Not So Bad

The Upside for Social Conservatives of Rick Santorum’s Withdrawal

Rick’s withdrawal allows social conservatives to keep believing a lack of ideological purity is what ails the GOP, says Jesse Singal.

Jae C. Hong / AP Photo

Maybe they don’t know it. Maybe it’s just a tiny whisper at the edge of their subconscious, a nagging but distant little voice. But Rick Santorum voters should be breathing a huge sigh of a relief that their man is out of the race.

Why? Shouldn’t they be upset?

Well, yes and no. It’s never fun to see your candidate go down, and from Santorum’s supporters’ point of view, this marks a dark day for the party. With the last semi-legitimate challenger to Mitt Romney gone, there’s going to be a fair bit of the usual whinging about Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate and his lack of conservative credentials. But there’s also an important upside here for Santorum fans—for all steadfast social conservatives, really. With Santorum out, they can continue to hold onto one of their most central, cherished myths: that any and all failures on the part of the GOP are due to the party not veering far enough to the right, to a lack of ideological purity.

John Avlon put it best a few weeks ago, when he argued that the GOP would learn a valuable lesson by nominating Santorum and watching him get eviscerated by Obama: “The dangerous groupthink delusion being pushed in conservative circles over the last few years is that ideological purity and electability are one and the same,” he wrote. “It is an idea more rooted in faith than reason.”

To be sure, this isn’t unique to right wingers. At every stage of every election cycle, liberals, too, are clamoring for their party to display more fealty to the base’s ideals. One of the most common liberal criticisms of Obama—and it’s a criticism made on both moral and pragmatic grounds—is that he is too much of a compromiser, that he suckered liberals in with the hopey-changey stuff and then turned out to be a center-left (or centrist, depending on whom you ask) pragmatist.

But the right’s syndrome is more serious. How else does one explain the veritable buffet of crazy we have witnessed during the primary season? Of the three delegate winners other than Romney, one called child-labor laws “stupid,” one compared homosexuality to bestiality, and one wrote and edited an explicitly racist newsletter.

The social-conservative wing of the GOP’s ideological purity fantasies are also different in kind, not just degree, because they are largely rooted in issues that are gone and not coming back. There will always be some wiggle room on things like taxes and foreign policy—issues that are somewhat elastic, public-opinion-wise, with regard to what’s going on in the world. But on social issues, the arrow points only in one direction. The sexual revolution isn’t going away. Gays aren’t going back in the closet.

So the reasons the final cut of GOP primary candidates was so out there—the reason the party’s base all but hung up a shoddily made “NO MODERATZ” sign on their tree house, chasing out noted sane person Jon Huntsman early—is because many in the GOP still cling to the irresistible fantasy that Americans are a fundamentally conservative people waiting for a true conservative to take the helm, presumably to rescue them from single, black, welfare-queen, lesbian, undocumented Mexican, Planned Parenthood–staffer mothers.

Nope. That’s not where the nation is headed. For proof, look no further than the poll from a little over a year ago showing that, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans support gay marriage. Many of the questions relating to how Americans deal with economic issues, how they view taxation and government benefits and spending, remain a bit murky, vulnerable to slight changes in poll wording and framing. On social issues, though, this just isn’t the case in quite the same way.

But the culture-warrior dead enders don’t care for things like “polls” or “evidence.” That’s why they dodged a bullet here: if Santorum had gotten the nomination (which is a bit like saying “if Newt Gingrich were a likable person”), their collective delusion would have died a painful, prolonged death as the U.S.S. Santorum slammed violently into the iceberg that is American voters.

Instead, they get to continue to wallow in the warm glow of self-righteousness, to sternly lecture others about the dangers of compromise, and, most likely, to offer up a hearty round of told-you-so’s when Romney goes down to Obama. All while the country moves on without them.