Thirteen thoughts on the future of American conservatism
By Tim Montgomerie
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The American Commentary magazine has just published a collection of answers to the question, "What Is the Future of Conservatism in the Wake of the 2012 Election?"
The answers focus on American conservatism but they're not irrelevant to our future, here in Britain. I've observed a number of big themes from reading the symposium and have summarised them below. You can purchase the whole collection for $4.95, here.
I will begin by noting that not all of the contributors to the symposium were negative about the health of conservatism or even convinced that conservatism needed to change very much at all. Roger Kimball was notably unwilling to be dragged into despondency by the presidential election result. Voters, he argued, will turn again to Republicans and to conservatives when it is clear that Obama, liberals and the Democrats had failed. And they will fail, he insisted. Quoting the economist Herbert Stein's dictum that "that which cannot go on forever, won't" Kimball declared that reality augured well for conservatives because "reality is conservative". Margaret Thatcher would agree. "The facts of life," she said, " are conservative".
Reinforcing the Kimball/Thatcher analysis numerous contributors pointed to Democrat-dominated states that were in advanced stages of the liberal statist experiment and were increasingly dysfunctional. "Democratic strongholds such as California, Illinois, and New York are doing everything that they can," writes Paul A Rahe, "to show us the future as they envisage it and to demonstrate that it does not work." Republicans had to contrast these states with the plurality of states that they still governed and which - like Texas - were outperforming the US average. Artur Davis worried about this wait-for-the-other-guys-to-mess-up tactic, however. "While conservatism has endured," this ex-Democrat noted, "it’s worth pointing out that in my lifetime, voters have tended to turn Right primarily in reaction to liberal failure or disarray – the freefall of the 1960s, the ineptitude of Jimmy Carter, the excesses of Democratic Congresses in 1994 and 2010." In this Davis is largely right. Conservatives win 'rescue' elections - we win when the other side has failed and a 'clean up job' is necessary. That Romney didn't win last year was doubly worrying, therefore. We don't normally win in good times - such as the 1990s and noughties. Voters prefer Left-leaning parties in those times. We need to work harder at defining a positive image for ourselves if we are to be serious contenders at all elections.
Move on from Reagan. Just as British Tories need to move on from Margaret Thatcher so the GOP must move on from Reagan. Moving on does not mean junking everything or even very much of what the 'Gipper' stood for but, in the words of Ramesh Ponnuru, it means acknowledging that "while political principles may be eternal, political programs are not – and the Reagan program no longer speaks to the needs or concerns of most Americans". In our own Wrong Right series ConHome made this point about working class concerns. 2012 - or even 2013 - is not 1979. Many of today's followers of Thatcher and Reagan have a dangerously distorted remembrance of their time in office. As Philip Blond has Tweeted, Thatcher (who was more tactical and less libertarian than some remember) would not be one of today's Thatcherites. Equally, Reagan would not be one of today's Reaganites.
The Republican Party needs to remember that it contains different traditions and no tradition can try to dominate or exclude the other. John Bolton writes: "We need to reaffirm that conservatism prospers politically when it implements the three-legged stool analogy, encompassing traditionalist, free-market, and national-security conservatives."
The Republican Party needs a big Disraeli moment when it signals it is becoming a broader party. David Brog explains how Disraeli recognised the shrinking nature of his party's existing vote and introduced his One Nation Conservatism philosophy to survive in what was then a coming age of mass democracy. Rather than wait for the other parties to get ahead of him, Disraeli took the lead and extended voting rights to the head of every household in Britain. What similar big moves could American Republicans make that would connect with America's new populations?
Make peace with LIMITED government. David Brooks attacks the ideology of "Freedomism". "Imperfect people can't simply be let free," he writes. He advocates government programmes that stoke "the Hamiltonian virtues" of ambition, energy and industriousness and mentions Pell Grants, EITC and community colleges in that context. Mike Gerson adoptes a similar theme in his contribution - setting out three themes for government: (i) preparing people for success in free markets (eg through education), (ii) caring for the most vulnerable and (iii) strengthening the mediating institutions that, if successful, reduce the demand for state interventions. The need for a more grown-up view of the state is a key ConHome theme.
Undertake serious reflection on what went wrong on Wall Street and in Iraq. Rod Dreher of the American Conservative used his contribution to urge the GOP to think more seriously about the implications of the events of the last decade that contributed to the unpopularity of the George W Bush presidency. He thunders:
"The outcome of the war in Iraq and the Wall Street crash dramatically challenged the reigning conservative ideas about foreign policy, democracy, free markets, and regulation. That they occasioned no serious rethinking of conservative doctrine among the mainstream right’s intellectuals indicates not strength, but weakness."
