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Conservatives Must Grow Their Tent (Washington Examiner) December 20, 2021

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Conservatives have a shrinking tent problem. Rather than growing their movement with addition, or even multiplication, they seem determined to shrink it by division and subtraction. If they want to be relevant, they will need to relearn important lessons from William F. Buckley in the 1960s and President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and figure out how to build a bigger tent.

The foundational premise for growing a tent is to recognize how many different kinds of conservatives might, if welcomed, choose to camp there. In fact, the number of adjectives that go with the noun “conservative” is almost mind-boggling. There are national security conservatives, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, Christian conservatives, crunchy conservatives, neocons, paleocons, libertarians, traditionalists, and on we could go. If conservatism is about conserving something, these are all things that one conservative or another would like to protect.

The problem is that today’s conservatives would rather be part of a smaller group with which they agree entirely than a larger extended family that is related but not identical. If you don’t believe in limiting abortion, for example, then some Christian and social conservatives will reject you. If you believe the 2020 election was stolen, or not, that puts up more barriers. Are masks an appropriate requirement in a public health crisis or an unacceptable limitation on individual freedom? Be careful, conservatives, your answer to that question could also put you outside the tent.

The failure of conservatives to accommodate a bigger tent affects the Republican Party and risks its future electoral success. While Republicanism and conservatism are not identical twins, they are at least cousins, and what one does often affects the other. In February, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the Republican Party should be “a very big tent,” one with room for both anti-Trump Rep. Liz Cheney and pro-Trump Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. But later McCarthy moved away from his support of Cheney. If the Republican Party will still be fully devoted to former President Donald Trump, and leave no room for other conservatives, it may face further losses such as it suffered at the polls in 2020.

Conservatives should revisit two times in their history when they built and occupied a big tent. Buckley built the first big tent with his National Review journal, making space for the varieties of conservatism. In fact, his editor Frank Meyer called the approach “fusionism,” a philosophy holding that liberty and virtue, or free markets and traditional values, were not in conflict and should live comfortably together. This is precisely the kind of conversation conservatives should be having instead of debating the 2020 election results.

Reagan is the second conservative who managed a big tent. But as the late Bob Dole pointed out, many of the Nixon-era and Reagan-era conservatives would not be welcome in the tent (or in the Republican Party) now. In those days, some conservatives accepted abortion and some did not, a tolerant range of views that would be widely rejected by many conservatives today. Reagan was a pragmatist who accepted tax and debt increases as necessary from time to time. He even managed to reach a large number of working-class “Reagan Democrats.”

Conservatives need a big tent revival. Rather than purging their movement of people with whom they disagree, they need to relearn the lessons of Buckley and Reagan and build a bigger tent. The alternative is irrelevance.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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