The GOP and Social Issues: Sophomoric Arguments at the Wall Street Journal

A common trope in social policy debates is to claim that the public’s changing opinion on the policy at stake, rather than the policy’s moral or substantive justifications, merits changing the platform of one’s preferred political party. This notion seems recently to have taken root on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, and several commentators have reacted.

Consider its November 8 editorial extolling referendums on marriage. The editors argue that views on “gay marriage” are changing so that “after 32 defeats at the ballot box, a gay marriage initiative was adopted by voters,” which shows that Americans are “capable of changing their views and the laws on gay marriage.” They praise the referendum process over judicial fiat, but their implicit premise seems to be that the policy change is a good one. Any substantive arguments to support this view are missing; what remains is only the claim of an inexorable shift in public opinion.

In a November 13 op-ed Bret Stephens wraps the inevitability argument in the flag, arguing that we ought to institute gay “marriage” because “channeling passions that cannot be repressed toward socially productive ends is the genius of the American way.” He then slides into ad hominem argument and innuendo, contending that the Republican Party should abandon its principles on abortion because they are “uncouth, politically counterproductive and, too often, unwittingly revealing.”

In the pages of November 12’s issue, Sarah Westwood, a freshman at George Washington University, makes the inevitability argument with brutal clarity. She bemoans the Republican Party’s concession to the left of the “moral high ground” on abortion. Westwood hardly grounds her complaint, besides claiming that “as a member of this all-important demographic, I know that neither I nor (almost) anybody else coming of age today supports the Republican social agenda. That’s the way the country is moving—so just deal with it. Modernize and prioritize.”

Does this remind you of the song “Tomorrow belongs to me” in the movie Cabaret? It should. It’s the same argument.

Suppose we turn to the moral question at stake that Westwood ignores: Is abortion the destruction of innocent human life?

Yes, we can argue about the costs of an unintended pregnancy. We can perhaps even compare the prospective achievements of people born into economically difficult circumstances, like those that awaited aborted children had they been allowed to live, with the circumstances encountered by children born into affluent two-parent households. But the fact remains: abortion stops a beating (human) heart. It takes a life.

Consider, for example, the case of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was raised by a single mother in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Moynihan taught on the faculty of Harvard University and served for decades in the US Senate; he also wrote cogently and with prescience about the social costs of the breakup of the nuclear family.

Let’s contrast his experience with that of Paris Hilton, a “wanted child” raised under privileged circumstances. Hilton has higher name recognition than Moynihan, but the contrast between their achievements reminds us that regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth, being human means having a destiny of one’s own. That destiny cannot be realized if one is killed. And so, for those who would count the costs of allowing the unborn to live, consider this question: Do you support the murder of newborn infants if their care would pose a hardship for their parents?

No! The life of a small and helpless newborn is worth vastly more than the difficulties that caring for her would impose. Yes, Virginia, the choice of pronoun was not accidental. The typical fetus who is aborted is a girl, and she’s disproportionately likely to be a member of a minority ethnic community as well. Why does everything change at the moment of birth? Did the child suddenly acquire an ability to feel pain or to seek love that did not exist an instant before birth? Once we recognize the humanity of the fetus, the arguments against abortion are the arguments against infanticide.

Then there is the issue of gay “marriage.” An impressive array of major religions rejects gay “marriage,” and for many of the faithful these arguments rest on divine authority. But for them and for the rest of us, there are also both moral and practical considerations, some of them highlighted in Jeffrey Lord’s recent response to Westwood in the American Spectator, and some of them made by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and my colleague Robby George in their new book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.

Apart from these legitimate, well-principled objections to abortion and gay “marriage,” what about the practical politics of objecting? Is Westwood right that there are no voters willing to support us in defense of helpless human life? Have the youth all joined in a rousing chorus of “Tomorrow belongs to me”?

Public opinion data tell a different story. Policy preferences have not one but two dimensions—an economic axis that runs from left (with high taxes and lots of redistribution) to right (where taxes are low and government largess meager), and a social axis that runs from left (with support for gay marriage, abortion, and coming soon to an operating theater near you, euthanasia), to right (with respect for life, and support for traditional marriage, and religious liberty). The two main parties find their core supporters on the same side of both axes, and for each group the struggle is to build a majority by recruiting from voters with intermediate positions.

