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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)


You didn’t build that, which is why I’m not concerned about the poor. A two-party problem.

Over at First Things Robert George, whose conservative credentials are not remotely in doubt, suggests that President Obama got a bit of a “bum rap” in the criticism over his “You didn’t build that” rhetoric. While George gratuitously qualifies his defense of Obama so as to clarify to his conservative readers that he utterly rejects Obama’s big governmentism and so thinks that Obama deserved the criticism anyway, his begrudging concession to the president makes a substantive point.

[E]xamined in context, I don’t think it is correct to interpret the “that” in “you didn’t build that” as referring to businesses.

Here, I believe, the President is telling the truth in saying that by “that” he meant the infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) that makes it possible for businesses to flourish, but which businesses do not themselves provide.

And of course, Obama is right. Government does far more to shape the context for productive business than many if his critics would like to admit, and even if they might wish things were different, in the real world of American politics and governance there are few sharp lines between the free market and political power.

Take, for instance, the Washington Post‘s recent report that one of the main reasons Obama has as much of an eight point lead over Mitt Romney in the absolutely vital state of Ohio is that the president has showered the state with the blessings of federal patronage in the past four years. To be sure, Ohio is no doubt a very meritorious state, and surely no president would ever use his political clout to sway the merit-based procedure of determining what states or business should receive government grants, loans or tax breaks. Yet, as the Post begins its report,

After President Obama pledged in March to create up to 15 manufacturing centers nationwide, the first federal grant went to a place at the heart of his affections: Ohio.

When the Obama administration awarded tax credits to promote clean energy, the $125 million taken home by Ohio companies was nearly four times the average that went to other states.

And when a Cleveland dairy owner wanted to make more ricotta cheese, he won what was then the largest loan in the history of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

And what about the Fed? In another recent article the Washington Post describes how Ben Bernanke has radically increased the role of the Federal Reserve in bolstering and guiding the U.S. economy.

In what might be his final years as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben S. Bernanke is transforming the U.S. central bank, seeking to shed its reclusive habits and make it a constant presence in bolstering the economy. The new approach would make the Fed’s policies more responsive to the needs of the economy — and likely more forceful, because what the Fed is planning to do would be much clearer….

Bernanke has already pushed the Fed far along this path. The central bank this month pledged to stimulate the economy until it no longer needs the help, an unprecedented promise to intervene for years. That’s a big change from the Fed’s usual role as a curb on inflation and buffer against financial crises.

That may have a calming effect on the economy, as the article notes, but it also threatens to politicize the Fed and possibly to increase the likelihood of inflation. Micromanaging the free market, as economic theorists know, is fraught with danger. And according to what principles will the Fed operate? Those of the Democrats or the Republicans? Keynes or the Austrian School?

Unfortunately the problem is not simply with the current administration, the current Federal Reserve chairman, or the Democratic Party. As Joel Kotkin wrote over a month ago, both parties are beholden to Wall Street and to big business, and the common man to whom Ronald Reagan was so committed finds himself with no advocate in the 2012 presidential campaign.

In a sane world, one would expect Republicans to run against this consolidation of power, that has taxpayers propping up banks that invest vast amounts in backing the campaigns of the lawmakers who levy those taxes. The party would appeal to grassroots capitalists, investors, small banks and their customers who feel excluded from the Washington-sanctioned insiders’ game. The popular appeal is there. The Tea Party, of course, began as a response against TARP.

Instead, the partynominated a Wall Street patrician, Mitt Romney, whose idea of populism seems to be donning a well-pressed pair of jeans and a work shirt.

Romney himself is so clueless as to be touting his strong fund-raising with big finance. His top contributors list reads something like a rogue’s gallery from the 2008 crash: Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Citicorp, and Barclays. If Obama’s Hollywood friends wanted to find a perfect candidate to play the role of out-of-touch-Wall Street grandee, they could do worse than casting Mitt….

Who loses in this battle of the oligarchs? Everyone who depends on the markets to accurately give information, and to provide fundamental services, like fairly priced credit.

And who wins? The politically well-situated, who can profit from credit and regulatory policies whether those are implemented by Republicans or Democrats.

