Rick Santorum was impossible thirty years ago. If Rip van Winkle woke up today he would be dumbfounded. How could such an overtly religious and socially conservative politician have so much traction on the national scene?

R.R. Reno The answer comes from the Left. Since the Sixties our liberal elites have become increasingly anti-religious, increasingly opposed to traditional moral norms, and increasingly aggressive. As a result they have made our national politics much more extreme.

To a great extent, post-sixties American politics has been shaped by liberal aggression. As Lyndon Johnson knew, the Civil Right Act of 1964 would trigger a fundamental shift in national politics. The South would no longer be in the hip pocket of the Democratic Party.

What he did not foresee was liberal overreach. Mandatory school busing—modern liberalism always tends toward coercion—as well as crudely imposed quotas in the 1970s led to a great deal of unhappiness among white ethnic and blue collar voters who had for decades been pillars of the Democratic Party. They weren’t (for the most part) in favor of Jim Crow, but they didn’t like being moved around like chess pieces by liberal elites. It was during those years that the term “limousine liberal” gained currency as a new and telling term of abuse in American political culture.

The Equal Rights Amendment would have encoded gender equality into the Constitution. It seemed a sure thing in the early 1970s. But opposition mounted and it failed to secure ratification. That’s not because most Americans were opposed to women’s liberation. Instead support for the Equal Rights Amendment dwindled because John Q. Voter was coming to see how modern liberals use rights—not as instruments of freedom but as new warrants for social control.

This basic dynamic is at work in the current controversy over the recently released regulations that require all health plans to pay for contraceptives and sterilization. Our present right to buy contraceptives, a right defined by the Supreme Court decades ago, is not enough for modern liberals. They must be free for everyone, which of course requires liberals to use the coercive power of the state.

We see the same pattern when it comes to religion. It’s not enough that the atheist or agnostic has a right to live without penalties and without being forced to pay taxes to support priests and preachers. Religion must be driven from the public square. And the pattern characterizes the gay-rights agenda. A capacious, tolerant culture is not enough. Civil unions are not enough. Marriage must be redefined, and with marriage the very nature of what it means to be a parent, child, and family.

And of course the same pattern holds true in economic affairs. Economic freedom is for liberals empty unless we level the playing field, which of course requires a very big and powerful bulldozer.

Elections aren’t decided in accord with neat ideological categories . The post-sixties liberal ambivalence about the threat of the Soviet Union stemmed in part from a latent and irrational anti-Americanism. This sentiment, which voters came to sense and resent, had a great deal to do with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. Then, three decades later the muscular Americanism of the Bush administration became a political liability. Go figure.

Moreover, economic bad times tend to rain upon the just and the unjust. Rightly or wrongly (one can argue economic cause and effect until late into the night) stagflation of the 1970s came be seen as a failure of government, while the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent recession is largely seen as a failure of free markets.

These factors notwithstanding, over the last fifty years a pattern has evolved that now defines American politics. What used to be called the “vital center” no longer holds. Liberalism faces increasingly militant conservative resistance. This has not come to pass because America suddenly became conservative. No counter-revolutionary fever has struck. It has happened because a once pragmatic and capacious liberalism became ideological and sectarian.

A penchant for aggressive and sanctimonious use of power is always a temptation in politics, though much more so for progressives than conservatives. Rick Santorum doesn’t need a bulldozer to sustain and reinforce marriage. He only needs to defend what is already in place.

The defending rather than invading character of conservatism is one reason why it is so much less likely to inflate the power of the state. Conservatism largely involves sustaining things and tending to them. This sometimes requires state intervention. One can’t maintain the integrity of private property without arresting thieves, and perhaps sustaining the family in our post-industrial society is best done with increased tax subsidies, as Santorum proposes. Or maybe not. In any event it will not require bulldozing what we presently have.

As the manic character of Republican primary race indicates, conservative voters are desperately searching for someone to protect them from the bulldozer of modern liberalism. That’s why Newt Gingrich briefly surged. He punched back at the liberal media, and he promised, in effect, to burn Washington to the ground. It was a rather improbable message given his role as a well-paid Washington insider, but it thrilled his followers.

And now Santorum. He’s less aggressive than Gingrich, which is a sign of his deeper and more serious conservatism. But he is animated by inflexible religious convictions and moral principles. That’s why he gets traction. Conservative voters trust him not to make a deal with the bulldozer of modern liberalism.

R. R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.

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Articles by R. R. Reno

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