Have you seen the obituary? Nearly every major publication has reported it. Conservatism is dead.
I won’t be attending the wake, though, singing “ding dong the witch is dead,” with a jubilant left–if for no other reason than they’ve misidentified the body, if one exists at all. Without a doubt, it is accurate to say that republicanism–that separate and distinct ideology whose purpose it is to elect Republicans to political office—has a room at the hospice. Today’s republicanism arose by knitting together the interests of evangelicals, big business, southern traditionalists, libertarians, military hawks, nationalists, gun rights activists and, yes, conservatives, under a single umbrella as a voting bloc adhering to a “lesser evil” mentality. Somewhere in the last half century “conservative” became synonymous with “republican” creating the knotty situation where the demise of one leads some to conclude the demise of the other.
Conservatism is not now, nor has it ever been, a “movement.” Conservatism is a values-based foundation that guides the thoughts and decisions of most Americans. Over the years, many politicians have sought to utilize conservative principles in their leadership and their campaigning and, when done properly, this strikes a resonant chord with the majority of our citizens who love living in this country and love what it stands for.
Republicanism, in its current iteration spanning forty plus years, however, IS a movement (and one on life support, at that). George Packer accurately wrote in the May 26 edition of The New Yorker that there is “no energy, no fresh thinking, no ability to capture the concerns and feelings of millions of people” in Republican thinking. He goes on to quote Yuval Levin, a former Bush White House official, “The conservative [sic] idea factory is not producing as it once did.” Mr. Levin and Mr. Packer are ready to pull the plug on conservatism.
The current deficit in Republican thinking is that it has become inexorably tied to popular policy and is devoid of the conservative roots that once gave it strength. When Republican platforms reflected an abundance of conservative thought, the marriage of the two was welcome and productive. In many ways, the difficulties in the marriage now should not be a surprise. The two cannot peacefully coexist because ultimately they are opposed to each other. Conservatism values a small federal government and an expansion of personal liberties. Governing demands choices be made between growing the federal bureaucracy to provide more to citizens or accepting lower levels of government services which will lower the standard of living for some while forcing others to go without services or pay for them privately. The party trend has favored the former, in opposition to conservative principles.
Republicanism has expanded the role of government in order to advance the individual careers and ambitions of those elected under its banner. David Frum, respected conservative author and commentator writes in his recent book, COMEBACK: CONSERVATISM THAT CAN WIN AGAIN, that the GOP has lost the middle class by ignoring its sense of economic insecurity. Even this message, from someone I respect, reflects the growing inclination of the electorate to desire a federal government that provides for it. Today’s politicians understand the reality that to be reelected they must pander to their constituents. Those who have “done little for me lately” will quickly find themselves back in the private sector.
I talked to liberal talk-radio host Bill Press recently about his book, TRAINWRECK: THE END OF THE CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION (AND NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON) and in a thirty minute discussion he did little to besmirch conservative ideas; in fact he often spoke very highly of them. Rather, he bemoaned the behavior and politics of Republicans. And rightly so. Republicanism has been a parasite on conservatism for too long.
The Republican Party is in an ideological recession, but recession is a necessary part of any cycle–required to thin the herd of the weak, the aging, and the infirm in order to make room for the young, the strong and the vibrant.
Today’s problems belaboring the demise of republicanism also foretell the rise of conservatism: the energy crisis, the global food shortage, the economy, foreign conflicts, health care, immigration and individual rights. The best answers to these issues do not lie in the creation of policies and programs that perpetuate government growth, handouts and intrusion. The best answers to these problems empower an involved, accountable and responsible citizenship.
Now, more than ever, the problems facing our country call for an authentically conservative response, not the Pavlovian political response, favored by both parties, of throwing government money (i.e. yours and mine) at them. Today the favorable memories of republicanism are waning while the ideology of the Democrats continues to find no purchase in the hearts and minds of Americans. This confluence of events has created an ideological vacuum into which true conservatism can grow. It requires a new generation of committed thinkers and politicians, reminding America that conservatism is the backbone of America’s ideological strength, the strong rudder in times of change, and is a wholly different set of values guiding policy than republicanism.
New times call for new ideas and new leaders. Conservatives understand this and expect it. Our challenge isn’t to continually celebrate yesterday’s victories but to create tomorrow’s excellence and only a constant influx of innovation can propagate ideological growth. We cannot bury the family treasure in the back yard and expect it to multiply. Rather we must make creative and innovative ideological investments in our core values in order to see them increase in value.
So while many attend a wake, I will be at a baby shower. This cute little bundle of joy is named Conservatism and he is once again new, full of hope and promise and capable of all things. But the child is now an orphan. Who will adopt this beautiful baby and shepherd him to his destiny? His previous guardians are all but dead, but the future of the child has never looked brighter.