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.
Movements cannot sustain themselves without appealing leaders and coherent, compelling ideas–and at the moment American conservatism is deficient in both. As a former Democrat who watched her party wreck itself in the 1960s and 70s, I have felt a sense of deja vu as the Republican Party has followed a similar path in recent years. The 2012 Republican primaries were a contest among candidates to appease distinct interest groups within the GOP: Tea Party populists, pro-life activists, anti-immigration zealots, and anti-tax die-hards. The wildly erratic swings in popularity of the primary candidates demonstrated a Republican electorate with no clear sense of what they were looking for beyond someone whom they believed could defeat President Obama. The result was a flawed presidential nominee and a failed election.
Mitt Romney never articulated a clear vision for America. Voters could not be confident that he believed in much of anything beyond his own business skills, which he somehow thought were enough to convince voters to elect him. But the problem goes beyond Romney. The conservative movement has not been able to produce a leader who can inspire Americans to believe in fundamental conservative principles since Ronald Reagan.
President Reagan gave Americans faith in themselves at a time when the country’s economy was suffering, national defense had been weakened, and its standing in the world was in decline. The conservatism Ronald Reagan offered was optimistic but not pandering. He favored individual over group rights; he supported equal opportunity, not equal results, as the best path to justice. His view of government was based on the principles of federalism. He believed in a limited role for the federal government, but chief among its responsibilities was to maintain a strong national defense. He promoted a larger role for state and local governments as the branches of government closest to the people, a simpler federal tax policy with lower tax rates for all Americans, and a smaller federal bureaucracy with less expansive powers. He did not achieve all his goals, largely because he lacked support in a divided Congress in which the Democrats controlled the House for his entire tenure and the Senate for two years. Nonetheless, his vision changed the way Americans thought of government so that even successful Democratic candidates for national office had to mimic his rhetoric if not endorse his actual policies.
Ironically, Barack Obama seems to have learned more from Ronald Reagan’s success than conservatives have. Obama had big ideas and articulated them well. Not since FDR has a Democrat offered a comparably comprehensive view of the role of government. Obama promoted the progressive understanding of “social justice,” the idea that society, acting through government, is responsible for providing for man’s needs. Unfortunately, conservatives–or at least candidates who purport to speak for conservatism–offer up no alternative based on a different conception of justice. Neither Presidents George H.W. Bush nor George W. Bush hewed to Reagan’s principled conservatism. Nor has any candidate since. Until conservatives begin to focus once again on fundamental principles and put aside the temptation to appeal to the factional and sometimes conflicting agendas of special-interest groups, conservatism will struggle to compete successfully with liberalism. And without leadership, ideas–even good ones–dissipate.
Linda Chavez is the author, among other books, of Out of the Barrio: A New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. She is currently working on a novel about the Spanish Inquisition.