Commentary Magazine


Are Conservatives Losing the Future?

Janet Hook of the Wall Street Journal reported on a new WSJ/NBC News poll that “finds a marked increase in the share of registered voters identifying themselves as liberals, and an even bigger drop in the share saying they are conservatives.”

In three national polls conducted so far in 2015, Ms. Hook writes, the analysis found that 26 percent of registered voters identified themselves as liberals, up from 23 percent last year.  At the same time, the share of voters identifying as conservatives dropped to 33 percent from 37 percent in 2014.

The biggest ideological shifts came among women, young people, Latinos, and well-educated voters, as well as people in the West and in cities. Among women aged 18-49, 37 percent say they are liberal vs. 23 percent who say they are conservative, a 20-point swing since 2010. Among younger voters, those between 18-34-years old, 35 percent say they are liberal while 26 percent say they are conservative. In 2010, that age group split 28 percent liberal, 32 percent conservative.

It’s worth noting that, from 2010 through 2014, there was little overall variation in the share of people identifying themselves as conservative, moderate, and liberal, with conservatives either a plurality or tied with moderates.

But that stability seems to be ending this year. For the first time since 2010, conservatives are no longer a plurality: 38% identify as moderates, compared with the 33% who identify as conservative and 26% as liberal. Mr. McInturff said it wasn’t immediately clear what accounts for the shift.

There are several things to consider about the results of this poll, starting with whether this is an aberration or indicative of a wider trend. On cultural issues, there’s little doubt the nation has generally moved in a liberal direction, as this recent Gallup poll indicates. It’s less clear that this is happening across the board.

Let’s assume, however, that the nation is becoming more liberal. If that’s the case, there are several things conservatives need to keep in mind. The first is to maintain perspective.  One can make a reasonable case that the governing party in the United States is the Republican Party, which is the political home of the conservative movement. Republicans control the Senate, the House, 31 governorships, and 68 of 99 state legislative chambers and the most state legislative seats since the 1920s. So things are hardly hopeless.

Second, there is the distinct possibility that liberals overshoot. This happened in Great Britain, where the Labour Party went hard left — and last month, the Conservative Party under David Cameron won its first outright majority in Parliament since 1992. The Democratic Party may fall into the same trap in 2016.

Third, it may well be that at the end of eight years living under the Obama presidency, large numbers of Americans may turn against liberalism on the grounds that it has failed them. This could happen, though, according to the WSJ/NBC poll, after six years it hasn’t. (It’s admittedly more complicated than polling questions since the last two mid-term elections were in large measure repudiations of liberal policies. Of course, Barack Obama also won re-election. Like I say, it’s complicated.)

Fourth, conservatives, rather than dismissing the survey results, would be wise to take them as a warning sign. The way to view things may be to accept that the nation is changing in important respects, including demographically and culturally, and those on the right need to adjust to it. That doesn’t mean jettisoning conservatism; it means understanding that some of the old formulations aren’t working nearly as well as they once did, and some of the problems we face today are quite different than we faced in past decades.

In recent years, conservatism has done a reasonably good job at articulating a governing philosophy based on limited government; it has not done nearly as well at articulating a compelling governing agenda. “Conservative politicians have not, by and large, presented an agenda that offered tangible advantages to many people or explained how it did so,” in the words of Ramesh Ponnuru. That needs to change, and some reform-minded conservatives have offered up the outlines of an actual governing agenda.

Conservatives need to show it’s their philosophy that offers solutions to the challenges of this era; that it has the capacity to take the world as it is and move things along in the right direction. Conservatism respects the past, but it can’t be seen as stuck in it or longing to return to it. The politics of nostalgia doesn’t work. The task of conservatism is to present itself as offering ideas needed to succeed in the 21st century.  I do think this contrasts rather well with what’s been called “reactionary liberalism.”

One other thing: Conservatives have to put front and center figures who are persuaders and not just crusaders, who carry themselves in a manner that strikes people as reasonable, inviting, and forward-looking; who don’t wake up angry or despairing when they look at the day ahead and the world before them; who seek to win over converts instead of simply energizing the already converted.

The politics of resentment and agitation, that signals to people outside our circle that they aren’t particularly liked or appreciated or even wanted, is suicidal. If people on the right are allowed to define conservatism as a philosophy of grievances — if those who purport to represent conservatism speak with more passion about what’s gone wrong with America than what can go right with America — they will help lock in whatever leftward movement in America is occurring.

If we conservatives play our cards right — if people characterized by grace and gratitude carry forward our message — this could well be conservatism’s moment.

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4 Responses to “Are Conservatives Losing the Future?”

  1. LIZ WAGNER says:

    For conservatism to believably present itself as offering ideas needed to succeed in the 21st century, I think conservatives must stop the anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion crusades. As Pope Francis said of these issues, the church is not changing its teachings on them, but neither are these issues top priorities for the Catholic Church. Feeding and caring for poor and vulnerable souls in the world is its mission. People may feel passionately about the abortion and gay marriage issues, but that doesn’t mean they are, or should be, priorities. Legislatively and politically, they are losing issues for conservatives. To win the White House in 2016 and beyond, Republican candidates will need to persuade a portion of Democrats to cross party lines and vote for them. The likelihood of success at converting voters while crusading against abortion and gay marriage seems very limited. However, I think the conservative candidate who has the courage to let these issues go, at least for now, can pick up many independent and Democrat voters, and improve his or her chances of capturing the White House. With the very principles and values upon which our nation is founded being challenged and threatened, as they are, today, I think bold moves such as this are necessary. Great article!


      I agree with Liz. If the Republican candidates concentrate on private issues such ss abortion and birth control as they did last election, I believe they will again lose this election. All people want to know is what he or she will do to get us out of the mess Obama will leave us in.

  2. LIZ WAGNER says:

    Geraldine Moskowitz, thanks for your reply. I understand William Koenig recently ran a story that said the drought in CA was caused by the acceptance of gay marriage. It’s that kind of nuttiness that convinces people NOT to vote for conservative candidates.


    Article and above comments are all true. As we get closer to 16 elections, the Republicans are also going to have to quit being seen as the “party of the rich” and strategize much better. If Republican candidates, influenced by Tea Party become obsessed with a flat tax and eliminating estate taxes altogether, the majority of voters will resent the conservative candidates, and elect a Democrat to the White House. Those who are in upper incomes and net worth have the most to lose by turning the country over to the Democratic Party, so would be best off focusing on issues other than tax reduction. A focus on cutting waste in spending would gather more friends and voters.

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