Jeffrey Bell’s The Case for Polarized Politics is for and about the readers of ConservativeHQ.com – that group of politically active Americans, who, as Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard describes us, are the bumper-sticker owners, sign holders, precinct canvassers, phone bankers, partisan-media-consumers, small- and high-end donors, and bloggers.
Bell argues that social conservatism is uniquely American precisely because it’s an outgrowth of American exceptionalism. It exists here because our founding principles, centering on the belief that we receive equal rights from God rather than from government, remain popular among American voters—if not at elite institutions.
Jeffrey Bell knows whereof he speaks. Although he is best-known as a supply-sider who worked for Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, he is also the conservative who defeated liberal Republican Senator Clifford Case in the Connecticut primary. We have often quoted an incisive interview Bell gave to The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto:
“Social issues were nonexistent in the period 1932 to 1964,” Bell observed. “The Republican Party won two presidential elections out of nine, and they had the Congress for all of four years in that entire period. . . . When social issues came into the mix—I would date it from the 1968 election . . . the Republican Party won seven out of 11 presidential elections.”
The Democrats who won since 1968, including even Barack Obama in 2008, did not play up social liberalism in their campaigns. In 1992 Bill Clinton was a death-penalty advocate who promised to “end welfare as we know it” and make abortion “safe, legal and rare.” Social issues have come to the fore on the GOP side in two of the past six presidential elections—in 1988 (prison furloughs, the Pledge of Allegiance, the ACLU) and 2004 (same-sex marriage). “Those are the only two elections since Reagan where the Republican Party has won a popular majority,” Bell says. “It isn’t coincidental.”
In addition to his incisive observations on electoral politics in The Case for Polarized Politics, Bell offers some interesting and useful observations on the history of social conservatism. American social conservatism, Bell argues, derives from a branch of the Enlightenment that he analyzes as the “conservative enlightenment.” The ability of this optimistic belief system, which dominated the American founding and transformed the English-speaking world, to spread its natural-law-centered vision of democracy will affect the shape of politics in the decades ahead.
Jeffrey Bell’s The Case for Polarized Politics is now available from your favorite bookseller.