Social conservatives won’t change culture without politics

Social conservatives won’t change culture without politics
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There’s a popular idea circulating among social conservatives: “Politics is downstream of culture.” Politics, many will argue, is ultimately far less important than the battle for culture. This premise is widely agreed upon by some of the smartest minds in the conservative movement. Nothing is more entrenched as conventional wisdom — especially among social conservative donors — than this.

And nothing could be further from the truth. Politics isn’t downstream from culture; it is a part of the culture and can drive culture as a whole.

Generally, culture is controlled by elites. Look at the institutions that fundamentally make up culture — academia, the mainstream media, Fortune 500 corporations, Hollywood and the entertainment industry — these are not areas where the average American has much sway. But politics is the great equalizer.

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Politics is the one way the American people can make their voice heard and decide what is true, good, and important. It is also the way for Americans to decide which views are within the pale and which are outside the mainstream. When a politician articulates a particular set of proposals and wins an election, people learn that what they believe is shared by many others. Politics tells Americans what views their fellow citizens hold and care about. It assures them they are not alone, isolated, or fringe — despite what elites who control other parts of culture might tell them.

The Left understands the power of politics and its influence on the rest of culture. It’s the last refuge for everything they oppose. That’s why they invest in politics and make winning elections a key part of their overall strategy of affecting cultural change.

When the Left uses its media power and political investments to persuade Republicans to be silent on an issue, one predictable cultural consequence is that public-opinion polls on that issue shift in the Left’s favor. It is a virtual ironclad rule of politics and culture that when only one side is willing to speak enthusiastically, people will begin to believe there really is only one side to the issue. If there is only one team visible on the field, that team will win not only its policy goals, but the hearts and minds of the mushy middle.

To retain the cultural impact of political involvement, social conservatives must understand how to keep an issue in the political spotlight over time. On this, we can learn much from the pro-life movement.

In the 1970s, as abortion was rapidly becoming legal nationwide, political scientists predicted that public opposition would cease to exist as older generations died off. Abortion polling looked about as dismal as gay marriage polling does now, especially with the huge generation gap in support for liberal abortion policies. In 1972, 66 percent of those under age 30 felt that there should be no restriction on abortion at all. The future for pro-lifers looked grim.

However, the pro-life movement kept the issue alive and in politics. Pro-lifers learned to move from the Human Life Amendment to more manageable legislative goals (such as banning late-term abortions and ending taxpayer funding for abortion) and turned abortion into a critical election issue for candidates. The cultural consequences of this ongoing political engagement have been profound.

Pro-family social conservative organizations, by contrast, have continued to do politics as usual, investing most resources in pastor organizing, voter guides, voter-registration efforts, referendum efforts, policy papers, and earned media appearances. This is not because these organizations are bad or wrong; it is because electoral politics is not really what most of them are designed and organized to do.

Nevertheless, Republican elites have concluded that taking social conservative positions, such as visibly opposing gay marriage, will hurt them, in part because social conservatives do not appear to have political resources to invest in helping them win. For example, former Gov. Pat McCrory, the lone high-profile Republican who stood up in 2016 against the Obama transgender mandate requiring public schools to let biological males in girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms and on girls’ sports teams, was defeated because of this lack of political engagement. And the Left has recognized the symbolic importance of these races: They need only to demonstrate that they can defeat one conservative leader to.send other Republicans scurrying for political cover.

Now, the Left has moved on to redefining religious liberty as a “license to discriminate” and pushing a radical transgender ideology using the same successful tactics. There still remains a substantial reservoir of conservative sentiment on these issues. A 2015 AP poll found 59 percent of independents said that religious freedom should trump “LGBT rights” where they conflict, and a recent Pew Research poll showed 54 percent of Americans still believe a person’s sex is determined at birth. But if social conservatives continue to respond by repeating our own failed tactics, we will inevitably lose.

Nonpolitical cultural strategies without a new, better, deeper, and more effective investment in direct politics cannot succeed. Simply put, social conservatives are not investing nearly enough.

Research from a new American Principles Project Foundation report, The Case for Politics: Why Social Conservatives Must Invest Seriously in Politics, which I co-authored, shows that from 2008 to 2014, social conservatives invested $2.6 billion in nonpolitical strategies to change public policy, while investing just under $74 million in direct political spending, a ratio of 35 to 1.

But the social Left has no similar problem. For example, Human Rights Campaign, a pro-LGBT rights organization, just pledged to spend $26 million in the 2018 campaign. Emily’s List, one of the largest pro-abortion PACs, will not say how much they plan to spend in 2018, but when asked, pointed out that they spent $36 million in 2016. In other words, these two single organizations spend politically in one year almost as much as all social-conservative organizations combined spent between 2008 and 2014.

That’s not even close to a fair fight.

Social conservatives are politically weak because 1) we don’t invest enough in direct political spending and 2) that which we do invest, we spend mostly on defensive “rouse the base” strategies, rather than going on offense and winning over independents and soft Democrats in tight elections. If we continue to ignore these failures, we can continue to expect the same failing outcomes.

We don’t have the option of standing idly by as the Left redefines Christian teachings as hate. As our leaders go down to electoral defeat, our emboldened opponents become more intransigent and aggressive. Traditional believers, or even pragmatic secularists who recognize the hard science of biology, will be relegated to their ghettos as “bigots” and “haters,” the moral equivalent of racists.

We’re running out of time. It’s time to learn from experience, put together a new political game plan, and get to work.

Frank Cannon is the president of American Principles Project, a non-profit dedicated to educating and advocating for public policy solutions that recognize the dignity of the person as the basis of the founding principles of the United States, and serves as a political strategist for the Susan B. Anthony List. He is a co-author of the 2017 report “The Case for Politics: Why Conservatives Must Invest Seriously in Politics” and has worked in the public policy arena for over 30 years.