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.



The future of conservatism in America is bright, since it offers the best insights into human nature, the relationship between the citizen and the state, and how to achieve a more just social order.

Those who travel under the banner of conservatism need to do some repair work and embrace a genuine conservative disposition. What that means is appreciating the complexity of human society and the importance of human experience in shaping our approach to contemporary challenges, and recognizing that politics involves prudential and imperfect judgments. Which is to say that conservatism is hurt when its adherents treat it as an adamantine ideology, which is quite different from grounding it in enduring principles.

An example: During a 2012 GOP primary debate, Fox News’s Bret Baier posed a question to the eight candidates on the stage. “Say you had a deal, a real spending-cuts deal, 10-to-1 spending cuts to tax increases.?.?.?.?Who on this stage would walk away from that deal? Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes, you’d walk away on the 10-to-1 deal?”

Each of the eight candidates raised his or her hand.

This was, to me, a danger sign. I say that not because I favor higher taxes (I don’t). But we had reached a point where none of those running for president on a conservative platform could admit to any scenario in which he, or she, would raise taxes, even if as a result doing so might roll back the modern welfare state.

“No new taxes” is fine as a goal. It is certainly a reasonable starting point in negotiations. It may even be the right end point. But to elevate it to an inviolate principle–and to insist that politicians take pledges opposing tax increases under any and all circumstances–strikes me as misguided. Taxation is always a balancing process, one that needs to be seen in the context of specific economic conditions and other possible gains. For example, no responsible conservative would forgo reforming Medicare (which is the main driver of our fiscal crisis) by injecting competition and choice into the system in exchange for slightly higher taxes on the top income earners in America.

Every political movement, including conservatism, faces the danger of elevating certain policies into catechisms and failing to take into account new circumstances. When that occurs, we lose the capacity to correct ourselves. Conservatism, at least as I understand it, ought to be characterized by openness to evidence and a search for truth, not attachment to a rigid orthodoxy. “If there is any political viewpoint in this world which is free from slavish adherence to abstraction,” Ronald Reagan said in 1977, “it is American conservatism.”

What I’m talking about, then, is a conservative temperament, which affects everything from tone to intellectual inquiry to compromise. It champions principles in reasonably flexible ways that include a straightforward evaluation of facts.

To put things in a slightly different way: Conservatives need to reacquaint themselves with the true spirit of conservatism, which is reform-minded, empirical, anti-utopian, and somewhat modest in its expectations. It doesn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. It doesn’t treat political opponents as enemies. And it isn’t in a state of constant agitation. Winsomeness goes a long way in politics.

Since 1965, arguably the most important conservative politician after Ronald Reagan is Newt Gingrich. He achieved some remarkable, impressive things. But he practiced a style of politics that was quite different from Reagan’s. It was characterized by apocalyptic and incendiary rhetoric, anger, impatience, and revolutionary zeal. While his positions on issues were often conservative, Gingrich’s temperament and approach were not. Yet it is the Gingrich, not the Reagan, style that characterizes much of conservatism today. It would be better for conservatism, and better for America, to recapture some of the grace, generosity of spirit, and principled politics of America’s 40th president.


Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served seven years in the George W. Bush White House. He blogs daily for Commentary.

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