The Right Way to Win Hearts and Minds
The purpose of good government has never been stated more clearly and succinctly than in the Declaration of Independence. Government exists to secure the “Safety and Happiness” of the people. It does so by protecting the rights of citizens and creating the conditions that allow them to pursue, and hopefully to find, happiness.
Conservatives, who take their bearings from the principles of the Founding, share this vision. We defend the institutions and the virtues of character that make the pursuit of happiness possible. We champion policies that make life better for all Americans.
The question is whether other Americans, who do not necessarily identify as conservative, also know this. They have no trouble seeing the appeal of liberalism since it lures people with the promise of tangible material benefits and high-minded moralistic ideals. Have we offered an appealing alternative vision?
For example, when we talk about the federal budget and the size of government, are we connecting them to the struggles of families across the country? We sometimes give the impression that conservatism is ultimately about saving money and defending the Constitution—worthy goals as these may be—rather than seeking the good of all Americans. Or that our fundamental objection to liberalism is that it costs too much money, not that it erodes people’s capacity to pursue happiness and weakens the strong ties that should bind us.
At other times, we frame the stakes of the contest as a battle between individual liberty and statism, thereby implying that conservatism is a radically individualistic philosophy. Is this not off-putting to most people whose lives are anchored in family and community?
Lastly, our healthy reverence for the past can at times lead us to concede the mantle of progress to progressives too quickly. If we allow them to frame the contest as a choice between the future and a return to the past, who will follow us? In an age of unceasing technological and scientific advances, those who cling to the past do so at their own peril.
It is understandable why we would be inclined to make our case this way. We are committed to the Constitution, we are fiscally responsible, we respect individual rights, we distrust collectivist schemes, we do not believe in the inexorable march of progressive history, and we deplore the damage done to our regime by progressive liberalism in the 20th century.
Ultimately, though, this does not explain why we are conservatives. We are conservatives because we want to create the conditions that will allow all Americans to lead fulfilling lives. We have too sober a view of human nature to promise that all will be happy all the time. But we can at least aim to put a good life—anchored in family, faith, work, and community—within the reach of nearly everyone.
With this in mind, here are some suggestions on how to better frame the conservative vision. These do not amount to a comprehensive definition of conservatism, nor are they campaign soundbites. Rather, they are meant to remind us of what we already know, but sometimes do not emphasize enough. They are meant to encourage us to do the hard work of depicting to our fellow citizens what life would be like in an America governed by conservative principles.
All Americans Would Be Better Off if America Were Governed According to Conservative Principles. All Americans—men and women; rich and poor; college graduates and high school drop-outs; whites, blacks, and Hispanics; religious and secular; young and old; native born and immigrant—would have more opportunities, live in stronger and safer communities, and face fewer hurdles if conservative policies were implemented at the local, state, and national level. Strong families, vibrant communities, a growing economy, a healthy culture, fiscal sustainability, choice in education and health care, democratic accountability, equal treatment before the law, the elimination of politico-economic cartels, and all the other pillars of the conservative agenda are not partisan or factional issues. They serve the common good. And they set the stage for human flourishing.
Conservatives Want to Limit Government in Order to Grow Civil Society. Conservatives stand for togetherness through families, religious congregations, communities, and in the innumerable associations we form. We recognize that individuals have rights and that the government has a crucial role to play in securing them. But we know that it is in the vast realm between the individual and the state that people pursue and find happiness. Government will occasionally have to intervene to lend a hand, of course, but it must be careful not to weaken the real ties that bind us. Policy should help bring people together, not create artificial roadblocks that keep them apart. A government that recognizes limits to its reach allows civil society to flourish. A government that claims jurisdiction over every sphere of life suffocates it. The greater the size, scope, and reach of the state, the more disjointed, disconnected, and weakened civil society and individuals will be. Paradoxically, individualism and statism go together.
Conservatives Want to Build an America Where Freedom, Opportunity, Prosperity, and Civil Society Flourish. Conservatives neither want to go back in time nor to go slower than liberalism. We want to go elsewhere: not back, not left, but forward. We know that there is no golden age when the America called for by our founding principles was a reality. Our healthy reverence for the past and the inherited wisdom of tradition do not blind us to past injustices. Nor do they prevent us from seeing just how much needs to change for all to enjoy the blessings of liberty. The conservative project is a constructive one. Our task—like the task of every generation of Americans—is to distinguish what should be conserved from what should be reformed, abolished, or overturned and to implement principled reforms that protect rights, expand opportunity, strengthen civil society, and eliminate favoritism.
Conservatives Are More “Progressive” than Progressives. On many of the most pressing policy questions of the day, it is progressives—and not conservatives—who defend the status quo and adamantly refuse to change. Whether it be reforming the entitlements that are bankrupting our country, overhauling our failing public schools, or reaping the benefits of the fracking revolution, progressives are the party of no. Modern progressive liberalism remains wedded to a top-down, centralized, one-size-fits-all approach to policy that did not suit the 20th century and most definitely does not suit the 21st century. In an age where consumers are empowered to customize and choose from an endless array of options, progressivism is doubling-down on its outdated model of governance built on mandates and limited choices—Obamacare being just the most prominent example.
Conservatism Is More Innovative than Progressivism. Conservatives generally fail to appreciate just how “unconservative” we are in championing free markets. Capitalism does not conserve. It overturns. It transforms. It pushes out the old to make way for the new. It allows Blockbuster to give way to Netflix, Uber to break the taxi cartels, and any entrepreneur with an idea to take on established Leviathans. It leads to innovation in all realms: better goods and services, delivered more efficiently. And it fuels job creation since most new jobs come not from existing business growing, but from new businesses being started.
Conservatives Aim to “Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity.” The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States reminds us that we as a political community are oriented toward the future. We have duties to posterity. It is not enough for us to be free. We must ensure that our descendants are raised so as to be capable of reaping the blessings of liberty themselves. To borrow a fashionable word from the liberal lexicon, conservatives believe in sustainable liberty. In this important regard, all conservatives are social conservatives who recognize the irreplaceable role that the family plays in raising the next generation of citizens and teaching them the great art of self-government.