With Matt waxing eloquent during last week’s four theses on social conservatism, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight how aspects of social conservatism are capturing renewed attention.

Michael Gerson at the Washington Post and the ever-maddening David Brooks at the New York Times have, in the past two weeks, written excellent diagnoses of what ails modern conservatism. With “social conservatism” being code word for abortion and same-sex marriage in today’s culture, it isn’t an accident that both authors discuss elements of social conservatism without ever actually using the term.

Gerson, a Beltway evangelical and Bush speechwriter penned an article titled “An Ideology without Promise” in which he eviscerated Mitt Romney’s now infamous “47%” comments where “human worth is reduced to economic production.” In Romney’s tirade, according to Gerson, there’s little that would attract the economically destitute since they’re accused of lacking personal responsibility and enjoy the perpetual siphoning off of economic benefits toward themselves.

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 11, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Brooks’ article conspicuously titled “The Conservative Mind,” he laments how modern conservatism is dominated by a fiscal conservatism that lacks familiarity with the complexities of the social order, the type of complexities that birth vaunted insults like the one Romney issued with his 47% comments. In the Manichean gap, Brooks sees how the once powerful traditionalist element of American conservatism has receded, resulting in conservatism preoccupied by economic production at the top than rather than economic mobility for the middle and lower classes.

Brooks writes,

The economic conservatives were in charge of the daring ventures that produced economic growth. The traditionalists were in charge of establishing the secure base — a society in which families are intact, self-discipline is the rule, children are secure and government provides a subtle hand.

Brooks then delivers the most stomach-punching indictment I’ve read in a long time:

The Republican Party has abandoned half of its intellectual ammunition. It appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens.

Before I’m accused of doing so, I don’t want to be interpreted as shunning economic conservatism or its importance for providing stable revenues for American families. The more economic growth, the better, certainly. Economic stability aids in domesticity and domesticity provides the market with stable employees that, in turn, provides the infrastructure for companies to grow. This is not a zero-sum game of the family versus economics.

For too long, however, conservatism has measured the health of the family strictly along economic lines and hardly ever along associational lines. Can anyone really deny that fiscal conservatism has been the movement’s lodestar? If conservatives are adherents of a deep social order often reliant broaching a spiritual undercurrent, then it may be that the family health ought to be measured in units other than just monetary accrual. The metrics are obviously difficult.

Both columnists mentioned America’s dysfunctional institutions and the participation gap between practitioners as what ails our nation the most. Today, an individual’s mobility in society is determined more so by family environment than by outright economic plushness (though, as many have indicated, the economically advantaged also exhibit higher levels of family stability).

Out of Gerson is a self-evident call for a conservatism that prioritizes Blue Collar communities along with invigorating the institutions of civil society. Out of Brooks is a self-evident call for a conservatism that speaks the language of moms and dads parenting within a “harmonious ecosystem.” If Brooks and Gerson are right, then there ought to be a perpendicular point where a family-centric conservatism consisting of varying economic strata bisects with a conservatism that “speaks the language of the social order.” Amen and amen.

Some may reply that we already have this style of conservatism within social conservatism. And they may be right. The problem with social conservatism, however, is that its cultural capital resides almost exclusively in the marriage and abortion debates and championing “family values” which really means conservative Christian values, exclusively. We don’t need to jettison social conservatism (!!!), as much as we need a rhetorical shift that emphasizes what I’ve mentioned above. We often hear that Jesus needs better PR. Okay. Then so does social conservatism.

It’s time for a Blue Collar and Big Society Conservatism, a conservatism with grit and dirt in its nails; a conservatism that appeals to those drinking PBR as to those drinking Sam Adams and Sidecars. This conservatism can capture families from all races and all economic strata. Nothing about this rejects the tenets of social conservatism. The battle for marriage and life will rage on. Big Society conservatism actually widens social conservatism to include more than just the family, though it certainly enshrines it.

Something akin to this has been tried in England. This “Big Society” approach to conservatism has been attempted in Britain, though Britain’s conservatism is a different beast than American conservatism.

Conservatism needs Blue Collar emphases that care as much for economic plight of American families as it does the CEO. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salaam’s book­­­ Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream is, as the title suggests, a manifesto meant to attract working class families with conservative policies. That’s a start. We need politicians speaking from the stump not merely of economic downturn, but of actual family breakdown and lives ruined—breakdown that accounts for astronomically high entitlement costs. In an ideal model, as the ruins of yesteryear’s divorce culture bears its tainted fruit, opportunities will present themselves for marriage laws to be evaluated. Could you imagine the scandal that would follow from an elected official or president questioning our divorce culture? The mere provocation would set off a maelstrom of opportunity. The language of “local control” and “volunteerism” could be renewed, along with ideas of the “common good” (I often wonder whether our political culture is so impoverished because we use such anemic words). Tax proposals could be messaged less by charts and figures and more by opportunity gleaned.

I’d love to hear from our readers how conservatism might re-brand itself to meet the needs that Brooks and Gerson suggest.


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Posted by Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


  1. Couldn’t agree more. I think much of the confusion is due to the libertarian invasion of the Republican party. From my perspective, it seems that libertarians began telling conservatives they were not being conservative enough. In some cases this may have been true, but many former conservatives accepted their charge without ever considering the difference between conservatism and libertarianism. In doing so, they abandoned half of their ideology just as David Brooks said.

    I have come across this in my own work lobbying in Florida. Last year a debate emerged as to whether the state should allow three large casinos to be built. The same proposal came up years ago and was shot down by socially minded conservatives. Last year it couldn’t be spoken of at Republican events without a good number of people scoffing at you for having the audacity to interfere with the market by banning casinos. Regardless of the social consequences it would have on communities by introducing prostitution, more drugs, and gangs.

    As this larger debate continues, I think it is important to clearly draw the lines about what conservatives stand for. Something that won’t be easy to do in the present “conservative” climate without sounding like a “moderate” who wants to interfere with the markets. However, there are some fundamental differences between Libertarianism and Conservatism, and these differences have retreated in the face of an economic-centric libertarian onslaught.

    In some fashion, and without sounding like an economic-liberal, the line needs to be drawn and Conservatives need to say that there are some ideals that will be sacrificed neither at the alter of the market or the state. As Chesterton said, “The state is judged by whether its arrangements bear helpfully or hardly on the human fullness of the free family.”

    Thanks for bringing up this topic that is in need of much more discussion!


  2. Brian, that Chesterton quote is a really helpful directing influence for thought. Perhaps a re-branding effort could focus on something like an “American legacy” – less on guarding or turning back to “old” ideas (because the most important conservative moral ideals aren’t antiquated, but actually necessary for a sustainable future) and more on bettering the world for our children.

    Maybe the main principle of this could be “space,” or “ability,” or something – economic space to grow a family (lower taxes), etc. Opportunity, perhaps. This would necessarily have to include some ways to help out the struggling families (especially struggling minorities, who might hold conservative ideals but feel shunned by conservatives), but could include scaling back military spending or other forms for the sake of helping our own people leave a better legacy.

    A focus on small businesses as job creators could fit this image, as well as a valuation of all work that helps someone provide for a family. I think we’ve lost the idea of our nation as one of promise, and it may be because we’re self-centered or shortsighted and complaining about my own problems. Setting our eyes on the possible future and showing how conservative policies provide hope for the future might better our image.

    And it would also be way better for us to abandon jingoism and paranoia (maybe Fox News entirely).


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