Issues analysis
A proactive, positive conservatism
Patrick Garry, RenewAmerica analyst
November 3, 2014

With the 2014 election season coming to an end, conservatives must transition from the campaigning to the governance mode. Throughout the campaign season, a growing number of conservative voices have been urging the Republican Party to articulate a positive governing agenda. They argue that Republicans cannot win just by running as a check on President Obama, as the party of government shutdown.

A nostalgic element within the conservative ranks yearns for a return to the 1980s and a political leader like Ronald Reagan. But the world has greatly changed since the Reagan era, and the problems facing society are much different than the problems of the 1980s. There is, however, a truth about the Reagan era that pertains to contemporary conservatism. After decades of playing a reactionary role, conservatism in the 1980s advocated a positive, proactive political creed directly addressing the concerns of the time.

From reaction to activism

Conservatism inherently contains a cautious prudence and reliance on the wisdom of the past. This laudatory caution and historical reliance, however, can morph into a resistance to any change or an instinctive focus on the status quo. But the conservatism of Ronald Reagan, just as did the conservatism of Abraham Lincoln, demonstrated that activism in line with conservative principles may be the only way to meet the social problems of the time. Indeed, as President Reagan showed, a conservative program is needed not only to solve society's problems, but to counteract the liberal overreaching that has exacerbated those problems.

During the Obama era, the Republican stance has been almost exclusively an opposition to the Obama agenda – opposing federal overspending, Obamacare, a corrupt IRS, a confused and ineffectual foreign policy, and presidential disregard for the rule of law. While there may be good reason for it, this opposition does not translate into a governing vision that can provide leadership to an increasingly pessimistic and confused public. Moreover, conservatives must avoid the trap into which they have often fallen in the wake of liberal excesses; they must remember that the mere relief of a damaging liberal governance has never amounted to a lasting remedy or governing vision.

Throughout much of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, conservatives focused their political energies on opposing the extremes and distortions of the New Deal. During the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives again focused on resisting the radicalism of the cultural revolution, the sweeping aims of the Great Society, and the anti-Americanism of the New Left. But all this opposition, as necessary as it was, did not show the average American how he or she would be better off under a conservative governance. The Reagan genius was in transforming conservatism from an oppositional creed to a positive, proactive governing program – turning conservatism from a reactionary creed of warning to a dynamic creed of optimistic possibilities.

The focus of contemporary conservatism

This is the challenge to contemporary conservatives: to articulate a positive political agenda, based on conservative principles, that directly addresses the issues of most concern to an American public that is less optimistic than it has ever been in the modern era. Given the high public anxiety (and particularly middle-class anxiety) about the future direction of the nation – as well as new problems caused by globalization, the high costs of health care and education, and the seeming erosion in social mobility – conservatives cannot simply advocate a cutback in government and slashing of taxes alone, relying on the invisible hand of the private sector to address all public concerns. Such an indirect method of addressing social problems is too remote to appeal to an uneasy, anxious public.

What is needed is an activist conservative agenda. But this approach requires the type of introspection and vibrant debate that accompanied the inspired conservative resurgence of the 1980s. As Steven Hayward observes in The Age of Reagan, Ronald Reagan did not ask the public to support him because he was conservative; he asked for support because his conservative ideas would make people better off and solve their problems.

A modern formulation of the conservative agenda, which in itself will be complex and detailed, begins with an overarching theme and identity. This theme will focus the direction of conservatism and provide a public definition of its ideology and agenda.

Advocating opportunity for the struggling

Conservatism promotes expanded opportunities for those who most need and desire social and economic advancement – that is the defining theme that can propel conservatism to actively address the most urgent social problem of the age. It is also a theme that separates conservatism both from contemporary liberalism and its long-promoted misrepresentation of conservatism as concerned only with the rich.

Ever since the New Deal era, the Left has waged an unrelenting campaign to sever the connection between average Americans and conservative principles that had previously existed throughout the nation's history, and to identify conservatism with the rich. Defensive over the Great Depression, conservatives began a slow retreat from these liberal attacks, eventually ceding the political constituency of poor and struggling Americans to the Left. Although this surrender was reversed by President Reagan, it returned most recently during the 2012 campaign of Mitt Romney, who focused his economic message on the heroic entrepreneur while seemingly ignoring the employees of entrepreneurs, and who spoke dismissively of the 47 percent of the public he labeled as "takers."

