R.I.P. social conservatism: Why it's dying — and the coming realignment

Don't cheer yet, liberals. A direct consequence could be the crack-up of today’s Democratic coalition. Here's why

Published May 17, 2014 1:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Joe Skipper/Salon)
(AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Joe Skipper/Salon)

In our age of political trench warfare, it is easy to assume that today’s political coalitions will last forever. Democrats put their hopes in the incremental demographic growth of their present coalition of blacks, Latinos and white progressives, chiefly as a result of Latino immigration. Forward-thinking Republican strategists hope to thwart a permanent Democratic majority by enticing a sufficient number of Latinos, if not blacks, to vote for the GOP. These are reasonable strategies for both sides, for the next few electoral cycles.

But the fixed political trenches have been dug into a glacier which itself is both changing and moving. In a new article at Breakthrough Journal, “The Coming Realignment: Cities, Class, and Ideology After Social Conservatism,” I speculate about how one long-term social trend in particular — the decline of social conservatism — is likely to transform the definition of categories that today we take for granted, like “progressive,” “conservative” and “centrist.”

You wouldn’t know it from watching MSNBC or Fox, but the era in which controversies over social issues like  “God, gays and guns” defines political alignments is probably drawing to a close, thanks to the social liberalism of younger Americans such as Millennials, who were born in 1981 or later. Millennials are the least religious generation, with fewer than one in 10 saying that religion is important in their lives. They are the only generation in which a majority (70 percent) supports gay marriage. And Millennials are not only less likely than their elders to own guns but also provide majority support to gun control.

Does the rise of social liberalism mean that today’s Democratic coalition will permanently dominate American politics in a decade or a generation? Will John Judis and Ruy Teixeira be vindicated by the final emergence of “the emerging Democratic majority”?

It’s possible that a combination of Latino votes and social liberalism among younger generations will push today’s Democratic coalition into power for decades or generations, but I don’t think so. On the contrary, I argue that the rise of social liberalism and the decline of social conservatism will destabilize existing American political divisions and shatter and recombine today’s parties, in surprising ways.

If we imagine a graph with two axes, social issues (liberal and conservative) and economic issues (liberal and conservative), then it is clear that Americans have long been divided among four groups. Progressives are liberal with respect to both social issues and economic issues; conservatives, the reverse. But there are also a small number of libertarians, who unite social liberalism with pro-market, anti-statist economic conservatism; and a large number of populists, like the aging white working-class “Reagan Democrats,” who combine social conservatism with support for liberal New Deal and Great Society programs like Social Security and Medicare.

If social liberal attitudes become nearly universal, then today’s conservatism and today’s populism vanish or become marginalized. A four-fold division of the American electorate would be replaced by a simpler binary opposition. In an America which, a generation or two hence, practically everyone is a social liberal, there would be two socially liberal factions that disagree chiefly about economics, even as they share current liberal positions on abortion, gay rights and censorship.

This realignment of attitudes will not happen by 2020, perhaps not even by 2030. But it has already occurred in Britain and most of Europe, where the local conservatives are social liberals, by American standards. By the mid-21st century, a similar situation is likely to obtain on this side of the Atlantic.

One of the consequences I predict is the crack-up of today’s Democratic coalition — paradoxically, as a direct consequence of the decline of social conservatism.

At the moment the Democrats are a tenuous coalition of economic progressives and “neoliberals” or moderate economic conservatives. In their policy views many of the neoliberals, including arguably Barack Obama and the Clintons, are what used to be called “Rockefeller Republicans.” Many neoliberals favor smaller government, free trade, deregulation and lower taxes and side with the Democrats chiefly because of the religiosity and social conservatism of today’s Republicans.

If the threat of religious fundamentalism and social conservatism declines, there is really no reason for the allies of neoliberals like Robert Rubin and the allies of economic progressives like Elizabeth Warren to remain in the same party. This is why, in “The Coming Realignment,” I predict that the two wings of today’s Democrats may evolve into the nuclei of the two national parties of tomorrow, once social conservatism goes the way of segregationism and agrarianism.

Because both economic progressives and neoliberals call themselves “progressives” today, to avoid confusion I describe the likely future coalitions using portmanteau names: “Populiberals” (socially liberal and economically liberal) and “liberaltarians” (socially liberal and economically conservative). The useful term “liberaltarianism” is already in circulation, to describe the overlapping position of the right wing of progressivism and the left wing of libertarianism.

In the essay, I argue that these future factions are likely to have their own geographic bases, with populiberalism strongest in “Posturbia” (suburbs and exurbs) while liberaltarianism will flourish in the urban downtowns of “Densitaria.” I should emphasize that by “urban” I do not mean “nonwhite,”  just as by “Posturbian” I do not mean “red state” versus “blue state” or the “Retro/Metro” schema put forth by John Sperling in 2004. I am describing a possible future, not the present or the past. Already a majority of Latinos and African-Americans live in the suburbs, and decades from now most immigrants in immigrant-rich urban areas may no longer be from Latin America. And remember, nearly everyone in the future in this thought experiment is a social liberal, by today’s standards. So I am not talking about conservative white-flight suburbs versus black inner cities. I am talking about a different and new pattern of political geography.

In post-social-conservative America, the division between Posturbia and Densitaria may correspond roughly to the debate among tomorrow’s New Deal-ish populiberals who favor universal social insurance and tomorrow’s liberaltarians who may favor means-tested, targeted welfare programs, like today’s neoliberal Democrats or “gentry liberals” (to use Joel Kotkin’s phrase). In “The Coming Realignment” I suggest:

In highly unequal societies — like many Latin American countries, or cities like New York and San Francisco — the middle of the metaphorical hourglass is squeezed between the rich and the poor. In such a social order, the argument for means-testing the welfare state, eliminating negligible benefits for the rich in order to somewhat expand benefits for the poor, may seem to be more persuasive.

The opposite logic holds in the low-density, low-rent environment of Posturbia, consisting of residential neighborhoods that are dominated by single-family housing and decentralized office parks, malls, and stores. Because the rich, in America as elsewhere, prefer to congregate in expensive, fashionable urban neighborhoods, there will be relatively few rich people in Posturbia. At the same time, the pattern of single-family housing has the effect of excluding people who are too poor to own homes rather than rent.

For these reasons, the emergent society of Posturbia is much more egalitarian than that of Densitaria, by default more than by design. While Densitarian urban areas have an hourglass social structure, the Posturbian suburbs, exurbs, and small towns tend to have a diamond-shaped class system, with few rich, few poor, and a dominant middle. In this environment, universal social insurance — based on the bargain that everybody works, everybody pays, and everybody benefits — can be expected to seem more practical and to win more political support than in the hierarchical Densitarian downtowns.

(For further speculation on the next era in American politics, read Breakthrough Journal.)

Whether my guesses prove to be prescient or misguided, one thing is certain: The ongoing erosion of social conservatism in the United States is bound to destabilize and transform American politics, even if present coalitions last through another few election cycles. Gridlock will not last forever. Big change is on the way.

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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