Americans’ victory in the Cold War owed at least some degree of debt to the old “three-legged stool” of the post-World War II conservative movement.
Three decades after that historic triumph, it’s well past time for conservatives to craft a new stool. That’s the case Avik Roy makes in a recent issue of National Review. He explained his argument during an interview with Carolina Journal.
“If we want our basic values and the values we think are unique to America or particular to America or special to America, if we want those values to endure, then we need to have a majority coalition that supports those values and can elect majorities,” Roy said.
President of the Austin, Texas-based Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, Roy looks at his own group’s name to identify one leg of the new conservative stool. Along with equal opportunity, he suggests that today’s conservatives ought to build their alliance on two other legs: personal freedom and patriotism.
A look at recent history explains why the conservative movement needs to return to the work bench, Roy reminds us.
During the second half of the 20th century, many of the movement’s leaders focused on the original “stool.” The metaphor described a three-part alliance of libertarians, social conservatives, and anti-communists. Despite their differences, each group understood the threat Soviet-style totalitarianism presented to American life.
Once the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union crumbled in the following years, the stool’s three legs began to wobble. While anti-communists could claim a clear victory at the time, the verdict for limited-government libertarians and tradition-focused social conservatives was less certain.
Thirty years later, the results look downright disappointing.
“The era of big government is not over,” Roy said. “The government is bigger than it’s ever been. The federal debt is bigger than it’s even been.”
“For those of us who believe in or support cultural conservatism, social conservatism, where are the victories there?” he asked. “Are we a more religious country today than we were in 1989? Are we a country with lower illegitimacy rates? … Are we a country that — broadly speaking — is one where communities are stronger?”
Even worse than the track record over the past 30 years, it’s not clear that today’s conservatives have a coherent plan moving forward.
Now, after an election that placed left-of-center progressives in charge of the federal government’s political branches, conservatives have an opportunity. They can re-evaluate the basic framework that has supported their political alliance for 65 to 70 years.
For Roy, the rebuilding starts with personal freedom. It’s not just the economic freedom prized by libertarians. Freedom also includes a stand against today’s cancel culture.
“Our movement is a movement that can be a majority movement in America if it’s focused on the idea that people should be able to think what they want to think and raise their children the way they want to raise their children without fear of losing their jobs or being expunged from their communities — when their views are basically traditional views.”
Pointing to equal opportunity as the second leg of the new stool, Roy differentiates that goal from a pure libertarian approach.
“The concept of equal opportunity recognizes that some people, whether it’s because their ancestors grew up under segregation or because they grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, that these are things that lead us to want to do something affirmative in nature,” Roy said.
That means a “robust system of public education” helping low-income students rise from humble beginnings. “Those kinds of things require a limited, but pretty important and intellectually coherent, set of public services and public activities.”
For his third stool leg, Roy distinguishes patriotism from “the nationalism of recent vintage.” That means avoiding the suspicion of foreign business and legal immigration that has driven debate in recent years.
“A classically liberal but patriotic America would be one that says, ‘You know what? If you want to come here from somewhere else and contribute to what America is, that’s great,’” Roy said. “Ronald Reagan used to call legal immigrants Americans by choice.”
Along with the three new stool legs, Roy warns that conservatives must be willing to admit to the movement’s past failures. That includes frequent pushback against civil-rights initiatives of the 1950s and 1960s.
“A conservative movement that just sort of brushes aside the legacy of slavery and segregation will never attract the support of people who are otherwise conservative in every other aspect of their lives — who want economic freedom, who want freedom of thought, who take their kids to church, who want good schools for their kids,” Roy said. “All those things are present in all populations.”
Roy returns to his theme of building winning coalitions. “We’re not going to have those majorities if we write off the half of the population that isn’t white, if we write off younger generations, if we write off people who aren’t religious,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to include all those people into the movement which embraces and embodies our values.”
As conservatives look ahead to 2022, 2024, and beyond, Roy’s ideas offer a helpful starting point. It’s time to carve a new stool for a new age.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.