What Is the Future of Conservatism in the Wake of the 2012 Election?—A Symposium
It always seemed to me that during the Cold War, what divided the people who thought we’d all end up incinerated by Soviet bombs from the people who thought it would all come out fine was not their political analyses. It was their temperament. Some people are more optimistic than others.
So it is with the future of conservatism. Some conservatives seem almost to frolic in their pessimism, describing the inevitable national glide down the path to perdition in gruesome detail. The antidote to such thinking is Reaganism, the sunny and optimistic view about America that not only characterized the man himself but captivated the nation.
So the first thing to say about the future of conservatism is that good cheer is a key ingredient for success. Voters are unlikely to be attracted by the argument that the country is mostly ruined–and deserves to be ruined by its profligacy, immorality, and stupid voting patterns. (I admit I often do feel this way about California, but even there it is probably not a winning argument.) Conservatives can indeed win, with a few better candidates and better arguments. Last year, in the middle of a great economic crisis, we nominated the richest man ever to run for president; we ran a man who was 65 (after running a man who was 72); and we allowed the networks to dominate the not coincidentally ruinous primary debates. As to winning the fastest-growing voter groups, Asians and Hispanics, Marco Rubio summed up the problem this way: “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care, if they think you want to deport their grandmother.”
There are of course huge problems facing conservatism. One is the growing percentage of citizens who are dependent on increasing government spending, whether as public employees or as recipients of some form of transfer payment to which they have not contributed. They are unlikely recruits for us. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once sourly noted that if you offer a voter a dollar and a quarter in services for a dollar in taxes, he’ll take the deal every time. Perhaps this is too pessimistic, and the voter paying the dollar in taxes may come to understand that he is on the hook for borrowing to cover that 25 percent deficit. So we must continue to argue for sound public finance. Another great problem is that on some issues, such as gay marriage, the tide seems to have turned against us. Yet on abortion, polls suggest we are gaining. The problem is often our spokesmen and spokeswomen, and the tone of the message rather than its content. It is one thing to lose an argument; it is another to come across as ignorant or mean-spirited. Of course the media are hopelessly biased and that makes it harder but, as the abortion struggle demonstrates, not impossible.
Reality will keep on asserting itself to voters and citizens, helped along if we explain it well and field attractive candidates in election years. Unless you believe that American character has profoundly changed in the last four years, what prevents a conservative revival? Surely not the growing numbers of immigrants and children and grandchildren of immigrants striving for upward mobility. Surely not the ideas of contemporary liberalism, meaning that welfare-state economics can yet work, that the world is benign and we hardly need an army, and that words like character and self-restraint are overly judgmental and must be banned. Surrender in the face of such challenges seems far too pessimistic to me–though I admit, perhaps it’s just a matter of temperament.
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.
LARRY P. ARNN
The future of conservatism is contained in its name. Conservatism regards certain things as abiding. There are laws of nature, and freedom, justice, and civilization depend upon the recognition of those laws. Today they face a challenge that is debilitating to society. Sustained by a transformative president, this challenge claims to have history on its side, and it claims to sit at the moment of final triumph.
In the arithmetic of nature, there must be opportunities to match this danger, and there are. The politics of the left lead to friction along racial and class lines. They raise up a new political class that governs through privileged influence. This political class, for all its pretensions of science and progress, does and will continue to do what unaccountable rulers do: Govern in its own interest. These things have bred and will continue to breed widespread and intractable resentment.
In this resentment there is opportunity, already present and growing. So far the conservative movement has not been able to capitalize on it. This is partly because it does not make its argument, especially in active politics, consistently well or in unity. Such a problem is not easy to fix, because statesmen of the first order are, as Winston Churchill put it, “much rarer than the rarest and purest of diamonds.” This is the age-old problem of politics.
The best we can do is take our guidance where Aristotle said we would find it: in the examples of great statesmen. What, for example, did Churchill do? He lived for long years in the wilderness. He faced the overwhelming opposition of academic and elite opinion, shot through with ideology that made them blind to Hitler and his ilk and devalued the freedoms of their country. He, like us, faced a hostile press, and he was denied access to the major organs of public communication. He was driven, partly by his own party, to the point of bankruptcy and obscurity. As things worsened, his argument rose to a high pitch of reason and eloquence, driven upwards by his own native talent and by terrible events.
Then came the sufficient opportunity: Events proved him right. He had paid a heavy price, and the people saw it and trusted him. First a few, then many, then legions rallied to his cause. He and his people saved their country and, by the time he was done, left it stable and free for more than a generation.
If conservatism is to live, it must repudiate absolutely this system of limitless government, of class and racial privilege and discrimination, of the overturning of human nature, of the vaunting of the ruling class. It must proclaim without ceasing the good of freedom and the danger to it. It must examine itself before it blames the American people, who have a right to govern themselves and who have not been the cause of these troubles. If conservatism speaks with force and persistence in the name of the good that it loves, its day will come.
Barack Obama’s reduced-margin reelection victory, which would not have been won absent heavy negative advertising and a superior turnout organization, does not spell the end of conservatism. Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives–and not because of partisan redistricting, it appears, but because heavily Democratic constituencies (blacks, Hispanics, gentry liberals) are concentrated in certain cities and inner suburbs. This helps Democrats carry several large states and gives them an advantage in the Electoral College. But this concentration works against them in equal-population congressional and state legislative districts. Republicans in this decade have elected a majority of state legislators for the first time since the 1920s.
House Republicans will have some leverage to advance conservative policies. They will not be able to pass bills over the veto of a Democratic president, as the Republican majorities elected in 1946 did with the help of conservative Southern Democrats. But, in negotiations with the executive branch, they can advance some conservative causes, as Newt Gingrich and congressional Republicans did in 1996 and 1997 until the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and partisan war erupted.
In these circumstances, conservatives will have to accept some reverses on policy. But the dire fiscal plight of the federal government and the unsustainable trajectory of entitlement programs give them more leverage than they would have from their House majority alone.
Also shaping the future will be events that have not yet occurred. The voters’ verdict on Barack Obama was less positive in 2012, after they had seen his policies and leadership. But they have not yet seen the full effect of his policies. An analogy with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s terms may be in order. Roosevelt’s redistributive policies–very high tax rates, encouragement of labor unions, aggressive government regulation–seemed very popular in 1936 after four years of declining unemployment. They proved less popular when Americans saw how their effects in the next several years–a sharp recession, violent strikes, continuing high unemployment, businesses unwilling to hire new workers–took their toll on the country.
Roosevelt did win a third term in 1940. But that was because of World War II. Hitler and Stalin were allied, and with Italy and Japan they seemed to be taking over most of the landmass of Eurasia. Polls suggest that Roosevelt or any other Democrat would have lost if the election had been decided on domestic issues. Big-government policies were not as popular as New Deal historians would have us think.
We don’t know what lies ahead. We may have a vibrant economic recovery. ObamaCare may prove to work smoothly and helpfully. The world may seem safer and less threatening to America. In that case, conservative policies will probably be a hard sell. But if things turn out differently, conservatism may have greater appeal.
JOHN R. BOLTON
What was true before the election about America’s proper place in the world remains true after the election, despite the lamentable outcome. A strong U.S. presence is a prerequisite for whatever international stability may exist and the benefits that flow from it, particularly the globalized trade and financial system. If America abdicates its role, either international disorder will increase or, what may amount to the same thing, other powers will enter the vacuum to pursue their own hegemonic aspirations. Neither situation is conducive to our interests. The Reaganite policy of “peace through strength,” by contrast, is designed precisely to avoid these outcomes, achieve our international objectives, and reduce the threat of armed conflict.
Today, however, we again face the grave and rising risk that our hard-won heritage will be ignored or forgotten. We have a neo-isolationist president who thinks world events are not as pressing as his domestic agenda, and a not inconsiderable paleo-isolationist element among conservatives. Neither apparently comprehends the inextricable linkages between foreign policy and domestic prosperity; neither seems terribly concerned by the continuing threat of global terrorism and nuclear proliferation; and neither wants to spend adequately on defense.
We have repeatedly encountered the delusion that turning inward saves money and reduces risk: after the Vietnam War; after the end of the Cold War in pursuing the illusory “peace dividend”; and today, “after” the global war on terror. To make matters worse, even following a century in which three world wars (two hot, one cold) were required to save freedom, and just over a decade after the first 9/11 terrorist attack, we are constantly told by political experts that Americans don’t care about foreign policy. This confluence of leftist and libertarian isolationists and political operatives confidently insists that the American people are too feckless to keep more than one idea (e.g., concern for the economy) in their heads at any given time.
But these prejudices all radically underestimate our fellow citizens. Of course, American strength is a necessary but not sufficient condition for protecting U.S. interests around the world, and of course military programs and expenditures must survive exacting scrutiny in difficult economic times. Nonetheless, Americans understand that national-defense budgets are not fungible with Medicaid or other entitlement spending, but undergird the basic survival and self-governance of the country itself.
Conservatives must win two related arguments: the philosophical case that a globally strong America is the best way to avoid conflict, and the political case that effective advocacy of U.S. strength is a surrogate for the essential quality of leadership so lacking in many contemporary politicians. We need to reaffirm that conservatism prospers politically when it implements the three-legged stool analogy, encompassing traditionalist, free-market, and national-security conservatives.
Conservatives largely ignored these truths during the 2012 campaign and also in the preceding four years. While much else remains to be done, we must first correct our own mistakes.
The challenge is obvious. Republicans will cease to be a national party unless they find a way to attract Hispanic voters. This is a demographic truth because Hispanic voters are the largest and fastest-growing minority in America. This is a political truth as well because Republicans will be judged by other groups based on their attitudes toward these new Americans.
The solution is less obvious. There is talk of moderating our message and compromising our conservatism. But if we want to be worthy of the title “conservative,” we need to start solving problems like conservatives do. Rather than base policy on the swinging pendulum of public opinion, we must find the way forward by looking to the wisdom of those who came before.
In the late 19th century, the British conservative Benjamin Disraeli confronted a strikingly similar situation. He and his conservative Tory Party were backed by Britain’s wealthy landowners. As Parliament embarked upon the inevitable course of expanding the electorate to include the middle and working classes, the Tories found themselves representing a constituency that was fast becoming a minority.
Then Disraeli changed conservative history. He proposed a new ideology–One Nation Conservatism–that enabled the Tories and future conservative parties to survive in an era of mass democracy.
One Nation Conservatism has two key components. First, the conservative party must be the party of all classes, not only that of the wealthy. Disraeli convinced his fellow conservatives to stop fighting the electorate’s expansion and instead become its champion. In 1867, Disraeli and the Tories passed a radical extension of voting rights to the head of every household in Britain.
Second, the conservative party must promulgate a message that can appeal to these new voters. Disraeli stressed British exceptionalism abroad and fidelity to tradition at home. This included a reminder to Britain’s upper class that they bore a special responsibility to their fellow citizens. When preached–not legislated–such compassion is not socialism. It’s noblesse oblige. This conservative message convinced the “47 percent” (or the 87 percent of Disraeli’s day) to become guardians of tradition rather than agents of revolution.
Unlike the British working class, our unenfranchised masses first entered this country illegally. This is a distinction of deep moral significance. Yet when it comes to the children of these immigrants, this moral distinction begins to fade. And when it comes to the battles that will truly determine the future of our nation, the distinction fades further still.
With every passing year, the population of the United States is coming to resemble the population of our hemisphere. This is a shift without constitutional significance. With the shameful exception of slavery, our forefathers didn’t inject race into our founding documents. All that matters are the ideals to which our diverse citizenry is dedicated. Through a renewed One Nation Conservatism, we can ensure that these new Americans become zealous guardians of all that our ancestors built.
ARTHUR C. BROOKS
Like America itself, American conservatism is at a crossroads. With the right strategy it can reestablish itself as the dominant intellectual tradition of the United States, conserving the classic liberal order established by the Founders. But pursue the wrong strategy, and American conservatism will go the way of the European conservatism of Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot: a boutique taste maintained by a few intellectuals without substantive representation in the political square.
It would be a mistake to conflate the fortunes of a political philosophy with temporal partisan voting patterns. The long-term success of political philosophies is not a function of demographics or candidates’ personalities. Rather, political philosophies advance or decline depending on their consistency with the conventional wisdom–Burke’s “prejudices.”
Today, American conservatism stands at odds with two pillars of conventional public wisdom. Both have been established over successive presidential administrations, were purposively strengthened in President Obama’s first term, and seem to have been ratified by his reelection.
The first is the belief that free enterprise is fundamentally unfair. Post-election exit polls showed that nearly 60 percent of voters believe the American economy favors the wealthy and is not fair to all, a claim conservatives have for years left largely un-rebutted. For its part, the left abets this conventional wisdom with the complaints about the regrettable “millionaires and billionaires” who refuse to pay their “fair share” in taxes.
The second pillar of conventional wisdom is the idea that an entitlement state is morally acceptable and economically sustainable. Americans like the idea of cutting spending in the abstract, but when presented with a list of entitlements, they overwhelmingly oppose making any actual cuts. This is no doubt related to the facts that almost half of American households receive government transfer benefits today and nearly 70 percent of Americans take more out of the tax system than they pay into it.
Conservatives argue that free enterprise is meritocratic and thus fundamentally fair; they also believe that a transfer state is ruinous, both morally and economically. They lose politically because these arguments contravene today’s conventional wisdom.
So what is the strategy for conservative success? Change our values and get with the times? That is, acknowledge the unfairness of capitalism and propose our own spending programs? That is effectively the solution of many commentators in the wake of the election. But it is wrong.
The solution is to change the conventional wisdom. This is more difficult than electioneering and takes longer than a political cycle. But it is possible, and has been achieved in the past. Welfare reform was a 10-year fight to change the public perception that traditional welfare was helping the poor. Before that, the civil rights struggle was a multi-decade effort to change what every ordinary person simply knew to be correct about race and equal rights. There are many other examples.
The central animating force of American conservatism today should be on replacing the covetous, all-against-all social-democratic wisdom with an optimistic, conservative vision. Tomorrow’s conventional wisdom is one in which we celebrate the success of others because fairness is defined in terms of merit and hard work, and the economic center of gravity is self-reliance, growth, and upward mobility. If conservatives set themselves to this task, the future of conservatism can be bright.
American conservatism has three-part roots. Morally, it is rooted in the biblical metaphysic. Conservatives have an appreciation for the sinful nature of men and women and hence a healthy respect for Murphy’s Law. If something can go wrong, and there are people involved, you should be ready for the possibility that it will.
Philosophically, conservatism goes back to the epistemological modesty of Edmund Burke. The world is a complex place. The power of reason is bounded. Be skeptical of those who think they can grasp the complexities of reality and reorganize it through rational planning.
Economically, American conservatism differs from European conservatism because it goes back to the governing philosophy of Alexander Hamilton, to the belief in social mobility, immigrant possibility, and the idea that, in limited but energetic ways, government can help give people the tools to compete in a capitalist economy.
Today’s conservatism is estranged from these roots. Today’s conservatism is more properly called Freedomism. It is the elevation of freedom as the ultimate political good. If anybody doubts this, listen to any speech at the Republican convention or during the primary season. The theme was overwhelming: We need to get government out of the way to maximize individual freedom.
Freedomism tramples on the biblical metaphysic. Imperfect people can’t simply be let free. Virtuous lives are only possible when organized within the contours laid down by public and private institutions. Freedomism tramples epistemological modesty. It has become an all-explaining and unbending ideology: Whatever the problem, the answer is less government. Freedomism tramples the Hamiltonian agenda. It has trouble embracing affirmative government programs, even ones such as Pell Grants, EITC, and community colleges, which reward and encourage work.
The Republican Party is not going to give up its individualistic, anti-government Freedom Wing. There are too many Republican Party activists, especially in the South and West, who believe in this ideology. But it has to make room for another wing, which we might as well call, after the noble beast, the Rhino Wing.
The Rhino Wing would flow directly from the three springs of American conservatism and draw political inspiration from its early-American embodiments, the Whig Party and the early Republican Party.
The Rhino Wing would reject the Freedomist equation that more government necessarily equals more dependency. It would reject the entire Big Government vs. Small Government frame. What matters is not the size of government but the nature of the citizenry. It would embrace any government program that stokes ambition, energy, and industriousness–the Hamiltonian virtues. It would reject any policy that stifles these things. It would pick an argument with liberals on these grounds. Rhinos would stand for social mobility and dynamism, and liberals would stand for equality and economic security.
The Rhino Wing would be tolerant on social issues. Sinful people need a thick web of permanent commitments to thrive. Rhinos wouldn’t care if those commitments are straight or gay, or if they were conformed to somebody’s idea of natural law or not.
