In Praise of a Polarized Politics

I thought I was a rather close observer of these things, but I learned only from Jeffrey Bell’s new book, The Case for Polarized Politics, that George W. Bush’s first initiative for “faith-based” institutions died because of the issue of the “ministerial exception” and gay rights.

The ministerial exception ran back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964: churches and other religious institutions were given a certain assurance that they would not be compelled to hire ministers or other officers whose moral views were at odds with the teachings of the churches. But as Bell reports, Bush’s initiative ran into resistance from Democrats in the Senate because of a concern, even then, that these rules would be used to bar gay activists who were seeking positions of leadership in these organizations.

In this, and other instances, as Bell shows, Mr. Bush backed away rather than risking a public argument over those vexing “social issues” – those issues of abortion and gay rights – that are so readily taken as poisoning the public discourse. The vitriol has come mainly from the people who are offended by the notion that these subjects may even be discussed in our political life. 

In fact, the very term “social issues” already marks a crippling concession: Since when has the protection of human life not been one of the central concerns of the law? To mark questions of “life” and marriage as “social issues’ is to suggest that they are not really “political” issues, that they are somehow peripheral to the main, legitimate issues of political life. 

But here are the oddities that Bell brings out so sharply: Those “social issues” work powerfully for the conservative side in our politics, and the conservative side is the most reluctant to raise them. As Bell argues, they are the issues that finally tipped the election of 1988 for George H.W. Bush. They accounted for the rapid, deep defection of conservative Protestants from the Democratic party of Jimmy Carter – from a 25-point victory margin in 1976 to a 60-point deficit by 1984. 

The Republican convention that nominated Ronald Reagan endorsed, for the first time in our politics, a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. More and more, the Republicans have become the pro-life party in our politics, gaining immense lift from that issue. Why then have the leading Republicans been most anxious to avoid talking about these matters?  

As Bell shows, Mr. Bush backed away because he didn’t wish to be accused of “polarizing” our politics. Others have backed away because they sense that these issues make people deeply uncomfortable.

Between 1994 and 2000 the Republican campaigns for the Senate were directed by two senators with pro-life voting records, Al D’Amato of New York and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; and as Bell claims, they followed an “unwritten rule” to deny funding to candidates who wished to highlight their support for the bill banning partial-birth abortions.

   How would he approach the abortion issue? 

The result, of course, is that we have not escaped a polarization of our politics. As Bell shows, the issue of same-sex marriage became critical in tilting the election of 2004 to George W. Bush in key states such as Ohio. But instead of building on that issue, Bush backed away from it, and that backing away, says Bell, was “an engraved invitation to social liberals to keep the pressure on at the state and local level.”  

The final inversion has been seen now in the last few weeks: The Obama White House has sought to inject the issue of contraception, as it will inject later the issue of gay rights, precisely because the Republicans are so evidently averse to talking about them. And in their backing away, the Republicans have failed to cultivate any art or confidence in arguing these issues. 

Jeffrey Bell was one of the pioneers in the movement for “supply-side” economics, holding up that banner in a run for the Senate in the 1970s, and becoming later an adviser to Ronald Reagan. He has also become one of the most astute observers in our politics, and a serious voice now in Catholic circles.  

The malady he sees at work is the falling away, in America and Europe, from the moral teaching of the Declaration of Independence. As he reminds us, the Declaration did not derive “rights” from the political community. Those rights that governments were meant to secure were drawn rather from “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

What he charts in Europe and the United States is a receding of religion and a politics that is ever more detached from that moral ground of political life. That tradition has virtually died in Europe, and it survives in America mainly in the party that has become the home to pro-lifers.  

But that party is in turn undercut by a political leadership that hasn’t cultivated the knack of speaking in public to these issues that people care about most deeply because they run to the core. This was the issue faced by Lincoln: that issue of slavery, touching the very meaning of “the human person,” was the issue that people did not want talked about, either in politics or the churches. 

The real test of a political man is whether he can find, as Lincoln did, a way of showing ordinary people how they can talk in public about the questions that truly lay at the heart of things. 

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.