The message conservatives must articulate is one of hope and opportunity, not just for the haves but particularly for the have-nots. Conservatism's first consideration should be for those at bottom rung of the economic ladder, those most in need of upward mobility, because upward mobility from the bottom of the economic ladder lies at the heart of the American promise. The primary aim of conservatives should not be for the wealthy to add to their wealth, but for the poor and struggling to be able to improve their situation. This working and middle-class agenda will naturally benefit the more well-off; but by focusing on the struggling members of society, conservatives will stay attuned to any social obstacles to upward mobility and to social policies that might expand opportunities and mobility.

As an example of this agenda aimed at the plight of lower-income Americans, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) has proposed tax reform that focuses on expanding the child tax credit rather than on a reduction in the top income-tax rate, thus offering more benefits to average families than to high earners. The Republican focus on tax cuts for individuals not only leaves them open to the charge that they favor the rich, but makes them seem irrelevant to the nearly 50 percent of the population who don't pay any federal income taxes.

The need of lower-income America for a champion

The working class has serious doubts about whether it can get ahead in today's economy. Although working-class Americans don't trust government to help them, they also see big business as having too much power and are suspicious of globalization and high finance. These individuals are the true constituency of conservatism, not big government or big business.

Recent polls have shown that a majority of Americans agree with the statement that "the economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me." Fifty-four percent of Republicans agree with this statement, along with fifty-five percent of Democrats, although increasingly it is the highly educated and upper-income elite who are voting Democrat. But the concern voiced in these polls is the concern to which conservatives must dedicate their message.

The liberal agenda of government-imposed equality mandates aimed at placating a stoked resentment against the wealthy cannot replace the expansion of opportunity and mobility for the struggling working class. Government programs designed by the political elite cannot take the place of the actual freedom and ability of individuals of all economic stripes to shape their destiny. Unlike the liberal agenda, conservatism does not put its first and primary focus on the reach of government. It does not look to the growth of government to determine whether individuals are happy and healthy in their life's status and pursuits. It does not presume that expanded government power will automatically translate into social enrichment.

Conservatism does not seek to make the individual a bigger consumer of government services. Unlike libertarians, conservatives do not advocate a hands-off society; but unlike liberals, they don't offer a hand-out society. What conservatives strive to do is to offer a helping-hand society. Conservatives should not think simply about cutting back government (essential as that is), but about what kind of government best serves the needs of working and middle class America.

The conservative way to achieve opportunity growth

The conservative focus on growth of economic opportunity and social mobility for all society, and particularly for the most struggling members of society, leads to a second fundamental conservative belief: the belief that American society is defined by its citizens, not by its government. Therefore, the question to ask about any social problem is not automatically What activity should government expand into? but rather How can the individual and society best reach their goals?

Conservatives support the vitality of those social institutions that exist between the individual and the government – institutions, like family, religion, business, neighborhood, that often have the most impact on an individual's life. These are the institutions that provide the social guardrails for personal and economic success. Unlike liberals, conservatives don't see people as just voters who keep the political elite in office. Individuals are part of a social fabric that includes all the civic institutions that in turn offer a diverse array of avenues through which people can enrich and develop their lives – and it is these institutions that provide the kind of values and social relationships that give meaning to life. Thus, a conservative approach would reduce, where possible, government's monopoly on the provision of services and expand the social sphere available to nongovernmental civic institutions.

An inordinate focus on government misses where life actually occurs

As history has demonstrated, the size of government does not automatically correlate with the happiness and prosperity of its people. What is clear, however, is that a continually expanding government has produced a political elite disconnected from the average person. This political elite has become so disconnected that it even thinks government, not the private sector economy, produces jobs and economic growth for society.

The American public has long been supportive of the principles of limited government and free markets. But conservatives cannot advocate those principles in ways that seem most relevant to the well-off in society; they must show how those principles can actually be used to improve the lives of average people. And sometimes to meet these challenges, government is necessary, albeit a limited government. But contrary to liberalism, conservatism realizes that opportunity and mobility exist within the larger realm of society, not in the mandated dictates of a government that is only the tool of society.

Government has a static nature – it responds to static conditions and entrenches static programs. Sometimes this is a good thing. Government builds roads and bridges that are meant to be static. It monitors environmental quality, which is meant to remain at a livable level. It establishes a social safety net, which helps to ensure that everyone has access to what is necessary for survival. But static does not produce change or progress. Static cannot create jobs and enhance social mobility. Static might be all right for the wealthy, like Warren Buffett, but static is not what the struggling members of society want. They need the dynamism of the private sector economy.

Conservatism and the centrality of work

A belief in growth of opportunity, fueled through a dynamic private sector, leads to a third primary conservative belief – a belief encased within conservatism since Abraham Lincoln: the belief in work, the freedom to work, the ability to reap the full rewards of work, and the opportunity to work.

