What Is the Future of Conservatism?
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.)