As New Hampshire voters and others try to sift through the mess of small differences among the Republican hopefuls (and as everyone in the rest of the country overinterprets the results) it’s good to take a step back to think about what they’re not arguing about: abortion, for example, raising taxes, or whether to cut government.
One way social movements exercise influence is by capturing the discourse on a particular set of policies within one party–or both–such that no serious candidate for office can afford to depart from party orthodoxy.
So, all the Republicans promise to repeal President Obama’s health care reforms, appoint judges who won’t recognize a constitutional right to abortion, and cut taxes, government, and the deficit. They argue about vigor, consistency, and personality. Around the edges of the field, they argue about evolution (Jon Huntsman buys the science here) and foreign policy (Ron Paul wants to bow out of most of the world; Rick Perry wants to go back to Iraq), but the exemplars of those policies probably don’t have much chance to come close to the nomination.
The long primary process, which includes close-up scrutiny by committed activist voters, is where orthodoxy is developed and enforced, and it can then trickle down to the rank and file until some partisans are ousted or marginalized.
Abortion politics is the classic example. In 1980, serious Republican candidates for president supported abortion rights, but that’s a long time ago. A few Republicans still do–and a few Democrats oppose abortion rights–but the national party positions reflect the unambiguous victory of two social movements.
But it’s harder to fudge abortion than the more expansive and ill-defined politics of the Tea Party. Although all of the Republicans pledge fealty to Tea Party principles, the Tea Partiers aren’t buying it. And the candidates define those principles differently. The Tea Partiers meanwhile are less visible and are rapidly losing the ability to define themselves and their goals.
While the electoral process, particularly the presidential primaries, can lock down loyalty on some issues, on others less defined, it can soften and disperse the intensity of commitment demonstrated not so long ago.