A Proactive, Positive Conservatism

Becoming the Champion of Work, Life, and Lower-Income America

by Prof. Patrick Garry:

With the 2014 election season at an end, conservatives must transition from campaign to governance mode.  Throughout the campaign season, a growing number of conservative voices urged the Republican Party to articulate a positive governing agenda instead of just opposing President Obama.

Republicans at CapitolAlthough a nostalgic element within the conservative ranks yearns for a return to the Reagan era, the world has greatly changed since then, and the problems facing society are much different than the problems of the 1980s.  There is, however, a truth about the Reagan era that pertains to contemporary conservatism.  After decades of playing a reactionary role, conservatism in the 1980s advocated a positive, proactive political creed directly addressing the public concerns of the time.

From Reaction to Activism

The conservatism of Ronald Reagan, just as did the conservatism of Abraham Lincoln, demonstrated that activism in line with conservative principles may be the only way to meet the social problems of the time.  Indeed, as President Reagan showed, a conservative program is needed not only to solve society’s problems, but to counteract the liberal overreaching that exacerbated those problems.

During the Obama era, the Republican stance has been almost exclusively an opposition to the Obama agenda.  And while there was good reason for it, this opposition does not translate into a governing vision that can provide leadership to an increasingly pessimistic and confused public.  Moreover, conservatives must avoid the trap into which they have often fallen in the wake of liberal excesses; they must remember that the mere relief of a damaging liberal governance has never amounted to a lasting remedy or governing vision.  The Reagan genius was in transforming conservatism from an oppositional creed to a positive, proactive governing program – turning conservatism from a reactionary creed of warning to a dynamic creed of optimistic possibilities.

The challenge to contemporary conservatives is to articulate a positive political agenda that directly addresses the concerns of an American public that is less optimistic than it has ever been in the modern era.  Given the high public anxiety about the future direction of the nation — as well as new problems caused by globalization, the high costs of health care and education, and the seeming erosion in social mobility – conservatives cannot simply advocate a cutback in government spending and a slashing of taxes, relying on the invisible hand of the private sector to address all public concerns.  Such an indirect method of addressing social problems is too remote to appeal to an uneasy, anxious public.  As Steven Hayward observes in The Age of Reagan, Ronald Reagan did not ask the public to support him because he was conservative; he asked for support because his conservative ideas would make people better off and solve their problems.

A modern formulation of the conservative agenda, which in itself will be complex and detailed, begins with an overarching theme, which in turn will focus the direction of conservatism and provide a public definition of its ideology and agenda.

Advocating Opportunity For the Struggling

Conservatism advocates expanded opportunities for those who most need and desire social and economic advancement – that is the defining theme that can propel conservatism to actively address the most urgent social problem of the age.  It is also a theme that separates conservatism both from contemporary liberalism and its long-promoted misrepresentation of conservatism as concerned only with the rich.

Ever since the New Deal era, the Left has waged an unrelenting campaign to paint conservatives as indifferent to the average person and concerned only about the wealthy.  Conservatives slowly retreated from these liberal attacks, eventually ceding the political constituency of poor and struggling Americans to the Left.  Although this surrender was reversed by President Reagan, it returned most recently during the 2012 campaign of Mitt Romney, who focused his economic message on the heroic entrepreneur while seemingly ignoring the employees of those entrepreneurs, and who spoke dismissively of the 47 percent of the public he labelled as “takers.”

The message conservatives must articulate is one of hope and opportunity: not just for the have’s, but particularly for the have-not’s.  Conservatism’s first consideration should be for those at bottom rung of the economic ladder, those most in need of upward mobility, because upward mobility from the bottom of the economic ladder lies at the heart of the American promise.  On the other hand, the Republican focus on tax cuts for individuals not only leaves them open to the charge that they favor the rich, but often makes them seem irrelevant to the nearly 50 percent of the population who don’t pay any federal income taxes.

The Need of Lower-Income America for a Champion

The working class has serious doubts about whether it can get ahead in today’s economy.  Although working-class Americans don’t trust government to help them, they are suspicious of high finance and see big business as having too much power.

Recent polls show that a majority of Americans agree with the statement that “the economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.”  A plurality in all fifty states, including a majority in most deep red states, thinks that the country’s economic system favors the wealthy.  The concerns voiced in these polls are the concerns to which conservatives must dedicate their message.