Dreher concludes by quoting Edmund Burke at conservative reactionaries. "Burke," he writes, "who knew a few things about conservatism, writes: “A State without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” It’s also true for political parties." Very true.
Pursue reform not revolution. David Frum urges Republicans to recognise that they won't be able to undo everything that Obama enacts - just as Democrats have not sought to overturn Republican changes to welfare, crime-fighting and educational testing. He writes: "The next Republican coalition will not repeal universal health coverage. That commitment is here to stay, and high time, too. But the next coalition will control and reduce health-care costs. It will finance health care in ways less burdensome to economic growth." The challenge must be to temper and reform the Obama settlement. Anything else will frighten voters.
Apply the responsibility doctrine to the strongest members of society. "Responsibility," writes James K Glassman, "requires pitching in and following the biblical injunction “to whom much is given, much is required.”" Glassman doesn't develop his thought in the limited space he has but too many conservatives have seemed reluctant to talk about progressive taxation, for example, even though most conservative politicians preside over progressive taxation. A reponsibility doctrine for the people at the top must also include punishment of bankers and enforcement of anti-monopoly laws. Conservatives must be on the side of the little guy when big powerful interests threaten to squash him. My own view is that conservatism should be defined by a concern for the little guy - whether that little guy is the consumer, taxpayer, small business entrepreneur, or a parent seeking a good school for their kids.
Keep devolving power. Not a new thought but no less important given the trends towards centralisation. "Since when," writes Jay P Lefkowitz, "does being a conservative require Washington to dictate how people conduct their private lives in Sioux City and Miami, much less mandate the same standards in both venues?"
More pro-immigration. Jason Riley recommends a much more positive view of immigrants from mainstream Republicans, noting their huge get-up-and-go: "Less than 3% of the world’s population decides to uproot and move away from family and friends. These are risk takers who do tend to be more motivated, more tenacious, more entrepreneurial. Immigrants to the United States, whatever their skill level, are catalysts for economic growth who exhibit the kinds of characteristics found among people who thrive in free-market societies. Their presence here keeps our workforce young and vibrant while Europe and Asia morph into retirement communities."
Moderate social conservatism. Moderate is the key word. Social conservatism is still hugely relevant to the problems of our time and to the instincts of voters. People still believe in strong families, for example, and their social role. What they don't like is a hard-hearted defence of traditional values. James Taranto comments: "The challenge for conservatives in the decades ahead will be to advance family-friendly policies without being unpleasantly moralistic or sectarian about it." One other contributor, the libertarian Matt Welch, went further on the issue of gay marriage. The battle is lost, he argues, and cannot be won. Focus, he writes, on battles that can be won - on, for example, religious liberty: "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." He has a point. Republicans would be better placed making a systematic defence of religious liberty rather than a systematic and doomed resistance to equal rights for gay people.
End ideological purity. In his contribution Pete Wehner noted how during a debate amongst Republican wannabes during the presidential primary process ALL of the candidates rejected the idea of a deficit reduction package that contained TEN times as many spending cuts as tax rises. He argued that this was a "danger sign" of ideological purity: "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."
Recognise that politics is downstream from culture. This was the most important and far-reaching of the themes to come out of the symposium. In wanting to fight the culture wars the authors weren't advocating a strident attack on gay or abortion rights but a more sustained and reflective engagement with the universities, media outlets and professions that shape American thinking.
Three quotes captures the challenge and the thinking. First, here's Daniel Pipes:
"While conservatives sometimes prevail in policy debates, they consistently lose in the classroom, on the bestseller list, on television, at the movies, and in the world of arts. These liberal bastions, which provide the feeders for Democratic Party politics, did not develop spontaneously but result from decades of hard work that can be traced back to the ideas of the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci."
Second, some-time music and film commentator Mark Steyn:
"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."
Thirdly, Clifford May's essay notes how the Left are streets ahead of the Right in practical ideas generation:
"George Soros and his associates, in particular, have spent a large fortune funding a network of organizations–including MoveOn.org, Human Rights Watch, the Center for American Progress, the New America Foundation, ThinkProgress, Media Matters, the Institute for Middle East Understanding, J Street, and the National Iranian American Council–that work strategically, between elections, to promote a broad range of liberal and leftist ideas and policies. The future of conservatism would look considerably brighter if philanthropists on the right were to pick up the gauntlet Soros has thrown down, taking the fight for America beyond politics and the campaign season."
Amen. ConHome's new Culture column is our small attempt to think on these questions.
Just to repeat, you can download the whole fascinating Commentary magazine collection of essays for just $4.95 via this link. I recommend doing so.