The Rhino Wing would also be incremental and managerial. It would cherish the boring task of governance and the slow but steady virtues–prudence, moderation, and balance. It would see government as a fulcrum, ever shifting to achieve equilibrium between the competing forces in society.
Politically, the Rhino Wing would thrive along the coasts and in the suburbs of the Midwest. Would it agree with the Freedom Wing on every issue? No. But political coalitions don’t have to be uniform. They don’t even have to make sense. It would be nice to have a more traditional brand of conservatism thriving within a broad center-right movement.
Movements cannot sustain themselves without appealing leaders and coherent, compelling ideas–and at the moment American conservatism is deficient in both. As a former Democrat who watched her party wreck itself in the 1960s and 70s, I have felt a sense of deja vu as the Republican Party has followed a similar path in recent years. The 2012 Republican primaries were a contest among candidates to appease distinct interest groups within the GOP: Tea Party populists, pro-life activists, anti-immigration zealots, and anti-tax die-hards. The wildly erratic swings in popularity of the primary candidates demonstrated a Republican electorate with no clear sense of what they were looking for beyond someone whom they believed could defeat President Obama. The result was a flawed presidential nominee and a failed election.
Mitt Romney never articulated a clear vision for America. Voters could not be confident that he believed in much of anything beyond his own business skills, which he somehow thought were enough to convince voters to elect him. But the problem goes beyond Romney. The conservative movement has not been able to produce a leader who can inspire Americans to believe in fundamental conservative principles since Ronald Reagan.
President Reagan gave Americans faith in themselves at a time when the country’s economy was suffering, national defense had been weakened, and its standing in the world was in decline. The conservatism Ronald Reagan offered was optimistic but not pandering. He favored individual over group rights; he supported equal opportunity, not equal results, as the best path to justice. His view of government was based on the principles of federalism. He believed in a limited role for the federal government, but chief among its responsibilities was to maintain a strong national defense. He promoted a larger role for state and local governments as the branches of government closest to the people, a simpler federal tax policy with lower tax rates for all Americans, and a smaller federal bureaucracy with less expansive powers. He did not achieve all his goals, largely because he lacked support in a divided Congress in which the Democrats controlled the House for his entire tenure and the Senate for two years. Nonetheless, his vision changed the way Americans thought of government so that even successful Democratic candidates for national office had to mimic his rhetoric if not endorse his actual policies.
Ironically, Barack Obama seems to have learned more from Ronald Reagan’s success than conservatives have. Obama had big ideas and articulated them well. Not since FDR has a Democrat offered a comparably comprehensive view of the role of government. Obama promoted the progressive understanding of “social justice,” the idea that society, acting through government, is responsible for providing for man’s needs. Unfortunately, conservatives–or at least candidates who purport to speak for conservatism–offer up no alternative based on a different conception of justice. Neither Presidents George H.W. Bush nor George W. Bush hewed to Reagan’s principled conservatism. Nor has any candidate since. Until conservatives begin to focus once again on fundamental principles and put aside the temptation to appeal to the factional and sometimes conflicting agendas of special-interest groups, conservatism will struggle to compete successfully with liberalism. And without leadership, ideas–even good ones–dissipate.
A signal moment of the 2012 campaign occurred in May, when the president’s reelection team launched an online slide show called “The Life of Julia,” detailing the story of an anonymous–quite literally faceless–white woman from the age of three to her retirement at age 67 as she benefits from the programs championed by Barack Obama.
Julia’s is a biography only a congressional appropriator could love. As a child she “enrolled in a Head Start program to help get her ready for school.” As a 27-year-old Web designer, she has health insurance, “thanks to ObamaCare,” that “is required to cover birth control and preventive care.” As a 65-year-old senior, Julia receives Medicare. Though the slide show cannot be said to describe a fully cradle-to-grave welfare state (Julia does not die), it does come rather close. Some might say too close.
Julia won the election for Obama. More than two-thirds of single women voted for the incumbent. This victory was not simply a matter of Julia’s exchanging her vote for one of Obama’s gifts. As disturbing as conservatives may have found the society and polity depicted in “The Life of Julia,” they could not deny that it was a clear, specific, and honest vision of the relation between the citizen and her state in a liberal future. In this vision, government would be championed, benefits would be protected. The young and aspirant would count on liberal Democrats to provide assistance at critical junctures. Such concerns as cost, debt, efficiency, growth, and national security would be unimportant.
Even the most ardent Obama supporter, however, would have to admit that the description of community in the life of Julia is thin. Julia has no siblings, husband, or even wife. Her parents are unseen and only briefly mentioned. Her son, Zachary, pops into view and quickly disappears. There is no other family. Friends and co-workers and neighbors are absent. She does not go to church or temple or madrassa.
Julia’s relationship to government is tenuous. She attends school and enjoys federal subsidies and regulations for education, health, child-rearing, small business, and retirement, but never does she participate in the civic life of her county, state, or country. The flag appears just once in her life: on the dais at her college graduation. She is largely free of attachment. She does not encounter the “mediating institutions” of civil society described in Richard J. Neuhaus and Peter L. Berger’s 1976 classic, To Empower People. It is just herself, Zachary, and Obama.
The beginning of a conservative revival lies in addressing the gaps in Julia’s story and making them whole. How to strengthen the moral and material basis of families and communities, of associations and churches, of police and soldiers is one of the most important questions facing the United States. Unless conservatives offer an alternative that answers such questions–the life of Juanita, perhaps–the future will be left to Julia and her progeny. And that cannot be allowed to happen. Julia must be stopped.
Why, despite its periodic low points, does conservatism always rebound? Because conservatives understand the weaknesses of our modern bureaucratic, balkanized society far better than liberals do. The strings of bureaucracy tie the hands of genuine innovators in the public space, and the costs include a substandard education system and income-support structures that actually perpetuate poverty. Government has grown at a relentless rate, weakening constitutional principles, from the separation of powers to the Commerce Clause. Entrepreneurship is weakened by regulatory overreach. And the subdivision of Americans into factions based on identity and grievances has diminished the concept of a national interest.
But while conservatism has endured, it’s worth pointing out that in my lifetime, voters have tended to turn right primarily in reaction to liberal failure or disarray–the freefall of the 1960s, the ineptitude of Jimmy Carter, the excesses of Democratic Congresses in 1994 and 2010.
Today the political right faces the challenge of earning the confidence of Americans at a time when the country is middling along and neither left nor right seems to bear exclusive responsibility for the train wrecks around us. Of late, conservatism has failed to offer its own account of how the middle class became poorer and less upwardly mobile, much less how to turn their fortunes around. It has mimicked the left by seeming incapable of defending its cultural values without resorting to derision or wishful thinking. It has seemed tongue-tied about the immorality of financial markets that squander investors’ capital without an inch of the restraint that orders the lives of smaller, less entitled businesses, much less the standards that prevail around kitchen tables.
Most disconcerting, conservatism has fallen into the trap of resembling just another lobby that defends its clients against the policy ambitions of the opposition. Too often, our side projects the narrow, bottom-line sensibility of a well-funded trade association, albeit one with a shrinking client base.
The way back will require not only a sharper, more articulate critique of the myriad weaknesses of Barack Obama’s leadership, but also a deeper argument about why we deserve to chart this country’s path as it turns an uncertain corner. Conservatism needs to rekindle the aspirations of Americans who aren’t winning, who aren’t building, and whose anxieties are less about the loss of liberty and more about the depletion of their savings. We need to shake enough of our reflexive aversion to government to get serious about reforming government, from the archaic way it structures public schools to the inevitably unsustainable way it manages entitlements. We shouldn’t shrink from our aspirations of a civic culture that privileges life and responsibility and faith, but we should respect that Americans can share our decency without sharing every vestige of our worldview.
This country shares much of our critique of liberalism but, by a slim majority, distrusts our capacity to lead. We conservatives need to restore confidence that we see a future greater than the agenda of our donors and our loyalists.
As a religious and social conservative, I have been alienated from the Republican Party for the past few years. It’s not that I’ve become a liberal (I haven’t), or that I disagree with some of the things done by the GOP advocates (though I do). Mostly it’s that I’m sick and tired of the GOP’s ideological ossification. In 1950, Lionel Trilling famously derided conservatism as little more than “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” As we all know, the post-60s rise of conservative intellectuals–many of them associated with this magazine–refuted Trilling decisively, and consequentially. Yet now, three decades after the arrival of the Reagan Revolution, American conservatism is approaching another Trilling moment.
One might criticize this or that policy, but our problem is more fundamental than that. It’s not so much what we think as how we think. We used to be the people who had the most interesting, dynamic, and realistic ideas. Political liberalism still has no coherent and compelling program or philosophy, but it nevertheless feels more in touch with contemporary concerns and currents of thought than the rigid, tapped-out Reaganism of the GOP.
Reaganism arose as a political response to specific conditions: overweening statism (including excessive taxation), Soviet expansionism, and the decay of civil society. And it pretty much worked. Today, though, America faces another set of primary challenges, to which Reaganism cannot be the answer, because the questions posed by the times are different.
The problem is that too many conservatives take conservatism in its Reaganite iteration as revealed truth. To deviate is to dabble in heresy, to risk being run off the reservation as a “RINO.” This is good in the short run for political cohesion and effectiveness, but a disaster for a party that needs–as every party does–to have its intellectual base replenished by fresh, creative discussion and argument. The outcome of the war in Iraq and the Wall Street crash dramatically challenged the reigning conservative ideas about foreign policy, democracy, free markets, and regulation. That they occasioned no serious rethinking of conservative doctrine among the mainstream right’s intellectuals indicates not strength, but weakness.
We would do well to return to older sources of conservative thought, and to think and debate how to apply our principles in a changing world. For example, though I strongly believe in privileging traditional marriage, we social conservatives have lost the same-sex marriage argument. Prudence indicates that rather than pretend we can still win, social conservatives ought to focus on the achievable victory of firewalling religious liberty from the coming gay civil rights legislation and court decisions.
I could be wrong, but that’s beside the point. What I want to see is a conservatism that is flexible and open and confident enough to permit, indeed to welcome and to learn from dissent within the broad conservative tradition–especially from the Kirkean traditionalists. Edmund Burke, who knew a few things about conservatism, wrote: “A State without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” It’s also true for political parties.
Though I dearly hope to be wrong about this, I fear that dark times lie ahead for our nation and for the conservative tendency in American thought and politics that should rightly offer our country its best hope for the future.
The United States is on a perilous trajectory–one all the more disturbing because it looks to have been scarcely affected by any of the great political competitions and big electoral decisions since the end of the Reagan era.
The “clear and present danger” for the United States today is domestic, not foreign. It is seen in the confluence of three major trends that are subverting what was once un-mockingly known as the American way of life.
The first of these trends is the collapse of the nation’s family structure. According to preliminary figures, almost 41 percent of American babies were born out of wedlock in 2011–twice the figure of just 30 years earlier. (For those whom the Census Bureau terms “non-Hispanic whites,” the 2011 ratio was 29 percent–higher than for African Americans back when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report on the crisis of the black family in the 1960s.) By 2010, a child was more likely to grow up in a broken home in America than in practically any other Western society, including the Scandinavian ones.
Second is America’s gradual, but increasingly rapid, retirement from religion. Between 1972 and 2008, according to a Pew Research Center study, the share of American adults with no religious affiliation whatsoever rose from 7 percent in 1972 to 18 percent in 2010–but jumped between 2007 and 2012 from just over 15 percent to almost 20 percent. Of America’s Millennials, our youngest adults, born between 1981 and 1994, nearly one-third say they have no religion. So it is that America, long the conspicuous holdout against the great tide of Western secularization, now appears to be following Europe into a faithless wilderness.
Third is our citizenry’s steady slide into financial dependence on the government–a development intensified by the Great Recession, but in fact predating it by many decades. By spring 2011, according to the Census Bureau, just over 35 percent of Americans lived in homes receiving one or more “means tested” public benefit. Never before have so many healthy, able-bodied, and relatively well-to-do Americans plead “poverty” for the purpose of handouts from Uncle Sam.
These powerful, deeply entwined trends are progressively degrading both our people and our polity. They promise our descendants a country that is weak, beneath a government that is strong: one where the independence, civic vibrancy, and economic freedom we take for granted today are only memories. It is not too much to suggest that, on our current course, an ignominious end to American exceptionalism could even be within sight.
As one reflects upon this prospect, it will be immediately apparent that America’s fate is inseparable from the fate of the country’s conservative political and intellectual tendency. Almost as immediately apparent, unfortunately, is how very poorly equipped that selfsame conservative tendency happens to be today for addressing, much less mitigating, these and other threats to national well-being.
For a generation, soi-disant conservatives have been failing conspicuously in politics–ironically, never more so than when they actually gained political power. If one doubts that proposition, just consider the George W. Bush administration’s toxic popular reputation these days–an odor unlikely to change much at this point through sheer passage of time. (The public’s low regard for Bush speaks to more than his controversial intervention in Iraq, by the way.)
Of the many factors accountable for the political failure of the conservative tendency since Reagan, one of the most striking is a curious incuriosity about matters empirical: a peculiar inattentiveness to the way the world really works.
Over the past four years, for example, most self-styled conservative thinkers have betrayed no obvious interest in analyzing or understanding what went so very wrong under Bush ’43–or even in acknowledging the plain fact that things had gone wrong. Similarly, in the presidential contest just concluded, the general expectation on the right was that its nominee would win–and win big. In the event, of course, he was decisively defeated.
That may not sound too different from the story of more or less all disappointed candidacies from more or less all elections past. And yet there is a difference: This time, false hopes were bolstered by millions upon millions of dollars of seemingly solid polling data purchased from partisan allies. These expensive, beguiling, and systematically flawed numbers provided the foundation for an alternative reality–a fantasy land that adherents inhabited until it was put to a real-world test.
There seems to be a tremendous temptation nowadays for conservatives to retreat into their own alternative reality, their own preferred universe where their own preferred opinions are supported by their own preferred facts.
That temptation may have consolations–but it spells the death of honest thinking. Our country confronts fearsome problems. It desperately needs a conservative tendency that can, for a start, call the animals by their proper names.
The reelection of President Obama has uncorked a jeroboam of conservative pessimism.
Have we arrived at the much-feared tipping point beyond which Americans will depend so heavily on government that there can be no turning back, only an onrushing collapse? Will the Obama coalition now forever out-vote and pillage the makers of American wealth?
Many conservative commentators say yes. I say: In this defeat is the path to a more successful future, if Republicans keep their heads and their perspective.
The president’s reelection portends a more expensive federal government in the years ahead. More costs imply more taxes. More taxes generate more resistance. That resistance will be the basis of the conservative coalition of tomorrow. As sure as the New Deal yielded to the conservative Congresses after 1938, as sure as the Great Society called forth the conservative revival after 1970, so will the Obama years be followed by a more conservative period.
The next Republican coalition will be a multi- ethnic coalition to temper the excess and overreach of the Obama years. It will jettison the reactionary messages that alienated so many persuadable voters in 2012. It will instead avow a Republicanism that is culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible. It will be younger, better educated, and more secular than the coalition that lost in 2012.
That next coalition will not undo everything done in the Obama years. That never happens. What it will do is temper and reform the Obama legacy–just as prior generations of conservatives eliminated swathes of New Deal economic regulation, got government out of the business of building public housing, broke up telecommunications monopolies, and ended unconditional welfare for able-bodied adults. This idea that the state only advances and never retreats is contradicted by the record of the past half-century.
We’re a freer society in almost every way than we were in 1963, and we are in no danger of losing our freedom over the next four years. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper retorted to Marxist historians who imagined that the course of history must lead inevitably to socialism: “When radicals scream that victory is indubitably theirs, sensible conservatives knock them on the nose. It is only very feeble conservatives who take such words as true and run round crying for the last sacraments.”
The next Republican coalition will not repeal universal health coverage. That commitment is here to stay, and high time, too. But the next coalition will control and reduce health-care costs. It will finance health care in ways less burdensome to economic growth. It will fight the good fight for private enterprise and free markets in ways relevant to the politics and society of the decades ahead. It will win some and lose some, and when it fades from the scene, it will leave the country better than it found it–as every generation of Americans has left the country better than it found it.
Do I say “it”? No, not “it.” I mean–us.
In the recent presidential election, conservatism was not tried and found wanting. It was tried in a particularly cramped, narrow, and uncompelling form.
Mitt Romney was sometimes accused of lacking conservative conviction. But in advocating pro-growth, pro-business policies, he was firm, consistent, even dogged. The theme fit his venture-capitalist background and seemed to call attention to President Obama’s greatest weakness: his failed economic stewardship. In GOP convention oratory, no bootstrap was left unpulled, and Romney himself issued a ringing defense of “success.” In his leaked Boca Raton fundraiser video, Romney’s defense of success veered into parody.
