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.
Not to be too pedantic, but for there to be a “future of conservatism in America” there first has to be a future in America. And that’s a more open question than my more optimistic comrades like to admit. The Brokest Nation in History has just told the rest of the world that it is incapable of serious course correction–and around the planet prudent friends and enemies will begin planning for a post-American order. So at some point reality will intervene–either in the form of total societal collapse or, one hopes, something marginally less convulsive. The first responsibility of conservatives between now and 2016 is to have an adult conversation with the citizenry–the one that Mitt Romney chose to eschew in favor of vague jobs promises punctuated by bold assertions that “I believe in America.” So what? What matters is whether reality still believes in America.
And, when reality strikes, will Americans turn to conservatism? The evidence from November is not reassuring. Romney dusted off the old surefire winner–”Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?”–and took it to read: “The economy’s dead. Vote Mitt.” A decisive chunk of lower-middle-class America agreed with him on the first part, and acted on its logic: “You’re right. So I’m voting for the party of endlessly extended unemployment insurance, universal food stamps, and increased Social Security disability enrollment.” If 1.7 percent growth is the new normal, this constituency will metastasize. As his post-mortem observations to donors confirmed, Romney’s leaked “47 percent” aside is indicative of the way he thinks, and not a small thing. Indeed, it’s a betrayal of core conservative morality: from “Teach a man to fish” to “There’s no point even bothering to try to teach 47 percent to fish.” I was born a subject of Her Canadian Majesty and, even in a parliamentary system, it would not be regarded as healthy for the Queen’s Prime Minister to think like this. In a republic in which the head of government is also head of state, it’s simply unbecoming. The next guy has to be running as president of all Americans, even the deadbeats.
That means an end to the consultant-driven, small-ball model of Republican strategy. The Democrats used their brutal Romney-gives-you-cancer/ Ryan-offs-your-granny advertising in Ohio as bad cop to the good cop of Obama’s cultural cool. The trouble for conservatives is we have no good cop. That’s to say, we have no positive presence in the broader cultural space where real people actually live. We have all the talk-radio shows and cable networks we need, and the rest of the country is happy to leave us walled up in those redoubts. But culture trumps politics, and not just in the movies and pop songs, grade schools and mainline churches, but increasingly in the boardrooms, too. Instead of giving your hard-earned dollars to help drag some finger-in-the-windy squish with an R after his name over the finish line every other November, conservatives need to start fighting on the turf that matters. We risk winding up like the Shakers–dependent on conversion while eschewing all effective means thereof.
And finally please don’t waste another four years obsessing over whether Barack Obama is a secret Muslim Kenyan Commie or whatever. He may be all those things, but the lesson of November 6 is that a majority of the American people agree with him. He’s not the exotic other, he’s all too typical. That’s the problem.
Mark Steyn is the author, most recently, of After America.