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.



A key task of conservatism in the coming years will be to see America through a difficult period of transition, as the governing institutions of our postwar welfare state grow exhausted and untenable and something new must take their place.

Our entitlement state is proving thoroughly unaffordable. It has already burdened us with a level of debt not seen since the height of World War II and quickly getting worse. That mountain of unfunded liabilities will make the prosperity of the postwar era unattainable for the rising generation. And those least advantaged in that generation will find their path to the American dream further blocked by an inadequate educational system, intense global competition for low-wage jobs, and a nightmarish breakdown of the family (accelerated in important ways by the design of some anti-poverty programs) afflicting our poorest communities.

All this leaves us with a choice: Do we preserve the structure of the Great Society welfare state, or do we preserve the promise of American prosperity and freedom? It increasingly looks like we cannot do both.

The Democratic Party has made its choice. It believes the solution to the collapse of the postwar welfare state and the slowing of the American economy is more of the same. It would rather see American life dramatically altered (with a significantly larger government, a smaller and less active civil society, and a more consolidated but less dynamic economy) than see our governing institutions reformed. Conservatives will need to clarify the alternative by articulating an agenda to reform the structure of key government programs for the sake of preserving the structure of American society and the preconditions for our way of life.

The goal of these reforms is hardly radical: an economy growing at roughly its postwar pace, a federal government of roughly its postwar size and functions, and an energetic and flourishing civil society filled with countless civic, religious, fraternal, corporate, and charitable entities performing a vast array of social functions. That is the America we have known, but allowing it to persist will require bold reforms of government programs that capitalize on the efficiency of the market economy.

In the next four years, as a result of the public’s poor choice in this fall’s presidential election, this task will largely call for a stance of resistance, combined with efforts to make incremental gains through modest structural reforms of the tax and entitlement systems as opportunities for responsible political compromises present themselves. Not much will be accomplished. But conservatives must also use this time to fill in the policy agenda and the arsenal of arguments in favor of the brand of reforms that will prove essential in the long run.

Liberals won the last election, but they have not won the future. The politics of the coming decades will be shaped by conservative reforms, or else it will be dominated by American decline. So let us hope that conservatism’s future is bright, and let us do more than hope.


Yuval Levin is the founding editor of National Affairs and the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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