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Monday, January 25, 2016

Conservatism Isn't Dead

No, conservatism isn't dead. It just isn't nearly as influential as some conservatives thought it was.

This shouldn't have come as a surprise after two Obama victories, the failures of the Tea Party and the warping of conservative institutions and politicians to serve entirely different agendas. Ideas only have power when they're vested in organizations that have power. Conservative organizations have very little institutional power. Those that do are not particularly conservative, but serve the agendas of an establishment that has self-interested goals.

Conservative organizations lean heavily on messaging, but their messaging is really about influencing those who do have power. Their most effective messaging is filtered through populist and viral mediums that have the conservative brand, but are not really ideologically conservative.

Conservatives interface with FOX News or the Chamber of Commerce, which have institutional power and which provide a forum for conservative views, but which are not really conservative. The perception that they are waters down the brand and undermines the idea of conservatism.

Conservative overconfidence grew under Obama, but opposition to Obama was far more popular than any set of conservative ideas. Opposition to Obama became its own movement, but it didn't stand for anything. It was a populist movement that was against things and looking for someone to lead.

Meanwhile conservatism became the victim of its own successes. The establishment crippled and then cannibalized the Tea Party. Conservatives finally emerged triumphant in a pitched battle with the establishment over amnesty. But the battle mainly served to discredit both sides in the eyes of a base that had seen a parade of former conservative heroes being exposed as villains.

And conservatism came in for a tug of war between established interests, intellectuals and the grass roots. There were and still are debates over what conservative principles really are. This election has shown that social conservatism and nationalism should be strong parts of a conservative platform.

The libertarian conservatism popular in some circles that packages together immigration, pro-crime policies and cutting social security is vastly unpopular and has no political base of support. This election has completely discredited it and it should be abandoned as soon as possible.

If conservatives want to win elections, their platform is going to have to be populist and realistic. That means small government, but the cuts have to start with the left's sacred cows, rather than expecting the bulk of the Republican electorate to suck it up for the greater good. I would love to see a conservative candidate announce a plan to stop plowing more money into failed Democratic cities instead of announcing yet another bright scheme to slash the military or Medicare.

Likewise the "exporting Democracy" school of conservatives were thoroughly discredited by the Arab Spring. Their agenda is mainstream among the establishment, but conservatives need a sensible realistic foreign policy approach that avoids the extremes of nation building and isolationism, that puts national interests first while at the same time recognizing that we are a world power.

Americans have no interest in fighting wars for futile missions to build democracy. But neither are they willing to sit around and watch a group like ISIS take off. What is needed is an approach that emphasizes decisive military intervention against enemies without regard for collateral damage while minimizing American casualties. We should sharply slash much of our foreign aid budget and look at what actually builds influence and what doesn't. Foreign aid should be closely interlinked with our economic interests, the way that it is in China, and our international interests. We are not a charity.

A small government, hard power, anti-crime, nationalist and traditionalist conservatism can succeed. It has succeeded in this election insofar as the leading candidates have adopted it, with varying degrees of sincerity. If conservatism is to be relevant, it is going to have to shed a lot of its liberal skin, dispense with the globalism that has seeped into it, and actually be conservative.

And then it might be ready to win elections.

Without close ties to a grass roots, conservatism becomes an echo chamber. That's what the National Review really showed. Building ties to a grass roots based around negative oppositionism is easy. Anyone can do it. The hard work will be to build ties to the grass roots based on a positive agenda.

This is where conservatives failed. Trump just exposed their failure. Someone can always be more against X than you are. The specific things that you are against matter less than the act of opposing. Being against something is its own truth and competing in that arena is more a matter of attitude than policy. And yet Trump has, in his own way, also laid out a coherent and easy to understand positive agenda. One of the reasons he's winning is that his rivals have failed to do it. Trump distills his agenda into soundbites. The Republican field has positions that are too complex to boil down.

To the average voter, it's easy to understand what Trump stands for. It's hard to understand what his rivals stand for. All the endless articles about "How to Defeat Trump" completely miss the point. What his opponents had to do was attack him in a simple and crude way over and over again while making the contrast with their own agenda. They failed to do this. That's why they're losing.

The Republican Party in general suffers from an inability to communicate its agenda in ways that people can understand. Conservatives are not immune from this problem. During the Obama years, they compensated by doubling down on opposition. But they haven't produced a positive, coherent agenda that appeals to people. And they haven't bridged the gap with ordinary people.

The weak point has always been organization. The left won based on its organizations. These organizations have become more integrated than ever. Meanwhile the right's organizations are vague and detached, pursuing ambitious goals without a realistic agenda. The organizations of the right occasionally suffice to win elections, but they do not suffice when it comes to making policy.

And they do not suffice at all when it comes to organizing a populist conservative movement.

