NOTE: I am not a conservative. But sometimes its easier to see problems and potential solutions from the outside looking in, not caught up in the rhetoric and conventional wisdoms of an existing perspective. So here is some advice for conservatives trying to figure out how to adjust to the changing political climate:
Right now conservatives are trying to figure out which way to take the Republican party and conservatism in general. Many believe that they have the right principles, but just didn’t live up to them. Others fear that they are selling a brand that does great in the deep south and bible belt, but doesn’t have appeal across the country. Still others worry that Democrats are winning the hearts and wins of the youth in a way not seen before.
First, consider why Barack Obama won the hearts and minds of so many people, especially the youth:
A) He rejected an ideological message. People did not back Obama because they were supporting ‘the left.’ Indeed, telling was how even many older Republicans came out in support of Obama. He was reaching outside the traditional ideological base and talking a language that spoke about real people, not t;heoretical isms. Bill Clinton did that too in 1992; Obama took it to another level.
B) Obama focused on empowerment, making people part of the campaign. It included e-mails, efforts to cajole donors and supporters to volunteer, and a strong sense of being part of history. People who normally wouldn’t volunteer for political work eagerly made calls for Obama. I was on both McCain’s and Obama’s e-mail list just to compare the two — McCain’s talked about ideology, Obama’s about working together.
C) Obama cultivated a sense of community. People felt part of something, they belonged — they weren’t just fighting for a cause. Being part of the campaign was itself a joy, not a sacrifice of time and effort.
With that in mind, look at what didn’t work for conservatives. Ideology certainly didn’t. Calling Obama a socialist, tying him to William Ayres or Rev. Wright and black theology — stuff that really riled up older voters and the base — sounded empty and meaningless. The result was a campaign focused on the GOP’s dwindling base, giving most voters nothing to vote for, only trying to give them someone to vote against. That rarely works. Young people get especially turned off by ideological fervor. We really are moving into a post-ideological period, the age of ideologies is fading away.
So what can conservatives do? I would suggest they focus on three core principles: 1) market economics; 2) small, effective government; and 3) power to states — strengthened federalism. These could be bunched together under a broader theme: “Freedom, American style.” (Well, something uniting the idea of American values/culture with freedom — that phrase got the old ‘Love American Style’ theme playing in my head).
Consider Sarah Palin. Her choice really opened up the stark schism within the GOP. The so-called “base” — the Sean Hannity listening hard core conservatives who see themselves as part of a movement against mindless godless elitist liberals — loved her. They felt she shared their values, and her folksy manner (seen by us ‘elitist’ types as clumsy ignorance) proved she was an anti-politician. But the moderate and libertarian wing of the GOP found her repulsive, and blame her for the loss. She was unqualified and as one McCain aid put it, a “whack job.”
State power or a stronger federalism is a perfect way for the GOP to overcome the contradiction within their party. They can claim “we don’t want to use big government to enforce Christian conservative values, rather we just want state governments to be able to reflect the cultural norms of that particular region.” Their argument would be that if Alabama doesn’t want to allow abortions but Massachusetts does, let them chose their own approach. That leaves open the opportunity for state activists to fight locally to try to change hearts and minds in Massachusetts, while shifting the issue from the emotional “you are all baby killers” attack to one of valuing regional cultural norms.
A focus on market economics would allow them to approach issues of taxation and regulations from a pragmatic rather than an ideological perspective. Obama put his tax cuts this way: only those making over $250,000 will pay a slightly higher proportion of their wealth, which is fair since the system has worked well for them, and isn’t working the disadvantaged. Furthermore, he stressed practical help not hand outs. Thus when the right yelled “socialist” or “he wan’ts to *gasp* “redistribute,” the response was a collective yawn, especially from the youth. The ideological stuff is a turn off. Instead, he could have said, “certainly we need to expand opportunity, and I understand the argument that the wealthy should pay a bit larger share — they already do, we have progressive taxes. But will this idea work? Or will it stifle growth? Raising taxes on those who can invest and build businesses is tricky; you might actually decrease revenues or risk job growth. Right now, given the circumstances, my economic experts and I believe this would actually do more harm than good. It sounds good rhetorically, but has consequences that will come back to bite us.”
That line of attack does not label, demonize or mock Obama. What McCain actually did was show no respect for Obama’s view, sarcastically dismissing it. “He wants to raise taxes in a recession, I can’t believe it!” and then hint that this was socialism or something from the ‘radical left.’ Talking pragmatically is more effective and would not have made him seem so bitter or angry.
Finally, emphasizing small and effective government allows them to recapture an issue Obama stole. Obama was the one saying we had to stop federal programs that aren’t working, and that he’d go program by program and review and assess them. This convinced many people that Obama’s plan might actually be more fiscally sound than McCain’s ‘spending freeze’ without much regard to the program in question. ‘Small but effective’ would allow the GOP to criticize Democratic program proposals, but at the same time try to figure out their alternative approaches — smaller, and with more of a state focus.
That kind of post-ideological pragmatic conservatism wouldn’t abandon conservative principles, but would lose the divisive and hyperpartisan rhetoric of ideology-guided politics. Rather than a movement fighting liberals — folk somehow less rational and consistent than the “ideologically correct” conservatives — they would be a positive movement focused on a set of core beliefs.
If both left and right can move in that direction of principled pragmatism, we can break out of the kind of jihad politics of the last twenty years. Obama spoke to so many because he offered a positive progressive vision that did not try to conjure up imagines of Republicans as wealthy, arrogant fat cats or poor, ignorant, bible thumpers. Sure, he had his attacks on the “Republican economic philosophy,” but he even worded those in pragmatic terms. “We tried that. It didn’t work.” What could be more practical — if something doesn’t work, try something else.
Obama hasn’t transformed the left completely to a post-ideological progressive pragmatism — any reading of partisan blogs will prove that. Activists are especially loathe to break away from comfortable partisanship. Conservatives are used to feeling themselves superior to liberals, especially those who listen to people like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter who create caricatured stereotypes of the left that conservatives love to mock. But the gun tooting conservative mocking the effete liberal vs. the smug intellectual liberal mocking the hick conservative are caricatures that aren’t true, and have created the politics of illusion.
Freedom built on small, responsible government, a market oriented economy, and states making more decisions and doing more implementation of policy could be a pragmatic conservatism that would compete effectively against Obama’s style of pragmatic progressivism, and could yield a healthy and less shrill political debate and competition.
Democracies only function well when power regularly transfers from one group to another. Obama seems to have helped begin a new kind of progressive movement, and has left the Republicans and conservatives tattered and dazed. That is precisely the point when people are willing engage in novel and creative thought about what they can do differently.