It is fair to say that this message did not carry the nation by storm. Among other problems, Romney underperformed among working-class voters in key states. Their lack of enthusiasm was not irrational. Over the last few decades, increased effort by the middle class has been rewarded by stagnant incomes and job insecurity. Economic mobility is increasingly a function of education, skills, family structure, and community health. Economic growth still matters, but as one factor among many. A rising tide is viewed differently by those who lack a boat and must learn to swim.
People in, say, the small-town Midwest, worried about insecure health benefits tied to insecure jobs, or seeking government help to master skills demanded by technological change, are generally not mooches or dependents. They are citizens (and voters) in the midst of massive, disorienting economic and social change. And greater economic freedom is not the answer to all their concerns.
Fortunately, conservatism is richer than that. It falls to conservatives to recover and emphasize two additional elements of their ideology’s appeal.
First is the tradition of conservative reform. The movement that humanely transformed welfare and humanely reduced crime rates in troubled cities–improving the lives of millions in tangible ways–needs to take the lead in improving elementary and secondary public education, college attendance and completion, job training, and health-care access. Government has a proper role in preparing citizens for success in free markets, as well as in caring for the most vulnerable. It should be the conservative goal to make public structures efficient, modern, and truly compassionate–to make limited government more effective within its limits.
Second is the conservative tradition of promoting healthy mediating institutions. The collapse of community and family is creating a class barrier that fences off much of the working poor. Yet conservatives–who presumably know a thing or two about family, community, and morality–have had little to say in response. The goal here is to creatively strengthen value-shaping institutions–civic groups, religious charities, and families–without letting government dominate or corrupt them.
A movement encompassing these three priorities–economic freedom, government reform, and civic health–would hardly constitute a “new” conservatism. But it would require recognition that economic freedom is not always identical to the common good. And a commitment to the common good is the essential attribute of a governing conservatism.
JAMES K. GLASSMAN
In the September 2010 issue of Commentary, I wrote that the global economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 provided the left with “an irresistible opportunity to pronounce the failure of the form of capitalism that emerged at the end of the 20th century.” That did not happen, I wrote, for the simple reason that the Keynesian remedies for the crisis–”stimulus” spending–so clearly failed. That failure led to the rise of the Tea Party and the big Republican victory in the congressional elections a few months after the article appeared.
As it turned out, however, those 2010 elections were hardly the harbinger of a conservative resurgence. How can you not beat a president whose four-year legacy was highlighted by trillion-dollar deficits, 2 percent growth, and 8 percent unemployment? The answer lies in the neglect of four principles worth conserving–the foundation of conservatism–that have been broadly ignored: freedom, opportunity, responsibility, and compassion. It is no accident–and please don’t think it an advertisement–that these are the principles that motivate the George W. Bush Institute (and, I hope, many other institutions and people).
Freedom means giving Americans the power to make their own choices–and standing up for people around the world, in Iran and Syria, for example, who are denied that power. Opportunity is impossible without policies that encourage strong economic growth–in the range of 4 percent–through free markets, including not only low taxes and low spending but also free trade and low barriers to hard-working, creative immigrants. Responsibility requires pitching in and following the biblical injunction “to whom much is given, much is required.” And compassion, perhaps the most important conservative principle of all, is standing in someone else’s shoes.
None of these principles asks more of government. To the contrary, they ask that government remove constraints.
So where does the current state of conservatism fit in? I am afraid that many conservatives either see the answer to problems in government intervention or else reject a government solution but, at the same time, deny that a problem even exists. The message: Shape up and stop taking money from the government.
That’s not a winner–and it’s not conservative because it ignores the personal and nongovernmental group action that is the root of the four principles, and of conservatism itself. Certainly, we need policy changes–including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, lower tax rates, and lower federal spending. But those are changes in the service of less government and an enhancement of the four guiding principles.
Like the ancient parable of the blind men describing the same elephant from different perspectives, conservatism can mean many different things to many different people. Indeed, given the relatively straightforward and down-to-earth meaning of the word, conservatism actually lends itself to considerable linguistic legerdemain. One can use the word to refer to a temperament, an ideology (or ideologies), an objective tendency, or simply an unwillingness to heed the forces of progress as fashion dictates.
It seems to me that the future of each of these varieties of conservatism is assured. The conservative temper stems from the crooked timber of humanity and the accumulated scar tissue of experience. The objective tendency, whether imposed by external forces, threadbare budgets, impertinent facts-on-the-ground, or a general lack of popular enthusiasm, also seems baked into the human experience for as far as the eye can see. For related reasons, there will always be realists who counsel the hotheads to slow down, earning at minimum the label “conservative” if not “reactionary.” In this sense, while there may not always be an England, there will always be something called conservatism.
The one with the cloudiest future is ideological conservatism. Will enough Americans remain committed, or at least open, to the bundle of principles that define modern American conservatism to sustain the movement and the Republican Party, which imperfectly carries its banner?
My short answer is an equivocal yes. My hedge stems from the fact that it will be hard, for all the reasons we’ve all heard already: demographics, the changing nature of the economy, etc. But there’s one factor that hasn’t been adequately discussed: the fading of conservatism’s libertarian brand.
I say “brand” because I think the issue has less to do with substance than with marketing. For good and bad reasons, liberalism has managed to cover itself with a patina of libertarianism. Some of this stems from changing attitudes about sexuality. Conservative opposition to gay marriage sends a powerful cultural signal that makes the GOP seem Comstockish and scary, at least to the elites who shape the culture and to younger voters.
That argument is familiar enough. But what allows the Democrats to seem more libertarian isn’t just cultural marketing, but a widespread acceptance of the idea that positive liberty is more important than negative liberty. The former, an idea near to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s heart, is that you can’t be free unless the state gives you the material aid necessary to enjoy life to its fullest. This was the point of his “economic bill of rights.” Negative liberty, an idea dear to the Founders, defines freedom as independence from government intrusion and meddling.
Conservatives have been very successful at arguing separately against positive liberty and against cultural libertinism, but the merger of the two presents new challenges, particularly given the attitudes of young people who seem to believe that you should be free to use birth control (true), but that you’re not free unless someone else pays for it.
The vernacular of conservatism derives from a time when the country was churched and defined liberty as personal sovereignty. It needs to change to engage a country that is increasingly unchurched and incorrectly thinks liberty can and should be subsidized.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
First, some perspective is key. Romney’s “47 percent” remarks and Hurricane Sandy probably turned an Obama 1 percent win into the 3 percent margin that he attained–especially considering Republicans kept the House and are doing well with governorships.
The Romney loss was not comparable to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 blowout that nonetheless led, four years later, to a Republican victory in 1968. Nor was 2012 akin to the 1976 revulsion against Watergate and the Republicans that led to Jimmy Carter–and four years later to Ronald Reagan. Recall, too, that Bill Clinton’s new middle way, the supposedly permanent Democratic antidote to Paleolithic liberals such as Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis, lasted just two terms.
So Republican epitaphs are premature, and the natural pushback will come once Americans grasp the nature of an unleashed Obama & Co. The administration is at war against the middle and upper-middle classes (who lack the liberal panache of the hyper-wealthy and the empathy of the poor). Redistributionism and lead-from-behind foreign policy lead to stagflation at home and weakness abroad. The ongoing implosion of the EU and the erosion of blue states such as California and Illinois will offer steady reminders of policy failure.
Nor will the Democrats in 2016 be running a young charismatic half-African-American candidate with an exotic-sounding name, whose emotional appeal to minorities and affluent white liberals trumped that of any prior candidate since John F. Kennedy. It was not so much that Obama is half-black, or that he is chameleon-like in his ability to adopt personas and patois that tickle white liberals and reassure minorities of his street credibility, or that he is young and cool, or that his foreign name hits all the right multicultural buttons, but that he is all that and more in a way a young, white, liberal second JFK, or a younger Jesse Jackson, or a top-schooled crossover candidate such as Cory Booker or Deval Patrick simply could not be.
It certainly would be unwise to try to out-pander the Democrats. Latinos–to use that inexact rubric–will eventually follow the Italian-American model, but only if the borders are closed, legality is restored to immigration, and the natural forces of assimilation and upward mobility are allowed to operate. Ironically, the Washington conservative elite’s sudden obsession with amnesty will not win Latinos over (consider Reagan and the disastrous 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act). Instead, conservative pandering will ensure the continued cycle of open borders leading to large pools of often poorly educated, non-English-speaking, unlawful immigrants, most without high-school diplomas who perennially look to amnesty and entitlements–and thereby probably ensure that the American Southwest will become permanently blue in the manner of California.
Lost in all the post-election analysis was a much larger and more cynically brilliant Obama us-and-them campaign that created the image of a shrinking, geriatric white male plutocratic establishment forced to give way to the new age of the diverse “other.” Affluent Asians, blacks, Latinos, gays, women, etc., supposedly had beef with Republicans and were brilliantly united by Obama in vague resentment against “them.”
In this regard, Republicans have to focus on a more populist approach that ensures their message of smaller government, lower taxes, a strong defense, and more freedom appeals to those on the receiving end of government largesse. Free-market conservatives do best when they appear naturally as part of the working or small-business class and can’t be caricatured as elevator-owning grandees–and when they mix it up and take their licks in trying to appeal to those who probably won’t vote for them.
Nominating someone who naturally appeals to working-class white voters, and who attracts minorities, is important, but far more critical is focusing on policies that appeal to the middle class and small-business employers. Why protect the financial interests of a George Soros, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and the Hollywood elite, when there are ways to focus on estate taxes, income taxes, foundations, tax incentives, and agricultural subsidies that instead better protect the upper-middle-class and small-business person who are now the target of such demonization?
The war against Islamist extremism dominated American politics from September 2001 to the summer of 2008–by which time President George W. Bush, his generals, and his soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines had effectively won its opening rounds. Before they had done so, however, the Republican Party lost not only the political argument about the war during the election of 2006, but also the argument over the causes of economic panic that gripped the country in late 2008.
The sequence of political spasms that shuddered through the country in the first decade of the new century left behind an unfinished war that quickly began to turn against an exhausted America (and is turning still) and a new debate about the size and cost of government. The GOP, representing conservatism, won decisively the first round of the debate on taxing and spending in 2010 and lost the second round this past November. We are left with a divided government that fairly reflects a country deeply divided on this key question (and, less obviously, on strategy for the war). The balance of political power is very close to even: a narrow center-right majority on the Supreme Court, a solid conservative majority in the House of Representatives, and 30 of 50 governorships versus a small center-left Democratic majority in the Senate and the weakest reelected president in modern times–one who conducted a singularly divisive, idea-free campaign.
Because the presidency has the biggest microphone, it appears to the Manhattan-Beltway media elite that President Obama is in charge. It would not have appeared that way to the Framers and it ought not to appear that way to conservatives today. Ten thousand commentaries from legions of self-assured pundits will never repeal even a comma, much less a phrase, of the Constitution.
Conservatives are, first and chiefly, charged with protecting the Constitution, and in this era that means insisting on the rights of the House, and of the states and people they represent, while providing the appropriations necessary to fund the military. It means insisting that the president govern as any president was intended to govern: only with the funds given him by the Congress, for the purposes they are given, only with the authorities allocated to him by the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, and only insofar as he does not injure the powers reserved to the states or trample on the rights of individuals.
This means urging the House to use the appropriations and oversight powers it possesses to assure that the military is kept strong and that the executive branch does not abuse its powers, especially through a vast regulatory apparatus.
These checks on the executive are enormous–if used. It is the job of conservatives to insist that they be used, and used even when the chattering class clucks away at the “obstructionists” who are impeding the will of the president.
This will require quite a lot of what passes for political courage in this era. For the full fury of MSNBC and the New York Times op-ed page is going to fall on those conservatives in the House, in the statehouses, and on the bench who say no and do so effectively, and especially on those who do so eloquently. Leaders such as Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Scott Walker, and (most of the time) the majority of justices on the Supreme Court are going to be blasted and threatened by the president and his supporters. It will be the job of conservatives to defend them when they defend the Constitution.
The Constitution’s structures are inconvenient to politicians and interests that seek quick and decisive changes and vastly expanded government. The freedoms the Constitution protects, especially religious freedom, are often unpopular with transient majorities. Siding with those who stand for those structures and who defend those freedoms against all their enemies, foreign and domestic, is–as it has been since 1789–the future of conservatism.
I don’t fall in love with politicians–the last presidential candidate I voted for with ardor was Ronald Reagan in 1980–and my heart doesn’t break when those I support don’t win. Nor am I a party loyalist. As a conservative I vote for Republicans more often than not; for those of us committed to free enterprise, limited government, military strength, and a healthy civil society, there is usually no better option. But the Republican Party isn’t the conservative movement. And a GOP defeat doesn’t mean conservatism–or the GOP, for that matter–is in crisis.
Yet ever since Election Day, a chorus has proclaimed that that’s exactly what Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama means. Scornful foes and anguished friends warn that Republicans are going the way of the Whigs. That demographic change spells liberal landslides as far as the eye can see. That social conservatism, especially on marriage and abortion, is electoral poison. “Obama’s reelection marks a turning point in American politics,” declared the Los Angeles Times. “With the growing power of minorities, women, and gays, it’s the end of the world as straight white males know it.”
So what else is new? Whenever Republicans lose a national election, Americans are told that it’s curtains for the right. “Conservatism Is Dead,” wrote Sam Tanenhaus in a notable New Republic essay shortly after Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration; its “doctrine has not only been defeated but discredited.” Soon after, Colin Powell was insisting that small-government conservatism had lost whatever appeal it once had. “Americans,” he explained, “are looking for more government in their life, not less.”
Then came the Tea Party, an extraordinary wave of civic engagement, and a conservative tide that replaced Democratic control of the House of Representatives with the largest Republican majority in 60 years. Was the reaction to the 2010 midterm elections a flood of commentary admonishing the Democratic Party that the progressive movement was finished? Were liberals advised that henceforth their only hope of relevance was to embrace the policies and moral values of cultural conservatives?
There are many lessons conservatives might draw from the disappointing results on November 6, but a need to radically overhaul the right isn’t one of them. So what if exit polls showed that a plurality of voting Americans, unlike most Republicans, now support same-sex marriage and higher tax rates on the wealthy? The same polls show that majorities of Americans believe that Washington should do less and that taxes should not be raised to cut the deficit. American conservatism didn’t arise from a yearning to conform to public opinion. Its raison d’etre was to defend constitutional liberty and economic opportunity–free men and free markets–and to make the case that human dignity and prosperity flourish not when government is all-powerful, but when it is limited. Sometimes that conservative message has been politically popular. Sometimes it has meant standing athwart history, yelling “stop.”
Meanwhile, fights on the right are nothing new. In the wake of Obama’s reelection, conservatives may be at loggerheads over immigration or gay marriage or defense cuts, but when haven’t we clashed over how to translate principle into policy? From RomneyCare to waterboarding, from racial preferences to drug legalization, from libertarians to the religious right, the conservative movement has always bubbled with debate and disagreement, while the left, for all its talk about “diversity,” rarely seems to show any.
Liberalism has done a lot of damage. It is poised, in Obama’s second term, to do even more. So the future of conservatism is going to be a busy one. Let’s face that future with optimism, patience, and cogent arguments.
The future of conservatism is bright. I know that may seem counterintuitive, not to say downright insane, in the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s reelection. But I believe it to be the case. Why? There are several reasons. One follows from an observation of the economist Herbert Stein: “That which cannot go on forever, won’t.” The legal scholar and Internet commentator Glenn Reynolds is fond of quoting that line when he discusses the imminent shipwreck that is the institution of higher education in this country. But Stein’s law (if I may so denominate it) has far broader application. Just as the spiraling costs (and concomitant diminution of quality) of higher education cannot, and so will not, continue, so too the ostentatious fiscal incontinence that lies at the heart of Obamanomics cannot, and therefore will not, continue. The federal debt–we hit $16 trillion during the Democratic National Convention and are already up to $16.25 trillion two months later–cannot, and therefore will not, continue to pile up. Why? Because the money will not be there.
This truth has not, I know, penetrated into the lair of hectoring savants such as Paul Krugman and Timothy Geithner. Nevertheless, it is widely acknowledged to be true. The question is: Granted it is true, why does that augur well for conservatism? In a word, reality. Reality is conservative. Just as that which cannot go on forever, won’t, so it is that reality sooner or later will disabuse us of those fantasies that fuel the liberal-socialist utopian dreams. “It hasn’t happened yet,” you might say, casting your eye back over the graveyard of utopian shipwrecks (and endless vistas of tyranny, immiseration, and murder) from the French and Bolshevik revolutions down to our own squalid totalitarianisms.
