Opportunity for Conservatives in the Wake of Defeat

Conservatives are handling Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election in quite different ways. For some, the election is evidence of the fact that everything Romney said about the 47% was true. Roughly half of Americans are dependent on the federal government, have no desire to transcend this dependency, and will therefore always vote Democrat. There is nothing conservatives can do about it.

In a polemical piece that is filled with solid insights Brad Littlejohn reflects on the absurdity of this view:

It doesn’t matter that most people considered the moral sensibilities behind Romney’s remarks reprehensible.  Nor does it matter that it was pointed out on all sides that they bore no relationship to the facts.  It was simply not true that anything like 51% or 47% of the American people were freeloading off the largesse of Obama, nor that those who were freeloading were generally Obama supporters.  But that didn’t matter.  Because this fantasy provided an explanation to help rationalize what had happened.  The reason the Right didn’t win was because it couldn’t win.  It was hopeless.  Why?  Because a majority of the American people were now in the pay of the enemy.  They were bribed.  They didn’t give a hoot about the Constitution or the future of their country, so long as they received a never-ending supply of free stuff without ever having to work for it.  Rush Limbaugh declared that it was hard to win when you were running against Santa Claus.  Of course, this is pure fantasy from a statistical standpoint.  Over half of Obama’s votes came from people earning more than $50,000 a year, a demographic that did side with Romney, but by a narrow margin (53%-45%).  Not only that, but the group most likely to vote for Romney (by a 55%-44% margin) were retirees.  Freeloaders, feeding from the public trough of Medicare and Social Security, right?

A chasm of mutual incomprehension, in short, has opened up in American society.  I had hoped that the election would provide an opportunity for self-examination, for taking stock, for righting this sinking ship of a decadent society.  But on the contrary, it has seemed to only confirm the determination of conservatives to live in a separate parallel world, one in which they represent the true American and can write off a majority of their fellow citizens.  Needless to say, if conservatives want to put forward a vision for America, it will have to be a vision for all Americans, a vision that can include them, their hopes, fears, and aspirations.  By seemingly resigning themselves to the fact that they are and will be a minority, arrayed against a morally decadent majority incapable of judgment, the Right seems to be preparing for an age of factional strife in which a victorious minority can impose its will on the people.  And even for those of us who think that many conservative values would, on the whole, be good for America, that is a frightful prospect.

Littlejohn playfully entitles his post “Post-Apocalyptic Musings,” providing a theological analysis of the election from the perspective of the two kingdoms doctrine. Read the whole thing here.

Thankfully, many thoughtful conservatives are taking stock and refusing to go down the road that Littlejohn rightly rejects. In the Washington Post Michael Gerson writes,

Some conservatives have reacted in the tradition of Cicero: “Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!”Rush Limbaugh concluded, “We’ve lost the country,” which he described as a “country of children.” “There is no hope,” Ann Coulter said. And Bill O’Reilly: “It’s not a traditional America anymore.”

As a matter of strategy, it is generally not a good idea to express disdain for an electorate one hopes to eventually influence.

Gerson tries to put the election in perspective (Jay Cost does a fuller job here). But he does see it as a call for a more hopeful, aspirational conservatism, a conservatism that doesn’t duck the hard issues in the name of standing on principle.

This is the conservative task over the next few years: not to preserve a rigid ideology but to reconstruct a political appeal along improved but principled lines….

The right will always stand for nationalism and patriotism. But during the Republican primaries, those commitments were expressed as the exclusion of outsiders — in self-deportation and the building of walls. The tone was nasty and small. Apart from moral objections, this approach is no longer politically sustainable….

The alternative is a vision of American identity preserved by the assimilating power of American ideals…. [I]t is more advisable than ever to make public arguments about morality in aspirational rather than judgmental ways.

The Romney campaign was a vast machine with one moving part, its economic critique. The next Republican campaign will need to be capable of complex adjustments of ideology, policy and rhetoric. And it will need one more thing: a candidate with a genuine, creative passion for inclusion.

What might this look like? People will legitimately disagree, but one factor in conservatives’ favor is that, as the pragmatist Walter Russell Mead is constantly arguing and demonstrating (see especially Mead’s series of essays beginning with this one), the blue welfare state model of American government and society is indeed falling apart. Conservative ideas are more necessary now than ever before. And yet conservatives have to take seriously trends that greatly concern most Americans: growing inequality, declining economic mobility, and lack of opportunity. There is a lot more resonance between conservative ideals and the inclinations of most Americans than the negative rhetoric so many are currently falling into suggests.

Take, for instance, The Economist‘s new briefing on poverty in America. The briefing points out that poverty in America is higher than in virtually every single rich county in the world today. Part of the reason for this, it suggests, is that for all American conservatives’ complaints about the welfare state and too much spending on the poor, American society in general leans to the right on this point:

America is unusually reluctant, compared with other rich countries, about giving cash transfers to the poor. The country has a long-standing political aversion to anything that seems to “reward” being poor; instead, it fights poverty using a progressive, if somewhat paternalistic, tax code…. America is not blind nor indifferent to the problems of poverty, even if its rich and poor increasingly live separate lives in separate neighbourhoods, and with different social mores. The poor are helped by a number of programmes, some of them now creaking under the strain.

This should help give some perspective. Contrary to some of the rhetoric, most Americans, Democrat or Republican, do not aspire to be on welfare. To be sure, they do believe in a safety net and in the responsibility of government to ensure a genuine equality of opportunity. These convictions may sometimes give rise to misguided assumptions about policy but they are not morally reprehensible. And I don’t think most conservatives have abandoned these commitments either. They simply need to get back to the work of figuring out how their principles can achieve these ends in a way that makes sense to the rest of the country.

Note also what the Economist says about the close links between social and moral decline and poverty:

Then there is deteriorating family structure among the poor. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then working on Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty”, warned of the breakdown in family structure among black families. A quarter were headed by women, he wrote in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”, and nearly a quarter of black children were, in the language of the time, “illegitimate”. Today the unmarried birth rate for Americans averaged across all ethnicities is higher than that, at almost 41%. For white women who did not finish high school, that proportion rises to over 60%.

Most poor children live in single-parent homes, and most families that are poor lack married parents. More than a third of families like Ms Hamilton’s—headed by a single mother, with no husband present—are poor, compared with fewer than one in fourteen families with married parents. Back in 1999 Isabel Sawhill, a poverty scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, warned of “a bifurcation in children’s life prospects that threatens to divide the US into a society of haves and have-nots”—a bifurcation driven largely by the immense difference in life prospects between children born to rich or poor and to married or unmarried parents.

Again, it’s not hard to see why conservatives have something to offer on this point. If anything, the media and the academy are increasingly waking up to the importance of marriage and the family for American prosperity and equality. By channeling their insights into rhetoric and policy that is aspirational and inclusive rather than negative, conservatives may discover that their concerns still do resonate with most Americans.

This country was built on traditional values like faith and family, hard work and responsibility. Its prosperity depends on the free market and small government. Its best politicians have always emphasized liberty, equality, opportunity, and the American dream. I don’t think any of this has ultimately changed (if you doubt that just consider what Europeans, or even Canadians, think of us), though at points it is certainly under tremendous stress. Rather than write off half the country conservatives should take stock, put the 2012 election behind them, and get back to the hard work of helping constructively to shape the vision of the whole country moving forward. The real work of serving your country, after all, does not take place just once every four years. It’s the stuff of life. (Plug: James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World)


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on November 9, 2012, in 2012 election, Conservatism, Equality, Marriage, Republican Party, Welfare State and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Opportunity for Conservatives in the Wake of Defeat.

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