Social Conservatives: Impeding Progress Since 1776


ONE OF THE recurring themes in the theater of the absurd that was the Republican primary, and one that may rear its ugly head at the convention, is the notion that certain candidates, namely Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, are “true conservatives,” while the presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, is not.

They vied for that label, conservative, like it was the Polo by Ralph Lauren pony attached to the only designer shirt among the Haggars and Van Heusens on the Marshall’s sale rack.  (The Republican candidates belong at Marshall’s because, like the wares at that establishment, all of them come with factory defects; the GOP is not the GAP).

Heaven forfend any of them might don the scarlet A of progressive, liberal, or—shudder to think—socialist.  They would sooner sport swastikas.

But why should this be so? Progressive, liberal, and socialist reduce to progress, liberty, and social, which are not undesirable ideas. A conservative, by definition, and by contrast, is one who seeks to maintain the status quo—one who, as the name suggests, wishes to conserve. Since when is being a defender of the status quo such a good thing?

I suppose one might make the tepid argument that fiscal conservatism has proved prudent from time to time—but despite their grand economic platforms, neither Romney nor his retrograde alternates are fiscal conservatives. They are anti-tax avengers. There’s a difference.

This is not only my opinion, but one advanced by David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s controversial budget director and an early adopter of “supply-side” economics. “The Republican party has totally abdicated its job in our democracy,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in November, “which is to act as the guardian of fiscal discipline and responsibility. They’re on an anti-tax jihad—one that benefits the prosperous classes.”

As for the social conservative label, one Santorum especially has been proud to wear emblazoned on his sweater-vests, one may as well don a dunce cap or an “I’m with Stoopid” t-shirt. Why would anyone with even the vaguest sense of American history be proud to be a social conservative? On every major issue in the annals of this country, the social conservatives have been in the wrong. Every issue, every time.


Issue: Independence

In 1776, social conservatives (not pictured) were called Tories.

William Franklin, the governor of the New Jersey colony, was the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin. Unlike his liberal, almanac-writing, revolution-minded father, he took the Loyalist line, which he toed (to his credit) even when the war was over and his side had lost.

In a speech to the New Jersey State Legislature in 1775, he made his Tory position abundantly clear, snubbing his nose at the “late alarming transactions in this and the neighboring colonies”—Paul Revere’s ride, Lexington and Concord, Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, Bunker Hill—which he termed “mischiefs.”

“Besides, there is not, gentlemen, the least necessity… for your running any such risks on the present occasion,” he assured his audience. “If you are really disposed to represent to the king any inconveniences you conceive yourselves to lie under, or to make any propositions on the present state of America, I can assure you, from the best authority, that such representations or propositions will be properly attended to, and certainly have greater weight coming from each colony in its separate capacity, than in a channel, of the propriety and legality of which there may be much doubt.”

Franklin’s argument is sound. He’s content to put his faith in the king and the Crown.  He prefers peace to war, law to anarchy, the status quo to change. The status quo, he insists, is working just fine.

If his father and the other Patriots held the same opinion, of course, there’d be no USA. We’d all be subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, and a $100 bill would not be called a Benjamin.


Issue: Slavery

James Henry Hammond was fine with slavery, as long as it was blacks owned by whites.

James Henry Hammond, a Democratic senator from South Carolina, laid out the conservative rationale for slavery in a speech to the Senate on March 4, 1858—called the “Mud-sill” speech, because in it, he compared black slaves to wet dirt.

The North and the South both make use of slaves, he explained; but the South, at least, has the common decency to be honest about the arrangement. In the North, the slaves are the laborers, working men exploited by their social betters—and they are (gasp) white. That there must be a lower class Hammond is cool with; what gets his goat is that the lower class in the North is comprised of his Caucasian brethren.

“We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity,” he decreed. “Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations.”

He articulates the position of the Southern slaveholder as artfully as such an odious position can be articulated, and, as with conservative positions now, there is a seductive, easy logic to what he says. Hammond’s assessment of the Northern laborer, for example, is spot-on, as is his declaration that Northern wage-slaves “are your equals in natural endowment of intellect, and they feel galled by their degradation.” But to make the leap from that to owning other human beings? History has proved this social conservative wrong.


