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.
It always seemed to me that during the Cold War, what divided the people who thought we’d all end up incinerated by Soviet bombs from the people who thought it would all come out fine was not their political analyses. It was their temperament. Some people are more optimistic than others.
So it is with the future of conservatism. Some conservatives seem almost to frolic in their pessimism, describing the inevitable national glide down the path to perdition in gruesome detail. The antidote to such thinking is Reaganism, the sunny and optimistic view about America that not only characterized the man himself but captivated the nation.
So the first thing to say about the future of conservatism is that good cheer is a key ingredient for success. Voters are unlikely to be attracted by the argument that the country is mostly ruined–and deserves to be ruined by its profligacy, immorality, and stupid voting patterns. (I admit I often do feel this way about California, but even there it is probably not a winning argument.) Conservatives can indeed win, with a few better candidates and better arguments. Last year, in the middle of a great economic crisis, we nominated the richest man ever to run for president; we ran a man who was 65 (after running a man who was 72); and we allowed the networks to dominate the not coincidentally ruinous primary debates. As to winning the fastest-growing voter groups, Asians and Hispanics, Marco Rubio summed up the problem this way: “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care, if they think you want to deport their grandmother.”
There are of course huge problems facing conservatism. One is the growing percentage of citizens who are dependent on increasing government spending, whether as public employees or as recipients of some form of transfer payment to which they have not contributed. They are unlikely recruits for us. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once sourly noted that if you offer a voter a dollar and a quarter in services for a dollar in taxes, he’ll take the deal every time. Perhaps this is too pessimistic, and the voter paying the dollar in taxes may come to understand that he is on the hook for borrowing to cover that 25 percent deficit. So we must continue to argue for sound public finance. Another great problem is that on some issues, such as gay marriage, the tide seems to have turned against us. Yet on abortion, polls suggest we are gaining. The problem is often our spokesmen and spokeswomen, and the tone of the message rather than its content. It is one thing to lose an argument; it is another to come across as ignorant or mean-spirited. Of course the media are hopelessly biased and that makes it harder but, as the abortion struggle demonstrates, not impossible.
Reality will keep on asserting itself to voters and citizens, helped along if we explain it well and field attractive candidates in election years. Unless you believe that American character has profoundly changed in the last four years, what prevents a conservative revival? Surely not the growing numbers of immigrants and children and grandchildren of immigrants striving for upward mobility. Surely not the ideas of contemporary liberalism, meaning that welfare-state economics can yet work, that the world is benign and we hardly need an army, and that words like character and self-restraint are overly judgmental and must be banned. Surrender in the face of such challenges seems far too pessimistic to me–though I admit, perhaps it’s just a matter of temperament.
Elliott Abrams was a deputy national-security adviser in the administration of George W. Bush, where he led the National Security Council’s Middle East and democracy directorates.