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Conservatism in the Wake of Defeat

“Politics have taken an orientation not favourable to Papa.” So wrote Clementine Churchill to her son Randolph in 1930. That’s a sentiment some of us who are conservatives today understand.

The Churchill example is apposite to our time. As Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert points out, in 1928 Churchill was at the height of his career. But a year later, Conservatives were defeated — and when a National Government was formed in 1931, Churchill was not asked to join it. The years 1930-1931 “marked the lowest point of Churchill’s personal and political fortunes,” according to Gilbert. The man who would later become prime minister referred to that period in Britain as “anxious and dubious times.” The tide was running strongly against his ideas — on India, on trade, and on the rearmament of Germany. He even confided to his wife that if Neville Chamberlain were made leader of the Conservative Party, he would “clear out of politics.” 

If the premiership was out of his reach, as he believed it was, “I should quit the dreary field for pastures new.”

But of course Churchill couldn’t do such a thing, because there were too many causes in which be believed. As Gilbert puts it:

As long as he was fighting a cause, … [Churchill] was not afraid of anything, ‘nor’, he added, ‘do I weary as the struggle proceeds’. The Party machine, [Stanley] Baldwin, public office: all these, he said, were ‘mere irrelevancies’. Policy alone was what counted: ‘win there, win everywhere’.

Fast forward to the here and now. Based on my conversations, e-mails, and some public commentary, many conservatives are despondent. “The shock of this [Romney] loss is overwhelming,” one person e-mailed to me last night.

It would be silly to deny that in some important respects, the tide is running against our ideas. And I’m all for using this period to reassess where the nation stands and what it means for conservatism. Some adjustments and refinements are clearly needed; the questions are which ones and how can they be made in a way that remains true to conservative principles. 

The impulse for most of us is to argue after the election for exactly what we were arguing prior to the election. Perhaps a better way to approach things is to step back a bit and consider the challenges America faces today, which in some respects are quite different than what we faced in, say, 1980. What do conservatives have to say about wage stagnation, income inequality, poverty and social mobility, crony capitalism, educational mediocrity, family breakdown, and reforming our entitlement system and tax code? Has conservatism become adamantine on certain issues (Bill Kristol suggests conservatives should agree to increasing taxes on the wealthy, for example)? How much of our problem is tone v. substance?  

I for one believe we should use this moment to encourage fresh thinking and not vilify those who engage in it. At the same time, it seems to me that trying to fully understand the consequences of this election and what it means for conservatism 72 hours or so after the vote is probably unwise. We have plenty of time to sort through the exit polling data and think things through in a prudent manner. And because politics has taken an orientation not favorable to us now doesn’t mean that is a permanent condition. As Gilbert reminds us, “Central to Churchill’s belief was the conviction that the public would respond fairly to a good case, well presented.” Nor should we grow weary as the struggle proceeds. Because there are still things worth fighting for. 



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