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The Emerging Conservative Consensus

Ask yourself who would win in a theoretical election: Obama ’09 or Reagan ’84? Sure, President Obama’s victory last year was impressive, but his approval ratings are dropping by the hour and the late Reagan is consistently cited as one of the country’s most beloved former presidents. Perhaps Reagan wouldn’t win 49 states as in 1984, but is there any doubt, knowing what we know now, that Reagan would emerge victorious — and do so decisively?

So how did Ronnie do it? He had the support of the appropriately named “Reagan coalition.” Mitt Romney prefers to call it the “three-legged stool.” Whatever one wants to call it, the coalition was comprised of three factions of conservatives: social conservatives, who championed a strong moral sense and family values; economic conservatives, who favored small government and lower taxes; and national security-minded conservatives, who supported a robust and aggressive foreign policy against tyrants and adversaries. Each faction had subdivisions of its own, where strong debates raged. Nevertheless, the coalition remained intact for Reagan throughout the duration of his presidency.

The country has changed much since the 1980s — the Reagan coalition, seemingly dormant. But I suspect the reemergence of a conservative consensus in time for the elections in 2010 and 2012. No, this does not mean we will be graced with another Reagan-type political figure. There likely isn’t one. Nor does it mean Republicans will have to “moderate” their views and undermine their convictions, in order to pander to specific interest groups or demographics. It does mean, however, that conservatives will have to modify the coalition and their message to meet contemporary realities. This could be done — and will be done, I believe — using a simple three-step political formula.

First, social conservatives (or “so-cons”) ought to begin emphasizing means over ends. On social issues, the United States has become more liberal since the 1980s. As a result, so-cons have allowed themselves to become caricatured as Bible-thumpin’, gay-hatin’ bigots. But they could destroy this image, and in fact win more policy debates on a local level, if so-cons publicly embraced the libertarian live-and-let-live roots of conservatism, as well as America’s federalist history.

It’s been said that conservatives want government out of the boardroom, whereas liberals want government out of the bedroom. Well, keeping government out of the bedroom — a metaphor for all “social issues” — is actually a conservative battle as well. The Founders knew they could not predict all of the divisive social issues that would emerge in the future, so they established an ideal system to address these contentious issues: federalism. In other words, the decentralization of authority. Constitutionally, when it comes to social issues, every state could effectively do what it wants.

But that’s not what so-cons have advocated as of late. With so-con support, President Bush tried to ban gay marriage and stem cell research on a national level. Additionally, so-cons oppose the legalization of drugs, prostitution, gambling, et al. — all on the grounds that these things are immoral and thus should become (or remain) illegal throughout the entire country. This is a losing battle — not because the United States is destined to become a morally decadent power, but because America’s natural impulse toward federalism is too strong. The people in Vermont are a lot different than the people in Texas. Why should they abide by the same social constructs? “We’re all adults, here; let’s talk about bigger things” should be the message. When asked about same-sex marriage, GOP presidential candidates should be saying, “Bring it up with your governor; that’s not the job I’m running for.”

Despite the caricatures, so-cons have proven their clout in recent years (the bluest of states have all rejected same-sex marriage and people are still ludicrously getting locked up for smoking various forms of plant life). But so-cons would be far more philosophically consistent, and therefore less harmful to the conservative image, if they concentrated on their own states’ social issues and appealed to the law as opposed to their personal opinions. For example, rather than remain fixated on the immorality of abortion, why not emphasize the unconstitutionality of Roe v. Wade itself? The former method of argument is inflammatory and hardly ever gets us anywhere; the latter method is empirical and has the additional benefit of being in sync with the U.S. Constitution. It’s still fighting for the same cause, just in a different, more effective manner.

Second, economic conservatives (or “eco-cons”) would be wise to emphasis economic liberty over economic growth. For years, eco-cons have argued that big government was hurting big business and therefore hurting the main beneficiary of unfettered big business, the proverbial “little guy.” This message doesn’t resonate so much in an era where big government and big business cooperate and collude on nearly everything imaginable, from credit loans, to subprime mortgages, to environmental regulations, to pharmaceuticals — and as a result, got us in the mess we’re in today. “Economic liberty will bring sustainable economic growth” should be the message. It’s a winning message.

It’s also a bold one. Why focus solely on the unfairness of our current tax bracket structure — where the top 1% pays 40% of the nation’s taxes and the top 50% pays 97% — when this is a prime opportunity to attack the insanity (and unconstitutionality) of federal income taxation itself? Where is the discussion about the improprieties of the Federal Reserve? Who is promoting the idea of a consumption tax as an alternative? Who is explaining the FairTax (or flat tax) to the American people in a coherent manner? Where is the national debate on the fall of the U.S. dollar, on deficit spending, on the debt, on returning to the gold standard, on abolishing the IRS?

This is the eco-cons’ moment. We should be having a dialogue on what Jefferson, Adams, Madison, etc. — “right-wingers” all, by contemporary standards — would be doing if they were in our shoes. The 18th-century political literature is there to be read and it’s as fascinating as it is prescient to today. Who cares which candidate will cut taxes a few percentage points? Eco-cons ought to be thinking big, illuminating our history, explaining who we are, and revealing how statism is alien to the American experience.

Last but not least, there’s the national security conservatives, forever splintered into two primary camps: the so-called realists (think: Colin Powell) and the neoconservatives, or “neocons” (think: Paul Wolfowitz). These two camps have been at loggerheads ever since Nixon went to China. The realists insist theirs is a pragmatic foreign policy, aimed at achieving great things like “regional stability,” “détente,” and the “balance of power.” To get these things, the realists are ready and eager to make a deal with the devil and consequently sell out our allies.

The neocons, on the other hand, believe in promoting democratic principles and supporting democratic dissidents throughout the world — particularly those in tyrannical countries — in order to uphold our national purpose and achieve our national interests. In other words, “stability” is pointless and counterproductive if it means stabilizing rogue regimes. Better to support freedom, the neocons say.

Common ground between these two camps is hard to come by, but there might be an opportunity in the aftermath of Iraq. Needless to say, there’s little political support in the U.S. to replicate our Iraq experience elsewhere. In fact, considering we are a war-weary nation — unlikely to initiate another massive preemptive intervention anytime soon — this allows the realists and neocons to unite on the means with which they agree (i.e., a strong military) and save debates about the ends with which they disagree (i.e., what to do with that military) for prestigious seminars and think tank meetings. This puts both camps right back where they’re most comfortable: reserving their open hostility toward one another until it’s time to vie for cabinet posts in the next Republican administration.

For too long, conservatives allowed themselves to be labeled cold corporatists on economics, warmongers on national security, and moral busybodies on social issues. The irony is: the more conservatives embrace the foundations of conservatism — economic liberty, individual freedom, states’ rights, and opposition to international tyranny — the more likely they are to dispel these unfair labels. Changing their opinions won’t unite conservatives, but rediscovering their philosophical roots — and explaining the timeless logic behind their philosophy — will.

And that’s exactly what’s beginning to happen today.