Over the years, the American political left has excelled at using the vocabulary of rights—human and civil—to bolster and advance its policy objectives. Conservatives would do well to copy them.
Building on the successes of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, progressives and Democrats have successfully cloaked their policy platform in rights-based language. In this way the battle over voter ID laws was transformed into a crusade against the resurgence of Jim Crow-era racialism. Attempts to defend traditional marriage became not a negotiable policy problem but an attempt to keep gay men and women from enjoying their constitutionally guaranteed pursuit of happiness. Marginal limits on abortion morphed into an assault on the hard-won rights of women to control their reproductive lives.
And it worked. The Democratic base loved it, and 51 percent of American voters responded to it. At least they did last Tuesday.
The brilliance of this strategy is its appeal to the average American’s sense of justice. Policies are negotiable. Rights are not. If you characterize your rival’s policies as violations of other people’s rights, you can write your own political future.
The entire intramural debate currently raging among conservatives and Republicans about abandoning social issues, appealing to Hispanics, and compromising on taxes will be moot if progressives and Democrats continue to hold the moral high ground in the minds of the majority of Americans. If conservatives want to get back on top, they must define the high ground and take it.
And that means understanding their own policy goals the way liberals view theirs: as a defense of human rights. Construct a rights-based argument, provide evidence to support it, and make it, repeatedly.
Conservatives don’t do a very good job of making the moral case for a market system, at least in terms that resonate widely with the American people. They do, however, do a pretty good job of making the moral case for social conservatism when they make the effort. When they cede that ground to the left, they leave themselves open to caricature.
The last election cycle was a disaster for social conservatives precisely because the politicians who represent those views weren’t prepared to defend them using explicitly rights-based language. Pro-life candidates must never accept the notion that abortion is merely a question of women’s reproductive freedom, or heaven forbid, sexual violence and its consequences. Similarly, supporters of traditional marriage must never allow to go unchallenged the premise that their views are inherently discriminatory.
Some on the right may object to such a strategy, insisting that the pro-life and pro-traditional-marriage positions can be defended using the language of natural law, tradition, and social order. This may be true, but such arguments are self-defeating. A mere fifty years ago, similar claims were made in defense of a system of racial segregation that was laughably described as “separate but equal.” The American public hasn’t forgotten and sees the cultural right as the heir to that tradition. We don’t want to go there.
Rather than arguing from tradition, then, social conservatives must be prepared to speak about abortion and marriage using the vocabulary of human rights. It’s not difficult. Every human being has dignity, and because of this every human being has an absolute right to be born. It is the first and most fundamental human right. Biologically, every child has a mother and a father, and children do best when raised by both parents together. The civil institution of marriage derives from these incontrovertible facts, not from public attitudes toward alternate lifestyles or the popularity of Glee.
State this. Defend it. Don’t back down. Don’t equivocate. Don’t allow yourself to be blown off course. Always steer the conversation back to the rights of a child to be born and to have both a mommy and a daddy.
In short, be like a progressive.
Take the fight to them. The media will never challenge liberal Democrats for their support of abortion on demand, whether embryonic, late-term, partial-birth, or sex-specific. It is up to the voices of the conservative right to aggressively hold progressive public officials to account for their commitments to radical organizations such as Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and Emily’s List.
It’s a winning issue. Fewer and fewer Americans buy into the left’s argument on abortion. In a 1996 Gallup poll, 56 percent of Americans said they considered themselves pro-choice. Earlier this year, that number stood at only 41 percent, with 50 percent of Americans calling themselves pro-life.
That means that social conservatives are making slow, steady progress. Giving up on social issues, as many in the GOP and in the media seem to be advocating, would not only be morally wrong but would look like failure, capitulation to the left’s insistence that conservatives are only interested in sexually repressing women.
Admittedly, in the current political environment, the traditional marriage position is a harder sell than the pro-life one. But if legalized gay marriage is inevitable, then social conservatives must turn to a positive defense of the constitutional rights of religious communities. The free exercise of religion is a protected right. It says so in the First Amendment.
A renewed emphasis on the pro-life, pro-traditional-marriage platform using language that frames the questions in terms of rights, not preferences, is the best option available to counter the ascendancy of what Ramesh Ponnuru so succinctly called the Party of Death. It’s not necessary to jettison social issues from the Republican platform. On the contrary: They can form the basis of a conservative resurgence, if they are presented in a way that has proven appeal to the American people.
Matthew Hennessey is a writer and editor who lives in New Canaan, Connecticut. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHennessey.
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