Yes and no. It is indeed depressing to see otherwise intelligent people once again line up to begin the trek down that seductive path that we know is the road to serfdom. Will we never learn that the fundamental economic fact is the creation, not the redistribution, of wealth? The consoling truth is, we have learned it. Not all of us. Not Barack Obama or Paul Krugman or those who speak for the (il)liberal consensus that rules over us. But the redoubts of resistance are much larger, better organized, and more articulate now than in the past. It’s not just that we lost the presidential election, but that we did so narrowly. There is also the fact that the spirit of conservatism–by which I mean the spirit of liberty and self-reliance–has been as much roused as it has been besieged by the assaults of the 1960s and beyond. We know now (not all of us, but more and more) that the Great Society worked not to abolish but to institutionalize poverty. We know now that the ambition to “spread the wealth around” does not equalize but destroys prosperity. Last week, one pundit mournfully predicted that the United States was about to undergo a four-year “stress test” in Obama’s second term. That’s probably right. But that can be a cheering as well as a doleful eventuality. Lord D’Abernon was right: “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.” An American’s, too.
Conservatism may have suffered a major setback in November, but basic math dictates that it will make a comeback. Historically, political and economic philosophies have succeeded when they have offered relevant solutions to the nation’s problems during times of crisis. For decades following the Great Depression, U.S. domestic policy was rooted in the belief that government could revive a struggling economy by spending more money. Yet just by the time President Richard Nixon declared himself a Keynesian in 1971, this approach had been exhausted. When liberalism couldn’t provide answers to the new problem of stagflation in the 1970s, the nation soon turned to the conservative solutions of tax cuts and sound money. But by the time the 2008 financial crisis hit, the conservative message on taxes had become stale and Barack Obama’s argument for a more activist federal government seemed appealing.
During his first term in office, President Obama seized the opportunity to greatly expand the size and scope of government, and his upcoming term, at a minimum, will allow him to solidify his gains. The most prominent example of this is the implementation of his national health-care law. Obama’s reelection also virtually guarantees that nothing will be done to address the nation’s most pressing long-term problem: the looming fiscal crisis.
In the last several years, conservatives have put serious ideas on the table for reforming the nation’s entitlement programs, which are the primary drivers of the long-term debt. At the same time, Obama has dodged the problem, attempting to convince the public that a combination of tax hikes on wealthier Americans and small tweaks to government programs will be enough to avert a crisis. This political strategy has proved effective for the time being, because despite the warnings no crisis has yet shaken the public consciousness. Bond investors continue to purchase U.S. debt at low interest rates, because they assume Washington will get its act together eventually and because so many other countries are in even worse shape. In the long-term, however, the U.S. government cannot continue to rack up trillions in debt without severe consequences. If nothing is done, at some point, Americans will be facing some combination of inflation, high interest rates, and economic stagnation.
Liberalism is ill-equipped to respond to such a crisis, because the promotion of a generous welfare state is its central purpose. Sparing entitlement programs from serious changes–as liberals desire–would mean massive tax increases that would hit not only the rich, but also middle-class Americans. Conservatism, once more, will emerge to fill the vacuum of ideas.
In other words, even though the 2012 election was a significant loss for conservatism, this defeat also means that Americans will have to turn to limited-government philosophy for solutions down the road.
Twelve score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The historic task of American conservatism is to see to it that a nation so conceived and so dedicated long endures. Thus, the task of American conservatism today is to highly resolve that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom. For a new birth of freedom is needed for a nation so conceived and so dedicated to long endure.
This means that American conservatism today can’t be too conservative in spirit. Reforms–in some cases radical reforms–are needed to meet conservative ends. Conservatives will have to spend as much time shaping the future as they spend standing athwart history yelling “stop.” Because in the America of 2013, there is no resting place at which, no solid ground upon which, to stop. And so conservatives will, in the spirit of Lincoln, have to think anew, as our case is new.
But there’s also plenty of standing athwart history to do. American conservatism today has to embrace what’s always been impressive and inspiring about conservatism at its best: a disdain for the shallow tyranny of the present and the false temptations of the apparent future, a scorn for short-term utility and immediate expediency.
In his 1956 letter to National Review explaining why conservatives should be well disposed to the state of Israel, Leo Strauss wrote:
A conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort is vulgar.
Finally, I wish to say that the founder of Zionism, Herzl, was fundamentally a conservative man, guided in his Zionism by conservative considerations. The moral spine of the Jews was in danger of being broken by the so-called emancipation that in many cases had alienated them from their heritage, and yet not given them anything more than merely formal equality; it had brought about a condition that has been called “external freedom and inner servitude”; political Zionism was the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate are capable.
Political Zionism is problematic for obvious reasons. But I can never forget what it achieved as a moral force in an era of complete dissolution. It helped to stem the tide of “progressive” leveling of venerable, ancestral differences; it fulfilled a conservative function.
The challenge for American conservatism today is to fulfill both the conservative function of acting as a moral force in an era of dissolution and the reformist function of charting a path up from liberal dissolution.
JAY P. LEFKOWITZ
Conservatives are in danger of falling out of touch not only with America. They are falling out of touch with their own principles. In the mission statement of National Review in 1955, William Buckley articulated the magazine’s creed: “It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty, and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly.” It is high time for conservatives to return to these core principles.
After watching, and indeed facilitating, the skyrocketing deficits of the past decade, conservatives have lost the moral high ground when it comes to controlling the size of government. Reclaiming it won’t be easy, and it can’t be accomplished by saying that everything besides defense spending is on the table. Having credibility means there can’t be any sacred cows.
Conservatives should rethink their social agenda as well. James Madison explained in The Federalist Papers that our Constitution is designed to keep the federal government out of our personal lives: “The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people.” That is not to say that conservatives must abdicate their moral voice on issues of life, death, and personal responsibility. But they should wage those battles in the conservative way, using private institutions and the power of persuasion rather than the coercive powers of the state. And to the extent legislation is appropriate, it belongs in statehouses rather than the halls of Congress. Since when does being a conservative require Washington to dictate how people conduct their private lives in Sioux City and Miami, much less mandate the same standards in both venues?
Beyond making the case for smaller and less intrusive government, conservatives must demonstrate that they believe in an inclusive America. This year, 71 percent of Hispanics, 93 percent of blacks, and 73 percent of Asians voted for Obama. The year 2011 marked the first time more minority babies were born in America than were non-Hispanic white babies. Immigration reform is the ideal place to start, since welcoming more immigrants is consistent with conservative principles. The people lining up around the world to come to America are pursuing the same dream that the parents and grandparents of today’s white establishment had when they left Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. While a conservative immigration policy should certainly include measures to tighten our borders and perhaps require national identification cards (as in many other nations), it might also take steps to ensure that the millions of undocumented aliens who are an essential part of our economy can fully partake in the fruits of our nation.
Finally, conservatives and Republicans need to field better candidates. Mitt Romney has a great resume and admirable personal values. But he lost in large part because he had the same problems as John Kerry and Al Gore. As with Kerry, voters didn’t connect with Romney, because Democrats successfully defined him as an out-of-touch rich white guy. And as with Gore, Romney was perceived as a flip-flopper: pro-choice, then pro-life; for centralized health care, then against it; and all over the map on immigration. Once again, the message to conservatives is simple: Stick to core principles.
A key task of conservatism in the coming years will be to see America through a difficult period of transition, as the governing institutions of our postwar welfare state grow exhausted and untenable and something new must take their place.
Our entitlement state is proving thoroughly unaffordable. It has already burdened us with a level of debt not seen since the height of World War II and quickly getting worse. That mountain of unfunded liabilities will make the prosperity of the postwar era unattainable for the rising generation. And those least advantaged in that generation will find their path to the American dream further blocked by an inadequate educational system, intense global competition for low-wage jobs, and a nightmarish breakdown of the family (accelerated in important ways by the design of some anti-poverty programs) afflicting our poorest communities.
All this leaves us with a choice: Do we preserve the structure of the Great Society welfare state, or do we preserve the promise of American prosperity and freedom? It increasingly looks like we cannot do both.
The Democratic Party has made its choice. It believes the solution to the collapse of the postwar welfare state and the slowing of the American economy is more of the same. It would rather see American life dramatically altered (with a significantly larger government, a smaller and less active civil society, and a more consolidated but less dynamic economy) than see our governing institutions reformed. Conservatives will need to clarify the alternative by articulating an agenda to reform the structure of key government programs for the sake of preserving the structure of American society and the preconditions for our way of life.
The goal of these reforms is hardly radical: an economy growing at roughly its postwar pace, a federal government of roughly its postwar size and functions, and an energetic and flourishing civil society filled with countless civic, religious, fraternal, corporate, and charitable entities performing a vast array of social functions. That is the America we have known, but allowing it to persist will require bold reforms of government programs that capitalize on the efficiency of the market economy.
In the next four years, as a result of the public’s poor choice in this fall’s presidential election, this task will largely call for a stance of resistance, combined with efforts to make incremental gains through modest structural reforms of the tax and entitlement systems as opportunities for responsible political compromises present themselves. Not much will be accomplished. But conservatives must also use this time to fill in the policy agenda and the arsenal of arguments in favor of the brand of reforms that will prove essential in the long run.
Liberals won the last election, but they have not won the future. The politics of the coming decades will be shaped by conservative reforms, or else it will be dominated by American decline. So let us hope that conservatism’s future is bright, and let us do more than hope.
The question is not so much about the future of conservatism in America as it is about the future of America. The country cannot thrive in the absence of a conservative counterweight to the progressive strain in American politics.
The progressive strain is more or less baked into the American cake, and it is a good thing that it is. Our liberalism (in the classical sense) has done wonders for the expansion of freedom at home and abroad. This expansion requires a group of people more zealous than most Americans in its pursuit. At home, these are the progressives–liberals in the distinctly American sense.
Against the ambitions of today’s progressives, the counter that conservatives generally offer, without irony, is a robust defense of the fruits of the progressivism of previous generations. When Republicans say they are the ones who really want to save Medicare, because an unreformed Medicare program is fiscally unsustainable, they are conceding that there is no going back to an era when universal entitlement to health care for older Americans was no more than a progressive’s dream.
Progressives will not give conservatives credit for this concession, because they regard such concessions as the acceptance of the inevitable. Accepting the inevitable is not virtuous, even if it entails overcoming what progressives see as conservatives’ ignorance, stupidity, and base motives (which, as far as I can tell, exhaust the range of progressive explanations for conservative opposition to their programs). The progressive nature is to pocket concessions and move on to the next set of demands.
The conservative counterweight to progressivism is a more complicated phenomenon. In the first place, it is largely liberal, not only in the classical sense but also in that it stands foursquare in support of what the American-style liberals of a generation or two ago themselves stood for. Conservatism is a sort of outdated progressivism. (When Republicans quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the dangers of public-sector unions, they miss the point that every progressive in America knows in his bones–that if FDR were alive today, he would support public-sector unions.)
The outdatedness of conservatives’ progressivism is precisely its point. It indicates a reluctance to accept at face value the claims progressives make about the good they can do for the country–but at the same time an openness to, well, progress. Yesterday’s overly ambitious and expensive progressive policy enactment may turn out today to embody goals worth preserving, as in the case of Medicare and Social Security. To be sure, yesterday’s progressive policy enactment may turn out to do more harm than good and need to be overturned, as in the case of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare program. But the progressive view of the conservative project as turning back the hand of policy time is a caricature. Even the young William F. Buckley’s iconic epigram called for conservatives to stand athwart history shouting only “stop”–not “turn around.” Buckley was a practical man. And as a practical matter, conservatives mainly tell history just to “please, slow down.”
This is an important thing to tell history in a classically liberal age, because wise people understand that progressivism untrammeled would be just as dangerous as untrammeled anything else. Or more dangerous, perhaps, because progressivism brooks no legitimate disagreement (conservatives being ill- informed, dull, and/or wicked, tout court) and therefore runs the risk of becoming illiberally coercive.
But the history of the influence of conservative policy is not only that of eventual acquiescence in progressive policies. It’s also that of resistance to their adoption, which in turn helps shape their character–no ObamaCare “public option,” for example. And it’s also that of conservative reform initiatives, typically market-based, to address progressive policy dysfunctionality.
I see a permanent need for someone to tell progressives to slow down–and what’s more, actually to slow them down. The 2010 election results would seem to suggest that most Americans likewise see this need at least from time to time. In the modern, classically liberal world, there is a permanent need for someone to clean up after progressive excess. Tax reform in 1986 and welfare reform in 1996 are examples.
A wise progressive would recognize that most of the opposition to progressive ambition in America takes place within a classically liberal horizon, and that real progress depends on an opposition that saves progressivism from its own worst tendencies–from itself. That may be asking too much. But meanwhile, there is plenty of room for an American conservatism that continues to adapt. Conservatives have the roles of critic and reformist to play, and of advocate for the principles that progressives find awkward or embarrassing to discuss but Americans still hold dear: for starters, the exceptional character of their country among nations, patriotism, the blessings of a market economy, and freedom.
HEATHER MAC DONALD
There is a risk of over-interpreting the 2012 presidential election. Barack Obama did not win the popular vote by anywhere near a landslide. Many voters may simply (and conservatively) have opted for the status quo, absent an urgent reason to upend it.
And yet the long-term trends visible in the election are worrisome. First, there is the reflexive suspicion of the free market. Occupy Wall Street was too quickly dismissed as a passing fad. The filthy bed rolls and dreadlocked ladlers of vegan chili may be gone, but the condescension, if not hostility, toward market forces that gave rise to the movement endures. The hipster NPR reporter might concede that it’s nice to have an iPad and Whole Foods’ sustainable espresso roast, but he knows that greedy capitalists produce social and economic injustice that can only be mitigated by wiser heads in government.
As the country moves toward majority-minority status, it appears to be developing an ever larger constituency for big government. That Hispanics voted 71 percent to 27 percent for Obama is hardly a shock, given their overwhelming preference (75 percent) when polled for more government services and higher taxes, and their high rate of welfare consumption (twice that of non-Hispanic whites). The surprise was Obama’s Asian vote–72 percent–since the Democratic obsession with racial preferences, especially in education, runs contrary to Asian self-interest. Open-borders conservatives have assumed that immigrants will naturally favor smaller government and greater economic liberty, but the facts on the ground belied that assumption long before this last election.
The racial and ethnic voting tallies could also represent the triumph of academic identity politics, as William Bennett has noted. (Even the youth vote split along racial and ethnic grounds.) Conservatives have hopefully asserted that students tune out the racial and gender victimology spouted by their professors; that claim may have underestimated how easily bad ideas spread throughout the culture. And if the crusade for universal college attendance is successful, the reach of the academic worldview (including its anti-capitalism) will only expand.
For all his attempts at moderating his message during the general-election campaign, Mitt Romney still got bashed–even by some conservatives, no less!–for being too hard-hearted. But Romney’s much-excoriated comments about who receives and who pays for government “gifts” contained more truth than distortion. The country is about to pass the point where over 50 percent of households receives transfer benefits from the government, writes the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt. Where is majority support for smaller government going to come from? The growth in less familiar programs has been just as telling as the explosion of Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps. It was not enough for the Obama administration that 12 million children were already being fed free breakfast by their public schools; the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will increase those numbers further. In truth, there is not a parent in this fabulously wealthy country who cannot afford the pennies a day required to cook his child a healthy breakfast. New York City is paying case workers to socialize six-week-old infants by holding them while looking them in the eyes. A local child advocate explained: Children need contact with “adults” in a “supporting strong relationship.”
Then there is the ongoing breakdown of the family. The unmarried parent is the greatest driver of the modern welfare state, consuming the highest share of means-tested benefits and social programs. Obama’s support among single mothers was even higher than his support among women in general. The country’s fastest-growing ethnic group–Hispanics–also has the most rapidly rising rate of illegitimacy, now 53 percent, and the highest rate of teen pregnancy. The chance of launching a campaign to revalorize the two-parent biological family is remote, thanks to the feminist “strong women can do it all” ethos and the imperative to celebrate the “diversity” of all families, above all, same-sex parents.
Optimists will argue that conservatives simply need to sell their small-government, personal-responsibility message more vigorously. Pessimists will respond that conservatives have been making the case for the dynamism of markets and the inefficiency of government bureaucracies, but the message is just not finding many new buyers. The United States may be following an ironic law of economic development: The richer a country becomes, thanks to commerce, the less its tolerance for the risk that commerce inevitably entails. Since the United States can afford to devote an increasing share of its GDP to the government and to redistribution, without (yet) noticeably decreasing its astounding wealth, it will do so. (The avalanche of donated goods that poured forth after Hurricane Sandy was a reminder of this country’s seemingly bottomless material bounty.) The problem is not only that we are trading away a vibrant economy for a larger public sector, however, but that we are piling up massive amounts of debt to do so and encouraging more and more people to jump onto the benefits bandwagon.
