thought experiment forward 12 years. Imagine that the major demographic groups voted as they did in 2008, but cast a share of the vote equal to their expected share of the population in 2020. (For argument's sake, let's divide whites among college and noncollege voters in the same proportions as today.) In that scenario, Obama beats McCain by nearly 14 points -- almost twice as much as in 2008. Demography will indeed be destiny if Republicans can't broaden their reach.

Demography, of course, isn't necessarily an insurmountable challenge if the Republican Party repositions itself. Electing a first black RNC chair is a place to begin.

More importantly, as we have relearned as the 2012 election has loomed large, many voters act like "Referrendum Voters" who try to throw the bums out when the economy does poorly and give them another chance when they are better off  than they were four years earlier.

Liberals have spent most of the last few decades flat out flabbergasted at the sheer hate and mendacity of rank and file Republicans.  This isn't gone, as I noted in a recent post here noting a racist incident at the national convention.  But, is this hard core of Bircher/Haters in the GOP a sustainable future for the Republican party?  And, could it change as the bitter old men die off and are replaced by a better socialized younger generation of Christian conservatives?

A Meg Cabot novel I read a few years ago, which features articulate, albeit caracatured, portrayals of the prejudices of a few big business establishment Republicans, underlines my real lack of confidence in the "Christian conservatives rule" thesis about the Republican party.  The Romney-Paul ticket exemplifies the big business establishment wing of the GOP that she captured in fiction.

The Christian conservative triumphs of the 1980s have been tarnished. Focus on the Family is growing irrelevant and laying people off. The Evangelical environmental movement is finally taking flight, a mere generation after it took hold among mainstream Americans. Young Evangelicals are not terrified of or worried about the gay and lesbian community in a way that drives the fervant hate of their parent's generation. Conservative intellectuals are starting to come to terms with the notion that if they are going to encourage economically and emotionally unprepared women to carry their pregancies to term, that what happens afterwards needs to be more functional than what we see today.

The left, right and center move of American Christianity towards greater use of contemporary language and music is slowly having a cultural impact. There are underlying assumptions that are transmitted when one uses contemporary language and music to convey one's message. Some of those assumptions come from the emotional and value constructs embedded in the words and melodies themselves. An embrace of the cultural flourishes of modernity in one's rituals makes it harder to make a case that participants should reject the modern world wholesale, or that it is fundamentally corrupted.

One can make rifleshot objections to particular elements of modern life, but a church with a contemporary worship approach has turned any broad opposition to larger trends in moral and ethical values in the establishment culture into a doomed rearguard action. It is as absurd as PETA's campaign to "save the sea kittens" (formerly known as "fish").

Churches aren't the only place where the Southern regional culture seems to be coming around.  Country Western music (one of the pre-sets on my radio is 98.5 FM and Disney's radio channel of all places has made great efforts to show that hip-hop, bubblegum pop and country can co-exist with a single audience), while still having a distinct God and country message, is in a far less insular cultural bubble than it was twenty years ago.

It is entirely possible that the kinder, gentler, rebranded non-denominational Christian movement that has turned its attention away from electoral politics and outdated denominational commitments made with political motives will transform the next generation of Republicans.  In a few words, Christian Conservatives of my generation may be less evil than their brim full of hate parents, and their children who carry on after them who are just now in high school and college, may be even less evil.

Mitt Romney, who has managed to become his party's Presidential nominee despite being grossly unrepresentative of his party's rank and file as one of the dying breed of New England Republicans, is no dummy when its comes to politics or what works in the real work in business.  He has emphasized his economic message to the near exclusion of social issues.  His speech at the Republican National Convention that nominated him was the first in decades that didn't say a word about a foreign war that was in progress as he spoke.  He knows that social issues and foreign policy are not what will get him elected in an election that is all about a still struggling economy and isn't talking about them beyond dog whistle messages to the base.  His choice of running mate, who has made his name in Congress with his tax and budgetary policy stances, emphasizes the message that Romney wants to make this election.  Romney wants a referendum on the economy, not a broad choice between a Republican and a Democratic policy message overall that would be much harder for him to win.  Fortunately for Romney, it is two months before the election and the economy is still dragging, and a wealthy of political science data supports the notion that swing voters do indeed tend to be referrendum voters in Presidential elections.

Is Romney's choice merely a cynical marketing decision?  Or, does it represent a repudiation of a conservative agenda based on social issues that has mostly taken center stage since Goldwater that doesn't have a demographic future?  Has Romney been successful in co-opting the Tea Party's public priorities (lassiez-faire, anti-stimulus, anti-regulatory, anti-redistributionist economic policies), while trying to sweep under the rug their less public highly consistent and highly conservative views on other issues that provide an unstated intellectual and moral framework for these positions?  Would he change his emphasis once he was elected, or would the moderate governing strategies he employed as a Governor come out and leave his base feeling short changed?

If the base doesn't change its values, they will feel short changed and the Romney ticket will be just a deceptive blip in the long run ideological trajectory of the Republican party reflecting nothing more than a short term tactical political decision to make it look like the tent is bigger than it is.  But, if the larger zeitgeist of Christan conservatives really is evolving, then there is reason to hope that Romney's tactical choices may have long term influence on the policy course of his party which was otherwise headed towards a hard line permanent minority status as a purely white Southern regional party.

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