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GOP - Bioethics = Trump

In the aftermath of the Trump cycle conservative elites would do well to revisit the role of bioethics in appealing to their most sympathetic voters.
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elephant carries a flag USA, isolated on white background
elephant carries a flag USA, isolated on white background

Okay, that's a slight exaggeration. But hear me out.

The three-legged stool that defined the Republican Party since Reagan was made up of social conservatism, economic conservatism, and defense conservatism. Donald Trump threatens economic conservatism by defending Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and defense conservatism with his isolationist remarks. So Trump has undermined two of those legs. Ironically, by drifting away from the moral core that includes bioethical issues, the GOP elite itself has weakened the third.

Of course the main reason that Donald Trump has been able to upend the Republican Party's nominating system is the well-documented anger at the political establishment's failure to address economic stagnation for so many in the vanishing middle class. Trump's unique celebrity, his mastery of the television entertainment medium, his vulgarity and take-no-prisoners attitude have merged into a pretty hot property. (As if we needed more proof that Marshall McLuhan was wrong about TV as a "cool" medium, his favorite example being JFK's performance in the 1960 debates.) And of course Bernie Sanders is riding on similar outrage on the left.

Conservatives are far more likely to consider certain bioethics issues as basic to their self-identity than liberals. It goes without saying that abortion and the moral status of the human embryo are matters that mean a great deal to social conservatives. Those concerned about respect for human life are also likely to feel strongly about end-of-life cases like that of Terri Schiavo, embryo-destructive research, the use of fetal tissue and boundary-blurring science experiments like the creation of "human-animal hybrids." The latter was decried by President George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address. Just as racially or ethnically tinged language sends its own coded message, so also matters of life and death and biotechnology have been another dog whistle of American conservative politics.

These issues were important topics in the several previous presidential campaigns. Certain candidates, like Rick Santorum, especially identified with conservative bioethical principles. Those who didn't adopt a hard line, like John McCain who at Nancy Reagan's request refused to disavow embryonic stem cell research, reinforced conservative doubts about his commitment. In this cycle it was reasonable to expect that Ben Carson, who had been a member of President Bush's bioethics council, would take them on, and that Jeb Bush would highlight his role in the Terri Schiavo case. One might have expected Ted Cruz to emphasize his opposition to gay marriage and the novel reproductive arrangements it often entails, such as gay women seeking sperm donors who are friends or family members, or gay men who enter into contracts with surrogate mothers. These arrangements have been said to threaten America's social order and even Western civilization itself.

This time we've heard about none of that (and of course we haven't heard much resembling substance on that side in any case), but the absence of these moral values issues on the Republican side is no accident. As Republican policy elites prepared for 2016, the determination to move in another direction was quite intentional.

For example, after President Obama's reelection the post-2012 Republican "autopsy" report specified that "on messaging, we must change our tone - especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters." In particular, opposition to gay marriage was seen as a loser with young people. Those same voters were thought unlikely to be enthused about a party that worried over rapid social change and technologies that fostered it, or at least not a party that adopted a Victorian "tone." Gay marriage in particular looked like a new political third rail. Socially conservative GOP policy elites who during the Bush 43 years were deeply engaged in issues like cloning and stem cell research turned away from cultural topics that had once defined them and toward problems like immigration reform and "fixing" Obamacare. As it turns out, many white voters saw that as the same old thing, as more flawed government business as usual.

Ironically, in minimizing conservative cultural issues in hopes of attracting millennials, the party has also weakened its appeal to large numbers of social conservative voters. In exchange for their votes they expected the politicians to call a halt to what they considered immoral practices, including what they regard as ideologically biased science, yet it continues unabated. In a February 2016 Washington Post op-ed the editor of the religious conservative journal First Things, R.R. Reno, wrote that "...religiously and socially conservative people are ready to smash things." Evangelical voters in particular have concluded that the Republican Party doesn't care about their causes. "Religious conservatives feel they have been pushed aside in today's cultural politics." And indeed they have. Thus, Reno writes, they are turning to Trump.

The autopsy report's implicit choice was a youthful Hispanic Senator from Florida who wore his conservatism lightly and his economic protest hardly at all. We've seen how that went. The remainder of what were once called values voters seem to be gravitating to Ted Cruz, an extreme moral conservative who opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Paradoxically, both Cruz's appeal and Trump's rise demonstrate that many conservative voters want their politicians to be seriously committed to moral values.

What all this will finally mean for the party or for the American conservative movement no one can tell, but in the aftermath of the Trump cycle conservative elites would do well to revisit the role of bioethics in appealing to their most sympathetic voters.