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 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.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review and a columnist for Bloomberg View.