In the Middle Ages, it became conventional to speak of the three “orders” of society: those who fought, those who prayed, and those who worked the land. That was to say: the nobility, the religious (monks and secular clergy), and the peasants. The first two had the power and the pelf, but they couldn’t do their things without the labor of the third. And so it is with the three orders of the Republican Party, which (it has become conventional to say) consists of the economic conservatives (those who prey), the foreign policy conservatives (those who pontificate), and the social conservatives (those who pray). The first two are strong in dollars and decibels, but weak in numbers. The third has the boots on the ground and in the voting booth. They are the party’s “base”–which is to say, they have to be kept happy, active, and on the desmesne in order for the first two orders to be able to their things in Washington and in statehouses around the country.
It is not true that this base is, as the Washington Post once notoriously put it, “poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” Social conservatives are middle class, college educated, and from time to time prepared to rise up and take matters into their own hands. During the primaries, they decided to follow Mike Huckabee, one of their own, rather than take orders from their so-called leaders to cleave to a Fred Thompson or a Mitt Romney. Then, grumpy and restive when the GOP nomination landed by default on John McCain, they had to be given Sarah Palin as their Joan of Arc. Armored by Neiman and Sacs, she led the faithful into battle as her senior commander never could. That his adjutants have, after their defeat, sought to burn her as a witch (pace Bishop Muthee) testifies to the power she summoned within the party. As the Middle Ages wore on, peasants’ revolts became more and more frequent.
It is telling that, amidst the mortifications and soul-searchings of Republican elites, no one seems to be advocating a retreat from the party’s social conservatism, even those counseling a demarche to the center. As National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru put it in a New York Times op-ed Friday, “The way to court these moderates is not to abandon social conservatism, which would alienate many of the voters Republicans still have.” Similarly, National Review editor Rich Lowry, pointing in today’s Washington Post to the three states where voters turned thumbs down on gay marriage, declares, “The GOP’s cultural conservatism is an asset so long as it’s not seen as an attempt to distract voters from other issues that they care about, such as the economy.”
This, it seems to me, is whistling past the graveyard. I haven’t run into anyone who thinks that gay marriage is anything but a winner in the years to come. And as for the issue with the strongest legs for social conservatives, anti-abortion referendums all lost this time around. What the Ponnurus and Lowrys recognize, however, is that no one can moderate the social conservatives’ weltanschauung but the social conservatives themselves. They are not, nor have they ever been, a movement independent of the Republican Party; to a large extent, they are the Republican Party–including many of its activists and leaders as well as its rank-and-file. That’s why the interesting struggle is the one that will be taking place within the social conservative ranks.
For where things stand at the moment, take a look at this dispatch from the AP’s Eric Gorski. As they sought to do this time around, the social conservative leaders want to shift their positions not at all, advancing the cause sub rosa behind a suitable front man like Romney. Permitting a broader agenda, a la the National Association of Evangelicals’ Rich Cizik, runs the risk of sanctioning their folks to vote Democratic–behaving like, God forbid, the Catholics. And yet, despite a not very impressive outreach effort, the Obama campaign managed to round up twice as many young evangelicals as John Kerry did four years ago. If the old guard can think of nothing better to offer that growing demographic than the same old values agenda in 2012, perhaps it ought to think again. As for the rest of the electorate, its antipathy to religious right culture warriors should not be underestimated. Jews and Mainline Protestants and, yes, many Catholics too run the other way when evangelicals are on the march.
In the Middle Ages, the three-orders model became obsolete with the rise of another order, the bourgeois middle class, which eventually overthrew the ancien regime. The GOP regime is looking pretty ancien. What will rise to overthrow it, however, is anything but clear.