Conservative organizations suffer from too much 'insiderism' making it easy for accusations about an establishment to stick. This insiderism leaves them at the mercy of the real establishment while preventing them from fully leveraging the grass roots to push back at the GOP establishment.

Conservatism needs its intellectuals, but it also needs its community organizers. We have quite a few of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. Conservatives will never achieve any lasting victories until that changes.

Conservatism isn't dead. It's underdeveloped. It's in the midst of a pitched internal battle which has yet to be settled. And it has a huge head and a small body. That's changing. It's been changing for decades. But the country doesn't have decades. So neither do conservatives.

Conservatives did achieve key goals. They pushed Congress to the right. They hurt the establishment.

Conservatives had managed to rally an opposition, while vastly overestimating their ability to set the larger agenda. This is a setback, not a curtain call for the movement. And setbacks are a learning opportunity.

A conservatism disconnected from actual people is never going to mean anything. Unpopular policies are a self-evident dead end. And organizing an opposition is not the same thing as proving you have the right to replace the thing you're opposing. Among other things, that means cleaning house and having less tolerance for scandals and corruption. It also means becoming less dependent on non-conservative populist acts that blow with the wind to convey conservative messages.

Conservatives have revolutionary ideas. But they let the opportunity at building a revolution slip away leaving behind a dissatisfied base. That mistake cannot and should not be made a second time.

18 comments:

meema said...

The only constant in life is change but change is often impossible to recognize in real time. The greatest change that has happened politically in the past fifty years is that the Democrats, once touted as the party of the people, has become the party of the elite who pretend to be for the people and the Republicans, once claiming to be the party of conservative values, has become the party of the elites pretending to be for old fashioned values. The election of 2012 proved this. The people voted and the RINOs immediately ignored the mandate. The people noticed and are showing their anger by lining up behind Trump. No matter what this can't end well. Historically speaking civilizations rise and fall because change is often self-annihilating.

Francis W. Porretto said...

"Ideas only have power when they're vested in organizations that have power."

So Victor Hugo was wrong, eh? Well, it probably wouldn't be the first time. But there's an important difference between compelling power and animating or motivating power.

George Bernard Shaw famously wrote in Man and Superman that you can make any coward brave by "putting an idea in his head." That might not be strictly true. Yet it has been true in several historically important instances -- and no overturning of a settled order has ever been the work of a majority. So be not too quick to deal out death to conservative thinking, especially not the variety that discards doctrinaire libertarianism's important missteps, for even the very wise cannot see all ends.

Mo said...

"We are not a charity."

I wonder how many conservatives would agree with that statement. What about the statement, "We should be charitable."

Daniel Greenfield said...

Charity is only charity when it's voluntary. Government giving away money without the consent of the public is not a moral act.

Brian Keene said...

the more government takes away from me, the less I have to give to true charitable causes

morally, at some point, I will be compelled to falsify my income tax returns in order to care for those who truly need care

I've pretty much given up on people...my heart lies with animals who are dependent upon people

Anonymous said...

People are either Economic (usually conservatives) or Political (usually progressives). The former are subsumed in matters economic related to their families primarily, (and they pay their taxes), while the latter are consumed by dissatisfaction and a dream of What Could Be. Political processes cause blank stares on productively oriented people who unwittingly cede Force to
the opposition. There's the rub. Conservatives have relinquished any participation in the Force market.

Anonymous said...

I met Scott Walker in NYC a year ago, and urged him to "make the case for the American way -- which Only made us the freest, wealthiest, most powerful nation on the planet."

Why is that so hard to do? In all this scrimmaging, I don't hear anyone but Senator Cruz doing it (and he needs to take judo lessons from "da contendah," who will be a severe disappointment if he wins, I fear).

And speaking of DJT, this is he's now saying (on "Morning Joe"): Trump said he's always had a "great relationship" with Pelosi, and with Reid as well.

"If I weren't running for office I would be able to deal with her or anybody," said Trump of Pelosi. "I think I could get along very well with Nancy Pelosi and just about everybody. I think I'll get along well with Chuck Schumer. I was close to Schumer in many ways."

BOHICA, folks. Red flag. (And it doesn't please me one bit to say so -- we could have used his howitzer on our side.)

Daniel Greenfield said...

It's hard to do because pros tend to get lost in the policy details and spend too much time debating positions instead of producing a simple message and staying on message.

Ted Cruz has a ton of conservative positions, but they get lost in the mix. They play well with a conservatives in the know, but the average voter has a vague idea of what he stands for.

Trump isn't competing on issues. He takes one or two signature issues and a common sense slogan. And most people don't care about his range of views.

Again, basic lesson in messaging that Republicans have been very slow to pick up on.

Anonymous said...

