Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Conservative Principles and Incremental Change

In the immediate aftermath of the presidential election, a great deal of ink has been spilled about the future of the Republican Party. Since I care deeply about this issue, however, it simply is too important to ignore.

There seem to be three schools of thought about what to do. I’ll attribute each to columnists who have expressed them publicly, although many Republican leaders and activists espouse them as well.

The first originated from The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer and The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes. The argument is nuanced but the principal take-away is that there is little need for dramatic overhaul. The presidential race was extremely close and Republicans continue to control the House of Representatives and a majority of governorships. This is still a 50-50 country. Mitt Romney lost because of some personal failings and poorly conceived strategy. It’s fair to say this position largely is correct. There is no need to go back to square one. America needs a conservative party.

There remains room for doctrinal flexibility, however. This is the position taken by David Brooks of The New York Times and Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal. Brooks argues that most Americans do not necessarily want a smaller government, just one that will provide them with opportunities to succeed — one that will, for example, make a college education affordable and incentivize socially valuable work.

I agree with Brooks that some ideological flexibility — a little moderation — is in order. But the real problem here is not economic policy. It is, Stephens notes, on cultural issues that the party should change. Americans are religious and conservative in the sense they desire social change to be incremental rather than revolutionary.

But, as survey after survey demonstrates, commitments to zero-tolerance stances on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are losing propositions. They generated the jarringly out-of-touch and politically costly statements on abortion and rape made during the campaign by Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock — both of whom lost their races in red states.

As Mona Charen writes, immigration is another issue that Republicans must reassess. Only eight years ago, George W. Bush secured 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. In that election, the Republican candidate pushed for comprehensive immigration reform — including tougher enforcement. It is mainly Democrats who talk about the issue in such broad terms now.

The final proposition comes from Bush speechwriter and CNN pundit David Frum. This is as much about leadership and style as it is substantive policy. Frum believes the Republican Party now is controlled by a “conservative entertainment complex.” Romney, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Reince Priebus don’t run the national Republican Party; Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh do.

There does seem to be something to this argument. I watch Fox and listen to conservative talk radio. But Limbaugh and his like are in the business of increasing their share of a market, not the number of people who vote Republican. In fact, they probably enjoy having the party in opposition because it allows them to stoke indignation in their audience.

Tuning into these shows does not make you smarter, either. Since the programs are fueled by outrage, the focus is on the atypical, the appeal to emotions rather than intellect. There’s little real analysis. Listening to Beck does not make you an expert on the Magna Carta or the Progressive Era.

Republican leaders have had these ideas echoed back to them by a raucous rank-and-file. Many Republicans do not know how to respond other than by imitating, finding the anecdotal more persuasive than the scientific. They have lost the capacity to debate the opposition intelligently. They no longer convey the impression that Republicans have a governing mentality.

The time has come for Republicans to contemplate three things. First, conservatism is not dead, but many of its advocates misunderstand it and do it a disservice. Second, this country remains a center-right nation and Republicans, at the presidential level at least, need to be more sensitive to the center part of the descriptor. Third, the United States is both changing and staying the same. It is becoming more Hispanic, Asian, and liberal on cultural issues. It is staying the same because it is repeatedly in flux.

A dynamic society such as ours will turn its back on a rigid party with its head turned toward yesterday, not tomorrow. But its people will continue to embrace the core values that have made them successful — individual freedom, personal responsibility, adaptability, and confidence in the future. The Republican Party should roll out the welcome mat for all Americans who treasure such principles.

Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University.