Social conservatism is important. So important that in fact, without it the GOP can't survive as a party.
Just look at Fianna Fail. What's that, I hear you say? It's the Irish Christian Democratic party (the name, literally translated to english, means "Soldiers of Destiny"). Here is the story of the Soldiers of Destiny:
Fianna Fail was once a massive force within Irish politics. They've been in government more than 90 % of the time since Ireland became an independent state. Usually alone, sometimes in coalition with 1-2 smaller parties.
Ireland has two other major parties: Labour and Fine Gael. Labour is to the left of Fianna Fail, while Fine Gael is to the right. Whenever Fianna Fail isn't in power, these two parties have to collaborate and form a coalition government. Not the easiest thing in the world - it's kind of like trying to form a coalition government with Nancy Pelosi and Rick Santorum. They've done it a few times, but never been re-elected as it always ends up a mess whenever FG + Labour are in charge.
Fianna Fail is largely responsible for the fact that Ireland didn't secularize like their neighbors, the UK - Ireland still bans abortion, for example, and most schools have a religious profile (catholic or protestant). Church attendance is still high, and even those who don't believe in God still respect Christian values (now how often do you see that these days?).
However, in the past couple of decades, Fianna Fail has secularized as well, in several ways. How it started I'm not sure, maybe it was when the lost power in the 1990's for one term, a term during which FG + Labour legalized divorce, contraceptives and homosexuality. Maybe FF figured social conservatism was dead? Either way, the party that used to stand so firmly for Christian values and Irish culture (learning the Irish language is mandatory in Ireland's schools, due to FF), now became a push-over for EU bureaucrats.
Historically, FG was the socially liberal, fiscally conservative party in Ireland. But during the past decade, it's been really hard to tell the difference between the parties. Fianna Fail, having abandoned social conservatism, needed a new selling point. It found one in the housing bubble: Vote for us, and the house prices will keep going up. Vote for us, and the cheap money will keep flowing, and taxes will keep going down.
Fine Gael had the essentially the same message, and so couldn't convince voters to choose them over FF. FF were re-elected in 2002 as well as 2007.
Then the financial crisis began. Ireland got stuck in a severe recession and found itself with a national debt that trippled in just a few short years, and an unemployment that went from 4 % to 14 %. Few countries have experienced as much pain as Ireland has in the past five years. And what happened to Fianna Fail?
In the 2007 election, Fianna Fail received 45 % of the vote. In the 2011 election, they received 17 %!
What went wrong? Sure, it's not unheard of for an incumbent party to lose votes when an election is held during a recession. But Fianna Fail lost almost 2/3 voters - and Fianna Fail had almost always received over 40 % in every election since the country was founded.
The mainstream political analysts claim that Fianna Fail got corrupted, and people got tired of them. They cared more about the bankers than the people, and they paid the price for that. I'm not saying there isn't any truth in that - as a matter of fact, there is a lot of truth in that. Yet, the reason why Fianna Fail became so corrupt in my opinion was because they lost there social conservatism. When you don't have firm values, it's just so much easier to fall for temptations and, well, get corrupted. And a party that doesn't stand up for values will soon lose its values, even within the party.
When Fianna Fail decided it was no fun being the Pope's right hand in Ireland, a party for those who went to church every sunday, they started to hang out with another crowd: Property developers and bankers, to be precise. And so, when the crisis came, Fianna Fail just didn't have the spine to stand up to their friends and tell them to clean up their own mess.
So instead, Ireland got the bank guarantee: Basically, all the banks' debts were taken over by the government and became incorporated in the national debt. Wouldn't it have been better if Fianna Fail had just stuck to being the God-fearing party it once was?
Now, some may say that a party can't survive on social issues. But, as usual, reality proves liberals (social as well as fiscal) wrong: Just a few months before the election, Labour were hovering around 35 % in the opinion polls, and it looked like they could gain a majority of the seats in the Irish parliament, the Dail. In the end, they only received 20 % and had to join a coalition government with Fine Gael.
What happened in those two months or so? Was there a corruption scandal? A major, Todd Akin-style gaffe? Did the leader of the Labour party turn out to be an alien, kind of like in V? No. It was much simpler than that. The Labour party decided that since they had already won this election thing, they might as well reveal their true colours early. That's right: They endorsed abortion. Not entirely free abortions, just some liberations. And they lost 40 % of their voters, almost overnight! The Prolife movement in Ireland went into overdrive to defeat Labour, and they - we - did. I was personally part of this campaign, handing out leaflets and talking to other students. Our message was very clear: Vote for Anybody But Labour. No babykillers in our government!