Like a lot of people following the past three or four presidential elections, there is a catharsis in watching Trump throw back the sharply angled questions of the media. It feels good to see the gotcha questions brutally lampooned along with the fools that ask them.

That said, I cringe at the stuttered elementary school insults hurled at everyone that challenges him. I also wince at the terribly inexact statements he makes. When a candidate talks this way, it's alternately amusing or irritating. When a president talks this way, bombers fly and soldiers go into harm's way. Trump won't be closing the deal with anther businessman. He will be negotiating with people who understand exquisitely the strategic and tactical use of violence.

I could still support him for president depending on the opposition, but with reserve. The thing I most worry about with Trump is that he himself doesn't believe what he is saying. I still remember watching with disbelief as John McCain's campaign veered into a "lose with honor" mode. I wonder that Trump might do the same to Hillary. I also worry that President Trump might rule as a Democrat.

Some things I like some things I don't, but overall, I can't bring myself to trust him.

SabaShimon said...

Perhaps, but the problem with Trump, in my view, is that in reality he has been a Liberal his whole adult life. He actually stands for nothing, but because the heartland is desperate they have been hoodwinked by him.
Not sure what the answer is, only that he is DEFINITELY not it.

Anonymous said...

please send a link to any conservative movement, haven't seen one since Reagan @ best simply a we'll do you more gradually than the other guy's. A simple willingness to state the obvious and a plan to repeal/reduce governance that kills will appeal.

Anonymous said...

Except you have it wrong about Trump, SabaShimon. Why would you call Trump a Liberal, is it something you have seen in person or you are just repeating what the stupid Leftists have been saying about him. I see Trump as a realist businessman having learned when to throw to bones and meat to the stupid Leftist Predators to keep them occupied while he does business and avoiding their perimeter so he doesn't get savaged. I say that is very clever.

Anonymous said...

If conservatism isn’t dead, then where is it, and will it be recognizable? When I voted for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, I thought they were conservatives. Unfortunately, I got that wrong. Now I’m beginning to wonder, are Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and others in the Republican lineup true conservatives or will they change once in office?

I’m reminded of Thomas Jefferson and the purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Although the purchase of land was not specifically granted to him in the Constitution and he was a strict constitutionalist, he nevertheless recognized the purchase as a good deal and went for it.

I’m hoping we learn from the last few elections, and we have a true conservative candidate and one who recognizes and pursues policies that will be good for the U.S.

We might even ask the presidential candidates what they would do about clearing the streets in D.C. after a snowstorm. It’s been four days, and many streets in D.C. have still not been cleared. Maybe politicians in D.C. are waiting for global warming to melt all the snow.

Actually, I’m hoping Congress and the President leave town and don’t return until a new president is in the White House, and I’m hoping it will be a true conservative this time.

careyrowland said...

This is very good analysis and advice for all Republicans who are doing anything about anything to make this country function better.
Hey, Daniel, I had no idea you could be so rational! Your input is very convincing when you take a break from the subtle sarcasm.
I hope Ted and Marco read this posting of yours. And they should prevail upon you as a policy advisor.
Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

I would like to point out a rather excellent 'how-to' book on revolution that was written from a science fiction standpoint by the master of Scifi, Robert Heinlein. "The Moon is A Harsh Mistress" covers this well.....

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, are you suggesting that we follow Heinlein’s lead and start a revolution or perhaps find some uninhabited place where we could start a new nation?
At this time, I don’t think we should give up on the U.S. I believe there’s still hope we can find a way out of the quagmire Obama and the liberals have created. It won’t be easy, but I still have faith that there are more rational people in the nation than the Marxists who are following Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. At least I hope so.

In Russet Shadows said...

I think you've missed the point completely. Trump doesn't have to elucidate or even mention his other positions because the media doesn't want to kill their golden goose. It's not that he's a great communicator. He isn't. He's a showman and people want to be entertained. You can't blame the other candidates for not being showmen; is that even what we want in a president?

Also, how *can* people be ignorant of what a candidate stands for? Every one of them, even Jim Gilmore, has a web site. It's literally clicks away and you will know what they believe and what they stand for. So, you're going to blame messaging and marketing when the info is readily available? Also, aren't you complaining about what the average voter knows when the primary voter is not only average, but is also Republican? We're not talking independents and leans-Democrats, here.

Caleb Plew said...

Republicans suffer from a massive weakness that is inherent to thier party. They are not a party. They were formed as a union of hundreds of independent factions to oppose the democrat south powerhouse. They never really united. They are as divided today as they were then, with no unifying policy or concept. The republican party was and is a Frankenstein monster of disunity.

The democrats were always a single concentrated unit, with the force that comes with that. They successfully rebranded themselves as the party of progression after the specter of slavery. And have had the advantage of unity from it's founding.

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