When President Reagan’s aides announced last month that the administration would deemphasize the social issues, many opponents of the New Right gleefully declared victory. The feeling of victory was reinforced by the setbacks the New Right suffered in Congress on the school prayer and abortion issues. And the very group that gave the New Right so much hope – working class voters who defected to Ronald Regan in 1980 – seemed to be returning to the Democratic fold, driven by anger and frustration over the state of the economy.

Are the social issues dead? Don’t count on it. They are likely to stay alive for a very long time, not only because the New Right wants them to, but because many liberals, feminists, and libertarians see their social agenda as still unmet. These issues will not go away because they involved a thoroughgoing debate on what the country’s public values should be, what role the state should play in fostering them, and the extent to which the disorders that now plague the lives of individuals and families can be remedied by the return to older values, or the acceptance of new ones.

Just what has happened recently on the social issues? In Congress, Senator Jesse Helms was turned back in his efforts to pass laws restricting abortion and limiting the ability of courts to intervene in cases involving prayers in public schools. What is significant is that the defeat of the New Right came not in the Democratic House, but in the Republican Senate. The striking number of Republicans who joined Democrats to defeat Senator Helms suggests that the New Right’s greatest strength may also provide to be a fatal weakness. The essence of the New Right strategy involved linking socially conservative working-class voters to well-to-do and normally Republican voters. The working-class voters do not share conservatives’ faith in unfettered markets and have thus gravitated toward the Democrats in the past. The New Right thinks social issues can draw many working-class voters in their direction.

But what this strategy leaves out if that many well-to-do voters who like low taxes and free markers just fine are not wild about making abortion illegal, keeping women in the home, or having children pray in school (unless, perhaps, the prayers are said for low taxes). When the strategy works, the well-to-do are supposed to ignore the social issues and vote Republican to protect their economic interests; and the poorer folks are supposed to ignore their interests and vote Republican to protect their values. But that strategy is now in trouble, since the recession is making economic issues paramount for the less well-off voters. And even in 1980 many well-to-do women voted for their gender and not their class and gave a majority of their ballots to Jimmy carter or John Anderson. No wonder many Republicans are having second thoughts about the New Right.

As a practical matter, though, the social issues will not go away because so many people have organized around them – on both sides. Nowhere have direct mail specialists on the right and the left found such success in raising money as on the social issues. That makes sense, since direct mail traffics in emotion. The social issues go to the heart of some of the deepest human feelings; Women who want the right to decide for themselves whether they will have an abortion or not will bitterly and actively oppose anyone who will take that right away. For pro-lifers, the issue is about murder. Try to persuade people that they should back away from these positions because they’re “divisive.” Or try to persuade a gay person that gay rights are not important; or a parent that child pornography is not something politicians are supposed to worry about. It can’t be done.

What is important to remember – and liberals seem loath to remember this – is that most of these questions were first raised from the left. We are arguing about equal rights for women because women, supported by liberals, demanded them. We are arguing about gay rights because gays, supported by a handful of brave liberals, decided they could no longer face intimidation. Abortion was illegal until states, and then the Supreme Court, acted. Many social conservatives argue, with some legitimacy, that they are simply fighting back. “I didn’t ask for this fist,” a very liberal right-to-life Democrat from Missouri said in 1980. That Democrat supported Ronald Reagan because of his stand on abortion, but didn’t much like doing so.

In many ways, the New Right understood the implications of the social issues better than most of the center and many liberals. “The right understood that the notion of extending personal freedom to women – half our society – is truly revolutionary,” wrote Jane O’ Reilly, the perceptive and witty feminist writer. “The right took feminism seriously (as the tepid majority did not) and used those issues that are most obviously women’s – the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion – to organize itself into a ‘new’ right.”

What the New Right also took seriously is a notion that liberals had been peddling for years: that the state, by acting or not acting, fosters particular moral systems. By refusing tax benefits to schools that segregate, the state is quite consciously (and rightly) making a moral choice that segregation is wrong. By enshrining gay rights into law, the state is making a positive declaration that a person’s sexual orientation is his or her business, and that the society recognizes that choice as one that someone has a right to make. In California two years ago, the right tried the exact opposite tactic by putting to referendum a proposal to bar homosexuals from teaching jobs. That proposition went down, partly because our country remains an extraordinarily tolerant place, and partly because many voters wanted the government to stay out of the issue entirely.

There is no doubt that the right can be wildly inconsistent. (Congressman Barney Frank likes to say that the right believes that life begins at conception and ends at birth.) But it has forced many on the left to do some serious thinking about just what it is they’re fighting for when it comes to social questions. Christopher Lasch has been a leading voice arguing that the left has turned its back on its proper constituency – the people who cling to family life, religion, the work ethic, and other ostensibly outmoded values as the only source of stability in an otherwise precarious existence.” Lasch says that in doing so, the left “has repeatedly forced the legitimate need for authority, stability, and continuity to find reactionary political outlets.”

Others, such as Michael Lerner and Laurie Zoloth, who founded Friends of Families, have argued that family breakdown “is an outgrowth of the way the economy and the workplace are organized.” Lerner, Zoloth, and their allies contend that stress in the workplace is “brought home, manifesting itself in tensions and irritation that grow out of hand.” The thrust in their analysis is toward such proposals as more flexible work time and paid maternity leave.

There is much truth to what Lerner, Zoloth, and Lasch say, and their contributions are especially welcome at a time when much of the liberal response to the New Right amount to name-calling. Helping make families stronger has always been a cause of the left, which has traditionally pointed to the devastating impact of poverty on the ability of men and women to live together and raise children in peace. And the statistics on the fate of single-parent (usually single-mother) families are simply too devastating to ignore. The statistics alone suggest that encouraging old-fashioned father-mother-children families is in the public interest.

But the issues are more complicated than that. The fact is that something new is happening, and much of the change is for the good. “Traditional families” sound like wonderful things, but do we really want to roll back the equality that women have won? I don’t think so. Is it not a good thing that homosexuals can live free from fear and humiliation? The national gay rights political action committee held a fundraiser and surprised everyone by having Walter Mondale as the main speaker. But what impressed me was the presence on the platform of Meade Esposito, the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic organization and a man for whom the words “gruff” and “crusty” were invented. Esposito said he supported gay rights because “I don’t like people who pick on people.” There’s a truth there.

The point is that the social issues will stay with us for some time because we as a nation have not yet sorted out just what it is we are looking for. The polls suggest that most Americans think equality for women is a good thing, but that most also still hold to an updated version of the old family ideal. The divorce rate may be high, but people still keep trying to create families. A great many Americans are uncomfortable with homosexuality, but they probably agree with Meade Esposito. What we have to accept is that new demands for freater freedom and quality are always disruptive to the “authority, stability, and continuity” that Lasch talks about. The right almost always favors these three values above everything else. The left always insists that the new demands can be met and that stability can eventually be restored. Its task now, as always, is to show us how.

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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