It’s possible to be too concerned with the future–or to be judged too concerned–as conservatives discovered in the election of 2012. In winning, liberals paid almost no attention to impending trouble in the economy, in society, abroad, in anything or anywhere. Under President Obama’s leadership, they confined themselves to pointing out that we, the liberals and Democrats,
the party of the people, are on your side. Whatever happens, we will do better for you than the conservatives will.
Who are “we” in the party of the people? The answer is, anybody who wants to be. The liberals belong to the party of inclusiveness, frowning on no one except those who frown. These are the conservatives. The conservatives are the party of the common good, and are therefore concerned with the future of the country. They are, speaking generally, the responsible party, and because they are responsible, they are obliged to be judgmental. They must uphold the virtues of the more responsible among us, i.e., the few versus the many. They hope to persuade the many, for example, by promoting the entrepreneurial talents of small businessmen rather than corporations. But however inoffensive they try to be, they can be made to appear exclusive.
Liberals want democracy at its fullest; conservatives want democracy to work. Since these goals are both necessary and conflicting, the future of each party is assured. Democracy, we are told by Tocqueville, is a revolution toward ever more democracy, not a static state. Democracy wants liberty, but not as much as it wants equality, and it will always interpret the exercise of liberty as requiring more equality. Democracy is naturally given to the visionary schemes of liberals, one unlovely example of which made its debut in the campaign of 2012 when the Democrats made themselves the party of free contraception. Why? Free to buy condoms means equally free to buy, hence free without charge. Carry this further: What good is a free condom if it is kept unused in a drawer? Doesn’t a free condom imply a right, and a government guarantee, that it will be put to use? Here is the very definition of a visionary scheme–a false promise if there ever was one–of sexual liberation.
It is the business of conservatives to restrain democracy to what is good, not abstractly, but to what is the common good of a democracy. Democracy on its own has a tendency to exaggerate itself and to go too far, thus to bring trouble on itself. In demanding equality it tries to level differences, claiming to raise the low but often actually lowering the high.
Conservatives are needed to stand for greatness against democratic mediocrity and, as we now see, for solvency against democratic profligacy. But in a democracy it is not enough to “stand for” greatness and solvency; that will work for liberals with their easy goals, but not for conservatives. Conservatives have the harder task of persuading the people with arguments showing why it is necessary to admire the best among us and to restrain the extension of equality. The party of judgment has to be the party of argument. It would take too long to explain why the party of argument is known as the stupid party, and why the party of intellectuals is so contemptuous of the intellect. But that is where we are and will be.
CLIFFORD D. MAY
Following the 2000 elections, those of us at the Republican National Committee, where I was then employed, were in a celebratory mood. The GOP had taken back the White House, there was a Republican majority in both the Senate and House, Republicans inhabited a majority of governors’ mansions, and most state legislatures were Republican-controlled as well. “We’ve won it all!” a colleague exulted. “Yes,” I replied, “now we just need to take back the news media, the entertainment media, the educational establishment, the unions, and the philanthropies.”
I meant that as a joke. But since then I have come to conclude that if a majority of voters does not agree with Republicans and conservatives (let’s argue about the differences between them another day) before the campaign begins, few are likely to have their minds changed by even the cleverest 30-second television ad.
I’m a neoconservative, at least in the literal sense of being relatively new to conservatism. In the 1970s, I was an exchange student in the Soviet Union. That knocked out of my thick skull whatever sympathy for the Communist project I had acquired in classrooms, from reading books such as Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China and watching movies like Warren Beatty’s Reds. In the 1980s, as a New York Times correspondent in Africa, it dawned on me that there is no “socialist path to development.” And back in the USA in the 1990s, I finally realized that American liberals also are sailing toward the reefs–albeit with more tacking back and forth.
This ideological journey landed me at the Republican National Committee in 1997. Among the lessons I learned: It is the rare politician who wins an election by convincing voters to agree with him. More common is the politician who wins by convincing voters he agrees with them–knowing, from polls and focus groups, what opinions they hold.
This leads to the conclusion that the time to engage and persuade voters is between elections–a tougher task for those on the right than those on the left given the fact that conservatives and conservative ideas are virtually locked out of Hollywood and academia. Union bosses work hand in glove with Democrats (while business executives, by contrast, are a diverse lot). The reflexively liberal mainstream media reach a much wider audience than do conservative news outlets.
Right-of-center think tanks and advocacy groups need to work harder and smarter. For more than a decade, I’ve focused on national security full time, and on as bipartisan a basis as possible. There are liberals who get it–who see that totalitarian movements based in the “Muslim world” represent a serious threat to the West; who understand that peace requires strength and that weakness invites aggression; who grasp that we need to defend ourselves and our freedoms without apology or equivocation. But the number of Jacksonian Democrats–in both the Andrew and Scoop senses–is growing, at best, slowly.
There are committed philanthropists on the right, but the resources available to the left, e.g. through the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Tides Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Foundation to Promote Open Society, and the Democracy Alliance, are much greater.
George Soros and his associates, in particular, have spent a large fortune funding a network of organizations–including MoveOn.org, Human Rights Watch, the Center for American Progress, the New America Foundation, ThinkProgress, Media Matters, the Institute for Middle East Understanding, J Street, and the National Iranian American Council–that work strategically, between elections, to promote a broad range of liberal and leftist ideas and policies.
The future of conservatism would look considerably brighter if philanthropists on the right were to pick up the gauntlet Soros has thrown down, taking the fight for America beyond politics and the campaign season.
The lamentations we are hearing in the wake of the 2012 election are understandable but wildly overwrought. Yes, Barack Obama has been, at best, a poor and unimaginative president whose rhetoric and policies have had a divisive and demoralizing effect on the nation, and he seems incapable of providing decisive leadership at a time when the nation and the world badly need it. Yes, he ran a thoroughly unattractive reelection campaign that was so devoid of meaningful themes that it makes George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign seem a paragon of crusading idealism by comparison. With the thrill of 2008 gone, Obama seemed eminently beatable.
But facts must be faced, and the first of these is this: It was always going to be exceedingly difficult for any Republican candidate to unseat the first black president of the United States, however lackluster his record. (Just as it would be difficult for any Democrat to challenge Obama’s renomination, and in the event, none even tried.) The surprise is that the election was so close and that despite all the natural advantages the Obama campaign possessed, it was compelled to resort to such a petty, negative, and uninspiring strategy to win–a base strategy in every sense of the word, combining demonization of the opponent with the cultivation of targeted constituencies and the deployment of bogus wedge issues like the supposed banning of contraception. The campaign was nearly silent about Obama’s economic record and the late-breaking Benghazi story. Obama’s victory was far narrower than it was four years ago, thus defying the historical pattern of second-term presidencies and telling us a great deal about his diminishing appeal.
Badly demoralized by this result, Republicans almost immediately began sniping at one another, calling for the jettisoning of this and that element of the conservative portfolio, sighing about the presence of too many white male faces, and whining about how the Republic is “over.” This was both unseemly and unproductive, not to mention premature, particularly when there is reason to believe that the failure of the Romney campaign’s Project Orca and other aspects of an inadequate GOP ground game may have had more to do with his narrow defeat than did any of the other matters now under consideration.
In any event, Republicans should not be seeking to match the Democrats in pandering and identity politics. They should instead be articulating higher and better and more unifying principles. These include such conservative themes as growth, opportunity, sensible restraints on taxes and spending, a strong dollar, economic and religious freedom, military strength, patriotic sentiment, individual empowerment, individual responsibility, the dignity of work, and the need for drastic reform of our education system–the last being arguably the truest civil rights issue of our time, one on which Democrats are immensely vulnerable, and which is a key to the restoration of our fraying culture. There is no reason why skillful politicians cannot present these policies to the American public as both more caring and more conducive to human dignity than the alternatives.
Talk of a permanently changed electorate is also highly misleading, since the American electorate is a protean, ever-moving thing. The young people who turned out for Obama are going to grow up and join the real world; and ethnic minorities can and do alter their views and affiliations as they advance in American society and their interests and concerns change accordingly. The electorate is responsive to events in the economy and in foreign affairs, and in ways that no one can predict, and it notes the ways in which leaders or would-be leaders react to these events. Moreover, the electorate looks very different when our view of it is refracted through the federal system. Republicans retain formidable strengths not only in the House of Representatives but also in a plurality of state legislatures and a majority of governorships around the country. It will be telling to compare the deteriorating condition of deep blue California and Illinois with flourishing red states such as Texas. Our states can still be “laboratories of democracy,” and the governors can play a major role in the coming drama of ObamaCare’s implementation.
The Democratic Party has elected and reelected the first black president, an achievement greatly to its credit. But life goes on. By the midterm elections in 2014, that line of credit will have been largely exhausted. The onrush of events, and of crises held back by the 2012 election, will be fully upon us, and they will present us with a dramatically altered landscape, in which the unsustainability of our entitlement state and the folly of “leading from behind” will be even more apparent than they are now. Perhaps by the time 2016 rolls around, the Republicans can even consider doing something they arguably have not done since 1984: nominating a conservative for president. In any event, the whining and sniping need to stop, and first principles need to be reaffirmed instead. The maxim of the day should be Churchill’s adage: “Deserve victory!”
Buried under the avalanche of dismal election-night numbers are some encouraging indicators for conservatives.
Exit polls showed that 60 percent of all voters are currently married and chose Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by a margin of 58 to 42 percent. Fifty-nine percent of voters live in households earning more than $50,000 a year and went Republican by a margin of eight points. Among households with incomes above $100,000–28 percent of the electorate–Mitt Romney won 54 to 44 percent.
Religious involvement also correlated powerfully with support for the GOP. Fifty-five percent of Americans attend church or synagogue once a month or more, and such people preferred the Republican ticket to the Democratic by 56 to 43 percent. Among the 42 percent of voters who participated in religious services once a week or more, Romney won by 59 to 39 percent.
If Romney won by a landslide among the hefty majorities who are married, middle or upper class, and religiously affiliated, how did Obama manage to prevail? He won by piling up even bigger landslides among the 41 percent of voters who are unmarried, the 27 percent who earn less than $30,000 in family income per year, and the 12 percent who list their religious affiliation as “none.”
The good news for conservatives is that few of these Obama voters will remain single, economically insecure, or religiously disconnected for the rest of their lives. And if well-established patterns apply to today’s younger voters, they will shift right as they move through life, building careers and beginning families and connecting with organized faith.
Because of low birthrates and increased longevity, the population of eligible voters is aging. In the last election, voters older than 45 swamped voters younger than 30 by a margin of nearly three to one.
And because prosperous and religious couples are more likely to produce big families, a disproportionate number of future young people will have been raised as conservatives. Between 2008 and 2012, the percentage of Republican voters between the ages of 18 and 29 increased from 32 to 37 percent.
Conservatives should easily grab more of those voters as they get older. When people make more money, start families, and head back to church, they naturally and inevitably depend less on government for their sustenance and salvation. Conservatives count on their own earning power more than on federal programs, trust their own spouses rather than bureaucracy for comfort and support, and turn to the big G, God, rather than the little g, government, to answer their prayers.
These attitudes reliably encourage greater happiness. Major surveys suggest that conservative political attitudes correlate strongly with more cheerfulness, optimism, and personal satisfaction, even adjusting for other major variables.
This should provide conservatives with a crucial tool in facing our greatest challenge in upcoming election cycles. There’s little question that most Americans will drift to the right as they age, but how can we encourage them to move in this direction at an earlier age, and thereby persuade voters in the most instinctively liberal segment of the population?
The secret is that even among those who are currently unmarried, financially struggling, and religiously unaffiliated, very few want to stay that way permanently. In other words, the Democratic base deeply desires what conservatives for the most part already have: steady and growing income, marriage and family, and some connection to faith. In the 2012 exit polls, 78 percent of all voters identified themselves as either Protestant or Catholic (tilting to Romney by 14 points combined), while only 12 percent claimed membership in Obama’s core group of irreligious “nones.”
The most important argument to make is that conservative values offer a better way to live our lives, not just a more effective plan for organizing society. The ideals we proffer to the new generation will work personally, as well as politically. In making this case to the young, we start with a crucial advantage. They may not realize it yet, but most of them instinctively yearn to become conservative when they grow up.
MICHAEL B. MUKASEY
The occasion for this symposium is the outcome of the 2012 election, but conservatism is only a part of that story. Other parts were also determinative: technique–such as getting people who support conservative ideas to the polls and keeping track of that effort; personification–picking people who embody and present those ideas attractively; and rhetoric–articulating those ideas in a way that appeals to people whose lives are not consumed by politics, and that avoids such easily caricatured locutions as the “47 percent.” Were it not for the technical, personal, and rhetorical failures of the Romney campaign, we might not be talking about doctrine.
But we must talk about doctrine nonetheless. The existence of this country–at least as we know it and maybe at all–depends on convincing our fellow citizens that there is something in conservatism for each of them, as we understand that there is something in it for each of us, and that it is not simply a finer abstraction than its competitor. That discussion will have to be had under battle conditions, which may offer us some advantages. For example, pointing out the perils of the misnamed Affordable Care Act should not be hard when we see its implementation raise rates, ration care, and increase the ranks of IRS agents but not of physicians.
The conservative argument on other topics–such as the need to control entitlements lest they bankrupt the country and foment civil unrest–may benefit from the instructive spectacle of events abroad.
Other arguments may be harder. Failure to adhere to a constitution that is an actual text with a meaning, and not simply a set of overarching principles, will have malign results, but those may have to be fought over issue by issue. Rule through a proliferation of executive orders may render this danger easier to illustrate, although a shift in the balance of the Supreme Court could limit the benefits that might result from control of even both elective branches of government.
But the toughest problem, and I think the most urgent, may be summoning the resolve to defend our culture, and our country, here and abroad, against militant Islamism. This current “ism,” unlike the “isms” of the last century, lays no claim to modernity. It is, rather, a primitive seventh-century code that is anathema to the very idea that human beings should govern themselves.
What is especially tough is that this particular struggle takes place at a time when multiculturalism–aided and abetted by an administration that explicitly shuns the notion of American exceptionalism–saps what would otherwise be the will to recognize the importance of the norms and ideas that hold us together. Conservatives have the responsibility to speak out against the centrifugal urge to liberate Americans from their common culture and to undermine their sovereignty. At the same time, they must speak out in favor of maintaining and exercising the benign power that has allowed this country to remain what Lincoln called, appropriately in his day but even more appropriately in ours, the last best hope of earth.
Conservatives are suffering from the aftereffects of the successes they achieved in the 1980s and 1990s when they ended the Cold War and restored American strength abroad, revived the U.S. economy, ended a decade of inflation, rationalized the tax system to promote growth, reversed the urban crime wave, and reformed welfare as we knew it. They even forced a Democratic president to proclaim (prematurely) that the era of big government was over. At the same time, they took off the table the issues that called their movement into existence. The electoral victories of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama owed much to the success of conservatives’ cleaning up the mess left behind by their liberal predecessors.
Was the conservative movement the product of a particular era in American life? Was it bound to retreat once its main objectives were achieved? That is the wishful thinking of those who assert that “conservatism is dead” or that liberalism is poised to dominate American politics for decades to come. Conservatism has evolved from an intellectual movement into a popular force in American life that controls one of the major political parties and claims the loyalty of nearly 40 percent of American voters. It is not likely to disappear anytime soon; in fact, it may be poised for a comeback sooner than anyone expects.
To be sure, conservatives have to grapple with substantial liabilities. Conservatism is strong in numbers and ideas but (compared with liberalism) lacking in institutional strength. Conservatives no longer exercise much influence within the major professions or the leading cultural and educational institutions in the country; nor, judging by electoral returns, do they command much support in the nation’s major metropolitan centers. Many have remarked on the irony of conservatism acting as a populist or antiestablishment force in contemporary politics. History teaches that a country party can oppose and even win elections but cannot function as a governing force until it translates popular support into establishment influence. This remains a fundamental challenge for conservatives.
But if conservatives are not yet a governing party, they are well prepared to step into the breach when liberals run the system aground. This is where Thatcher and Reagan came in a generation ago, aided by neoconservatives who supplied the ideas to translate popular discontent into an effective governing force.
