The speech not only reaffirmed to me what an incredible leader this man is. It not only reaffirmed his universally popular stances that shall likewise earn him universal support from demographics never before reached out to by Republicans. It not only reaffirmed his undying patriotism and love of the American people. But more than anything else, to me, it reaffirmed my belief that we are witnessing the first ideological realignment of the Republican Party – and indeed, the nation – in 36 years.
As long as I have been alive, the Republican Party I know has been defined – both by itself and its critics – by its social conservatism. This was something I myself vehemently supported in my youth, up through my time in college, in large part due to my own conservative family and Christian upbringing.
But with Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid, the gloomy outlook of the 2016 presidential race, and the supposed inevitability of a Democratic Party victory, it became clear to me that social conservatism was losing the cultural war. As the great Milo Yiannopoulos pointed out, far-right social conservatism with religious undertones was losing the popularity battle in America and the world, and as long as the Republican Party continued to allow itself to be defined by this, so would its critics continue to deride it as a bigoted, religiously fanatical party, thereby allowing it to be easily defeated. It seemed as if the Republican Party truly was, as Democratic political strategist James Carville confidently declared after Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, about to become “the minority party for the next 50 years.”
Part I: What it Means to be a Republican
It is worth going back through the history of the Republican Party to have a better grasp on this interesting role of social conservatism as of late. From the Party’s founding in the 1850’s, with the leadership of Lincoln, and continuing with Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon, the party always maintained a more moderate – and indeed, liberal – stance on most social matters. As such, the Republican Party was the first to champion such historic issues as abolition, black suffrage, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and desegregation, all long before the Democratic Party caught on.
Now, this is not to say that some types of conservatism as a whole were not prominent in the Republican Party. Indeed, economic conservatism has always been the party’s backbone, from its earliest days with Lincoln. The original issue that gave birth to the Republican Party – slavery – was about reducing government control and eliminating a policy that allowed human beings to be treated as property.
Economic conservatism saw its most glorious days in the 1920’s, under the presidencies of Warren G. Harding, and especially Calvin Coolidge. Economic regulation was at one of its lowest points in American history, and the market was thriving. The 1924 election that gave Coolidge his first full term was described by author Garland Tucker as “the high tide of American conservatism,” as not only did Coolidge campaign on more economically conservative policies, but so did his Democratic opponent, John Davis.
However, we all know where this story goes – the booming economy with few government restrictions ultimately ended in the crash of 1929, which immediately gave rise to the narrative that more government control had to be imposed in order to prevent the possibility of such an economic disaster from ever happening again.
Thus, we were given the New Deal. Economic conservatism’s Satan. Intense government regulation, increased social welfare programs, and rising taxes, among several other liberty-limiting government initiatives. The single most dominant period of liberalism in American history lasted for roughly 36 years – from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first election in 1932 to Richard Nixon’s election in 1968.
It is likely the New Deal that gave rise to social conservatism within the Republican Party. Arising after World War II, social conservatism was a faction that was noteworthy, but rarely successful in national efforts, represented by unsuccessful Presidential hopefuls such as Robert A. Taft and Barry Goldwater. These men, through their colossal failures, often failed to convince the Republican Party or the voters at large to accept their brand of social conservatism – the same social conservatism that defined the Democrats from their foundation up until Kennedy. Several more nails were driven into the premature “coffin” of the Republican socially conservative wing with Senator Joe McCarthy – a Democrat-turned-Republican – whose rabid anti-Communism led to a wave of backlash against conservatives due to him being such an easy target for ridicule and claims that social conservatism, if given positions of power, could be dangerous.
But just before Goldwater’s fall, the true savior of social conservatism first arose in 1964: Ronald Wilson Reagan. From his famous “A Time for Choosing” speech in support of Goldwater in 1964, to his Governorship of California from 1967 to 1975, and his unsuccessful bids for the Presidency in 1968 and 1976, he became the first face of social conservatism that actually showed signs of extreme popularity.
However, we must not make the mistake of thinking that Reagan won because he somehow finally proved that social conservatism could work. He ultimately made social conservatism acceptable, and indeed, popular – but this was not on the ideology’s merits; rather, it was on his own image. Reagan himself displayed a form of charisma and personal likability that was quite unlike any modern political figure before him; from his time as an actor, where he commanded presence and confidence, to his older years, where he carried a warm, grandfatherly quality that endeared him to millions. Thus, it can be argued, that Reagan himself was a “cult of personality” above all else, and that he alone was able to make conservatism popular because he was the spokesman. In short: Ronald Reagan didn’t win because he was a conservative – a conservative won because he was Ronald Reagan.
