The Right Opinion

What Is the Future of Conservatism?

A symposium

By Jeff Jacoby · Jan. 11, 2013

Editor's Note: The editors of Commentary asked 53 American writers and thinkers to answer the question: “What is the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election?” My contribution follows. To read those of the other contributors, please visit Commentary.com.

I don't fall in love with politicians – the last presidential candidate I voted for with ardor was Ronald Reagan in 1980 – and my heart doesn't break when those I support don't win. Nor am I a party loyalist. As a conservative I vote for Republicans more often than not; for those of us committed to free enterprise, limited government, military strength, and a healthy civil society, there is usually no better option. But the Republican Party isn't the conservative movement. And a GOP defeat doesn't mean conservatism – or the GOP, for that matter – is in crisis.

Yet ever since Election Day, a chorus has proclaimed that that's exactly what Mitt Romney's loss to President Obama means. Scornful foes and anguished friends warn that Republicans are going the way of the Whigs. That demographic change spells liberal landslides as far as the eye can see. That social conservatism, especially on marriage and abortion, is electoral poison. “Obama's re-election marks a turning point in American politics,” declares the Los Angeles Times. “With the growing power of minorities, women, and gays, it's the end of the world as straight white males know it.”

So what else is new? Whenever Republicans lose a national election, Americans are told that it's curtains for the Right. “Conservatism is Dead,” wrote Sam Tanenhaus in a notable New Republic essay shortly after Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration; its “doctrine has not only been defeated but discredited.” Soon after, Colin Powell was insisting that small-government conservatism had lost whatever appeal it once had. “Americans,” he explained, “are looking for more government in their life, not less.”

Then came the Tea Party, an extraordinary wave of civic engagement, and a conservative tide that replaced Democratic control of the House of Representatives with the largest Republican majority in 60 years. Was the reaction to the 2010 midterm elections a flood of commentary admonishing the Democratic Party that the progressive movement was finished? Were liberals advised that henceforth their only hope of relevance was to embrace the policies and moral values of cultural conservatives?

There are many lessons conservatives might draw from the disappointing results on Nov. 6, but a need to radically overhaul the Right isn't one of them. So what if exit polls showed that a plurality of Americans, unlike most Republicans, now support same-sex marriage and higher tax rates on the wealthy? The same polls show that majorities of Americans believe that Washington should do less and that taxes should not be raised to cut the deficit. American conservatism didn't arise from a yearning to conform to public opinion. Its raison d'être was to defend constitutional liberty and economic opportunity – free men and free markets – and to make the case that human dignity and prosperity flourish not when government is all-powerful, but when it is limited. Sometimes that conservative message has been politically popular. Sometimes it has meant standing athwart history, yelling “Stop!”

Meanwhile, fights on the Right are nothing new. In the wake of Obama's re-election, conservatives may be at loggerheads over immigration or gay marriage or defense cuts, but when haven't we clashed over how to translate principle into policy? From Romneycare to waterboarding, from racial preferences to drug legalization, from libertarians to the religious Right, the conservative movement has always bubbled with debate and disagreement, while the Left, for all its talk about “diversity,” rarely seems to show any.

Liberalism has done a lot of damage. It is poised, in Obama's second term, to do even more. So the future of conservatism is going to be a busy one. Let's face that future with optimism, patience, and cogent argument.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)

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6 Comments

Alex Torello in New Haven, CT said:

It's always a mistake not to realize that we have 2 Americas. The Takers will keep taking, but soon the Makers will stop making. That's when the new revolution will take place.

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 10:31 AM

Howard Last in Wyoming said:

"So what else is new? Whenever Republicans lose a national election, Americans are told that it's curtains for the Right. "Conservatism is Dead," "

Conservatism is not dead, RINOisim is dead. Every time the Republican Leadership (still an oxymoron) pushes a RINO they lose. Is there anyone out there with a working brain that believes McCain and Romney are conservatives? When was the last time you heard a Republican Big Shot say Barry is a communist? What they never said it.

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 12:15 PM

Torp44 in Ione, Wa. said:

The key element missing in all these prognostications is "CONSTITUTIONAL CONSERVATISM"....with the emphasis on "CONSTITUTIONAL"! Whenever we return to our Constitutional roots, we will be a renewed & vigorous nation. Without that return, we are a dying republic!

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 2:44 PM

Howard Last in Wyoming replied:

Jim, thanks to the Democraps and RINO's the Republic died and was replaced with a democracy.

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 4:41 PM

Tapdaddy in Indiana said:

"while the Left, for all its talk about "diversity," rarely seems to show any."
The left lives in a constant state of intransigeance, never compromising and
only accepting a mimic of their point of view.

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 3:52 PM

sunforester in left coast said:

The future of conservatism is empty until those who live off government money feel the pain of living without it and the prospect of no more. As long as our political elite allow those who receive a government check to continue receiving such checks indefinitely or without significant reduction, all the compelling conservative speeches and blogs in the world will not touch how our largest interest group thinks or votes.

There are now officially more people receiving a government check than those who are funding those checks with their taxes, fees and penalties. It is this vast group of well-rewarded voters who greedily handed Obama his second term, and who will most assuredly hand over the next election to whoever Obama chooses to sustain their beloved lifestyle and income. Looking at history, it is only when these comfortable yet unthinking masses are deprived of their comfort that the tide turns against the incumbent power.

If the conservatives want power returned to them, cut off the freeloaders so they take notice. Cut off unemployment benefits (missed that chance this year, do it next year). Cut off welfare. Cut off Medicaid. Cut off food stamps. Cut off every government program that hands out a free ride to someone in exchange for a vote. Talking points won't accomplish this, but a howling, raging mass of freeloaders will not forgive Obama for letting their free stuff be taken away. Freeloaders who feel betrayed by losing "their" money will always take their frustration out on the President, so that is where conservatives should focus.

The next round of fiscal talks will be the last chance for the conservatives to meaningfully exist if they allow the freeloaders to keep their economy-killing patronage and bribes of taxpayer money. Leaving the freeloaders fat and happy will be the undoing of the conservatives, now and forever.

Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 5:16 PM