Indianapolis may go down in history as the Gettysburg of the culture wars, the place where forces flying the flags of modernism, diversity and individual rights outflanked the would-be upholders of traditional values, forced them into a tactical retreat — and maybe even set them on the road to long-term defeat.
Not since Pickett’s Charge has a group of Americans misjudged their strategic situation more completely than did Gov. Mike Pence and his fellow Republican backers of Indiana’s religious freedom restoration law. They thought they could define conscientious objection to same-sex marriage as the moral high ground, then seize it; they thought wrong.
Now, the bottom may be dropping out of Republican Party ideology. For decades, the two pillars of that ideology, in domestic policy, have been free-market economics and social traditionalism.
This made a certain amount of sense. Vigorous capitalist growth depends on savings and investment. To the extent they encouraged Americans to seek their ultimate reward in the afterlife, rather than pursue pleasure in the here and now, old-fashioned religiously based social and moral values promoted a pro-capitalist long-term perspective.
In many ways, though, the free market undermines traditional values. Growth depends on consumption, too, especially so in the postwar U.S. economy. Delayed gratification is bad for sales; a vast corporate marketing apparatus has grown up to discourage it, along with a vast consumer-finance industry.
Sociologist Daniel Bell identified these “cultural contradictions of capitalism” more than 40 years ago. “The breakup of the traditional bourgeois value system,” he wrote, “was brought about by the bourgeois economic system — by the free market, to be precise.”
From this perspective, the gay rights revolution reflects not only expanding notions of justice and equality but also long decades in which the economy, with its “spirit of perpetual innovation,” as Bell called it, conditioned Americans to expect that traditional limitations, of all kinds, could, and should, be overcome.
To be sure, traditionalism retains a powerful residual hold on the American mind, and even staged a comeback of sorts after the turbulent 1960s, the period that prompted Bell’s reflections. In 2004, “moral values” were voters’ top priority, according to exit polls. Not coincidentally, both anti-gay-marriage state ballot questions and Republican President George W. Bush prevailed.
In hindsight, though, that was a high-water mark. Last year, the CNN/ORC poll found that 55 percent of Americans say government should “not favor any set of values,” while only 41 percent want it to “promote traditional values.” The numbers were exactly the reverse 10 years earlier.
Gallup’s May 2014 Values and Belief poll revealed that self-described social- issue conservatives outnumber self- described liberals by only four points, the smallest conservative edge in the 14 years Gallup has been asking that question.
Hence Wal-Mart repudiated a proposed law in Arkansas similar to the one in Indiana, so as to curry favor with a national customer base that’s not only increasingly sympathetic to gay marriage — but also increasingly liberal on many social issues. It’s good business for Honey Maid to run ads during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament depicting two gay men raising children. Slogan: “We serve everyone.”
Where this leaves the GOP in 2016 is anyone’s guess. It could follow an avatar of the old-time conservative religion like Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum, and reap a disaster like Pence’s.
Rand Paul’s advice to his party — embrace gay rights, legal marijuana, freer immigration and the like — has the virtue of consistency. It implies a better fit between the party’s free-market economic message and its social platform.
But even if Paul could win the GOP nomination, which he probably can’t, general election voters don’t necessarily want the radical shrinkage of government he has favored.
Paul claims his call for criminal justice reform will help the GOP win black votes. But why would African-Americans vote for him over a Democrat who also advocates a big federal role in job creation and civil rights enforcement?
In different ways, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio are trying to recalibrate center-right ideology. They advocate reforming government as opposed to hacking away at it a la Paul — while modulating their social-issue pronouncements.
An approach like that produced surprising 2014 wins for GOP gubernatorial candidates in blue states such as Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland. Whether it will play nationally in a presidential year, with a larger, more Democratic, electorate, is a different question.
Having straddled Bell’s cultural contradictions for so long, the Republican Party seems poorly equipped to overcome them now. Its leaders formed their beliefs, made their careers and established their records at a time when the political benefits of moral traditionalism still exceeded the costs. That time is coming to an end.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.