A New Conservatism?

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.

  1. #1 by helenl on November 6, 2008 - 04:31


    I think your analysis of what happened rings true. Conservatives pride themselves in using “fact over feeling” when criticizing the “other,” only they don’t. I think people didn’t buy the labels of “socialist” and “anti-Christ” and the guilt by association stuff at all. I learned that those were propaganda techniques in sociology in high school. Why didn’t someone clue McCain in.

    Conservatives were so much about ideology that they forgot about hope. Take abortion for example. Who really favors abortion? No one. We value choice in just the same as valuing choice in religion or whether or not to own a gun. No one wants to force women to have abortions any more than someone wants to force me to own a gun I don’t want. It’s a non-issue. But it comes up every election. Nothing fresh here. Same old same old.

    Bush has the lowest approval rating of any president in my lifetime. Change was a given. But as long as McCain talked about the same ideals and values, what was there to be mavericky about? And the “horrible liberal press” was against them. And race was dismissed as an issue. But it was huge. I made people mad every time I brought up systemic racism. And today a few people see it.

    In the main, Republicans seem to feel smug today, because they aren’t calling for a recount. What for? They know they were soundly defeated. What our nation needs now is healing, a bringing together of all Americans. I do hope that people who’ve been scolding us for disrespecting Bush will give Obama the chance to show them what hope is really about.

  2. #2 by Jeff Lees on November 6, 2008 - 05:36

    Scott I couldn’t agree with you more, I am sometimes ashamed to call myself a republican, I can’t stand, as you put it, the jihadist politics that have enveloped the Palin/Hannity wing of the party. What makes it worse is that that wing of the party torpedoes any republican candidate they don’t like. They demanded that McCain not choose a VP who was pro-choice, they are the reason McCain picked Palin, they are the reason Bush was reelected in 2004, they are the reason McCain was pretending to be anything but himself. When they got McCain, they demanded that he capitulate to their views or they would vote third party or something like that. I was at CAP when Romney dropped out of the race, making McCain the candidate. I remember all the protests and boos McCain got.

    I feel so bad for McCain truthfully, he would have made a superb president, and I know he really wanted it. But he was dragged down by the “neo-cons” in the party.

    I’m sure you noticed that my blog is on hiatus, but I was considering braking that with an article titled “The death of Neo-Conservatism.” I think your article articulates many of the points I would have/am going to make

    Overall, I couldn’t agree with out more.

  3. #3 by Ronnie Gipper on November 10, 2008 - 21:39

    Palin embodies your three part plan (“1) market economics; 2) small, effective government; and 3) power to states — strengthened federalism”) far more than McCain. I understand she does not appeal to progressive Democrats, but that’s rather the point, isn’t it?

  4. #4 by docjim505 on November 13, 2008 - 03:13

    Meant to get to this several days ago when you posted a link at Q&O.

    Have to admit, your article isn’t what I expected. I assumed (and we all know what THAT means!) that you would espouse Republicans “rebranding” themselves as “democrat lite”: more government, more social programs, more nanny state; just not as much as the dems (spit). This, I’m sorry to say, has been the approach taken by many in our party, including John McCain. I reject the approach not only because I think that democrat (spit) ideals are bad for the country, but also much less popular than some Republicans tend to think.

    Your ideas about federalism, fiscal responsibility and small government are quite good and much of what I think our party needs right now. Sadly, I fear that we’re going to do the opposite.

    I disagree with you regarding ideology. First of all, The Annointed One didn’t reject ideology: he merely hid it with the aid of a complicit media. He knows that “spreading the wealth around” doesn’t appeal to many Americans who wonder if it’s THEIR wealth that he plans to spread. Second and more importantly, I don’t think that it’s possible to have politics without ideology. Indeed, ideology is what gives rise to politics in the first place. What I suspect you mean is NOT a rejection of “ideology” but rather a rejection of vitriol, name-calling, and (to borrow a phrase) the politics of hate.

    I live in No. Carolina, where mudslinging during elections is something of a state pasttime. Every election cycle, our politicians promise to run positive campaigns, then five minutes later rush to accuse the other guy of slinging the mud first. Predictably, our newspapers and local commentators bemoan this sorry state of affairs with the very same politicians who engage in the practice joining in to call for more “civility”.

    I’ve concluded that politicians engage in mudslinging because IT WORKS. Vitriol, name-calling, politics of hate… They all fire up voters. They create a bogeyman to vote AGAINST. I would say that, to a large extent, you can’t have politics without a hefty dollop of hate. I would say that The Annointed One, though he managed to keep his own fingers more or less clean, would agree: look at what his partisans did to Sarah Palin.

    This takes me back to the original topic, which is the core principles that Republicans should adopt for the future. You’ve got excellent suggestions, but if we “play nice”, we’re going to continue to get creamed. Politics is more about the gut and the heart than about the head: logical, thoughtful positions and calm, rational arguments are useful, but they don’t win elections. Emotions (sadly) are what counts. If this were not so, we’d be dreading the inauguration of the highly experienced John McCain, NOT the empty suit we DID elect.

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