Everybody says the economy is the big issue in American politics this year, followed by foreign and defense policy. But coming up strong is what might be called the way-of-life issue. It brings together the political force of people with various religious, moral, and social concerns, adding up to what they see as a restoration of traditional American values. The goals may seem more broadly cultural than political, but they are being pursued with an increased use of the political process by such advocates as evangelical preachers with vast television audiences.
Among the way-of-life targets are abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, school prayer bans, gun control, pornography, homosexuality, conscription of women, busing for desegregation -- a whole range of what are seen as threats to the American family and freedom. Not all issues carry equal weight with each voter. But so dedicated are many of the way-of-life adherents that they will withhold or reduce support for an otherwise acceptable candidate for failing to satisfy their convictions on what they consider a rock-bottom position.
Total opposition to abortion -- as exemplified by support for a constitutional amendment banning it -- is one such position. At the recent Republican national convention, fighters for this position warned they could not support candidate Reagan, whose own position was acceptable, if he nominated as his running mate George Bush, who had said he did not favor the amendment. Reagan seemed to speak to them when he announced Bush would enthusiastically accept the whole GOP platform, which included support for the amendment in a document dominated by the views of the right-wing promoters of back-to- tradition issues. This week leaders of the Right to Life Party confirmed that Bush's presence on the ticket ruled out support for it by a party that had been firmly for Reagan.
Our thoughts go back to a fervent Reagan delegate from Minnesota at the 1976 convention when Ford was nominated. He said that nobody thought either candidate would fail to be concerned about the nation's economy and security. The issues that made the difference were the social and moral issues identified with Reagan. Now it appears that such issues can sway people even away from Reagan. MAybe the defectors will still prove no more than a minority offset by votes gained from moderates through the very device of putting a "moderate" Bush on the ticket. But the depth of their convictions should not be underestimated, and many of them are reported now to be already setting their sights on controlling the Republican Party by 1984 and achieving a no-compromise candidacy.
Some of these Americans have been labeled the New Right and repudiated not only by liberals and moderates but by individuals who think of themselves as genuine conservatives. Some observers at Detroit went so far as to see a taint of moral authoritarianism in the impression given by some of seeking to impose their values or exclude those with different views. Certainly such attitudes would be contrary to the basic spirit and principles of America.
Yet there are parts of the American scene that need reforming if the revulsion against them is not to invite extreme reaction. The growth of materialism with all its accompaniments of sensual gratification, for example, ought to be resisted by the great middle group of decent Americans before it brings on a surge by the radical right-wing in the name of a simpler and sounder America. The values of the family ought to be cherished within each family before "the family" becomes a rallying point for turning back the clock on hard-won civil rights. Unless most Americans take seriously their responsibilities for a moral America they will have no one to blame but themselves it forces far on the right -- or left -- come to the fore.