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.



In the wake of the 2012 election, liberalism driven by patronage more than policy is philosophically vitiated and politically vital. The reverse is true of conservatism, which thrives intellectually even as it is politically stunted. The task ahead for conservatives is to bring conservative principles to bear on practical situations

Whatever his many genuine virtues, Mitt Romney lacked the political skill to either win over enough working-class whites or pin President Obama to the Chicagoan’s faux populism. Romney referred at times to Obama’s crony capitalism, but he never pressed the issue. The upshot was that the president never had to account for the privileged tax position of his political allies at General Electric and Google and Goldman Sachs.

There were many forsaken opportunities, but there are also many new opportunities ahead. The spate of municipal bankruptcies in California and Pennsylvania and perilous fiscal conditions in Illinois and the once Golden State offer the opportunity to define conservatism in the light of the specific circumstances of liberal fiscal and governmental failure. Take liberal Illinois. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker won his recall election in part by repeatedly referring to the real-life consequences of liberal policies in its Great Lakes neighbor to the South. Illinois, where four of the past seven governors went to prison as felons, loses roughly 148 residents daily. It ranks 47th in job growth and 48th in economic performance. Faced with a meltdown of the public-sector pension systems, Illinois governor Pat Quinn pushed through a 67 percent increase in Illinois’s state income tax. What followed was a classic case of crony capitalism. It should have been central to this year’s election.

Confronted with threats to flee Illinois by Caterpillar, John Deere, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and unwilling to cut spending for fear of angering the powerful public-sector unions, Governor Quinn handed out a half-billion dollars in tax abatements to politically connected corporations. Why wasn’t this object lesson in conservative principles part of the presidential campaign?

Scranton, Pennsylvania, is famously the hardscrabble hometown of Vice President Joe Biden, who currently resides in Delaware’s Castle District. Scranton has already defaulted on some of its debt and teeters on the edge of a full-scale bankruptcy because of the demands of its public-sector workers. Scranton is an example of philosophy expressing itself in practical terms, and it would be nice if Biden were asked about public-sector unions and the plight of the town he’s attached himself to as a totem.

Liberal California, which now has a less competitive political culture than Mexico, is by far the most target-rich environment. Ongoing bankruptcy cases as in Stockton and new cases such as San Bernardino offer the opportunity to explain on a local level the consequences, which we will be debating nationally, of over-mighty interest groups imposing unsustainable costs on our political and economic system. California’s cities and the state as a whole offer a picture of the dangers ahead imposed by the power of public-sector unions, a topic little discussed in 2012.

What conservatism needs now are knowledgeable politicians who can speak to the specifics of state and local problems while placing them in a conservative conceptual context. When California and Illinois come forward with calls for a federal bailout, their appeals will have been preceded, we hope, by a very public debate about the liberal policies that produced the debacle. History will teach by example if articulate conservatives bring the individual cases to the fore.


Fred Siegel is a scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and a contributing editor to City Journal.

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