Back to Conservative Basics

To argue that November 6 was anything but a major setback for young conservatives would be sophistry. It took some very strong coffee and a full boycott of the Drudge Report to pull myself out of bed last Wednesday.

The past four years have marked my real political coming of age, as I learned of classical-liberals such Smith, Hayek, and Tocqueville. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind and the newfound VIP of the Swarthmore Institute for the Liberal Arts, would probably argue that I’m genetically conservative, with a predisposition for values like liberty, loyalty and sanctity. Whether or not that’s true (it’s certainly reductionist), I’ve spent the last few years doing my best to cultivate conservative foundations. That’s meant reading books, but, perhaps more importantly, working out my own connections in what American romantics call “civil society.”

If it were just a matter of rooting for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama, I’d be no better than the political equivalent of a disgruntled Red Sox fan. What made the election matter was my fear that America’s traditional brand of liberty — which I’ve discovered, debated, defended and learned to cherish over the past four years — was at a crucial turning point. I am personally anxious that higher taxes and health care costs as well as sky-high debt may hit our generation the hardest.

But what makes the results manageable is my realizing that classical-liberalism is not something you can pin to your lapel come Election Day. I used to be a kid who thought the Republican Party was a coalition to cheer for. Only recently have I grasped that being a conservative is about conducting my life in a certain manner, with an eye for liberty, history, and beauty, above and beyond the political season. I don’t mean to say that these are only conservative sensibilities. Yet for me they reinforce a certain love for localism, constitutional order, Christian ethic, and Jeffersonian democracy that bodes well with American conservatism.

So now that we’re back to the philosophical basics, what’s a conservative politico to do? First up, some, like the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, are anxious to pitch the cause to Hispanics, in the name of reclaiming the more socially conservative bloc of newer immigrants come 2016. Certainly Mitt Romney, who garnered just 27% of the Hispanic vote, did a dismal job of extending conservatism’s broad appeal.  But enough with the demographic slicing and dicing.

As a whole, conservatism is more ideologically consistent than American Democrats, who still seek to hold together the FDR coalition of labor unions, welfare recipients, and urbanites along with newer minority, environmentalist and secular feminist interest groups. I aspire for a political framework that inspires members based on ideals. Republicans need to rethink their pitches to non-whites, city-dwellers, women and the young because liberty and responsibility are universal principles, not because Ann Romney awkwardly squeals, “I love women!” at the RNC Convention.

Second, we need to revive the Tea Party. No, not the rabid, old-time-religious, racist Tea Party the media dreamed up. And no, not the Tea Party of goons like Todd Akin who won primaries because cunning Democratic challengers split the conservative vote and the Religious Right was too sanctimonious to get him out of the race. The real Tea Party, which spearheaded the townhalls against Obamacare in 2009, is — or was — actually quite classically-liberal in nature. An August study by the Cato Institute found self-proclaimed Tea Party members were united in an economic disgust with Big Government but trended toward more libertarian answers on social issues.

I’m prepped for a Mitch Daniels-styled “truce” in the Culture War. Frankly, the Constitutional arguments are on the side of same-sex marriage. The opposite is true for abortion, which continues to rest on Roe’s infamously activist 1973 decision. Yet until the Supreme Court hands the issue back to the legislature, the GOP is woefully misguided to keep sending poorly-versed candidates into debates in which Roe v. Wade gotcha-questions dash their Senate hopes.

Finally, Republicans need to stop posing as compliant strawmen. Contemporary liberals like to argue that they like free enterprise but want the rich to pay a “little bit more” for the sake of a social safety net, lest conservative Social Darwinists get their way. That may have been true for small social safety-netters like Humbert Humphrey, but it doesn’t apply to a party that has essentially nationalized healthcare and the student loans process, bailed out the big banks and auto industry and massively encroached on banking. This is quite the federal agenda, yet, even if we commandeer every McMansion and yacht along the Eastern seaboard, there just aren’t enough rich people to pay for it. Republicans should start reminding this to every voter who has access to a calculator.

These are suggestions for a newer, smarter, more principled GOP, because November 6 was a huge victory for Wilsonian progressivism but bad news for liberty-lovers. Part of me is tempted to manically mimic Patrick Henry and shout “Live free or die!” to anyone who will listen. That, though, has all the trappings of poor mental health. Better to re-read the Federalist papers, chat with my neighbor, participate in the community and watch America take her course.

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