The day is fast approaching when conservatives will be called upon to play that role again. The postwar order is unraveling. America’s economic engine has stalled, but the baby boomers are retiring and the world still needs U.S. leadership. Little needs to be said about debt and deficits, except that debtor nations rarely function for very long as world leaders. At this point, any number of events–a recession or a war in the Middle East–could turn a crisis into a catastrophe. Conservatives prefer order and stability, but it may be their lot to be called into action under the very opposite conditions.
Like so many other conservatives, I had come to assume that the Tea Party, the 2010 election results, Solyndra, an unemployment rate of 8 percent, Benghazi, and an aroused opposition (one Romney adviser said that on Election Day, “you just don’t want to get in the way of a Republican heading into the polls”) assured defeat for Barack Obama’s bid for a second term. His victory was therefore particularly bitter. Was I alone in sleeping badly and avoiding the news for days?
So many analyses have been proffered for what went wrong: Romney was too conservative or not conservative enough, he ran on his biography, he shied away from winning issues, he could not connect with the masses. So many conclusions have also been drawn: Conservatives need to modernize (hello, gay partnerships), they must reach out to non-whites (welcome, illegal immigrants), they should nominate true conservatives.
I subscribe to the “politics is downstream from culture” argument. While conservatives sometimes prevail in policy debates, they consistently lose in the classroom, on the bestseller list, on television, at the movies, and in the world of arts. These liberal bastions, which provide the feeders for Democratic Party politics, did not develop spontaneously but result from decades of hard work that can be traced back to the ideas of the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci.
Conservatives should emulate this achievement. With Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, I look forward to the day when it will be as cool “to believe in the principles of free enterprise, the need for strong national security, the merits of traditional families, and the value of religious faith as it is to sneer at capitalism, demean the military, denigrate parents, and deride religion.”
Happily, American conservatives have a counter-establishment already in place: the Wall Street Journal and Fox News Channel may be best known, but the Bradley Foundation, Pepperdine University, the Liberty Film Festival, and Commentary matter no less. Yes, conservative institutions rarely enjoy the history, resources, and prestige of their liberal counterparts, but they do exist, they are growing, and they possess a convincing and optimistic message.
It will be a long, hard road to traverse, and there is no short cut, but conservatism can succeed.
In the late 1970s, the United States was beset by Soviet adventurism abroad and stagflation at home. Neoconservatives advocated policies to meet each of these challenges: a military buildup to reverse the impression of American weakness that the debacle in Vietnam had produced; across-the-board reductions in marginal income tax rates to restore economic incentives; monetary restraint to end high inflation and prevent people from being pushed into higher tax brackets without making any real income gains.
These policies succeeded under Ronald Reagan, and as a result the world of 2012 looked very different. The top income tax rate, 70 percent when Reagan took office, had dropped to 35. For most people, payroll taxes were now a heavier burden than the income tax. The price level, which had grown by 47 percent in the four years before the 1980 election, rose only 7 percent in the four years prior to November 2012. Bracket creep had been abolished by law. The Soviet Union had of course long since disappeared, and our most active adversaries overseas were now non-state actors.
In place of our vanquished problems, new ones had arisen. Health care had gotten more expensive, in part because it had advanced. In the early 1980s, it could be taken for granted that increased economic growth would yield higher take-home pay. In the 2000s, rising health premiums had broken that link. In the decades before 1980, the proportion of the population with a college degree had risen rapidly. In the decades afterward, tuitions had continued rising rapidly, but educational attainment began to stall.
Confronting this new world, Mitt Romney ran for president advocating?.?.?.?across-the-board reductions in marginal income tax rates, tighter money, and a military buildup. He fared worse than Reagan did because while political principles may be eternal, political programs are not–and the Reagan program no longer speaks to the needs or concerns of most Americans.
An updated conservatism would still seek to reform the tax code, but in a way that might lighten the burden of payroll taxes on middle-class parents. It would resist federal micromanagement of health insurance, but do so while advancing better proposals to make insurance affordable. It would promote alternatives–including online learning and new credentialing systems–to make it possible for those who cannot complete four years at a traditional college to succeed. And it would make its case to Americans of every hue, not only to suburban and rural white voters.
The great conservative themes of family stability, cultural cohesion, national strength, and economic self-reliance still move Americans. Organized conservatism has, however, done a decreasingly effective job of connecting those themes to the realities of American life. Before conservatism can have a future, it has to grapple with the present.
Conservatism is in deep trouble–all over the world–because Leftism has been the world’s most dynamic religion over the last hundred years.
Leftism is the prism through which students in elementary school, high school, and university learn about life; and through which most of the world reads, hears, and views the news.
Even large segments of Christianity and Judaism have been deeply influenced, sometimes taken over, by Leftism. Mainstream Protestant church leadership and many of its clergy are Christian conduits for left-wing politics. Catholic bishops are liberal, differing from the left only with regard to abortion, same-sex marriage, and procreation. Conservative and Reform Jewish seminaries produce rabbis whose outlook on the world is identical to that of the New York Times editorial page and left-wing professors. After 40 years of deep involvement in Jewish life, including writing two books and hundreds of articles on Jewish topics, I have sadly concluded that for most non-Orthodox Jews (and I am not Orthodox), Leftism has become their religion, while Judaism has become an ethnic and cultural identity.
What can conservatives do?
The first thing we need to do is acquaint ourselves with Leftism and with its antitheses: conservatism and Americanism.
Over the past hundred years, Americans have forgotten the (conservative and American) values that render America different.
It took me half my life to realize what the distinctive American value system is. No one taught it to me–not my parents, who were passionately in love with America; not my elementary school, high school, or college; and certainly not my Ivy League graduate school (Columbia), where my professors were nearly all leftists, and none were conservative.
I had my epiphany one night as I removed coins from my pocket. They were embossed with what I have come to call the American Trinity: Liberty, In God We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum. No other country in the world has enshrined these three values.
Preserving the American Trinity–these values that made this country, not any leftist European country, the greatest in the world–is what conservatism is about.
Liberty first and foremost means having as small a government as possible. In God We Trust means that we can only preserve that liberty, as well as our rights, if we are a God-based society. Every Founder–including Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson–knew that if Americans did not regard themselves as morally accountable to God, liberty would produce moral chaos. And that would lead to big government (in the West, as the state gets bigger, God gets smaller). And E Pluribus Unum rapidly came to mean one nation out of many ethnicities and nationalities. Because of that–the Melting Pot idea–in no other country are newcomers of every background so quickly regarded as fellow members of the nation.
Leftism replaces liberty with egalitarianism, a God-based society with a secular one, and an overriding American national identity with multiculturalism.
Only if the American people are taught that the greatness of America is solely due to the unique American Trinity of values–and also taught the mortal threat to these values that Leftism poses–will conservatism prevail. And if it doesn’t, neither will America as we have known it for 236 years.
PAUL A. RAHE
There is no use crying over spilt milk. The milk was likely to be sour in any case. The proud father of RomneyCare is not now and never has been a conservative–much less, as he termed himself, “a severe conservative.” He is by training, instinct, and experience a technocrat, a managerial progressive on the model of Herbert Hoover, a “New-Deal Republican” on the model of Thomas E. Dewey; and he was never serious about repealing ObamaCare. Had he been so, had he genuinely repented and become a conservative–a possibility I entertained when he chose Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential nominee–Mitt Romney would not have run a purely personal campaign divorced from the campaigns of his fellow Republicans, and he would not have stressed his managerial competence and eschewed dramatic appeals to high principle. Instead, he would have harnessed the Republicans together on the basis of something like Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America; he would have nationalized all the local elections, as John Boehner did in 2010; and he and the others within his party would have run as resolute defenders of liberty and individual responsibility against the tyrannical implications of Barack Obama’s massive increase in the size and scope of the administrative entitlement state.
Barack Obama’s victory was a technical triumph–proof positive that when one’s rival runs as a technocrat and is inclined to sit on what looks like a lead and run out the clock–micro-targeting can be made to work. Apart from demonizing his opponent and positioning himself as a champion of the sexual revolution and of punitive taxation, the president had nothing to say. He proposed no agenda. He won no mandate. All that he achieved was to delay the reckoning and to render it far more damaging to his party. America’s withdrawal from the world has set the stage for ugly developments abroad. The recession that is on the horizon will only be deepened by the tax increases that will soon be imposed. And the implementation of ObamaCare will unleash a fury that will make the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009 look tame. The immediate prospects for the country are grim, but the prospects for conservatism have never been better. Barack Obama is, step by step, unmasking liberalism and revealing its true character, and his admirers in Democratic strongholds such as California, Illinois, and New York are doing everything that they can to show us the future as they envisage it and to demonstrate that it does not work.
What conservatism still lacks is a standard-bearer. None of the prospective candidates who might have been able to shoulder the burden chose to run in 2012. Mitt Romney won the nomination solely because none of the available alternatives was plausible in the slightest. He was the last man standing because he was the only candidate who had not thoroughly blotted his copybook. The opportunity now looms. It is time for a younger, more principled generation to step forward and to indict the administrative entitlement state for what it is: the “soft despotism” described by Alexis de Tocqueville 172 years ago.
Conservatives are often bewitched by abstract libertarian dreams of self-sufficiency or by a vision of society as nothing more than a wealth-producing machine that needs to be kept well greased by low tax rates. We preach freedom and opportunity. A good message, certainly, but it will not attract widespread support if we cannot speak to the deep human need for solidarity.
We’re at the end of an era. More than 100 years ago, industrialization ripped up the old small town social contract in America and ushered in a new form of social solidarity that eventually stabilized around the suburban middle class in the postwar decades. Today globalization is eroding that basis for social unity. The middle class is declining. Some exit up and into the hyper-competitive and richly rewarding occupations prized in a postindustrial economy. Others slide down into the ranks of the perpetually underemployed, becoming more and more dependent on government subsidies to hold on to middle-class life.
At the same time, since the 1960s we’ve experienced a cultural revolution. It has undermined the broad middle-class consensus. Round-the-clock irony and cynicism make old-fashioned values like working hard, paying your debts, and keeping your word seem, well, old-fashioned and even foolish. Marriage, children, fidelity? Maybe, but maybe not. All told, it’s not just harder for high school-educated young men and women in Muscatine, Iowa, to make a good living; it’s also hard for them to see how to live well. Today, the middle of the middle has a difficult time answering a fundamental question, perhaps the fundamental question for any society: How are we to become responsible, respectable adults?
Conservatism needs to speak to this disorientation, which is the defining political and social challenge of our time.
That’s not going to happen if we make free markets into an ideology. In its essence, modern conservatism involves working within inherited forms of solidarity, which in our context have become intertwined with the modern welfare state. To make abstract pronouncements excoriating the “47 percent” reflects a counterrevolutionary mentality, one that rejects the historical experience of solidarity over the last century. Nothing could be further from a genuine conservatism.
Conservatism will also fail if we punt on morality and culture. Unless we reinforce and support clear norms for adulthood–marriage, family, work, community involvement, patriotic loyalty–then the disoriented middle of the middle, no matter how economically self-sufficient, will become increasingly dependent on bureaucratic and therapeutic support and guidance, which means more government. Over the long term–even the medium term–the party of limited government must be the party of moral clarity. Political leadership is about more than economic stewardship.
In his nominating speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, last summer, Bill Clinton gave a speech that contrasted a selfish Republican Party to Democrats committed to “a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, a we’re-all-in-this-together society.” It’s tendentious but brilliant, because it is sadly plausible given the contemporary conservative inability to speak convincingly about solidarity. Conservatism cannot succeed–will not deserve to succeed–unless that changes.
“Should i win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community,” said President Obama in an interview with the Des Moines Register just before the election. “And this is a relatively new phenomenon. George Bush and Karl Rove were smart enough to understand the changing nature of America.”
Since the election, the political right has been asking itself why Hispanics don’t vote Republican, but the better question is why they don’t anymore. And the answer provided by Obama is closer to the truth than many conservatives are willing to admit. Between 1996 and 2004, the GOP doubled its percentage of the Hispanic vote to around 44 percent, according to exit polls, culminating in the reelection of Bush, who carried battleground states with large Latino populations that Mitt Romney lost last month in his defeat.
This history suggests that Latinos are swing voters who are open to the GOP’s message, at least when that message isn’t focused on electrified border fences and “self-deportation.” The fact that Romney lost the Hispanic vote to Obama by 44 points doesn’t mean that Hispanics are natural Democrats. It means that Hispanics don’t appreciate being scapegoated for high unemployment, low wages, crime, rising health-care costs, the housing bubble, bad weather, and teenage acne.
The reality is that the GOP is receiving a smaller share of a growing bloc of voters, and winning national elections will become more difficult unless the party finds a way to reverse the trend. If conservatives want the Republican Party to remain viable, expanding its coalition to include significant percentages of Hispanic, Asian, and other immigrant groups ought to be a priority.
This is not an immigration issue, per se. The Hispanic population in the United States isn’t rising because of newcomers–border crossings peaked in 2000 and net migration from Mexico is currently zero–but rather because of birth rates among those already here. Hence, even if the right-wing populists on talk radio got their wish and the border were sealed, it wouldn’t save the GOP from having to deal with its image problem among an expanding Latino electorate.
Going forward, conservatives might try viewing Hispanics as an opportunity to expand the GOP brand rather than as an obstacle to Republicans winning office. Some 40 percent of Latinos in the United States are foreign-born, and an even higher percentage have been here for no more than a decade or so, which means that many have not formed strong, multigenerational ties to one political party or another.
Outreach doesn’t require the GOP to pander or to pocket its principles. Let’s remember that immigrants are self-selecting. Less than 3 percent of the world’s population decides to uproot and move away from family and friends. These are risk takers who do tend to be more motivated, more tenacious, more entrepreneurial. Immigrants to the United States, whatever their skill level, are catalysts for economic growth who exhibit the kinds of characteristics found among people who thrive in free-market societies. Their presence here keeps our workforce young and vibrant while Europe and Asia morph into retirement communities.
Illegal immigration to the United States does not reflect poor character. It results from the simple fact that the supply of visas made available to countries such as Mexico doesn’t come close to matching the demand. Conservatives who want to reduce illegal entries in a humane way that doesn’t hurt our economy or drive Latino voters into the arms of the Democratic Party might try advocating reforms that correct this imbalance.
In the aftermath of electoral defeat, conservatives frequently question their philosophy’s appeal. So it is after this year’s presidential election.
My view is that the future of American conservatism is bright. Its fundamental strengths remain. But refinements and adjustments are needed, as they always are in times of change.
To be clear: This election was not a referendum between two distinct philosophical approaches. President Barack Obama’s handlers believed that if the contest turned into a battle between competing visions for America’s future, his defeat was likely.
So the Chicago Wrecking Crew used their considerable resources to try to disqualify Mitt Romney by assailing his character, business record, and values. They largely, if not completely, succeeded. To many voters, Romney became, in the memorable phrase of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, “a plutocrat with a wife who was an admitted equestrian.”
2012 was a tactical victory for Obama; it was not a strategic defeat for conservatism. For only the sixth time in history, the number of voters dropped from the previous presidential election. And Obama became the first president to win a second term with a smaller percentage of the vote than in his first race.
Still, conservatism faces challenges. There is some irony in the fact that a philosophy based on timeless values, experience, precedent, and practice must periodically update itself, applying its principles to the country’s new condition. Now is such a time.
One reason the political parties that represent conservatism and liberalism (and the latter’s further left cousins) seem so closely matched is that neither has gained a durable advantage in talking about what Americans face in their families and communities. How can people provide for their loved ones? Will they and their neighbors have good jobs? Will their children get a quality education? What kind of a country will their children inherit? Conservative politicians must offer a practical, commonsense, and compelling agenda that speaks to these concerns. Which is why the contributions of scholars, policy experts, think tanks, scribblers in little journals, columnists, writers in magazines and blogs, voices on TV and radio, and leaders of interest groups are more important than in recent decades.
Conservatives must also be alert to tone. Our movement prospers when it is led by individuals who are optimistic, upbeat, and forward-looking. Ronald Reagan drew people to him not because he was pessimistic, angry, whiny, or judgmental. There are vital lessons here both about language and emphasis.
Our values are right and apply to people across America. They can help people in every corner of the country to rise and prosper and lead lives of dignity and worth. We must convince people we mean it, through what we say and through the policies we propose.
Conservatism is also stronger when it recognizes it’s a movement characterized not by one rigid set of beliefs but by a collection of often similar but occasionally different schools of thought. Forbearance and tolerance are therefore necessary, especially in dealing with other conservatives.
Success in politics comes only if we shrug off the despondency that comes after defeat. Losses, like victories, aren’t permanent. Life–and the fight–goes on. Progressives didn’t throw in the towel after 2010. We shouldn’t now.
