Conservatism Is Dead! Long Live Conservatism!
I am 23 years old. I have been told that my ilk and I are the future. To say the least that assertion frightens me. Statistics, while reassuring, can only attenuate my anxiety slightly. For while the sweep of history that Obama disciples say their savior rode into the White House on this past November might not have been as strong as they once thought – voters 18-29 resoundingly turned out to vote for Obama, yet overall the difference between the ostensibly crucial youth vote’s turnout in 2004 and 2008 was just 3% higher – the consensus among my peer’s is that centrist-liberalism – the form of liberalism Obama does not practice but I think successfully conveys – has become the accepted norm. Why? Because it feels pragmatic, tolerant, and, above all, it is imbued with a sense of competent realism. Gone are the days of stereotypical bleeding heart liberal – at least that is the perception a lot of people my age have.
Conservatism as a movement has been vanquished in the eyes of many young politically minded people I speak with. It has proven not only morally bankrupt –after starting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, advocating torture, and impinging on civil liberties – but also intellectually bankrupt. Where before a liberal friend of mine had begrudgingly admitted that conservatism’s redeeming quality for him was its emphasis on practical solutions, reliance on hard data, and fiscal frugality, today, in the wake of the financial and economic chaos that engulfs us it is no surprise that that reputation has been sullied.
I am not going to argue the merits of those qualms with modern conservatism. My concern is the perception-reality gap; that is, how people, especially younger Americans, perceive conservatism, and, by extension its partisan vessel, the Republican Party. There is a worthwhile debate to be had over whether the Bush era was, in fact, a traditionally conservative one. William F. Buckley himself once remarked that Bush was conservative, but not a conservative. He was not a part of the movement in the sense that Ronald Reagan was or Newt Gingrich continues to be a torchbearer for.
Much has been written on the subject of movement conservatism since the Republican Party was handed a disastrous defeat in the last general election. While the former President Bush is certainly culpable to a certain extent for the humiliating electoral referendum of what has passed for conservatism these last nine years I think that all conservatives, myself included, need to look at the changing demographics and national economy and render a verdict on whether or not the conservatism embodied by our current representatives is the sort of conservatism that can subsist and win in 21st Century America.
Clichés can ruin empires. They can also ruin political movements. Unfortunately, conservatism has fallen prey to rampant clichés that are promulgated by a myriad of comedians and entertainers. To my fellow youthful Americans, Stephen Colbert and comedians of his kidney hold great sway over perception of conservatives (comedy does have a liberal bias, after all). I am hesitant to bring Mr. Colbert into a serious discussion about the state of modern conservatism as an intellectual and political movement, but I would be remiss not to highlight how entertainment media has successfully reduced conservatism to a set of ugly cultural symbols: the gun-crazed, the gay basher, and the God fearer. Conservatives have long wrestled with images of backwardness, bigotry, and zealous piety. In the 1940s, when the postwar conservative movement was still in its adolescence and sowing the fundamental intellectual seeds of its platform, liberals decried nascent conservatism in America as an attempt to reinstate medieval feudalism. Meanwhile, the average college student is, I can safely confirm, denied any knowledge of the conservative intellectual history that could challenge these nasty generalizations. The domination of the nation’s universities by a liberal professoriate is complete. Men like William F. Buckley Jr., Friedrich Hayek, Frank Meyer, Russel Kirk, and Wilmoore Kendall are scarcely mentioned outside of being the butt of many bad jokes. Instead, conservatism is treated as a reactionary force in American politics – the default position of obstinate country bumpkins and avaricious plutocrats.
But really, who can blame these critics? Conservatives of late have made themselves easy targets for two reasons. First, conservatism has become ideologically rigid and rhetorically trite. In the 1980s and 1990s, the small-government, free market message resounded because it contravened liberalism’s decades long insistence on the power of federal programs to correct society’s ills – the results of which were Leviathan bureaucracy and stagflation. So while the totalizing nostrums of liberal policymakers had been compounding inefficiencies since the New Deal, Reagan represented the culmination of a conservative movement that offered sound reasoning for why liberalism had failed and what it could be replaced with.
