Commentary Magazine

What Is the Future of Conservatism?

This article is from our January symposium issue, in which 53 leading writers and thinkers answer the question: “What is the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election?” Click here to read the entire symposium.



Right now, in the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election, conservatives are being admonished that their only viable future lies in being?.?.?.?a little less embarrassingly conservative. They’re told to tone down the social issues (gay marriage and abortion) in order to appeal to young people, who are said to be secular in mores but worried about their economic future. Illegal immigration? Ditch the opposition, and there will suddenly be millions more conservative–or at least Republican-voting–Hispanics.

Such stances face two problems. The first is that they represent wishful thinking. Romney ran a campaign that focused strictly (and admirably) on job creation and lower taxes, touching on social issues only minimally. That gained him little among 18- to 29-year-olds, who might have fretted over their dismal post-college job prospects, but fretted more over a barrage of Obama ads asserting that the GOP wanted to take away their contraceptives and, hence, their sexual fun. Sixty percent of them voted to reelect President Obama. The lesson: Downplaying social issues wins no respect among the young, whose time horizons are distressingly short-term.

Same goes for Hispanics. As National Review editor Rich Lowry has pointed out, the Reagan-era amnesty for 3 million illegals in 1986 resulted in a Latino electorate that voted even less Republican in the presidential election of 1988 than it had in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was reelected by a landslide but got only 37 percent of the Latino vote. As for Hispanics’ supposed “natural”–that is, family-oriented and religious–conservatism, more than half of Latino births these days are to unwed mothers. Although most Hispanics are nominally Catholic, with an additional smattering of evangelicals, about 80 percent of them practice no religion whatsoever. I write this with sorrow, because I’m half-Hispanic myself. Sadly, Hispanics, like blacks and even the relatively prosperous Asians, vote as an ethnic bloc steered by anti-white resentment and desire for big-government patronage.

My second point is that conservatism isn’t only a matter of appealing to economic self-interest or expressing irritation with heavy-handed and heavily taxing government. It is a mind-set, typically embodied in a way of life, that values tradition and traditional beliefs alongside self-reliance and personal responsibility. It is not surprising, then, that many political conservatives are also religious conservatives: evangelicals, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, traditionalist Catholics. Social issues are important to those groups because of the high value they place on traditional marriage and traditional family structures. It is naive to think, then, that diluting conservatism will somehow make it more appealing to those who don’t share the conservative mind-set. Many conservatives don’t share the religious and moral beliefs of other conservatives, but they respect them because they are, well, conservative.

Mind-sets can change, however, and conservatism welcomes converts and conversions. Remember the sayings “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged” and “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Members of ethnic groups that have been mugged, for example, by the reality of Communism–Eastern Europeans, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Cubans–tend to vote Republican. So do many other ethnic groups, even non-Cuban Hispanics, who have hoisted themselves into the middle class and found that big-spending government is inimical to their values and interests (Romney did manage to secure 30 percent of the Latino vote). There is no reason to think that young people, increasingly hard-hit by unemployment and diminished hopes of ever, say, forming families and owning their homes, might not finally get serious about their economic prospects and join them.

In short, conservatives need to maintain their conservative identity, sticking to their principles and inviting their critics to examine the social bounty–low crime, high employment, good schools, and wealth creation–that conservative states from North Dakota to Texas have produced. Besides, conservatives, with their penchant for marrying (heterosexually) and having large families, are probably winning the long-term demographic war over their less fertile liberal rivals. The New York Times reported in June that 74 percent of the Jewish children in New York City are Orthodox. That’s a sign that conservatives don’t need to compromise in order to prevail.


Charlotte Allen is a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal.