If this post meanders over hill and dale, I apologize in advance. After a few days at CPAC, I have quite a few thoughts whirling around in my head, and I’m not quite sure how to organize them into a coherent whole.
Let me say at the outset that I don’t believe the conservative movement is dead, nor do I believe it’s passé. Our ideas are right, profoundly relevant to the modern age, and in no need of “moderation.” I do think, however, that we should shift our emphasis — and fortunately, many of the speakers I saw at CPAC seemed to agree.
First point: We need to pay attention to Sarah Palin. Yes, yes, I know: unelectable (thanks mostly to mainstream media malice). But we still need to listen to what she says and watch what she does. As a conservative “populist,” she represents that huge “country class” that right now feels, for good reason, that it has no influence in Washington. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think Palin was mentioning the concentration of wealth and prestige in the counties that ring DC well before conservatives considered it cool to do so. She is also very much a critic of cronyism, which is not and should not be recognized as genuine capitalism. We would do well, I think, to select more candidates with her cast of mind — in other words, people who can defend the free market and attack the cozy relationship between Wall Street and K Street in the same breath. We would also do well to select candidates who are perfectly comfortable cracking jokes with college students the way Palin did at CPAC — candidates who are comfortable taking visible sips from a Big Gulp in the middle of a speech and teasing Mayor Bloomberg (something Palin also did, drawing a huge roar of approval from her mostly young audience).
Second point: Conservatives are right about the need to balance the federal budget. They are right about the debt. They are right about the current unsustainability of Medicare and Social Security. And they are right on taxes, spending, and the regulatory state. But the truth is, your average person doesn’t care. It’s all green-eye-shade accounting to him — something far removed from his daily life. What the average person cares about is his own financial stability. Does he have a decent job? Can he support his family? For many people, the answer is “no, not comfortably” — and this is what the left exploits. Very few people, I wager, feel that interacting with government bureaucrats is a pleasant experience; for every truly parasitical person out there who demands that government care for him from cradle to grave (the Occutards come to mind instantly, though they’re scions of the upper middle class rather than representatives of the downtrodden poor), I’m sure there are a hundred others who aren’t proud of being government dependents. How could you possibly think that taking a number and waiting your turn on a hard plastic chair as you hope against hope that you’ll fit the state’s one-size-fits-all formulas and qualify for public assistance is either ideal or dignifying? On the other hand, it’s something. Government services are as crappy as hell, but many people perceive them as a source of security. Such services aren’t guaranteed in perpetuity, of course, but most people don’t understand that economic argument, and they absolutely will not vote Republican until we provide them with viable alternatives.
Third point: As Robert Putnam documented years ago, the diverse and animated civic society Alexis de Tocqueville and others described as a key feature of the early American republic has been steadily collapsing around our ears. Outside the upper class (which seems to be maintaining its civic culture if Charles Murray is correctly interpreting the sociological evidence), people feel at loose ends and are longing for the purpose that used to be drawn from intermediary institutions like extended families, churches, fraternal organizations, ethnic societies and the like. Thus, they are susceptible to Obama’s empty rhetoric of caring and connectedness. Of course no one ever achieved success and prosperity on his own. That’s common sense. Unfortunately, the president has no intention of restoring those local entities that could truly bring us together and create an environment conducive to human flourishing. Obama’s intention is to grow the state — but until the GOP makes a concerted effort to speak to the American public’s anomie, Obama’s well-meaning middle-class supporters (and those upper class supporters who mistakenly conflate Obama’s promises with the vibrancy of their own communities) will fail to grasp this reality.
So let’s see — how can I tie this all together? Well, I think one thing we need to do as a movement and as a party is to take a cue from the social teaching of the Catholic Church and bring the vulnerable among us into the center of our mission. Entrepreneurship is awesome, certainly, and we should continue to promote it. But many people aren’t small business owners and have no ambitions to be such — they’re regular working stiffs for whom all this talk of cutting back burdensome taxes and regulations simply doesn’t resonate. If, however, we aggressively take back the moral high ground on the poor – a high ground the left illegitimately occupies, mind you – we might have more success. Republican groups need to have a presence in under-served communities. We need to put our money where our mouths are and support those local charitable organizations which struggle daily to bring people out of poverty. We need to ask people in these neighborhoods what they need and then try to provide it through non-governmental channels. We need to be out there mentoring kids, visiting the elderly, and sheltering and feeding the homeless.
We also need to emphasize those issues that are especially relevant to the poor, the working class, and the lower middle class. For example, let’s talk more about school choice, and let’s be bold about it. As we all know, many urban districts spend more than $10,000 per pupil to turn out young adults who are functionally illiterate and innumerate, a travesty of justice that destroys the prospects of success for countless inner-city young adults. But even suburban school districts are failing to adequately educate our kids. As a matter of fact, recent statistics suggest that while our lower class kids have caught up with lower class kids in other parts of the world in mathematics, all of our kids are lagging behind in reading, and our upper class kids are lagging behind in math. At this point, I think it’s time to be militant: Instead of pouring thousands per pupil into a heavily bureaucratized, socialized public school system, why not give half of what we spend to each kid for parents to use as they see fit? Leftists, I’m sure, would argue that loosening the government’s controls on public education would result in kids “not learning what they need,” but that’s what’s happening now. No — I think what really chaps the left’s hide about the concept of letting education funding follow the kid is that some will consequently escape left-wing indoctrination and left-wing meddling.
Again, conservatives are right about things like raising taxes on the rich. The rich, for the most part, pay more than their “fair share” if you define “fair share” as “in a proportion equal to the proportion of America’s wealth they earn.” Moreover, every time we’ve ever agreed to raise taxes, the left finds brand new ways to spend our money, and we end up right back where we started in the same financial hole. But we will never convince the majority of the electorate to feel sorry for the “job creator.” Let us look elsewhere for our dominant theme.