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Machiavellian Social Conservatives?

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Niccolo Machiavelli is often described as arguing that morality has no place in politics. That’s not quite right. Machiavelli believes that morality is crucial to political success. He just thinks that the important thing is to seem to possess the moral virtues, rather than actually to practice them. In a famous passage of The Prince, Machiavelli puts it this way:

Thus, it is not necessary for a prince to have all the above-mentioned qualities in fact, but it is indeed necessary to appear to have them. Nay, I dare say this, that by having them and always observing them, they are harmful; and by appearing to have them, they are useful…

In a column for Bloomberg, Ramesh Ponnuru implicitly encourages social conservatives to take Machiavelli’s advice. Reflecting on the likely failure of Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign for governor of Virginia, Ponnuru observes that current governor Bob McDonnell won a big victory in 2009 even though he agrees with Cuccinelli on many social issues. So:

Why do they seem to be succeeding now when they failed then? It’s partly a matter of countenance: McDonnell was cheerful (if boring), and Cuccinelli often appears dour and argumentative…Another difference, though, is that Cuccinelli made his name as a conservative crusader, especially on social issues, where McDonnell made his as a bipartisan problem-solver. McDonnell’s Democratic critics had to dig up a 20-year-old grad-school thesis he had written to make him look out of the mainstream; Cuccinelli’s have more recent initiatives and statements to work with.

Ponnuru goes on to contrast Cuccinelli’s likely failure to win election tomorrow with Chris Christie’s likely success:

Socially conservative positions on hot-button issues don’t seem to be a deal-breaker even for the much more liberal voters of New Jersey. Christie has vetoed legislation to grant state recognition to same-sex marriage—a judge later ordered it, though Christie briefly appealed—and vetoed bills to fund Planned Parenthood five times.

Ponnuru’s conclusion is that social conservatives shouldn’t be too upset by Cuccinelli’s defeat, since McDonnell and Christie’s examples show that social conservatives are not necessarily losers in blue and purple states. That’s true, but the distinction between seeming and being is important here. Ponnuru is right that social conservative views are not, in themselves, electoral poison. In other words, seeming to be a social conservative is not a problem—and may in some cases be good politics. Yet actually being one, in the sense of making serious attempts to promote social conservative policies, is and will remain serious obstacle to victory in places like Virginia and New Jersey.

Chris Christie is a good example of this dynamic. Christie knew quite well that his challenge to the gay marriage bill was purely symbolic, since the liberal state supreme court was certain to reinstate the law. What’s more, Christie dropped his opposition as soon as he could credibly claim that the court had forced his hand. This, too, was inevitable in a state in which a considerable majority of voters, including Republicans, favor gay marriage.

Christie’s Machiavellian approach isn’t popular with dedicated social conservatives. The National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council have both condemned Christie’s handling of gay marriage. But symbolic conservatism is popular with more moderate voters, who want to express disapproval from gay marriage and abortion, but are uncomfortable with policies that seem intrusive or intolerant.

The lesson of today’s election, then, will not be that social conservatives can compete in moderate and liberal areas if they offer more explicit and articulate defenses of their views. It’s that they can get away with expressing social conservative beliefs so long as they do nothing to suggest that those beliefs are likely to end up enshrined in law. Ponnuru points out that “If Christie wants to run for president, he may find that pointing this out is a low-cost way of appealing to a national constituency that matters a lot in his party.” Somewhere, Machiavelli smiles.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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