The Obama presidency has had a rocky start to its second term. Not only has it failed to escape from the whirlpool of scandals that engulfed it months ago, but it has been drawn deeper into more and more scandals. These scandals obviously threaten to derail the Obama second term. And on the surface, the scandals appear as if they might help the political opposition. But in truth, the scandals pose a certain danger to the conservative movement, because they threaten to distract us from the crucial task, highlighted by the 2012 election, of re-examining our message and focus.
In the wake of the 2012 election, both conservatives and Republicans began a process of rethinking their political future. Some strategists argued that Republicans needed to mimic the Democratic brand of interest-group politics – namely, crafting a government benefits approach that would appeal to enough demographic groups to achieve an electoral majority. Other conservatives, however, including those who have written for The Belltowers, proposed another approach — call it the “Poor and Working American Project.”
The future of conservatism does not depend on deriving a political strategy that doles out various benefits to various demographic groups; it depends simply on conservatism being true to its fundamental principles, but focusing its message more directly and forcefully to those Americans who in the past have often felt ignored by conservatives. As I have written in my book Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged, a combination of liberal distortions and conservative acquiescence has created and perpetuated the myth, prevailing since the 1930s, that conservatism is an elitist ideology that cares only for the rich and powerful.
The message of the 2012 election, as with the message of all significant elections lost by conservatives, reflects that the public has bought into this myth and feels that conservatives do not care about or sufficiently represent the needs of the poor and working American. When conservatives lost popular support during the 1930s and 1960s, it was largely because of the perceived exclusive connection between conservatism and the wealthy. Even more recently, this perceived connection explains the electoral outcomes in 1992 and 2008.
Conservatives don’t need to change their principles to make an appeal to the poor and working American. They don’t need to pander or bribe. Indeed, as I’ve argued in previous posts on this site (see here and here), conservatism provides a better policy alternative to the needs of poor and working Americans than modern liberalism. But since the 1930s, liberals have seized the image of defender-of-the-struggling-and-average-American, even though in fact modern liberalism has become increasingly elitist in both its message and constituency. At the same time, conservatives have ceded this political terrain to the left, as reflected by the Romney campaign’s singular focus on the successful entrepreneur and business owner in its tax policies. But if conservatives are to avoid becoming a permanent minority, if they are to avoid a repetition of 2012, they must speak directly to struggling and working Americans. They must show how conservative policies will specifically serve the interests of those people who have been trained to think of the left as their sole political representatives.
This is the vital task ahead for conservative. This is the task that will determine conservatism’s course in the coming century. But it is not an easy task. Liberals have the advantage of eight decades of propaganda; they have an eight-decade history of attacks on conservatives. And in turn, conservatives have an eight-decade history of gradual retreat from speaking directly to poor and working Americans.
The conservative belief in limited government is a sound belief, but sometimes the belief can translate into propensity toward limited political engagement, which is not a sound approach. Just because government is limited in the scope of its power, political dialogue and alternatives should not be limited. However, because conservatives often rely on the private sector to perform many social and economic functions, they sometimes shy away from discussing social and economic problems in the political arena. Government action may have to take a backseat to private sector action; but a political discussion of social and economic issues should never take a backseat to the principle of limited government.
There are many problems that currently hit poor and working Americans especially hard — problems like wage stagnation, the cost of higher education, the quality of public elementary and secondary education, and the cost and availability of health care. Conservatives need to more aggressively discuss these problems and how they can be addressed. Even though the problems might be best addressed through the private sector, conservatives need to demonstrate how this will occur. The government doesn’t need to take on full responsibility for all these problems, as the left so often advocates, but it may be able to take certain actions that will help correct some blockage that in turn will help the private sector to better address the problem.
Conservatism offers a better means of addressing the cost and quality of education, wage stagnation, social mobility and the provision of health care than modern liberalism does. But what conservatives must do is articulate their policies and prescriptions from the vantage point of the economically struggling American. Every policy position taken by conservatives should be evaluated first and foremost from the perspective of the struggling American, and then articulated and promoted from that perspective. This will demonstrate that conservatism is a national, unifying creed, rather than one dependent on satisfying a patchwork of interest groups. This will help reverse the leftist-sponsored myth that conservatism ignores or does not care about the average or struggling American. Because in reality, this myth serves as a distraction from the reality that leftism is the elitist creed.
This message is not one that can be immediately made nor immediately accepted. It will take time and commitment to disprove long-held perceptions and demonstrate sincere dedication. But the success of this message will determine the future success of conservatism in America. The current array of Obama scandals will, in the long run, be irrelevant to the vibrancy of conservatism. Consequently, conservatives should not make the mistake made in the wake of the 2010 elections, when they mistook Democratic problems for a revival of conservative popularity and then two years later presumed that the public was ready to elect a Republican president, when neither conservatives nor Republicans had ever addressed the fundamental reasons for the electoral loss in 2008.
Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research.