But, naturally, no one has been able to replicate the charm and charisma of Ronald Reagan since Reagan himself. Hence, all post-Reagan Republican presidents (the Bushes) and Presidential nominees (Dole, McCain, and Romney) noticeably lacked the personal appeal, and were all more moderate than Reagan ever was. But nevertheless, the shadow of Reagan hung over the Republican Party, and every presidential candidate to date has invoked Reagan’s name, tried to mimic his personality, and mirror his policy positions. Therefore, social conservatism was a dominant part of the Republican Party, and was the standard throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s.
But starting in 2010, American culture showed a clear change. With the death of Ronald Reagan in June of 2004, and the time elapsed after his death ever-increasing, not even his memory could maintain the popularity of social conservatism. This was also greatly diminished by the rise of social media in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, which further indoctrinated social liberalism into the impressionable American youth, and made it the new popular trend in American politics.
With this, there was a leftward shift of the American Overton Window. Just to explain, the Overton Window is essentially the general field through which politics are viewed. Like a window, it allows for only a certain amount to be seen through it – thus, what is seen through the window depends solely on where the window is placed on the “left-right” scale of politics, which changes based on the times and conditions. For example, on September 10, 2001, the Overton Window was far too much to the center to ever allow something like the Patriot Act – a broad overreach of government surveillance – to pass. But on September 11, the Overton Window shifted dramatically to allow such a law to become much more acceptable, in the name of national security.
Therefore, with the rise of Barack Obama, the Democratic Party’s Overton Window was pushed even further to the left, with borderline socialist policies that oversaw an increase in the size of the welfare state. These gradual increases in social liberalism eventually allowed for open socialists and far-left progressives, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, to push that same Overton Window even further to the left – all the while using social media to make it “cool” and even more appealing to the ever-gullible youth, representing the height of far-left ideals among the youth since the 1960’s.
With this, social conservatism was very clearly in trouble. It was resoundingly defeated in 2008, and again in 2012. It had been all too easy for the Democrats, with the help of social media and a complacent overall media, to paint the Republicans’ social conservatism and religious overtones as “outdated,” “not cool,” and worst of all, “bigoted.” Republicans failed twice on this front: They not only refused to respond to these false labels (as evidenced by Romney trying to run as “the nice guy” in 2012, opting to stay away from such attacks overall in a manner that came across as overly pacifistic), but with the pressuring of the far-right, they refused to abandon social conservatism for the fear of becoming “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only).
This was clearly evidenced by the 2012 Republican primaries, where a plethora of candidates ran as the “anti-Romney” candidate just because the frontrunner had more moderate – and, in fact, some liberal – positions as an “establishment” Republican, and, notably, a former governor of the deep-blue state of Massachusetts. From Michelle Bachmann, to Rick Perry, to Herman Cain, to Newt Gingrich, to the eventual runner-up, the far-right, evangelical Rick Santorum. Such individuals argued that by boldly embracing social conservatism Republicans could face victory again – after all, that’s what Reagan did, right?
No. These individuals failed to understand the concept, as I just explained, that it was Reagan who made social conservatism popular – not that social conservatism made Reagan popular. And Rick Santorum was no Ronald Reagan.
To be sure, Donald J. Trump was not the first to express a desire to “modernize” the party by moderating some of its more radical social stances. Prior to Trump’s historic campaign, one individual had prominently tried to alter the path of the Republican Party in this way: Junior Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Embracing his label of “A Libertarian Republican,” Paul tried to continue the trend started by his father Ron Paul, and shift the Republican Party towards more lax social stances on issues such as gay rights and drugs, while emphasizing the one form of conservatism that was still very popular across America: economic conservatism.
While some say Rand simply did not have his father’s charisma, one friend of mine speculated that the main reason for Rand’s failure to gain traction in 2016 was not because of being overshadowed by his father (indeed, Rand showed more potential than Ron ever did), but rather, it was because the attention of the Millennial vote – and, subsequently, social media – was captured by Bernie Sanders on the other side. Therefore, had it not been for Sanders’ candidacy, perhaps Rand could have captured the youth vote and been propelled into the final tier of candidates alongside Cruz, Rubio, and Trump. Perhaps he will have a chance again in the future. But we must remain focused on what has already happened, and the immediate future as a result.
As such, the impact of Trump’s campaign – and what it means for the future of social conservatism in the Republican Party – will be covered in a second part, coming next week.
Follow this author on Twitter @EricLendrum26