Before Ronald Reagan, the parties differed from each other on economic policy preferences, but were internally divided on social issues. Edward Kennedy and Jesse Jackson were once pro-life, while there were Rockefeller Republicans who favored abortion. Reagan changed this, moving the Republican Party to a pro-life position on abortion and to the right on other social issues as well.

Recent research by Stefan Krasa and Mattias Polborn shows that Reagan’s efforts ceded some Rockefeller Republicans to the Democrats, but gained the “Reagan Democrats” who leaned to the right socially, but somewhat to the left economically. The latter group of voters was much more numerous than the former, and the Republican Party gained considerable electoral heft as a result.

To the extent then that the Republican Party appears to abandon its rightward stance on social issues; to the extent that Republicans are afraid to defend their views on the value of life, on religious freedom, and on marriage, they cede back the Reagan Democrats and their children to the Democrats, and they doom themselves to minority status.

These practical realities have not been lost on conservatives, and several important commentators have sounded the alarm. At First Things Matthew Franck cogently compares the Wall Street Journal’s urgings that we abandon our social principles to the cynical political maneuvering of Stephen Douglas on the slavery issue a century and a half ago. Franck notes that had Abraham Lincoln succumbed to the apparent expediency of falling into line with Douglas’s arguments, slavery likely would have persisted.

Also on the cyber-pages of First Things Joseph Knippenberg observes that as a purely practical matter it would be bad politics for Republicans to alienate socially conservative Evangelicals and churchgoers, who are more numerous and who vote more consistently than do younger voters.

Writing in The Foundry, Ryan Anderson and Andrew Walker show that far from detracting from Romney’s popularity, the vote for traditional marriage polled ahead of the Republican presidential nominee in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, and it did so by an average of more than six percentage points.

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, policy has worked, does work, and will work best when it is founded on moral and practical arguments. The Republican Party’s defense of freedom and dignity is based on both.

John Londregan


John Londregan is a professor of politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs of Princeton University.

  • Fernando

    Before reading this wonderful article I thought that I had read all the pro-life arguments! Thank you for your lucid contribution to sanity in the polity.

  • Alecto

    I cancelled my WSJ subscription for those reasons as well as its weekly open borders rant. The economic unsustainability of any pro-abortion, gay “marriage”, open borders’ society ought to be obvious even to those nitwits. I have written the GOP to them know my feelings about these issues and the consequences which will follow any change in its positions. When politicians have no moral compass, it’s difficult for them to recognize one in their constituencies. Therefore, they must be reminded repeatedly of consequences like tiny little children.

    The conclusions Republicans are drawing from the election results are clearly inaccurate and may lead them to change the very positions which brought out the base, thereby committing suicide. Barak Obama is only too happy to assist them in suicide, but John Boehner, that utterly morally confused and weak blubbering incompetent, does not know how to rebut. Obviously, Republicans need to immediately replace the Speaker of the House with a woman (I offer Michele Bachmann) to neutralize the perception that our Dear Leader is being attacked by racist white men. It’s time to go to war with their Alinsky tactics. Bring it on!

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  • Lee

    The only difference between a preborn baby and you, is location.

    • Arriero

      And hair, clothes and the I-pad (yet there are many born babies who just after some hours of live have their new ipad with them)

  • Flavius

    Points well taken. Just this morning I was in an exchange with a friend of mine on the very subject with the increasingly wearying WSJ in mind. Does it not say something alarming about the intelligence of these people that they actually think the Republican Party can help itself politically by offering people whose moral beliefs are grounded in a couple of thousand years of history a mess of porridge for their beliefs. If this describes the inner stuff of the Party, and sadly I think it does, I say let it go. The collateral boon will be to see Wall Street, and hopefully the Pentagon, brought up a little shorter.

  • Richard

    Yes, but Paul Ryan took a pro-life stance, and his reward was to be slapped down by Catholic professors for being insufficiently “compassionate.” Catholics as a group twice voted in the most pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality president in history because they are taught by their Church that socialism is Catholicism in action, and that is all that really matters. Perhaps before condemning other institutions, you should try taking the plank from your own eye.

  • “Once we recognize the humanity of the fetus, the arguments against abortion are the arguments against infanticide.” This is simply not true, an infant and a zygote are both human, but one has a heartbeat, and one doesn’t. One is clearly a person and the other is clearly not. Human life and legal personhood are not the same.

