Let’s get post-apocalyptic for a moment, shall we? Let’s pretend that the Republican Party has become all but irrelevant, that the Democrats have swept the election in November, and that we’re reconstructing the conservative movement from scratch. It’s a mental exercise that may have practical value. Both supporters and detractors of Republican front-runner Donald Trump have noted that the party seems poised to tear itself apart. The schism reflects a deeper divide among the political Right. It seems clear that we’re not all going to come away from this thing as friends united in common purpose. So how do we begin to heal and lay the groundwork for a resurgent conservative movement in the future?
The first thing we have to acknowledge is that any post-apocalyptic entity will, by its very nature, prove different than the pre-apoloyptic entity. The conservative movement of the future will not look like the one of the past. For some clue as to how it will be different, look to the crop of youth coming up through organizations like the College Republicans. Young Republicans tend to be more libertarian. They are fiscally conservative and socially tolerant. They break from established orthodoxy on issues like marriage, criminal justice, and foreign policy. They’re less homogeneous, more diverse, and generally more sensitive to outside perspectives. Sooner or later, they will assume leadership roles within Republican Party and begin to redefine the brand.
To be successful, the post-apocalyptic conservative movement will need to avoid the mistakes of the past. To attract support rather than drive people away, it will have to avoid policy orthodoxy and instead promote principles which people can apply to diverse interests. An idea like “limited government” applies differently to the problems of a 19-year-old black man in the inner city than it does to the problems of a 43-year-old white executive in an outer-ring suburb. Rather than telling the former what we think his problems are and how we think he should fix them, the post-apocalyptic conservative movement should listen to what he says his problems are and apply conservative principles toward the development of inspiring solutions.
Right now, far too many constituencies have nothing to gain by joining the conservative movement. On the contrary, they view the movement as a threat to their interests. Many politicians, pundits, and activists work hard to contribute toward that perception with rhetoric about laziness. The nature of politics is such that campaigns must offer something of value. If you tell a guy that he needs to solve his own problems, then what does he need you for? There must be an answer to the question: what are you going to do for me? Many conservatives don’t like that, feeling that the only acceptable limited government answer should be “nothing.” But “nothing” will never be a winning campaign platform. There has to be something. There has to be a product with features and benefits, and it has to be better than what the competition is offering.
Does that mean caving on principle and trying to out-democrat the Democrats? No. The product doesn’t have to be subsidy. It doesn’t have to be Bernie Sanders’ Santa sack of Christmas goodies. But it does have to be something tangible, a proposal that people recognize as improving their lives. Education presents a ripe opportunity. We’re constantly hearing about disparities in achievement, under-performing schools, and problems with discipline. Why isn’t educational choice, the capacity to shop around for the best instructors and institutions, a top priority?
Importantly, the post-apocalyptic conservative movement will need to categorically reject racism and bigotry. The first step is recognizing that these vile forces remain and have a real impact upon people’s lives. Too many conservatives dismiss racial issues as outmoded concerns from a bygone era. But the progress of recent decades has not delivered us to our destination. For better or worse, race continues to define people’s lives in consequential ways. Acknowledging that is not “identity politics,” it’s simply acknowledging a social reality. We are not going to change how people identify, and we shouldn’t think to try. Beyond that, racists and bigots should feel unwelcome in our midst. They should be the only constituency that we have nothing for.
Building a fresh conservative movement from the ashes of the Trump apocalypse will require us to foster new relationships. Building is an inclusive activity. It adds. It doesn’t subtract. Rather than conjure ways to exclude, we’ll have to find ways to attract. That shouldn’t be too hard, since liberty proves inherently inclusive and unifying. We just have to decide to do it.