Of course, there are those who believe the significant shift within the conservative movement of our time has been from traditionalist conservatism towards an infatuation with the utopian benefits a free market might bring, but as Joe Knippenburg points out (responding to David Brooks), the Republican Party has always been controlled more by the interests of business and economics than it has by thoughtful conservatism, whether of the traditionalist stripe or of the libertarian version.

In electoral politics, the business-oriented guys have always had the upper hand. The traditionalists … have never been major players in partisan politics.  They’ve always been more noticeable in various “ivory towers,” like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the editorial offices of First Things (if I may be so bold)….

In day to day politics, the pressing (the unsustainable size of government) crowds out the important (the state of our souls and our civil society). We should not stint in reminding our friends, colleagues, and fellow political disputants of what’s really important. But we have to recognize that the failure adequately and responsibly to address our pressing problem puts what we really care about at risk as well.

But Knippenburg is also wise enough to recognize that the Republican Party’s version of economic prosperity doesn’t always help the little guy and it is certainly not winning the hearts and minds of the working class.

A substantial majority (70 percent) of white working class Americans thinks that our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy…. Connected with working class doubts about fairness is a conviction held by almost half (47 percent) that the American Dream once held true, but does no more… One might ask why those people who mistrust the fairness of markets and society at large don’t turn to government to make things right. Surely they’re tempted to do so. And surely Barack Obama wants them to do so. Their hesitation for the moment might be due as much to the likelihood that government just seems to them to present unfairness in another guise.

But Republicans have to come up with a compelling way of talking about the opportunities provided by the marketplace. To be sure, they can offer a celebration of freedom and a critque of government intervention as “crony capitalism,”  but I’m not sure how far that goes with a working class person who doesn’t see an obvious path to prosperity for himself and his family.

I wish I had a magic bullet here, but I don’t. We have to recognize that in our economy, the opportunities for those who lack skills are very limited.

It’s easy to criticize government for being too big or for interfering with the economy too much. It’s even easier to criticize the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. Everything gets a lot harder when we recognize that the Republican Party is not offering very persuasive solutions, and in many ways it is simply another part of the problem.

Mitt Romney’s Stupid Comments About the 47%

As I sat down today to write the second part of my discussion of the theology of property in the Christian tradition I was sidetracked by the highly relevant story of Mitt Romney’s comments regarding the 47% of Americans who pay no income taxes, who are dependent on the federal government, who vote for Obama, and about whom Mitt Romney does not care. As Romney put it in the most horrifying part of the statement:

And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax… my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives….

What? As numerous commentators all over the Internet have already pointed out, many of these people are the Republican Party’s staunchest supporters and the most likely people to vote for Mitt Romney. Most of them are either the elderly or young couples with children who benefit from the Republican tax cuts and tax credits of the past two decades. Many of the rest of them are the unemployed who are so disillusioned with how the economy has performed under Obama’s watch. And while it is true that they pay no income tax, they do pay all sorts of other federal, state, and local taxes. Most of them are and always have been very hard workers, and they have taken no less responsibility or care for their lives than have the 53% who are better off financially.

These were stupid, destructive comments, and Romney has nothing to gain and everything to lose by them.

I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives …

This comment is at the level of Barack Obama’s declaration a while back that the people who vote Republican are those who “cling to their guns and religion.” It conveys an arrogant, derisive, and woefully ignorant attitude toward many of the people who make up middle America. It is not the kind of language you want to hear from someone seeking to be elected President of the United States.

Let me be clear. I actually believe in many of the policies Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan stand for. I think most of you know who I am voting for. I believe taxes should be low, dependence on government should be reduced, and government regulation should be minimized so that a free economy can do its job of creating wealth for hard working Americans.

But we have no hope of enacting these policies if we run around shouting out rhetoric about the lazy poor, or claiming that government has no right to tax me in order to ensure that the needs of the poor are met.

That’s why I’m so disappointed with Romney’s comments, and that’s why I write posts chastising conservatives for their views of the poor and of government’s responsibility regarding the poor. Because it’s not enough, if you want to lead a country, to throw out rhetoric that feeds resentment but fails to provide a vision for your country that is both just and balanced. Conservatives can criticize socialism and class warfare all they want, but if they run to the opposite extreme, abandoning any responsibility for the poor and waging a class war of their own, in my opinion, they forfeit their right to claim leadership of the country.

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