    • Forgetting for a moment your moronic position, are you then suggesting all unborn humans beyond age 22 days are legal persons? I guess I’ll take that rather than unrestricted abortion of a human at any age before birth.

  • “An impressive array of major religions rejects gay “marriage,” ”

    An even more “impressive array of major religions” now supports it. Why don’t you do your homework before spouting your opinion?

  • Jeff

    It’s not so much the GOP’s stance on abortion and gay marriage that caused Romney only to get a deliciously ironic 47% of the vote. It’s the GOP’s problem with reality. The GOP needs to learn it can no longer lie to the public. With the wonders of the Internet at our disposal, it’s too easy nowadays to fact check every claim made by politicians.
    Look at some of the crazy beliefs held by Republicans:

    1) 49% of GOP voters believe ACORN stole the election (ACORN no longer exists).
    2) 30% of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.
    3) About half of GOP voters believe Obama was not born in the US.
    4) 63% of Republicans surveyed believe that Saddam Hussein had WMD.
    5) 44% of Tea Partiers believe Obama raised taxes (he actually delivered the largest two-year tax cut in modern US history.)
    6) Of the 30% of Americans that still believe global warming is a “hoax”, most are Republicans.

    These people believe lies because that’s what they’re told by GOP leaders. If they can’t recognize that outright lies are, well, lies, how are they going to figure out more subtle and nuanced lies? The GOP’s problems have nothing to do with sticking to traditional morality — the party has an enormous credibility problem. It needs to stop patting itself on the back for being “moral” and figure out how to stop lying to an increasingly savvy, reality-based public.

    • Alecto

      A voter who casts a vote for a Republican candidate is not necessarily a Republican. I vote for Republicans but am not a Republican.

      Saddam Hussein did, in fact, possess WMDs. Syria is in possession of those chemical weapons formerly in Iraq and is preparing to use them on its own populace, just as Hussein did on the Kurds. There is further evidence that Syria was the recipient of shipments of Uranium shortly before the U.S. invasion.

      Obama is sympathetic to Muslim causes, yet won’t even ensure that Catholics are protected by the Constitution he swore an oath to uphold. He has invited members of the Muslim Brotherhood – a designated terrorist group – to the White House. They receive direct U.S. aid. This and previous Congresses have appropriated funds which result in direct payments to that group as well as Hamas, and indirectly to Hezbollah (which ships weapons to Hamas in exchange for cash payments, most likely out of U.S. aid) and Boko Haram in Nigeria, or AQAP in Yemen, perhaps others. As it is difficult to track funding once it leaves the country, and few, if any countries have the level of integrity in government the U.S. has, one might even propose the U.S. directly funds islamists on one hand while sending our children to die fighting it on the other. One need only look at the HSBC scandal, to see that even banks can be involved in furthering funding for terrorists, however unwittingly. I cannot fault anyone who concludes from that this president is at least sympathetic to radical Islamists, which is far more damning than claiming the president is Muslim.

      Congress has taxing and appropriations authority under the Constitution. While it is technically correct that the president did not “raise” taxes, because he is constitutionally incapable of doing so on his own, he did sign the 2011 debt ceiling increase calling for elimination of current rates effective 1/1/2013. The budgets he forwarded to the Congress included elimination of the current income tax rates. Yet, raising taxes doesn’t necessarily mean only income tax increases. The net effect of the regulations promulgated by the Obama Administration raise the costs of doing business, i.e., government “taxes” business by raising the costs of operating, hiring, manufacturing, transporting goods, providing services. Further, if TEA party sympathizers (there is no central group), are members of the “1%” (those whom Obama describes as earning $250K per year or more) he has in fact been responsible for tax increases, levies, fees and other increases in federal revenue via executive branch bureaucracies.

      Finally, Obama has increased taxpayer obligations to an unsustainable level through his policies: the Stimulus of 2009, which is now included in the baseline budget, and the costs of interest on the national debt, which has increased by $6+ trillion. That does not include the costs of Obamacare. I am quite certain that for you, this does not matter. For me, and for anyone who prefers a federal government with a narrowly limited scope, this is more than troubling, it’s grounds for revolution, or secession, just as we fought a revolution over taxation to found the country.

      Global warming, anthropomorphic global warming is disputed by climate scientists everywhere. Ain’t it just like the Left to engage in ad hominem attacks, insulting the intelligence of anyone who dares to dispute your ridiculous, baseless claims.