Originally published in Commentary
This article will also appear in the January 2013 edition of Commentary
Why, despite its periodic low points, does conservatism always rebound? The reason is that much more than their liberal rivals, conservatives understand the weaknesses of our modern bureaucratic, too balkanized society. The strings of bureaucracy do tie the hands of genuine innovators in the public space, and the costs include a substandard education system and income support structures that actually perpetuate poverty. The growth of government has taken on a relentless pace that has weakened constitutional values from the separation of powers to the Commerce Clause. Entrepreneurship is vulnerable to regulatory overreach. And the subdivision of Americans into factions and grievances based on identity has diminished the concept of a national interest.
But while conservatism has endured, it’s worth pointing out that in my lifetime, voters have tended to turn right primarily as a correction to liberal failure or disarray—the freefall of the sixties, the ineptness of Jimmy Carter, the excesses of Democratic Congresses in 1994 and 2010.
The challenge the political right faces today, and that it failed in 2012, is the one of earning American confidence during a crossroads period, when the country is middling along and neither left nor right seem to bear exclusive responsibility for the train wrecks around us. Of late, conservatism has failed to offer its own account of how the middle class became poorer and less upwardly mobile, much less how to turn their fortunes around. It has seemed incapable of defending its cultural values without resorting to derision or wishful thinking. It has seemed tongue-tied about the immorality of financial markets that squander investors’ capital with not an inch of respect for the restraint that orders the lives of smaller, less entitled businesses, much less the standards around kitchen tables.
Most disconcerting, conservatism has fallen into the trap of resembling just another faction that defends its clients against the policy ambitions of the opposition. Too often, our side projects the narrow, bottom-line sensibility of a well funded lobby, albeit one with a shrinking, marginalizing client base.
The way back will require not just a sharper, more articulate critique of the myriad weaknesses of Barack Obama’s leadership, but an engagement of why we deserve to chart this country’s path as it turns an uncertain corner. Conservatives needs to identify with the aspirations of Americans who aren’t winning, who aren’t building, and whose anxieties are less about the loss of liberty and more about the depletion of their savings. We need to shake enough of our reflexive aversion to government to get serious about reforming government, from the archaic way it structures its schools, to the inevitably unsustainable way it manages our entitlements. We shouldn’t shrink from our aspirations of a civic culture that privileges life and responsibility and faith, but with a respect that Americans can share our decency without sharing every vestige of our worldview.
The public shares much of our critique of liberalism, yet it distrusts our capacity to lead. We conservatives need to restore confidence that we see a future that is broader than the agenda of our donors and our loyalists.