Today, however, the twin pillars of the conservative economic policy – low taxation and deregulation – are held in disrepute. Cut taxes and deregulate it repeated ad nauseum will not do. As much as I agree with these mantras (in most instances) it must be acknowledged that as rhetorical tools they have become useless pabulum. Conservatives must articulate a more nuanced economic policy that stresses long-term fiscal solvency, debt reduction, free trade, measured and responsible deregulation, and sensible arguments for why tax cuts – not spending programs – are the stuff of real economic growth. A government-phobic stance only reinforces the perception of doctrinaire intransigence. If conservatives can admit the necessity of limited economic regulation they will win not only more respect from non-ideological voters who are skeptical of dogmatism in any form, but they will be returning to a pragmatism that is the very essence of conservatism.
I would also like to stress the supreme importance of shedding the image conservatives have garnered for being socially parochial. I have been contemplating this article for some time now, and in the way of research I made it a point to start conversations with young people of different political stripes and with varying degrees of interest in politics. To someone with only a fleeting interest in electoral politics social issues are what matter, and often function as a first foray into politics (more than likely because social issues elicit emotional responses and do not require one to be well-versed on an issue). To win young voters, or at least not alienate them, conservatives should apply the “Don’t Tread on Me” ethos they champion in the economic sphere in the social one, as well. This does not mean we shirk the greater task of reintroducing meaning, civic duty, religion, and something beyond shallow materialism and licentiousness into American society. On the contrary, conservatives should fully embrace their rhetoric of individual responsibility by purging the movement of its puritanical authoritarianism so as to eliminate the inherent contradictions in their positions. For how can we praise the right to individual choice and responsibility and still support the interminably futile “war on drugs,” which not only wastes millions of the taxpayer’s dollars but exacerbates racial tensions? How can we continue to speak of justice and liberty when homosexuals are not allowed to marry their loved ones and when the majority of Republicans in congress opposed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act?
To accomplish all of the above and remain relevant conservatives must follow point two of my thesis, as well: they must govern effectively and remain principled. My generation’s formative experiences occurred during the Bush administration and under the auspices of a Republican-dominated congress. Two wars, a rash of scandals (Mark Foley, the Delay-Abramoff connection, the Valerie Plame leak, the Terri Schiavo episode, Black Water, etc.), and the financial crisis have severely damaged the Republican Party and conservatism’s image. The recovery will be slow going. But if conservative politicians can begin to shed their reactionary mien, offer alternative policy ideas that bypass hackneyed platitudes, and live out their lofty rhetoric and lead by example we may yet see the movement regain its strength and political clout.
It goes without saying that the party out of power naturally seems adrift and leaderless. And already the steady stream of articles proclaiming conservatism in America “dead” seems conspicuously outdated. A recent Gallup Poll finds that more Americans in all fifty states identify themselves as conservatives rather than liberal or very liberal. The Democrats health care reform salvo is on precarious footing thanks to a grassroots conservative revival across the country and a smile-worthy Rasmussen Poll concludes that fifty-seven percent of Americans would vote out the entire congress – including those ossified Republican relics. This has to mean something, right? America has tried “change” in the Obama vein and is disappointed, yes? Well, in a word, no. First it is too early to predict how Obama will recover from these setbacks and second I’m afraid the president, despite his sinking poll numbers of late, represents a new breed of liberalism that has successfully adopted superficial conservative hues; in particular, conservatisms mild-mannered pragmatism. Essentially, Obama has won the vital center by shrewd deception and still enjoys the support of those who might not agree with him on certain controversial issues, such as health care, Afghanistan-Pakistan, or bank bailouts, but who trust his judgment, nonetheless. Like Reagan, he’s Teflon (for now.)
The backlash Obama and the Democrats have faced this summer is, most likely, ephemeral. The town hall meetings will eventually cease and the endless news cycle will make it all seem like a dream, as the angry voices of protest that once commanded front-page attention are lost to the archives. I hope I’m wrong, but this is more than often the case; sustained popular outrage has a relatively short life expectancy. If conservatives want to win in the future it will require a new language, a more tolerant and less rigid ideological platform, and exciting and articulate figures like William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, and Ronald Reagan to lend action to ideas. If you’ll notice, those three aforementioned heroes of the conservative cannon are no more. Conservatism, though, can live on. One, because it is the movement of the individual and his quest for self-improvement, not only for himself but his country and mankind, and two, because that quest is the ongoing story of the United States.
But, then again, I'm only 23 -- what do I know?