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.
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.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post.