jump to navigation

Ignore The Pundits, Conservatism Doesn’t Need An Extreme Makeover (Forbes.com) December 26, 2012

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

The obituary for conservatism has been running for six weeks now since the election. The Titanic is sinking, says one commentator; the conservative arguments put forward in the 2012 election will soon be relics in a museum writes another. Demography is destiny, many say, and conservatism is basically populated by old white men whose day is gone. A standard refrain is that conservatism needs to change both its message and its methods if it ever hopes to be heard again. It’s time for an extreme makeover.

I have a little different message for conservatives: It’s time to go deeper.

Politics is only the shallow topsoil of the American political debate. It’s easily blown about by campaign ads and rhetoric, influenced by momentum and even hairstyles. Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson wisely observed that “a week in politics is a long time.” Remember James Carville’s book following the 2008 election? The title boldly proclaimed “40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation.” Less than two years later Democrats suffered historic defeats in the midterm elections.

Doubtless mistakes were made, as they say, at the political level in 2012. But the real work of conservatives now is not at that superficial, topsoil level, it is in the deeper soil of policy and the tap root of values where conservatives need to toil now. Americans should be presented with a deeper and more compelling narrative about the policy choices facing the country and the problems the present path will create. It is less about an extreme makeover and more about deepening its own policy message and clarifying its own values. Otherwise, why bother to become merely a pale version of liberalism simply to broaden your appeal and win?

For example, there is a serious conversation to be had about the family, one that is not reduced merely to pro-life and pro-choice sound bites, one that doesn’t begin and end with same-sex marriage. Liberal Harvard Professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out the importance of a stable family life to the health of the republic in the 1960’s, and many have noted the troublesome decline of family stability and the birthrate in Europe. That conversation needs to take place in a serious way here in America. What family values are entirely personal, and which affect the public good? This question of values is one that conservatives should appropriately raise, but in a thoughtful way.

There is a real debate to be had about the role of government. Here my Hoover Institution colleague Peter Berkowitz rightly points out that conservatives have mistakenly allowed the debate to be about big versus small government. Government is big and it isn’t likely to shrink much. The real debate is about the role of government, not merely its size. It’s about limited government, not just big government. What health care decisions, marriage decisions, and social questions are essential for government to decide? Federalism requires that we ask whether an issue is for individuals or government to decide, and if government which branch and which level? That, again, is a serious debate that needs more than the divisive question: “Are you in the 47% or the 1%?”

Conservatives aren’t wrong about immigration and will make a big mistake if they succumb to resolving these hard policy questions merely on the political level so they can win Latino votes. What proper interest does a country have in deciding how many and who will be allowed to enter? What about legal, not just illegal immigration: how do we encourage the sort of immigration that will strengthen the country in important ways?
A strong national defense is not something that Americans are ready to sacrifice. Even looking at this issue politically reveals that independent voters were greatly troubled by the lack of security at our government facility in Benghazi and that risked becoming a tipping point issue in the campaign. How does America lead in a dangerous world? That is a question about which conservatives frankly have more answers than liberals.
When a progressive friend asked me how I felt following the election and I shared some of this, he said: “You are an unrepentant conservative.” And so I am. Conservatives will make a big mistake if they think only of going wide and shallow, seeking more votes at the topsoil level of politics. First they need to go deeper, and sharpen the core values and principles which many Americans do share, and if sacrificed on the altar of politics leaves conservatism one more loud voice merely seeking votes.

Please click on the link to view the op/ed on Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2012/12/26/ignore-the-pundits-conservatism-doesnt-need-an-extreme-makeover/

%d bloggers like this: