Does Conservatism Have a Future?

A friend and I have been going back and forth on this. His claim is that much of the stuff I see now in campaigning will drop away when it becomes time to govern. The playbook is simply “just throw as much crazy stuff as you can at the opposition, get something to stick, win, and then respond to necessities.”

I wish things were that simple. I wish I could tell you that the everyday viciousness of campaign-style politics always grudgingly conceded to necessity. But I think those of you sympathetic to my political views probably feel like health-care reform broke not only the bank, but that “rule.” That’s mild compared to our side of the aisle, where one can see that many there want to exclude others, no matter what the cost – they don’t even care how they look publicly.

Truth be told, my friend is very complacent. He’s just assuming things will work as they “always” have. I see no reason for such faith – there’s no reason why factionalism can’t get uglier, more divisive, and even outright violent. We don’t live in a world where families and morals and making serious friends matter; the private long ago became defined by the libertine. And those of you in more religious circles know just how materialistic things are there – many simply want to go to heaven, not lead the best life possible, and so much time is spent on self-help or apocalyptic rhetoric that the latter is almost impossible to discuss.

I’m not blaming Right or Left here. And I am aware this account is a bit exaggerated. Point is, it’s also difficult to refute, moreso than simply thinking “everything’s going to be alright.” We need a more serious starting point.

1. When it comes to politics, the best starting points may not depend on insight. They may be statements that everyone can get behind, with a little persuasion, and that benefit as many as possible. In other words: the absolute truth isn’t a necessity here. A good – somewhat imperfect, to be sure – is.

So I’ll say two things as a whole have to hold for conservatism to have a future:

  • Whatever platform ends up comprising conservatism, it has to be as inclusive as possible, acknowledging that America has a future as well as a past.
  • A conservative policy has to deliver people some real good that they can enjoy in their lifetime. The character of that good is one most – if not all – Americans can acknowledge and celebrate.

2. You can see why I’ve picked these two principles. Anyone going “that’s Progressive, reaching out to other groups of people and asking for others to actually get something in this life,” is going to expose themselves as a bigot and an idiot. The principles are too general to be specifically ideological. Even the most anarchist libertarian can agree that a future society probably needs some degree of fraternity to survive, and that the good for as many as possible has been maximized in that society.

I don’t think the principles are radical. What’s radical is that I’m calling for the “reset” button to be hit on the current platform. I don’t see the current crop of issues as going anywhere. Let’s say a Glenn Beck type got what he wanted: we’re no longer fighting in Afghanistan, schools teach Creationism (god help us all) and dubious history about the Founding, the Federal Reserve comes to an end and Congress has direct control of the monetary supply, there’s an end to all sorts of taxes, we’re on the gold standard, etc. Does any of that stuff necessarily make America better?

You know the answer: no policy alone makes us all better, especially not the ones designed to respond to conspiracy theories (you know you want Nancy Pelosi in charge of the money supply – that’s what you’re asking for when you complain about the Federal Reserve). Once the “Fed” drops out of the conspiracy theory picture, then the Illuminati comes up in their minds again in some other way. What’s really shocking is that more prudent policies don’t necessarily make us better. Let’s say we end our border problems, lower taxes (like we should), cut federal spending, wage war more efficiently and defeat the Taliban – policies more in line (though not exactly in line) with what I want. Does that necessarily make us all better?

Of course not. All the low taxes and won wars in the world don’t solve a tenth of our problems. We’ll still have kids being shot execution style in Newark – maybe even more kids, since a lot of the money going there in the first place  is aid from other taxpayers. And Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, is way more competent than most people. Beating back the insurgency in Iraq hasn’t given them a political system that’s united for the common interest of their country: remember, those people brave bombs routinely to go vote. Would you vote if people were certain to destroy the polling place with you in it? Forget policy: in terms of securing the good, it isn’t clear that virtue and prudence are enough.

3. That’s why the reset button has to be hit, and hit now. The conspiracy theory we see dominate contemporary conservatism is stemming from a larger failure: we conservatives never really had a vision of what this country should be. And even if some did, that vision excluded so many people and made no serious room for liberals that it was simply some bigot’s dream.

