Commentary Magazine

What Is the Future of Conservatism?

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



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.


Paul A. Rahe, professor of history at Hillsdale College, is the author of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift.