Can Conservatism save itself from itself?
I will never forget the day I came to the realization that I was a conservative. I was browsing talk radio shows and learned that the word ‘conservatism’ embodied the values I have resonated with for years: Limited government, economic freedom, a strong national security (especially to counter autocratic and tyrannical regimes) and free enterprise. Most importantly, this personal discovery answered a lingering question I had asked myself even before I was an immigrant to the United States, ‘why’ America? The freedoms and opportunities that attracted immigrants like me and led the U.S becoming an economic and military superpower were intricately linked to the founding ideas and conservative principles I related to.
After looking forward to the 2016 elections as an opportunity to re-apply those principles to reverse the current trajectory of slow growth, the crushing ballooning of the national debt and a more dangerous world without American leadership, a new troubling question has arisen.
Can Conservatism save itself from itself?
After a tumultuous GOP primary fueled by the resentment towards 8 years of President Obama’s policies and the zeal to avoid any candidate that could even remotely wear an ‘establishment’ label, more priority was given to elevate personality and rhetoric than to justifying the real conservative brand of principles as the governing alternative.
This has given birth to probably the biggest political ironies of our time. Many who were angry with the GOP ‘establishment’ for not standing strongly enough for conservative principles decided to support a candidate (Donald Trump) who not only arguably has stood the least for those principles, but who has perpetuated every false and negative stereotype of conservatism and the GOP. Many who were often seen as the stalwarts and guardians of conservatism such as the prominent talk show hosts widely known for applying the strictest litmus test for GOP candidates, automatically waived those standards and elevated Mr. Trump when he made his disparaging remarks about Mexico, deporting all illegal immigrants and banning Muslims from entering the country. Limited government advocates who rightly chastised President Obama for executive overreach embraced Mr. Trump’s impractical passions that could only be achieved by a strongman type subversion of the constitution.
While so much conversation has been about the ‘GOP establishment’, the elephant in the room (pun intended) that many conservatives won’t acknowledge is the presence in the GOP of an ‘anger establishment’. This establishment believes that the way to win elections is to stoke anger sentiments and reinforce the political battle lines of a shrinking base, instead of advancing the political battle lines to gain new ground and expand the base by justifying conservatism.
It is a suicidal political folly for conservatives to believe that the goals of conservatism as intended will survive if the vehicle of that cause represented by the Republican Party is transformed into the Trumplican Party, and if conservatism itself morphs into standards of Trumpism.
A few months ago when Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee, a widespread notion in the conservative and GOP community was that conservatives should fall in line and unequivocally support him in order to unify the Party. House Speaker Paul Ryan who did not initially endorse Mr. Trump was harshly criticized at the time for not automatically ‘kissing Mr. Trump’s ring’ and embracing his agenda.
However, Mr. Ryan may offer the best hope for conservatism to save it self from itself. Mr. Ryan’s explanation for not readily endorsing Mr. Trump was that he believed that the standard bearer of the Party should show that he is willing to bear those standards. Conservatism will have a better chance of surviving and succeeding if more conservatives supported this pre-requisite by Mr. Ryan for Mr. Trump as the GOP presidential nominee.
Even after the GOP convention, which officially established Mr. Trump as the party’s nominee, the message should be clear to Mr. Trump. His nomination is not like a corporate take over of the GOP in which he can now ‘rebrand’ in his image and dictate the terms. Rather it is a requirement for him to represent and the lead the conservative brand to accomplish policy agendas associated with that brand.
After numerous discussions with Mr. Trump, Mr. Ryan recently gave a tepid endorsement by saying he would be voting for Mr. Trump. His rationale, the bold conservative solutions policy agenda that the Speaker rolled out recently called A Better Way, would have a better chance of passing with a President Trump than a President Clinton. A Better Way offers a GOP governing agenda that includes tax, health-care and financial reforms plus measures to reduce poverty, empower economic freedom and upward mobility and aspects to restore Congressional authority.
In a video introducing A Better Way, Mr. Ryan begins by saying, “People know what Republicans are against, now we are going to give you a plan that shows you what we are for.” This is essential if conservatism is going to make itself relevant as a governing alternative. It also fits the underlying goal Mr. Ryan set out to achieve when he became Speaker of The House, to lead the GOP to become the proposition party not just the opposition party.
The importance of Mr. Ryan’s role to elevate conservatism is more crucial now, as he has to counter balance the policy deficit of Mr. Trump’s campaign and rhetoric to avoid losing GOP majorities in the House and Senate. It is a pity the substantive elements in the launch of A Better Way was overshadowed by coverage of Mr. Trump’s baseless criticism of a federal judge. Mr. Trump would have been wise to emphatically endorse this plan rather than continuing to ‘wing’ it and believe he can insult his way to the presidency.
If conservatism keeps being only synonymous with what it is against or with a GOP presidential nominee who does not wish to bear the real standards of conservatism, the movement then will fail to save itself from itself. A lot is depending on Mr. Ryan to make sure this does not happen.
Another person who can make a positive difference to the conservative brand is Mr. Trump’s choice for his running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. It would be wise for Mr. Pence to serve the role of justifying how the successful pro-growth and fiscal conservative policies implemented by himself and his predecessor Mitch Daniels could also be implemented in a Trump/Pence administration to help the whole country. A major missed opportunity at the GOP convention was to aggressively contrast the red state versus blue state models of governance and how conservative policies are helping Americans of all races and backgrounds. As outlined in previous articles, many Americans have been voting with their feet. State to state migration trends indicate that most have been moving to areas where they can experience more economic freedom and opportunities due to conservative policies that foster low taxes, lower regulation, lower cost of living, school choice and better return for investments or business start-ups.
Finally conservatism must save it self from itself by communicating its benefits in an all-inclusive message. For it to have electoral growth beyond its traditional base it must cease the trend (well orchestrated by Donald Trump) of using the divisive rhetoric that has resulted in losing support among key demographics. Demographics that often resonate with conservative values but are turned of by the messengers of conservatism. Donald Trump may be the GOP presidential nominee, but conservatism must hold him accountable to avoid him defeating the purpose of the entire movement.