Saturday, December 22, 2012

Putting One Foot in Front of the Other

The way forward (Rankin-Bass)
A little over a month ago, the American people elected President Obama to a second four-year term. Mitt Romney's defeat surprised many conservatives, myself included, who had become convinced that sub-par economic conditions and Obama's mixed record would lead to his defeat.

It didn't.

In the weeks since, Republicans and conservatives have engaged in some helpful soul-searching, as well they should--neither group can any longer claim that 2008 constituted some sort of "anomaly." Something must change. Some of the advice has been good, some not. What follows is what we believe stands out as the best means for the conservative movement to put one foot in front of the other.

Appeal to the middle class. During the election, Romney focused on appealing to entrepreneurs, business owners, and other similarly-positioned individuals. While such people stand as a natural part of the Republican coalition, earning their votes is insufficient. But their employees represent a much larger demographic. Conservative positions can appeal to both groups. One of the easiest methods to do this is through a thorough adoption of "free-market populism," which is skeptical of big government, big business, and the growing nexus between the two. If President Obama wishes to use the wealthy as a political punching-bag, Republicans ought to point out that Washington and its surrounding counties, which create no wealth of their own, have somehow become the richest areas in the country during his time in office. If President Obama positions himself as a champion of business, Republicans ought to respond that, yes, he has become a champion of big business, lavishly subsidizing big corporations as long as they act in government-sanctioned ways. Above all, Republicans need to understand and to make clear that big business is not always an ally of free enterprise.

Make government work. Nearly all conservatives argue that dramatic reductions in the size and scope of the federal government are necessary, for both moral and practical reasons. But the reality of Washington today is that such measures are unlikely. Far more feasible, however, are measures that apply market principles to existing government programs to improve their efficiency, delivery, and efficacy; the success of these measures could then re-validate principles sorely in need of revalidation. Rep. Ryan's "Road Map," is an example of such a policy reform, but practical measures don't even need to be that dramatic. Indeed, measures that reduce or even eliminate the Medicare and Social Security payouts that well-off elderly people receive is one practical measure that could enjoy bipartisan support; if Democrats and progressives oppose policies of that nature, then they find themselves in the awkward position of supporting welfare for the rich. And that's one battle even Republicans could win.

Embrace federalism. For at least the next two years, Democrats will have control of the presidency and the Senate. During that time, Republicans should not expect to achieve much, if any, meaningful reforms of their own--at the national level. But at the state level, it's a different story. One of the most curious developments of American politics revealed by the last election is that America prefers Democrats at the national level but elect Republicans to govern their states. To wit, Republicans now have complete control (a governor and a majority in the state legislature) in 24 states, and governors in 30. This presents all sorts of possibilities; just in the past few weeks, we've seen Michigan become a right-to-work state, and over half of the states in the country refuse to set up the health insurance "exchanges" mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Conservatives should embrace this approach with certain social issues as well, starting with marijuana. Being scientists in the "laboratories of democracy" is a natural position for conservatives--and one of great strength.

Engage in the culture at large. While Republicans at the national level ought to leave most social issues to debates among the states, the conservative movement ought not merely to give up these fights, as some our counseling. If anything, it must redouble its efforts, in large part by expanding them outside of the conservative sphere. The conservative movement, in the decades since 1950, has built itself up an impressive counter-cultural infrastructure: National Review, various think-tanks, talk radio, Fox News, etc. But this is far from enough. Questions of liberalism's ultimate verity aside, it's impossible for conservatives to win politically if they yield the culture to it, as they have largely done--how else to explain the growing acceptance of gay marriage, which--regardless of your position on the matter--was not even an issue when I was born. The existence of niche conservative films and TV shows is not enough; conservatives must try to infiltrate mainstream culture to use it as a medium in the same way that liberalism has, even if not to the same degree. Everything counts.

Start by taking the fight to academia. A useful place for such efforts to begin is the college campus. There currently exists a handful of conservative campuses; on the rest, a culture of liberalism reigns that will subsume, passively or actively, those who do not try deliberately to resist it. Voters aged 18-30 are usually more liberal, and the college campus has been since radical left claimed it in the 60s and 70s, but conservatives simply cannot survive if this aspect of the liberal coalition remains the way it is. Conservatism will probably never dominate the college campus, but an attempt to make inroads there, or even efforts to make students realize that conservatives offer actual policy proposals--either would be helpful.

The above suggestions are by no means exhaustive. Other helpful policies include firing idiotic consultants, learning from the lessons of the Bush years, but not repeating them, and cultivating and recruiting new and better spokespeople for the conservative message. Most important: despite the problem of the Republican brand itself, not communication issues, being the root of the party's continued failure, conservatives ought not to react to the 2012 election by internalizing Mitt Romney's misguided (and probably fatal) remarks about the "47%" and giving up on the United States. There is still hope for conservatism in this country--provided that conservatives believe there is.

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