Roger’s Rules

Conservatism bestirs itself

This morning, the Hudson Institute hosted its annual Bradley Symposium at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington. Last year, some readers will recall, I participated in a symposium on “Publishing and the Power of Ideas“, an event that coincided with the tenth anniversary of Encounter Books. This year’s topic was Making Conservatism Credible Again.

Congressman Paul Ryan, an up-and-coming Republican star from Wisconsin, gave a splendid introductory talk before rushing off to the corridors of power in a brave effort to staunch the incontinent flood of spending by our masters in Congress. A quixotic campaign in the Age of Obama? Perhaps. But Congressman Ryan sounded several themes that other panelists touched upon and that I believe will have great resonance with the American public. Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the panels moderator, articulated two core points: 1) a defense of the capitalist system has to be made primarily in moral not economic terms and 2) conservatism needs to offer not only criticism of left-liberal policies but also practical answers to real-life questions. Governor Mitchell Daniels from Indiana, Yuval Levin from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Rich Lowry from National Review affirmed and expanded upon these points (though Yuval Levin put in a word or two for the importance of “no,” of being critical). Two high points: Mitch Daniels description of Obama’s actions these last few months as “shock and awe statism” and Rich Lowry’s observation that Obama’s has in his short reign violated almost every one of his campaign promises. Would he have been elected by promising a $1.85 trillion deficit? On a government owned General Motors? On a frontal assault on the bankruptcy laws? On a massive increase in energy costs and massive decrease in health care options?

My own sense is that the problem for conservatism is less credibility than communicability. When polled, 70 percent of the American reaffirm their preference for the free market. Why then are we consorting so intimately with policies that are patently socialist? There are many answers to that question, including the failures of recent Republican administrations to hew to the path of fiscal responsibility and market discipline. But a large part of the problem is what Aristotle would have called a rhetorical problem. Rhetoric, he said, is the art of persuasion. How well have conservatives done persuading the electorate that their policies, that their world view, is the one that is most likely to conduce to what “the good life for man”? To ask the question is to answer it. Republicans have done a terrible job at occupying the rhetorical high ground. This symposium did a good job of analyzing that failure and — perhaps even more important — of demonstrating what a robust and rhetorically potent conservatism might look like.