This article is from our January symposium issue, in which 53 leading writers and thinkers answer the question: “What is the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election?” Click here to read the entire symposium.
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.
Artur Davis, a former Democrat and member of Congress, joined the Republican Party in May 2012.