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.