The liberal agenda of government-imposed equality mandates aimed at placating a stoked resentment against the wealthy cannot replace the actual expansion of opportunity and mobility for the struggling working class.  Government programs designed by the political elite cannot take the place of the ability of individuals of all economic stripes to shape their destiny.  Unlike the liberal agenda, conservatism does not look to the size of government to determine whether individuals are happy and healthy in their life’s status and pursuits.  Conservatism does not simply seek to make the individual a bigger consumer of government services.  On the other hand, conservatives should not think simply about cutting government, but about what kind of government best serves the needs of working and middle class America.

The conservative focus on growth of economic opportunity and social mobility for all society, and particularly for the most struggling members of society, leads to a second fundamental conservative belief: the belief that America is defined by its society, not by its government.  Therefore, the question to ask about any social problem is not automatically What activity should government expand into? but rather How can the individual and society best reach their goals?

A Complete Focus on Government Misses Where Life Actually Occurs

Conservatives support the vitality of all the civic institutions that make up the social fabric, providing the social guardrails for personal success and offering a diverse array of avenues through which people, and particularly people of most need, can enrich their lives.  Thus, a conservative approach would reduce where possible government’s monopoly provision of services and expand the social sphere available to nongovernmental civic institutions.

History has demonstrated that the size of government does not automatically correlate with the happiness and prosperity of its people.  Instead, a continually expanding government has produced a political elite disconnected from the average person.  This political elite has become so disconnected that it even thinks government, not the private sector economy, produces jobs and economic growth for society.

Although the American public has long supported the principles of limited government and free markets, conservatives cannot advocate those principles in ways that only seem relevant to the well-off in society; they must show how those principles can be used to improve the lives of average people.  And sometimes government is necessary, albeit a limited government.  But contrary to liberalism, conservatism realizes that opportunity and mobility exists within the larger realm of society, not in the mandated dictates of a government that is only the tool of society.

Government has a static nature – it responds to static conditions and entrenches static programs.  Sometimes this is a good thing.  Government builds roads and bridges that are meant to be static.  But static does not create jobs and enhance social mobility.  Static might be fine for the wealthy, but static is not what the struggling members of society want.  They need the dynamism of the private sector economy.

Conservatism and the Centrality of Work

A belief in growth of opportunity, fueled through a dynamic private sector, leads to a third primary conservative belief – a belief encased within conservatism since Abraham Lincoln: the belief in work, in the ability to reap the full rewards of work, and in the opportunity to work.

Work should be at the center of conservative thought and policy.  Work is fundamental both to a healthy individual and society.  The true measure of society should be how well it provides work opportunities to individuals and how well it rewards those individuals for the work they perform.  As Lincoln believed, the government should keep open the economic arena for hard-working individuals to advance, and that when necessary it should support economic advancement through such measures as the Homestead Act.

Conservatism should be the political ideology of work.  At the very least, conservatism should not discourage work, as liberalism often does, and as it did with Obamacare.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the law will reduce by 2.5 million the number of full-time workers by 2024 – a fact that Democrats treated as a good thing, arguing that people who would leave the work force obviously didn’t like their jobs anyway.  Likewise, liberals celebrated an economic recovery in which a drop in the unemployment rate is celebrated even though it results from the fact that eight million people have dropped out of the workforce since 2007.  Indeed, if all those millions had not dropped out of the labor force, the unemployment rate would be double what it is.

The progressive political culture doesn’t seem to have a high regard for blue-collar-type work.  Progressives celebrate actors and investor billionaires and non-profit bureaucrats, but they don’t seem to value the blue-collar culture of working hard with one’s hands for eight hours a day and then going home to a family and painting the garage at night.  Progressives talk a lot about the act and rewards of consumption – of all the things people might buy or own or enjoy – but they rarely talk about the act and rewards of production.

Production is essential for a healthy society; consumption is simply the result of production.  Yet for a progressive, an unemployed worker is not someone to be channeled back into productive work, but a statistical victim of a free market who needs to be transformed from independent worker to a dependent beneficiary of governmental largesse.  To progressives, the unemployed are a necessary resource – people who justify a larger government role in American economic and social life.

As the champions of work, conservatives should not be reluctant to consider proposals that might reduce the size and power of Wall Street banks.  Capital manipulation — and, as revealed during the 2008 financial crisis, deceptive capital manipulation – should in no way be accorded the same degree of respect and protection as honest and productive work.  If conservatism is to be guided by a particular type of person, let it be a farmer or factory worker in Kansas, not an investment banker on Wall Street who performs a job no one can understand.

Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research.

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