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.



Conservatives have long since taught themselves to handle with tongs any political advice from non-Republican libertarians like me. But amidst the depressing-to-some meteor shower of post-Romney headlines about how the GOP needs to “go more libertarian,” I come from Planet Freedom bearing unseasonably happy tidings: You don’t need to become a heroin-legalizing, amnesty-embracing, blame-America-firster in order to reassert conservatism’s electoral and philosophical relevance during President Barack Obama’s second term. No, the only two transformations required are re-learning a grand tradition’s intellectual commitment to reducing the size and scope of government and recalibrating electoral tactics and even the basic selling proposition around the notion of playing defense, not offense.

There will be many people, perhaps in these pages, making the case that Democrats humped a failed incumbent over the finish line in large part by successfully scaring their base that Republicans are a rump party of atavistic Southerners hell-bent on restricting the rights and privileges of anyone who is not a white American man. This is technically true (the “successfully scaring” part, anyway), and there were just enough GOP outbursts about “legitimate rape” and “self-deportation” to sustain this hidden-ball trick of a narrative through one more election cycle.

But when given the opportunity to choose politicians who actually name and confront the main danger facing us–a government piling up commitments and expenses and debt just before the baby boomers retire and send the entitlements system crashing down–the Keynesianism-hating American electorate these past three years has mostly ignored sideshow utterances and rewarded those brave enough to take on Leviathan. Mike Lee, Scott Walker, Rand Paul: These class-of-2010 politicians might not agree with me (yet!) about deregulating reproductive decisions, narcotics intake, and the U.S.-Mexico border, but on the issue of the day they have shown up for work and given Obamanomics-weary voters a clear alternative to the never-ending bailout.

And yes, taking fiscal policy seriously also requires unblurring the distinctions between military and defense spending and coming up with a more affordable, realistic, and strategic projection of American power abroad. There is no such thing as an orderly retreat during a debt crisis.

Just as we need to steel ourselves against the real possibility of a debt spiral and the dead certainty of an entitlements time bomb, so too can the social- conservative agenda (which I do not endorse) lose its off-putting taint by switching to a defensive posture. Gay marriage will be legal in most of the country during our lifetimes; conservatives should have long since gotten out from under the eventually disastrous strategy of trying to offensively outlaw same-sex inclusion, and instead switched to the righteous defensive posture of making sure such recognition does not create intrusive new government mandates on religious institutions and even (Google it!) wedding photographers. Instead of proposing new constitutional amendments for every activity they disapprove of, conservatives should have recognized that the Bill of Rights is essentially a defense from, not an enabler of, an already rampaging federal government.

More Americans than ever think that government is trying to do too much. All conservatives need to do now is provide those people with a believable place to go.


Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author, with Nick Gillespie, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America.

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