The Republican Party’s shortcomings should not reflect on the health of the conservative movement. Whereas the former is beset by technological and logistical problems in presidential election years, a shortage of messengers adept at reaching a diverse electorate, and a self-defeating position on immigration, the strength of the conservative movement is evidenced by diverse grassroots organizations, a Republican House wedded to a conservative reform agenda, an era of conservative governance in the large majority of states, and matured conservative media and think tanks. Moreover, core conservative beliefs now resonate in every branch and at every level of government, while smart conservatives, including Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, have emerged on the national stage, where they forcefully articulate conservative values.
If modern conservatism, in its essence, is the defense of freedom secured by limited government and the cultivation of a virtuous populace through intermediary institutions (family, church and synagogue, and civic organizations), then its currency is strong. Reform of the welfare state has become at least the stated goal of both parties. The mantra of low tax rates and fiscal sobriety has been echoed by bipartisan debt-reduction commissions. ObamaCare remains on the books, but conservatives have convinced most Americans that the government takeover of one-sixth of the economy is deeply misguided. Even liberal judges now strive in imitation of conservative jurists to find textual support for their pronouncements. Pro-life activists have made strides in both state legislation and public opinion. It is telling that the presidential election featured one side presenting a conservative agenda and the other failing to offer a liberal agenda that would pass muster with voters.
This is not to say that the conservative movement faces no challenges. The intellectual and moral wasteland that is our public school system threatens the essence of self-government and renders the language of conservatism unapproachable for millions of citizens. The expansion of the welfare state, however unenthusiastically obtained, may acclimate Americans to a European-style social democracy. It will take innovative policy leaders, education reformers, and creative politicians to translate conservatism into a message for the masses and to restrain the liberal entitlement machine.
Conservatives’ policy challenges are not insignificant. Conservatives must grapple with the widespread acceptance of gay marriage. Both as a practical matter and in keeping with constitutional devotion to federalism and respect for the habits and morals of our countrymen, conservatives will find it impossible to reverse a sea change in public opinion expressed through a series of state referenda. More generally, honesty dictates that “small” government is no longer attainable, but conservatives should strive for effective, limited government.
The right’s most daunting task is constructing a 21st-century freedom agenda. Conservatives must recognize Americans’ understandable war fatigue and the Arab Spring’s decidedly anti-democratic tint. This is not the Prague Spring of 1968. Faith in American exceptionalism must be contained within a politically and economically sustainable approach that aligns America with free peoples without committing the country to an endless cycle of prolonged combat. The skepticism and humility conservatives demand in domestic policy must apply to foreign policy as well.
Just as the conservative movement needs domestic reform that recognizes that Americans want limited but effective government, conservatives must revisit their stance on social and national-security policy so as to remain true to the essence of conservatism (the promotion of liberty) and to maintain the ability to govern.
First, it must be said that the Republican Party can have a bright future even if what we understand as movement conservatism does not. One of the central progressive goals is to change the goalposts of our debates over the role of government and voluntary cooperation in meeting public needs. In much of the Western world, center-right political parties champion single-payer health systems, nationalized business enterprises, and many other institutions American conservatives wouldn’t dream of defending.
But of course one can imagine Republicans a generation hence insisting that they would never dream of opposing ObamaCare, just as today’s GOP has declared, rightly or wrongly, Medicare and Social Security sacrosanct. Rick Scott, the governor of Florida and by all accounts a committed small-government conservative, has recently embraced ObamaCare, a reflection, one assumes, of the demographic realities of his electorate. A growing share of low-income Floridians do not have access to employer-sponsored insurance coverage, in part due to overregulation and the cartel-like arrangements that give medical providers enormous pricing power, and so ObamaCare’s dramatic and most likely unaffordable Medicaid expansion meets a social need.
Granted, this social need was arguably created, or at the very least greatly exacerbated, by earlier government interventions, but that is, from the perspective of low-income Floridians, immaterial. The president and his allies have promised to do something, and those who in contrast offer to do nothing are not apt to curry favor. We can thus safely conclude that Republicans of the future will embrace the politics of doing something. The real question is whether Republicans will take on this charge constructively and intelligently or if they will embrace a crude form of interest-group politics.
The deeper challenge facing conservatives, and not Republicans as such, is the ongoing breakdown of the American family. As of 2010, 41 percent of U.S. births were to unmarried mothers. Among native-born black and Latino Americans, the shares are 78 percent and 50 percent respectively. And among non-Hispanic whites, the share is 30 percent. The happy news is that at least some of these births are to mothers who are in a stable relationship with the father of their children. The unhappy news is that a large majority are not, and indeed many of the children born to married mothers will see their parents’ marriages dissolve before they reach adulthood. What had been a family-disruption problem plaguing impoverished urban neighborhoods now stretches deep into the suburbs and rural areas. Children raised in disrupted families can flourish, of course, thanks to the tireless efforts of devoted parents and grandparents and others. But millions of children suffer enormously from the lack of family stability and find it difficult to acquire the skills they need to flourish in school and in the workplace.
For a conservatism that celebrates voluntary cooperation and civil society, family breakdown is a profound challenge. Free societies depend on a citizenry that has the capacity–intellectually, morally, and economically–to take on the task of enriching the life we share in common. These capacities are formed not in schools, but rather in families. And the evaporation of stable families strikes at the foundation of our rich associational life. To those who have known only fragile families, and who don’t have the skills to make their way in the world, the state can look like a firm friend. To those who do have stable and prosperous families, the state can look like a bulwark against the spread of social disorder. Somehow conservatives need to find a way to speak in this new landscape–not by scolding or hectoring an America that won’t listen, but rather by crafting a language that is relevant and compelling to young people open to breaking the cycle. This will prove an enormously difficult task. But it might be the only one that matters.
In the wake of the 2012 election, liberalism driven by patronage more than policy is philosophically vitiated and politically vital. The reverse is true of conservatism, which thrives intellectually even as it is politically stunted. The task ahead for conservatives is to bring conservative principles to bear on practical situations
Whatever his many genuine virtues, Mitt Romney lacked the political skill to either win over enough working-class whites or pin President Obama to the Chicagoan’s faux populism. Romney referred at times to Obama’s crony capitalism, but he never pressed the issue. The upshot was that the president never had to account for the privileged tax position of his political allies at General Electric and Google and Goldman Sachs.
There were many forsaken opportunities, but there are also many new opportunities ahead. The spate of municipal bankruptcies in California and Pennsylvania and perilous fiscal conditions in Illinois and the once Golden State offer the opportunity to define conservatism in the light of the specific circumstances of liberal fiscal and governmental failure. Take liberal Illinois. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker won his recall election in part by repeatedly referring to the real-life consequences of liberal policies in its Great Lakes neighbor to the South. Illinois, where four of the past seven governors went to prison as felons, loses roughly 148 residents daily. It ranks 47th in job growth and 48th in economic performance. Faced with a meltdown of the public-sector pension systems, Illinois governor Pat Quinn pushed through a 67 percent increase in Illinois’s state income tax. What followed was a classic case of crony capitalism. It should have been central to this year’s election.
Confronted with threats to flee Illinois by Caterpillar, John Deere, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and unwilling to cut spending for fear of angering the powerful public-sector unions, Governor Quinn handed out a half-billion dollars in tax abatements to politically connected corporations. Why wasn’t this object lesson in conservative principles part of the presidential campaign?
Scranton, Pennsylvania, is famously the hardscrabble hometown of Vice President Joe Biden, who currently resides in Delaware’s Castle District. Scranton has already defaulted on some of its debt and teeters on the edge of a full-scale bankruptcy because of the demands of its public-sector workers. Scranton is an example of philosophy expressing itself in practical terms, and it would be nice if Biden were asked about public-sector unions and the plight of the town he’s attached himself to as a totem.
Liberal California, which now has a less competitive political culture than Mexico, is by far the most target-rich environment. Ongoing bankruptcy cases as in Stockton and new cases such as San Bernardino offer the opportunity to explain on a local level the consequences, which we will be debating nationally, of over-mighty interest groups imposing unsustainable costs on our political and economic system. California’s cities and the state as a whole offer a picture of the dangers ahead imposed by the power of public-sector unions, a topic little discussed in 2012.
What conservatism needs now are knowledgeable politicians who can speak to the specifics of state and local problems while placing them in a conservative conceptual context. When California and Illinois come forward with calls for a federal bailout, their appeals will have been preceded, we hope, by a very public debate about the liberal policies that produced the debacle. History will teach by example if articulate conservatives bring the individual cases to the fore.
The first thing conservatives must do is get rid of their name. I’m not being entirely facetious here. Being identified as the party or ideology of fogeyish white men is a prescription for rigor mortis, given current demographics. It’s time to aggressively embrace the modern.
By that I don’t mean trendy techno-drivel such as Project Orca. I’m talking about genuinely forward-thinking ideas that point to a creative, entrepreneurial future. Conservatives must outflank the liberal-progressive whatevers who are indeed the true ideological fuddy-duddies. That is the key to our salvation. Otherwise we will be left behind.
Don’t believe me? Not only have we lost Hispanics. The most depressing statistic from the last election was that the most educated, ambitious, forward-looking, and financially well-off group in our society–Asian Americans–voted Democratic by 3 to 1. Yes, all those brilliant kids from the Bronx High School of Science are now Democrats. Shame on us.
What is to be done, Comrade? First of all, take the social issues entirely off the table. They are not the province of government and cannot, in the real world, be legislated. And they, more than anything, provide a cudgel for bludgeoning conservatives and Republicans in perpetuity in the eyes of women and young people. (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is among the most influential statements of all time for a reason. The bedroom is not Caesar’s.)
I know what the social conservatives are thinking: Oh, Simon, he’s an ex-liberal who favors gay marriage, etc. True. But I have some good news for them. By removing their social goals from the political sphere as much as possible, they are more likely to achieve them in the society itself. It’s human nature.
Next, take the lead in instituting a rational immigration policy. I suspected that Mitt Romney (a man I genuinely admire) had already lost the general election when he ran to the right of Newt Gingrich on immigration during the primaries, and, unfortunately, I was right. Gingrich’s ideas on immigration are a good start. Go with them.
Meanwhile–and this is more difficult and even more important–move to take back the arts and entertainment. Conservatives whine incessantly about Hollywood. Stop whining and do it. Learn to make movies and TV shows that are as good as theirs. As a film professional, I know how difficult this is, but it can be done. Like the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall, all it takes is practice, practice, practice.
The same goes for the other two pillars of our culture: education and the media. Home-schooling is not enough and will always be marginal because too many parents have to work for a living. Infiltrate the public school system and demand equal time for conservative ideas. If we don’t do this, the future is lost before it starts.
Finally, and I know this is self-serving, support new media as never before. We cannot compete with the New York Times or CBS without moral and, alas, financial support.
Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, then Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered that $8,000 worth of drapes be placed over two imposing neoclassical statues–one of them a female figure with an exposed breast–that had graced the Justice Department’s great hall since the 1930s. The statues, known as the “Spirit of Justice,” were not to Ashcroft’s taste. They weren’t seen again until he left office.
Other contributors to this symposium will no doubt have smart things to say about how to make the politically winning case for conservative governance. Better candidates and messaging. Small-government basics. More talk about aspiration, less about tradition. A new approach to immigration based on free-market principles, not cultural prejudices.
And so on. For now, I’d be content simply to be less frequently embarrassed by the party to which I belong.
I know it’s a small thing in the scheme of the universe that Ashcroft should have been offended by a piece of statuary. It’s probably no big deal that Senator Marco Rubio professes agnosticism as to whether the Earth is thousands or billions of years old. Had Todd Akin of Missouri been elected to the Senate, his notions of reproductive biology would have had scant bearing on, say, his votes on defense. The fact that a considerable percentage of Republican voters believe Barack Obama’s college transcripts are the Da Vinci Code of his presidency is of slight consequence to the future of Western civilization. It makes little practical political difference that so many Republicans consider the theory of evolution to be a piece of quackery on par with, say, the teachings of Madame Blavatsky. The mysterious inability or unwillingness of so many Republicans to use the adjectival form when speaking of the “Democrat Party” is not an issue on which the fate of the Republic hinges.
But it adds up. To a greater degree than some readers of this magazine may care to admit, the conservative movement has grown prudish, crotchety, God-obsessed, conspiratorial, retrograde, and insipid. Somebody needs to stand athwart and yell “stop.”
I write this as someone who thinks the Obama administration is wreaking long-term damage on the United States at home and abroad. So it’s all the more depressing that the conservative movement and its organs in politics and the media failed to pass what ought to have been an easy test: winning a winnable election. If the GOP could not defeat an incumbent president who had saddled himself with high unemployment and the most unpopular legislation in modern history, how do they expect to defeat Hillary Clinton should she run in 2016?
Ronald Reagan has now become the patron saint of the conservative movement, and rightly so. Reagan was neither a scold nor a prig. He was a pragmatic idealist who knew how to combine humor with moral purpose. His personal correspondence shows a mind capable of engaging an argument at its deepest levels and extracting philosophical meaning from everyday experience. He lived in his times and could change his mind without betraying his convictions.
Of how many leading Republicans can that be said today? The future of conservatism depends on many things, but surely one of them lies in somehow producing many more Reagans and far fewer Akins.
Not to be too pedantic, but for there to be a “future of conservatism in America” there first has to be a future in America. And that’s a more open question than my more optimistic comrades like to admit. The Brokest Nation in History has just told the rest of the world that it is incapable of serious course correction–and around the planet prudent friends and enemies will begin planning for a post-American order. So at some point reality will intervene–either in the form of total societal collapse or, one hopes, something marginally less convulsive. The first responsibility of conservatives between now and 2016 is to have an adult conversation with the citizenry–the one that Mitt Romney chose to eschew in favor of vague jobs promises punctuated by bold assertions that “I believe in America.” So what? What matters is whether reality still believes in America.
And, when reality strikes, will Americans turn to conservatism? The evidence from November is not reassuring. Romney dusted off the old surefire winner–”Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?”–and took it to read: “The economy’s dead. Vote Mitt.” A decisive chunk of lower-middle-class America agreed with him on the first part, and acted on its logic: “You’re right. So I’m voting for the party of endlessly extended unemployment insurance, universal food stamps, and increased Social Security disability enrollment.” If 1.7 percent growth is the new normal, this constituency will metastasize. As his post-mortem observations to donors confirmed, Romney’s leaked “47 percent” aside is indicative of the way he thinks, and not a small thing. Indeed, it’s a betrayal of core conservative morality: from “Teach a man to fish” to “There’s no point even bothering to try to teach 47 percent to fish.” I was born a subject of Her Canadian Majesty and, even in a parliamentary system, it would not be regarded as healthy for the Queen’s Prime Minister to think like this. In a republic in which the head of government is also head of state, it’s simply unbecoming. The next guy has to be running as president of all Americans, even the deadbeats.
That means an end to the consultant-driven, small-ball model of Republican strategy. The Democrats used their brutal Romney-gives-you-cancer/ Ryan-offs-your-granny advertising in Ohio as bad cop to the good cop of Obama’s cultural cool. The trouble for conservatives is we have no good cop. That’s to say, we have no positive presence in the broader cultural space where real people actually live. We have all the talk-radio shows and cable networks we need, and the rest of the country is happy to leave us walled up in those redoubts. But culture trumps politics, and not just in the movies and pop songs, grade schools and mainline churches, but increasingly in the boardrooms, too. Instead of giving your hard-earned dollars to help drag some finger-in-the-windy squish with an R after his name over the finish line every other November, conservatives need to start fighting on the turf that matters. We risk winding up like the Shakers–dependent on conversion while eschewing all effective means thereof.
And finally please don’t waste another four years obsessing over whether Barack Obama is a secret Muslim Kenyan Commie or whatever. He may be all those things, but the lesson of November 6 is that a majority of the American people agree with him. He’s not the exotic other, he’s all too typical. That’s the problem.
It’s a postelection commonplace that demographics imperil the Republican Party. Barack Obama won a narrow victory thanks to huge majorities among fast-growing segments of the electorate: Hispanics, Asian Americans, single women. It seems irrefutable that unless the GOP expands its appeal to minorities, within decades it will be unable ever to assemble a majority.
Before that happens, though, demographics are likely to doom liberalism as we have known it since the 1930s. The core of contemporary liberalism is the old-age entitlements, Social Security and Medicare, which have grown progressively more generous–and expensive–since their establishment in 1935 and 1965, respectively. That trend was sustainable only as long as the payroll-tax base kept expanding, which it did thanks to the postwar population boom and the mass entry of women into the workforce in the 1970s and 80s.
