How Social Issues Hijacked Conservatism

I was eating lunch last week with a Southern Democratic activist when we came upon the subject of southern voting habits. Perhaps, I suggested, that Democrats could gain ground over the next decade?

“What you should understand about the Deep South,” she replied, “is that social issues have hijacked overall conservatism and the Republican party because socially conservative voters in the south now vote on two issues and two issues only: guns and abortion.”

It wasn’t always this way, of course, despite what it sometimes feels like when I read The Atlantic and some of my other favorite rags from the social left. As recently as 1992 and 1996, a Southern Democrat, Bill Clinton, won southern states like Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, and Louisiana while being pro-choice and pro 2nd amendment regulation.

However, the key differences were first the tone of the discussion and, second, the absolutism of the social conservative position on both issues. In 1992, Clinton’s slogan on abortion was “safe, legal, and rare” and he did the utmost to say it quietly, turning up the focus instead on economic issues. On 2nd Amendment rights, he did much the same, suggesting that guns should be ‘safe, legal, and lightly regulated.’ Indeed, this was rather close to the Republican position; close enough that the 1994 ban on assault weapons was a bipartisan deal.

However, in 1994, Newt Gingrich came to power and the conference began to swing hard to the right. Conservative talk radio, like Rush Limbaugh, and conservative ‘news’ like Bill O’Reilly accelerated this trend, as did the relative liberalism of Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry, as opposed to Clinton the Southern Centrist. By the time Barack Obama was elected President, the deep south was as closed off to the Democrats at the national level as it had ever been.

More important, by Obama’s time, the entire playing field of debate had changed. The two most painful social issues of the 2008 campaign for Democrats were gay rights, where both Obama and Clinton both tread very lightly, and race issues. For Democrats, abortion and guns were ‘settled’ issues: any candidate with a reasonable hope for winning the primary had to be pro-choice and pro-regulation. But, for social conservatives, those two issues remained the key points and had become even more important, to the point that anyone who favored choice or regulation was more or less unelectable.

2017 and 2018 are shaping up for critical years for the Democrats. No Democrat nationally will win the south for many years to come – we know that. And no national Democrat should be anything but pro-choice, pro-regulation on these two key issues. But the national party must understand, as it once did, that local politics don’t have to be tied explicitly to national politics in every case, and that local politicians must be allowed to reflect the views of their locales. A state rep candidate in Alabama, for example, should be able to run as a Democrat if they want to help workers, even if they want to take a quieter tone on abortion and guns. After all, if they can’t, and they can’t get elected, then they can’t help at all.

Social conservatives, meanwhile, have backed themselves into a corner. They are backing candidates that are killing them – literally – with poor healthcare and social spending cuts – and they know it. But they view these two issues as pivotal. If local Democratic candidates give them a bit more room on these two key points, will they find their way back to the middle?