For me, a serious conservative platform would be something like what we  working with now – pro-life, anti-tax, skeptical of regulation, for school vouchers, hawkish on defense and serious about foreign policy (meaning: foreign aid isn’t a waste of money), for entitlement reform (and eventually, some privatization), for budget cuts (I don’t know that we really need a federal Department of Education, for example, given the role of the states in education). But again, that “platform” solves nothing: it doesn’t really articulate a sense of value, where we’re going. It threatens to bring back the problems we’re facing now – when we elect Republicans, many of things we ask for are simply unrealistic given the way DC works, and then we go crazy and threaten other people as if throwing a tantrum is the essence of politics. So I want to suggest that no matter what platform we pick, we establish an issue that there is no compromise on, one that the other party should adopt because it is simply an obvious good for all involved. That becomes the “heart” of the platform, and we tie issues into that as they take a moral priority. I have two suggestions for that “heart:”

  • Prison and judicial reform – it is estimated 1/3 of those in prison are non-violent offenders. Every day news emerges that people have been spending years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, if they haven’t been executed already. Given what goes on in prisons, you wouldn’t send someone who killed your whole family there. If we’re serious about being pro-life and spending money wisely domestically, this should be the heart and soul of our platform. Of course, there’s another issue we could and should put at the center….
  • Rebuilding Native America. Yes, we stole the land from the Indians. There’s no way around this, and we aren’t really paying for that theft. They are, still – the drug and alcohol abuse rates among those communities are stunning. We’re the richest nation in the history of the world. We can’t do a little something better than throw money away at a casino, or whine incessantly while we give a few million here and there in “welfare?”

The “heart” is meant to encapsulate the two principles of inclusiveness and delivering on an actual good. Without it, we’re not really engaging in politics – we’re just in some form of factional warfare, where we routinely “beat” coalitions of other Americans. Again, if you think you’re paying the price because you’re paying higher taxes – and remember, I don’t want you to pay higher taxes – try living in East St. Louis for a week. We need to deliver on actual goods, routinely: how is a life not lived for others worth living?


  1. This post makes me happy… and sad. I’m always wishing that people cared about each other. On the other hand, I think that they actually do. They’re just distracted by everything else. In the political arena we seem to be fixated on winning, certainly not winning as a country or a society, more like having our team win a football game. It doesn’t matter if a candidate is a horrible person or a complete moron as long as he’s on our team…

  2. I agree with Amanda. It really looks like there are a lot of people who care about making the country a better place. And a lot of those people are in politics, but politics is a game and it’s almost impossible not to get wrapped up in it and lose your ideals. Not only that, but people have different ideas of what’s good for society. And in the end, the greedy take advantage of the well-meaning, then the greedy come to power and all hope for real change in the name of social good is lost. I almost think things would run better if the whole country were split up into small self-governed communities. Kind of like what the state system was initially created to be… hm..

  3. Interesting… rebuilding Native America is something you don’t hear anyone talking about. What would you like to see happen along those lines, specifically? And do you have any thoughts on recompense for descendants of slaves as well?

  4. Christine,

    Consider Lincoln on the last topic:

    “‘Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!’ If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'”

    Now, this might not constitute “recompense” for the slaves, but it was Lincoln’s conviction that the Civil War – 600,000 dead – was the price for slavery.

    I can’t truly understand the effects of slavery, only that they must be passed down through generations. But, without being callous, the idea has 1) been brought up before and 2) tends to perpetuate victimhood.

    On the other hand, blacks really have been divested of what is owed to them HERE and NOW, both in terms of natural rights and in terms of merit. I think the better question is to ask, “what does THIS generation deserve,” still without completely ignoring the ancestral. I say that this is better for several reasons: 1) I think we will see that by assessing immediate conditions contra rights, these folks simply deserve more 2) we should recognize the descendants of slaves as freemen – who they are – rather than as what they used to be 3) those resistant to real enfranchisement will have the ability to frame the issue in terms of ‘white guilt’ and ‘political correctness’ if we go the ‘descendants of slaves’ route. They will say it is more of the same – call it ‘affirmative action 2.0.’

    I don’t know what policy would look like, but it would not be ‘up by your bootstraps.’ It might involve economic incentives of some flavor – I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it must connect merit with reward.

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