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.



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.


R.R. Reno is editor of First Things.