The point is, you could still win (and lose) votes on social issues. So what if Fianna Fail had just kept the social issues as a fundamental part of their platform, instead of treating them like a nuisance (similar to Republicans today)? Very likely, at least 30 % would have voted for them, no matter how much they screwed the economy up, simply because Fianna Fail would have been a guardian of traditional conservative values, the values most Irish after all support. Fianna Fail's support didn't have the floor they thought it had, because they simply wasn't any better at defending Christian values any more than Fine Gael or even Labour. There were no reason anymore for Christians, many of whom had lost their jobs and life savings because of the policies of Fianna Fail, to vote for them just because of the value issues - because FF was no longer a party of Christian values.
Some Irish readers (welcome!) are now going to point out that Fianna Fail was still socially conservative according to their platform, and that they still passed some social conservative bills - like one banning heresy. But banning heresy was just FF's way of throwing a bone to the social conservatives; no real social conservative supports such bans anyway, and the idea was not well received by anyone (and, to no-one's surprise, the idea came after FF began to struggle in the polls). The point is, FF began to hide its christian roots and became the party of booming property prices, not the party of christian values as it used to be (look at their election posters from the past 15 years). Fianna Fail supported the first Lisbon Treaty, even though the Treaty, had it been passed without the guarantees Ireland received after first voting No, meant that the EU would have been able to legalize abortion in Ireland. What true social conservative party would ever have supported such a treaty? None of course. But FF did, because they were no longer social conservatives.
Worse, the FG + Labour coalition government has shown itself to be absolutely completely incompetent, unable to bring Ireland out of the crisis and unable to face the truth that the Eurozone has no future. FG protects their voters (mostly those with high incomes), and Labour protects their voters (public sector union members), and nothing gets done. So, with only these three main parties to choose from, what are Irish voters doing? You might have guessed it already: They turn to the 4th option. See, there is another party in the Irish parliament, known as Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein has historically been the party of deadbeat gun-nuts who blame everything on the UK (Sinn Fein was IRA's political arm), but has now because of the mess Ireland is in, gained a level of acceptance among the public not seen since Ireland became independent.
It's kind of simple: When no-one dares to stand for any values whatsoever, that creates a vaccum in which extremists can grow. Sinn Fein has never condemned terrorism, which meant their support had a ceiling at about 5 %. Now, almost out of nowhere, polls are showing SF with as much as 16-18 %. SF has become the only opposition in Ireland, polling higher than a party which only five years ago was more than 6 times as big. SF has never been part of any government, but the way things are going that might change in the next election (to be held 2016 at the latest).
What does all this have to do with the Republicans?
A lot. FF thought they could survive purely on economic merits, just like liberal Republicans think. Sooner or later, the economy hits a recession and suddenly you have nothing to run on. This will happen even with the best economic policy in the world. FF thought the Irish would appreciate all the improvements (and there were a lot) they had made during their time in government, but it turns out voters have short memories (shocker!) and when unemployment is rising, it really doesn't matter what good stuff you may have done 10 years ago.
If you had told anyone in 2007 that FF was going to get 17 % in the next election, they would have laughed in your face. If you had betted on it, you'd most likely been given odds in the region of 1000 to 1. Even when FF began to slide, with every new poll, analysts would talk about FF hitting the floor. A floor that, it turns out, didn't really exist.
The thing is, an voter who votes based on the economy cannot be a core voter. Core voters, remember, are those that form a party's floor in support, the ones that will never abandon the party, come hell or high water. This is because, like I said, sooner or later the economy goes down.
I don't think Fianna Fail will ever recover, and that's a real shame, as it means Ireland will never again have a stable government (unless either FG or Labour manage to win a majority of seats, which seems unlikely). The more votes you lose, the harder it is to recover. Barry Goldwater won only 38.5 % of the vote in 1964, and yet that didn't stop Richard Nixon from defeating LBJ in the following election. But what if, instead of 38.5 %, Goldwater had only won say 20 %? Would the Republican Party ever been able to recover, or would it have gone the way of the whigs (another populist party without values)?
Social conservatism is important, for the simple reason that as long as the Republican party remains socially conservative, there will always be 30-35 % of voters who will never, ever abandon the party. There will be a floor, and the Republican party will be able to rebound no matter how rough things get. Value voters can be counted on; economy voters not so much.
Thanks for reading,