When it comes to the economy, it's hard to see what conservatives are supposed to say in 2012. Their ideas - budget cuts, deregulation, and privatization - haven't helped the economy and they were instrumental in keeping measures that would have actually helped the economy - like targeted economic stimulus - from actually passing in any meaningful quantity over the past few years. Sure, they could cut the budget this year, slash benefits for Social Security and Medicare, deregulate the finance sector some more, and sell off agencies and services to private contractors at the state and local levels even more this year, but that's not going to create jobs.
The message for 2010 stayed focused on the deficit, as if the deficit caused the recession instead of being a result of the recession, as if a nation can end the federal deficit by reducing spending, and as if eliminating the deficit would do anything but destroy the economy (ever notice how first-world nations have more debt than third-world nations? or how balanced budgets cause unemployment? or how government spending increases demand for US debt?). But that message won't speak to everyone, especially if they succeed in cutting spending and the economy doesn't improve.
Since some people are going to see through that bit of magical thinking, social conservatives have other scapegoats prepared. And guess what, they're us!
As Rep. Michele Bachmann put it in a speech here Saturday: "Social conservatism is fiscal conservatism."
The Minnesota congresswoman's line, though an over-simplification, was echoed by numerous social conservatives in conversations with The Huffington Post over the weekend. Their argument is that many of the outcomes that have produced the nation's economic crisis are, at their core, driven by moral deficiencies: greed, dishonesty, selfishness, cowardice, and the like.
The Huffington Post places that quote in the context of social conservatives trying to assert their power in the party since apparently the GOP has given up on moral issues in favor of economic issues (except, no, they haven't), but it's hard to deny that this is part of a longer tradition of saying that an angry God is punishing a nation that refuses to do what
conservative Christians He says.
Now, most people would agree that greed, dishonesty, etc. played a part in the recession and that increased regulation of Wall Street as well as increased taxation of high incomes would be good ways to check on those vices, but that's not the sort of moral values social conservatives are talking about:
"Go back to Jefferson and Washington. They said, 'If you want this country to be great, you better first be good,'" said Bob Vander Plaats, the man who has led the charge in Iowa against same-sex marriage. "And so that's where we're at saying, 'You know what, if you think all it is is over here on the economic side while you want all this other stuff to erode, you're dealing with a house of cards.'"
Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican who organized a day-long meeting on Saturday that attracted presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour, Herman Cain and Bachmann, said that "the economic component of this is important, but when it goes wrong it is because it is the byproduct of a society that's getting off track."
"We need to work on the economic issues, yes we do. But if we let our society deconstruct, to the point where it's Godless and faithless and valueless, and it's every man and woman for himself, collecting the spoils from someone else's labor, we're just simply pitted against each other. We're not a unified people anymore," King said. "It destroys us as a nation. I want to see a nation that is solidly bound together from a social construct."
The fact that Jesus decried both war and being wealthy, both things the GOP fully support (there's that selectively literal interpretation again), doesn't figure into their equation. Perhaps we could talk about the relationship between some people being insanely wealthy while others live in abject poverty and engaging in multiple wars to the economy, but saying that gay marriage and abortion are ruining the economy is just plain magic talk.
It's the sort of thing that makes intuitive sense to a lot of people who are religious and gets them on board for policies that'll make their lives worse. I remember my eighth-grade US history teacher, who would be Tea Partier today if his politics haven't changed, made similar statements about America's morality leading to peace and prosperity that sound halfway credible if you're twelve and don't know much and can become a part of the way one views the world if left unchallenged.
There's also a quasi-religious side to the austerity solution to unemployment - if we give up some more, suffer more, sacrifice more, then someone up there will be pleased and we'll have the strong economy that we want. Calvinism is written into our understanding of how the world works, and Christianity to a lot of people means suffering in the present is necessary for a better future.
When the economy gets worse (I have little faith), we're going to be scapegoated and I don't think that the recent progress we've made on LGBT issues is so strong that it can't be overturned.