“The Ponzi game will soon be over, thanks to changing demographics,” Paul Krugman observed in an article on Social Security in 1996. With the baby boomers beginning to retire, that day draws near. Since the 1960s, fertility has declined while illegitimate births have multiplied. Female labor-force participation can’t go much higher, and male participation has actually gone down as increasing numbers of working-age men go on disability. At some point soon, there won’t be enough workers to pay promised benefits unless payroll taxes rise to confiscatory levels.
Obama’s political success demonstrates that the public is not yet ready to confront the crisis. But when the crisis confronts the public, conservatives will have the advantage of having thought about the problem and put forward possible solutions. George W. Bush’s ill-fated 2005 proposal for Social Security reform made him look foolhardy. By 2015 or 2025, he may look prescient.
Because the roots of the problem are social as well as financial, social conservatism, currently in such disfavor, may make a comeback as well. During the 2012 campaign, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney for wanting to return to “the social policies of the 1950s.” But it was the subsequent decades’ decline in marriage and fertility that made the welfare state unsustainable in the long run. The challenge for conservatives in the decades ahead will be to advance family-friendly policies without being unpleasantly moralistic or sectarian about it.
It’s not impossible that the left will do so first. In his 2004 book, The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It, Phillip Longman offers a clear-eyed view of the problem and some intriguing left-liberal policy proposals.
But Obama’s approach has been notably hidebound. Rather than work to forestall an entirely predictable crisis, he hastened it by pushing Congress to enact a massive new health-care entitlement. Then he made the provision of free birth control a signature ObamaCare initiative, as if America were suffering from excessive fertility. Obama-era liberalism reflects a view of “progress” that is at least a half-century out of date. That’s why the coming crisis of the welfare state will be an opportunity for conservatism.
JOHN B. TAYLOR
If conservatism in America holds to and actively promotes the principles of economic freedom upon which the country was founded, then it will have a bright future, and so will America. At its most basic level, economic freedom means that people are free to decide what to
produce, what to consume, what to buy and sell, and how to help others within the context of predictable government policy based on the rule of law, with strong incentives derived from the market system and with a clearly limited role for government.
Adherence to these principles is what made America a great and prosperous country. But when it has deviated from these principles–as in the 1930s, the 1970s, and now–economic performance deteriorated for all Americans and especially for the disadvantaged. When America moved back toward these principles as in the 1980s and 1990s, the economy improved as unemployment came down and economic growth rose.
While this historical experience tells us that America will prosper again if it returns to these principles, the obstacles are now greater than ever due to powerful countervailing forces both external and internal to the conservative movement.
Externally, those left of center are making the case that all America has to do is increase taxes on the rich or increase regulations on entrepreneurs or step up fiscal and monetary interventions and the economy will do better. An appeal to class warfare and even revenge may persuade some, and many young people and minorities appear to be buying into the arguments that incentives and the rule of law do not matter or that well-intentioned government activism can always do better than the market. But that is not what history or economics or even politics tells us.
Internally, many conservatives are forgetting or not trying hard enough to demonstrate the benefits of economic freedom, not only for the middle class but especially for the poor and disadvantaged. Highly taxed or excessively regulated firms scared off by unpredictable government controls on their prices and products are not going to expand or create jobs, and thus unemployment will remain high. Children in poor neighborhoods prevented by the government from going to good schools and learning needed skills will be trapped in high unemployment or low wages, and income inequality will persist across generations. And pro-growth policies will provide more resources for needed infrastructure and other public goods.
Ironically, reformers in China and other emerging markets were not afraid to tell the story of economic freedom as they moved away from central planning and their economies grew rapidly, bringing hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. While China has a long way to go, it is not an exaggeration to say that as China has been bringing people out of poverty, America has been putting more people into poverty. The reason is that America is moving away from these principles as China continues to move toward them.
To make this case for economic freedom, conservatives in the past have used terms like “compassionate conservatism,” but adherence to the principles of economic freedom is compassionate by definition because it is the surest way to improve the lot of all Americans.
Conservatism no doubt took a big hit on November 6, but the eulogies for the movement are premature. Liberals were in worse despair after the 1988 election–liberalism’s third-straight defeat–when talk of the Electoral College lock and the southwestern demographic “tilt” led analysts to conclude that they would not be able to recapture the presidency. As Bill Schneider wrote in 1988: “The Democrats are the victims of demographic change and ideological change. The movement of population to the Sun Belt has shifted the balance in the Electoral College decisively.” The Democrats have won four out of six presidential elections since 1988, and the popular vote in five out of those six elections.
Conservatives can take some solace in noting the folly of projections based on straight-line extrapolations, but the fact remains that conservatives must act if they want to turn things around. The Democrats did not just wait for the Electoral College lock to break on its own. They went out and shattered the lock, picking some more effective candidates, changing their rhetoric, if not their policies, and taking advantage of those demographic trends that were in their favor.
The GOP needs to go out and do these same things. The GOP’s problem in 2012 was not that it was too moderate or too conservative, but that it did not lay out a cogent vision of conservatism. The Republicans ran a “safe” campaign and tried to avoid ideological matters. As it turned out, this was not a “safe” approach at all, and was somewhat analogous to the New York Giants’ ineffectual “prevent offense” of the 1970s.
A better approach would be to have the presidential standard-bearer embody conservatism. This was Ronald Reagan’s gift. Reagan made clear that his views were those of conservatism, and he did not allow other voices on the left, the right, or in the mainstream media to define conservatism for him. This is not unique to Reagan. George W. Bush came up with the concept of “compassionate conservatism” in his 2000 election, making that vision of conservatism his, and implicitly defining other perspectives as contrary to it.
The next GOP candidate should learn from Reagan and make his or hers the voice of an articulate and coherent conservative ideology. The conservatism the candidate expresses also needs to be Reaganesque in nature: inclusive, confident, optimistic, and forward-looking. This conservatism can overcome its demographic challenges by offering a vision popular enough to transcend the Democrats’ identity politics, in much the same way that Reagan won over Northeastern Catholics and Bush secured over 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.
The unacceptable alternative is to countenance a communications vacuum that allows political gaffes from a Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock–or the political accusations of a Joe Biden or Chris Matthews–to define and caricature conservatism. If conservatives are successful in this endeavor, the lesson for the future will be that Republican candidates lose when the only conservative voices heard are the ones not their own.
The future of conservatism in America is bright, since it offers the best insights into human nature, the relationship between the citizen and the state, and how to achieve a more just social order.
Those who travel under the banner of conservatism need to do some repair work and embrace a genuine conservative disposition. What that means is appreciating the complexity of human society and the importance of human experience in shaping our approach to contemporary challenges, and recognizing that politics involves prudential and imperfect judgments. Which is to say that conservatism is hurt when its adherents treat it as an adamantine ideology, which is quite different from grounding it in enduring principles.
An example: During a 2012 GOP primary debate, Fox News’s Bret Baier posed a question to the eight candidates on the stage. “Say you had a deal, a real spending-cuts deal, 10-to-1 spending cuts to tax increases.?.?.?.?Who on this stage would walk away from that deal? Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes, you’d walk away on the 10-to-1 deal?”
Each of the eight candidates raised his or her hand.
This was, to me, a danger sign. I say that not because I favor higher taxes (I don’t). But we had reached a point where none of those running for president on a conservative platform could admit to any scenario in which he, or she, would raise taxes, even if as a result doing so might roll back the modern welfare state.
“No new taxes” is fine as a goal. It is certainly a reasonable starting point in negotiations. It may even be the right end point. But to elevate it to an inviolate principle–and to insist that politicians take pledges opposing tax increases under any and all circumstances–strikes me as misguided. Taxation is always a balancing process, one that needs to be seen in the context of specific economic conditions and other possible gains. For example, no responsible conservative would forgo reforming Medicare (which is the main driver of our fiscal crisis) by injecting competition and choice into the system in exchange for slightly higher taxes on the top income earners in America.
Every political movement, including conservatism, faces the danger of elevating certain policies into catechisms and failing to take into account new circumstances. When that occurs, we lose the capacity to correct ourselves. Conservatism, at least as I understand it, ought to be characterized by openness to evidence and a search for truth, not attachment to a rigid orthodoxy. “If there is any political viewpoint in this world which is free from slavish adherence to abstraction,” Ronald Reagan said in 1977, “it is American conservatism.”
What I’m talking about, then, is a conservative temperament, which affects everything from tone to intellectual inquiry to compromise. It champions principles in reasonably flexible ways that include a straightforward evaluation of facts.
To put things in a slightly different way: Conservatives need to reacquaint themselves with the true spirit of conservatism, which is reform-minded, empirical, anti-utopian, and somewhat modest in its expectations. It doesn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. It doesn’t treat political opponents as enemies. And it isn’t in a state of constant agitation. Winsomeness goes a long way in politics.
Since 1965, arguably the most important conservative politician after Ronald Reagan is Newt Gingrich. He achieved some remarkable, impressive things. But he practiced a style of politics that was quite different from Reagan’s. It was characterized by apocalyptic and incendiary rhetoric, anger, impatience, and revolutionary zeal. While his positions on issues were often conservative, Gingrich’s temperament and approach were not. Yet it is the Gingrich, not the Reagan, style that characterizes much of conservatism today. It would be better for conservatism, and better for America, to recapture some of the grace, generosity of spirit, and principled politics of America’s 40th president.
In order to clarify the path forward in the difficult years ahead, conservatives should first look back. And the text to which we should revert is the Preamble to the Constitution.
There, the “People of the United States” committed themselves to forming “a more perfect Union,” which would not only manage the country’s affairs but also “establish Justice” while promoting “the general Welfare” and securing the “Blessings of Liberty” for the future. The Constitution, in short, is replete with moral commitments, commitments that can only be fulfilled by a virtuous people. Those who would strip American conservatism of the “social issues” should reflect upon the fact, which the Founders and framers understood well, that decadence and democracy cannot coexist indefinitely; neither can decadence and the free economy.
Democracy and the market are not machines that can run by themselves. Liberals and libertarians alike seem to imagine that it can be so, that if one only gets the machinery of governance and exchange properly designed, balanced, and tuned, the machinery of self-governance and exchange will purr along, undisturbed. But that cannot be the case, according to the Preamble.
People cannot work toward a more perfect polity unless they have some notion of what the good polity is and what personal and communal sacrifices are required to make the good political community work. Justice cannot be established if justice is reduced to an anorexic notion of “fairness” that appeals to three-year-olds and ought to appall adults. The “general Welfare” is always going to suffer when personal aggrandizement, financial or sexual, trumps every discussion of public policy. And securing the “Blessings of Liberty” within a law-governed constitutional democracy will be virtually impossible if liberty is confused with license and the source of all “blessing” is understood to be the imperial autonomous Self.
Conservatives will not far advance our goals in strengthening political and economic liberty without concurrently promoting and defending the virtues necessary to make freedom work so that the net result of free institutions is genuine human flourishing. In the years immediately ahead, freedom will be under intense assault from both the statism inherent in modern politics and from the allure of decadence–a lethal combination that, throughout the Western world, is leading us toward a soft dictatorship of relativism that is no less dangerous for its lack of Gulag camps. Thus defending and advancing conservative goals for promoting liberty will require conservatives to pay far more attention to strengthening civil society, to repairing the damage that 40 years of the sexual revolution have done to marriage and the family, and to building firmer foundations for an American culture of life capable of resisting the utilitarian debasement of the human person.
That America will need a new birth of freedom after the Obama years few conservatives will deny. The new birth of freedom that can give new energy to American democracy and American economic life is freedom tethered to truth and ordered to goodness, a freedom that seeks the common good through the responsible use of individual liberty. It takes a certain kind of people to do that. Those kind of people just don’t happen. Raising them up is a prime imperative for any conservative who cares about the future of American constitutionalism.
Conservatives have long since taught themselves to handle with tongs any political advice from non-Republican libertarians like me. But amidst the depressing-to-some meteor shower of post-Romney headlines about how the GOP needs to “go more libertarian,” I come from Planet Freedom bearing unseasonably happy tidings: You don’t need to become a heroin-legalizing, amnesty-embracing, blame-America-firster in order to reassert conservatism’s electoral and philosophical relevance during President Barack Obama’s second term. No, the only two transformations required are re-learning a grand tradition’s
intellectual commitment to reducing the size and scope of government and recalibrating electoral tactics and even the basic selling proposition around the notion of playing defense, not offense.
There will be many people, perhaps in these pages, making the case that Democrats humped a failed incumbent over the finish line in large part by successfully scaring their base that Republicans are a rump party of atavistic Southerners hell-bent on restricting the rights and privileges of anyone who is not a white American man. This is technically true (the “successfully scaring” part, anyway), and there were just enough GOP outbursts about “legitimate rape” and “self-deportation” to sustain this hidden-ball trick of a narrative through one more election cycle.
But when given the opportunity to choose politicians who actually name and confront the main danger facing us–a government piling up commitments and expenses and debt just before the baby boomers retire and send the entitlements system crashing down–the Keynesianism-hating American electorate these past three years has mostly ignored sideshow utterances and rewarded those brave enough to take on Leviathan. Mike Lee, Scott Walker, Rand Paul: These class-of-2010 politicians might not agree with me (yet!) about deregulating reproductive decisions, narcotics intake, and the U.S.-Mexico border, but on the issue of the day they have shown up for work and given Obamanomics-weary voters a clear alternative to the never-ending bailout.
And yes, taking fiscal policy seriously also requires unblurring the distinctions between military and defense spending and coming up with a more affordable, realistic, and strategic projection of American power abroad. There is no such thing as an orderly retreat during a debt crisis.
Just as we need to steel ourselves against the real possibility of a debt spiral and the dead certainty of an entitlements time bomb, so too can the social- conservative agenda (which I do not endorse) lose its off-putting taint by switching to a defensive posture. Gay marriage will be legal in most of the country during our lifetimes; conservatives should have long since gotten out from under the eventually disastrous strategy of trying to offensively outlaw same-sex inclusion, and instead switched to the righteous defensive posture of making sure such recognition does not create intrusive new government mandates on religious institutions and even (Google it!) wedding photographers. Instead of proposing new constitutional amendments for every activity they disapprove of, conservatives should have recognized that the Bill of Rights is essentially a defense from, not an enabler of, an already rampaging federal government.
More Americans than ever think that government is trying to do too much. All conservatives need to do now is provide those people with a believable place to go.
Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author, with Nick Gillespie, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America.
RUTH R. WISSE
When asked how it feels to be a rare conservative on a flagrantly liberal campus, I declare nothing’s easier than practicing freedom from behind the protective shield of tenure. A reputation for political nonconformity gets me access to the most genuinely independent undergraduates in the school. Almost never in my 20 years at Harvard has any colleague ever taken issue with my political writing: They apparently don’t read alternative publications, and like the president–who attended our law school–they prefer not to engage the other side of the aisle.
This pleasant life may explain why, like many old-school liberals now known as conservatives, I cheerfully forfeited the university in order, as I thought, to win the polity. I was delighted to see the boldest of our students gravitate toward opinion journalism, think tanks, the Federalist Society, and politics outright. For conservative-tending students who were headed to graduate school in the humanities or social sciences, I crafted letters of recommendation downplaying their bent lest they meet the fate of Jewish applicants in the 1930s.
All along, I expected “the people” to resist the academy; but all along, the academy has been reconfiguring the polity. Where others attribute electoral shifts to demographic changes (as though we expect people to vote their skin color), I see a political landscape influenced by university policies of racial profiling. Affirmative action–aka group preferences or quotas–has displaced the civil-rights commitment to equal treatment irrespective of color, gender, or creed. Faculty members admitted and advanced through policies of grievance and victimhood promote ideologies of grievance and victimhood, and they sponsor or become candidates for public office who win on that platform. The authorized liberal gatekeeping that was once introduced as a measure of redress for past injustice has all but eliminated conservative faculty and with them the conservative foundations of traditional liberal-arts education. Half the polity is no longer represented in the university, and students from that half are subjected to America’s version of political reeducation.
Key to this change is the word diversity, which has been hijacked (much as democratic was by the German Democratic Republic) to mean “politically conformist.” An academic questionnaire now circulating to determine levels of faculty satisfaction includes under “demographics” the categories of gender, with subheadings for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer”; Hispanic or Latino; American Indian or Alaska Native; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific. (Categories have grown more refined with the appointment of each new “diversity” dean.) Designed to identify areas of stress, the questionnaire cannot fathom that some faculty may be stressed out by the substitution of this vulgar categorizing for the intellectual and ideational world we thought we had entered.
I take this presidential election as a call for university reform as well as tax reform. For a start, I suggest citizens challenge the use of “diversity” for racial and gender profiling and argue for reinvestment in teaching the foundational texts of Western thought. To conserve our liberal democracy, conservatives and other concerned citizens will have to work harder.