This is the dreariest part of a modern political cycle: the weeks and months after a Republican defeat. It all seems depressingly familiar: Urban conservatives of a certain stripe say that we need to get rid of the social conservatives. Hard-line conservatives say that we got too liberal and we need to toughen up. Moderate Republicans say we got too “extreme” and need to move toward the center. Others point to demographic doom if we don’t jettison old-fashioned elements of conservative thought and appeal to the MTV generation, Hispanics, etc. We’ve been here before, too often.
This year, the intra-conservative sniping seems more listless than usual. There doesn’t appear to be much conviction in any corner. My own view is that our political dialectic has reached a dead end. The current constellation of issues, which has been fairly constant for around thirty years, has played itself out. That doesn’t mean the issues aren’t important; they are. But the political lines that we’ve drawn and the ways in which we’ve defined the issues have become sterile and no longer hold much promise of any actual resolution of the problems in question.
We’ll be writing a lot about this in the coming months, I think. I think it’s pretty obvious that conservatives need to find new ways to address issues, new ways to apply conservative solutions to problems, new ways to shape conservatism to make it more appealing to a broader slice of the population. I haven’t figured out what those new ways are, of course. But take the example of Barack Obama. By merely raising the idea of a new kind of politics that would get past the current battle lines and come at issues from new directions, he became one of the most popular figures of our time, even though he had absolutely no clue how to do what he talked about. We should be able to do at least as well as that.
One thing we need to do is talk more about opportunity, and frame more issues in terms of how to maximize opportunity. That won’t do much, maybe, with the 50-year-old voter whose opportunities are mostly behind him, but it ought to help with young voters, who see the world by nature as one of limitless opportunity and don’t want it constrained. Ronald Reagan made young people his most reliable voters by telling them that they didn’t have to listen to those who said the country was going downhill and that their opportunities would therefore be less than their forefathers’. It’s natural for immigrants, too, to think in terms of opportunity.
Conservatives need to be willing to take on the big issues and the big ideas. That means entitlements. Conservative tax policy has pretty much reached a dead end. Every time taxes have been cut, the cut has been deepest for the lowest-income taxpayers, and the tax system has become more progressive. Now, close to half of all voters pay no income taxes. So the allure of the income tax cut that largely framed Reagan’s domestic policy is gone. On the other hand, payroll taxes, Social Security and Medicare remain. They’re also bigger than most people realize, since it’s commonly believed that one’s employer pays half of one’s Social Security.
So maybe there is a way to combine these elements that could work. Take Medicare out of play as an entitlement, which is unsustainable, and convert it to a block grant program to the states, which would be encouraged to use it to subsidize participation in a wide variety of insurance plans that would compete for the patronage of retired people. Make Social Security what it should be, a mandatory savings program, with savings ensured by the equivalent of taxation. Maybe these elements could be combined with general collections and revenues in a tax system that is not steeply progressive but that would be seen as fair by a broad consensus of taxpayers, given not just the sources but the uses of the money.
These are some general thoughts of probably zero value. But in my view, a great deal of work by conservatives is needed to develop policy approaches that have unified, conservative themes; that can appeal to voters who are not already committed conservatives; that build on the experience of successful application of conservative principles to the problems of prior generations; that hold out a real hope of tackling our intractable problems like entitlements, not just the low-hanging fruit of earmarks, etc.; and that have the potential to inspire people to believe that they are not just trying to stave off the latest goofy liberal idea, but are actually working toward a better future. I think we’ve lost track of how inspirational conservatism has often been, through our history.
That’s more than enough for now. Others will have far better ideas, but the discussion needs to be had.
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