In the aftermath of electoral defeat, conservatives frequently question their philosophy’s appeal. So it is after this year’s presidential election.
My view is that the future of American conservatism is bright. Its fundamental strengths remain. But refinements and adjustments are needed, as they always are in times of change.
To be clear: This election was not a referendum between two distinct philosophical approaches. President Barack Obama’s handlers believed that if the contest turned into a battle between competing visions for America’s future, his defeat was likely.
So the Chicago Wrecking Crew used their considerable resources to try to disqualify Mitt Romney by assailing his character, business record, and values. They largely, if not completely, succeeded. To many voters, Romney became, in the memorable phrase of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, “a plutocrat with a wife who was an admitted equestrian.”
2012 was a tactical victory for Obama; it was not a strategic defeat for conservatism. For only the sixth time in history, the number of voters dropped from the previous presidential election. And Obama became the first president to win a second term with a smaller percentage of the vote than in his first race.
Still, conservatism faces challenges. There is some irony in the fact that a philosophy based on timeless values, experience, precedent, and practice must periodically update itself, applying its principles to the country’s new condition. Now is such a time.
One reason the political parties that represent conservatism and liberalism (and the latter’s further left cousins) seem so closely matched is that neither has gained a durable advantage in talking about what Americans face in their families and communities. How can people provide for their loved ones? Will they and their neighbors have good jobs? Will their children get a quality education? What kind of a country will their children inherit? Conservative politicians must offer a practical, commonsense, and compelling agenda that speaks to these concerns. Which is why the contributions of scholars, policy experts, think tanks, scribblers in little journals, columnists, writers in magazines and blogs, voices on TV and radio, and leaders of interest groups are more important than in recent decades.
Conservatives must also be alert to tone. Our movement prospers when it is led by individuals who are optimistic, upbeat, and forward-looking. Ronald Reagan drew people to him not because he was pessimistic, angry, whiny, or judgmental. There are vital lessons here both about language and emphasis.
Our values are right and apply to people across America. They can help people in every corner of the country to rise and prosper and lead lives of dignity and worth. We must convince people we mean it, through what we say and through the policies we propose.
Conservatism is also stronger when it recognizes it’s a movement characterized not by one rigid set of beliefs but by a collection of often similar but occasionally different schools of thought. Forbearance and tolerance are therefore necessary, especially in dealing with other conservatives.
Success in politics comes only if we shrug off the despondency that comes after defeat. Losses, like victories, aren’t permanent. Life–and the fight–goes on. Progressives didn’t throw in the towel after 2010. We shouldn’t now.
This article originally appeared in Commentary Magazine's January symposium issue and online at CommentaryMagazine.com on January 7, 2013.