Jeffrey Bell is perhaps the most experienced conservative political advisor in Washington, D.C. Once a key Reagan campaign advisor, Bell later became a political candidate himself, scoring a stunning primary upset against a seated Republican senator in New Jersey only to lose in the general election to Democrat Bill Bradley. Bell, a graduate of Columbia University and Vietnam veteran, has a depth of experience in the culture wars of the last 40 years that is almost unrivaled among fellow pundits on the right.
His new book, The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, comes 20 years after his earlier Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality, which drew the attention of the Democratic pro-life Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, who recruited Bell as an advisor when he was considering a run against Bill Clinton for the 1996 Democratic presidential nomination.
In the Introduction to his new book, Bell writes,
The central contention of this book is that social conservatism is not only unlikely to collapse, but that it is becoming increasingly unified and coherent. It is already driving much of the national debate, and its issues are playing a steadily greater role in voters’ decisions on whether to vote Republican or Democratic.
This is happening in America, and in America only, for a reason. Social conservatism has been, in recent decades, the only mass-based political persuasion that fully believes in and defends the core ideas of the American founding. It has taken over that role from the parties, professions, and institutions that used to perform it, and as a result, it is touching a deep chord in millions of American voters.
This argument may be seen as a further development of Bell’s belief that American exceptionalism is closely linked to the American founding, based on the generally religious background of the Founding Fathers, all of whom, according to Bell, “saw themselves as men of the Enlightenment,” but with a difference:
[T]hey envisioned God not as an archaic holdover deity from unenlightened times, but as the only conceivable authority capable of demolishing humanity’s immemorial rule by blood elites. . . . Humans are innately equal because God created us that way. This view of equality as equal human dignity, they believed, was what mandated republican self-rule, in North America and (eventually) everywhere else.
Bell’s description of the Founding Fathers recalls Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on “the dignity of the human person from conception until natural death,” which forms the foundation of the Church’s teaching on social justice in government and society. Loyalty to America’s founding principles, which are based on the natural law and social conservatism, is necessary for America’s future existence.
Bell argues that the conservative branch of the enlightenment as a system of optimistic belief dominated the American founding, transformed the English-speaking world, and affected the shape of politics in the United States throughout her history. Not only is it necessary to our nation’s current and future health, but, from a political viewpoint, this system prevailed in the past and can again in future.
Bell offers a history of the political and cultural wars in the United States as far as the Obama administration. For this reason alone his book is invaluable in tracing year by year, administration by administration, and Supreme Court by Supreme Court, the decisions and appointments that have marked the polarization of politics.
In an important sense, . . . the charge of polarization is not only true but inarguable. The existence of an American political movement called social conservatism is the main factor that triggers political polarization. . . .
What would happen instead—what has happened in Western Europe—is a peaceful social revolution, utterly changing the face of society in ways that would have been both recognizable and pleasing to Rousseau and his heirs, history’s first leftist politicians in the French National Assembly of the 1790s.
The United States is clearly a different case. Bell quotes from M. Stanton Evans’ The Theme Is Freedom:
the American Revolution was conservative not simply in its allegiance to Western civilization’s theistic origin, but in its tendency toward separate spheres for religion and politics, a tendency rooted in medieval Europe as well as in biblical texts familiar to all Christians.
Equally clearly, America, judging at least by her elites, has traveled far from her largely Christian roots. Consider the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In the majority opinion, the Court not only upheld the claim of a universal right to abortion established 19 years earlier in Roe v. Wade, but, adding insult to injury, continued,
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.
Bell comments, “From the founders’ belief in ‘created equal’ resulting in ‘unalienable rights,’ this language travels to the furthest opposite pole of individual self-definition, verging on self-creation.” The Casey decision appears to be a throwback less to 1973 than to the 1960’s and 70’s, the era of psychedelic experiences described by Tom Wolfe.
The Case for Polarized Politics does not confine itself to the United States. Unfortunately, Europe may now be sinking not to rise again in our lifetime, or the lifetimes of our foreseeable descendants. There is no sign of a De Gasperi, De Gaulle, or Adenauer—all of them Catholic statesmen who, after the cataclysm of World War II, rebuilt their severely damaged countries—in waiting. In the decades following the exit of these men, Europe developed into the European Union, which has increasingly shown itself to be a disaster for the member countries. How did this happen?
Bell recounts the story of Rocco Buttiglione, an influential and experienced member of the Italian cabinet who was nominated to be a European commissioner. He was turned down on the grounds that, as an orthodox Catholic, he could not be trusted to enforce policies with which he disagreed. Bell proceeds to recall how
John Paul II pressed for an acknowledgment of Europe’s Christian roots to be included in the European constitution during its drafting phase. With minimal debate among European elites, the Pope was firmly rebuffed. Instead they concluded that even a mention of Christianity in the 70-thousand-word document would put at risk the tolerance needed to sustain modern democratic institutions.
If Bell is right, America may return to her roots and flourish. If not, the American empire will collapse, to be succeeded by a probably less-benign replacement. This book emphasizes the seriousness of the situation and the starkness of the alternatives in question.
[The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, by Jeffrey Bell (New York: Encounter Books) 328 pp., $25.95]