Issue: Unionized Labor

Frick this guy.

Andrew Carnegie wasn’t fond of organized labor. Neither was Henry Clay Frick, whose opposition to unions and laborers lobbying for better working conditions was so intransigent, and so well-known, that he was the target of an anarchist assassination attempt.

George Pullman, owner of the company that made the eponymous train cars, built for his workers a village in which they could live, and paid them in scrip instead of dollars. He did this, he explained, to prevent them from living in poverty, which divine inspiration did not stop him from not lowering rents and prices when he laid off a significant percentage of his work force during the recession of 1893. The workers went on strike. Pullman, a conservative, did not believe that his employees had the right to do so.

“About the only difference between slavery at Pullman and what it was down South before the war,” a Pullman worker told the Chicago Tribune in 1890, eerily echoing Hammond’s pro-slavery argument, “is that there the owners took care of the slaves when they were sick and here they don’t.”

Without the perseverance of the liberal labor unions, who eventually eroded the power of the status quo on matters of workers benefits, this might still be the case.


Issue: Women’s Suffrage

Anti-suffragette city.

It boggles the mind to consider that less than a hundred years ago, in the so-called Land of the Free, women could not vote. More than half the country was disenfranchised!

And yet there were those who embraced the conservative position that women should stay in the kitchen, and away from the ballot box. Incredibly, some of these social conservatives were women.

Helen Kendrick Johnson, a poet and author of children’s books, crafted one of the most influential anti-suffrage manifestos in her 1913 book Woman and the Republic (in which she claims, among other distortions of logic, that “Communism is the natural ally of Suffrage”).

“Woman is to implant the faith, man is to cause the Nation’s faith to show itself in works. More and more these duties overlap, but they cannot become interchangeable while sex continues to divide the race into the two halves of what should become a perfect whole,” Johnson wrote. “Woman Suffrage aims to sweep away this natural distinction, and make humanity a mass of individuals with an indiscriminate sphere….

“The greatest danger with which this land is threatened comes from the ignorant and persistent zeal of some of its women. They abuse the freedom under which they live, and to gain an impossible power would fain destroy the Government that alone can protect them. The majority of women have no sympathy with this movement; and in their enlightenment, and in the consistent wisdom of our men, lies hope of defeating this unpatriotic, unintelligent, and unjustifiable assault upon the integrity of the American Republic.”

Social conservatives have had it in for women’s rights ever since.


Issue: Interracial marriage

Big surprise, the same people who supported slavery on the grounds that blacks comprise an inferior race—you know, the social conservatives—also opposed the right of blacks and whites to marry.

“The amalgamation of the races is not only unnatural, but is always productive of deplorable results,” wrote California State Supreme Court Justice Shenk in his 1948 dissent of the Court’s Perez v. Lippold decision that struck down a law banning interracial marriage. “The purity of the public morals, the moral and physical development of both races, and the highest advancement of civilization . . . all require that [the races] should be kept distinctly separate, and that connections and alliances so unnatural should be prohibited by positive law and subject to no evasion.”

I wonder what Justice Shenk would have thought of two dudes tying the knot.


It goes on. Social conservatives opposed the New Deal and the Great Society. Social conservatives censured Ingrid Bergman, of all people, on the floor of the U.S. Senate because she had a child out of wedlock (would they have been okay with it if she’d had an abortion?). Social conservatives continue to wage war on women, undocumented workers, gays and lesbians, non-Christians. They were wrong in 1775 and 1893 and 1913. They are wrong today.

Corporations are not people, my friend. Contraceptives are not immoral. Abortion is not an either/or issue. Gay marriage is not akin to bestiality. The country does not need to be “taken back” or “restored” or “made great again.” And if we do return to the “simpler time” Ron Paul and his ilk claim to prefer, let’s not forget that we go back to an era where women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann can’t vote, workers have no rights, and rich white men like Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are allowed to own black people like Herman Cain and Barack Obama.

Liberals may be the Left, but we’re also the right.


About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
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3 Responses to Social Conservatives: Impeding Progress Since 1776

  1. Ann says:

    Right on! Wish Speaker Boehner was listening.

  2. Robert Kaussner says:

    Boehner is also too busy obstructing any Democratic agenda and smoking as well…

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