Just as it was with Abraham Lincoln, work should be at the center of conservative thought and policy. Work is fundamental both to a healthy individual and a healthy society. The true measure of society should be how well it provides work opportunities to individuals and how well it rewards those individuals for the work they perform. The measure should not be, as the liberal approach so often sees it, whether some individuals have more money than others, or whether government could somehow equalize the material resources of people. The measure should not be all the programs that government is administering, but the work opportunities and rewards available to individuals.

As Rich Lowry notes in Lincoln Unbound, Lincoln's answer to many of the problems facing the nation was: "Work, work, work is the main thing." This would be Lincoln's answer to the crises now facing America, with a stagnating middle class, a lower class falling further behind, and unprecedented public reliance on government subsidies. As Lincoln believed, labor laid the foundation for individuals to build up capital of their own: "Capital is only the fruit of labor; and could not have existed if labor had not first existed."

Labor leads to earnings, which leads to savings, which leads to capital, which then leads to the expansion or start-up of new businesses and the creation of more jobs. But work spawns more than capital and the earning of a wage, it leads to a myriad of social and individual benefits – responsibility, diligence, punctuality, ambition, and self-fulfillment. It helps provide a purpose and structure to our lives. It promotes social respect; it builds stronger families and more stable communities.

Lincoln's belief in freedom was interwoven with his views on work. Since he rose from frontier subsistence farming to the professional middle class by his own efforts, he wanted all men to have the chance to be self-made. The primary purpose of government, he told Congress in 1861, is "to lift artificial weights from all shoulders – to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all – to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life."

Conservatism should be the political ideology of work. It should encourage work and celebrate the dignity and social contribution of every job, no matter how unglamorous the job might seem. Conservatism should also require work as a precondition to a citizen's participation in government benefit programs. Or at the very least, conservatism should not discourage work, as liberalism often does, and as it did with Obamacare, where according to the Congressional Budget Office, the law would reduce by 2.5 million the number of full-time workers by 2024 – a fact that Democrats treated as a good thing, arguing that people who would leave the work force obviously didn't like their jobs. This attitude coincides with a liberal celebration of an economic recovery in which a drop in the unemployment rate is lauded even though it results from the fact that eight million people have dropped out of the workforce since 2007. Indeed, if all those millions had not dropped out of the labor force, the unemployment rate would be double what it is.

The liberal view of work

The liberal view toward work can be seen in the intensifying conflict between public sector and private sector unions. Government workers are fighting fiscal reform and advocating increased regulation, defending their generous salaries and benefits, regardless of the effect on job creation. But private sector unions are taking an opposite stand, favoring the kind of fiscal reform that will promote economic growth and create new jobs.

The progressive political culture doesn't seem to have a high regard for blue-collar-type work. Progressives celebrate actors and rock stars and investor billionaires and academics and non-profit foundation bureaucrats, but they don't seem to value the blue-collar culture of working hard with one's hands for eight hours a day and going home to a family and painting the garage at night, and then coaching a sixth-grade baseball team on the weekends. Progressives talk a lot about the act and rewards of consumption – of all the things people might buy or own or enjoy – but they rarely talk about the act and rewards of production.

Production is essential for a healthy society – consumption is simply the reward of production. Yet for a progressive, an unemployed worker is not someone to be channeled back into productive work, but a statistical victim of a free market who needs to be transformed from independent worker to a dependent beneficiary of governmental largesse. To progressives, the unemployed are a necessary and valuable resource – people who justify a larger government role and presence in American economic and social life. Progressives, in fact, have a rather dismissive and pessimistic view of blue-collar workers: since they really don't think such workers can support themselves or better themselves, why not put them on the government dole?

As the advocate of work, conservatism should not treat capital as more important than labor, thus treating the holders of capital as more deserving of consideration than the performers of work. But a belief in the primacy of work should also reinforce Lincoln's belief about minimal government. According to Lincoln, the legitimate object of government should be only that which a community of people, through their own work, cannot do for themselves. This minimal government should focus on removing obstacles to self- and community-improvement through the opportunities and rewards for individual work.

As the champions of work, conservatives should not be reluctant to consider proposals that might reduce the size and power of Wall Street banks. Capital manipulation – and, as revealed during the 2008 financial crisis, deceptive capital manipulation – should in no way be accorded the same degree of respect and protection as honest and productive work. If conservatism is to be guided by a particular type of person, let it be a farmer or factory worker in Kansas, not an investment banker on Wall Street who performs a job no one can understand.

Just as neither the economy nor society is defined by Wall Street, nor should conservatism be so defined.

© Patrick Garry

RenewAmerica analyst Patrick Garry also writes a column for RenewAmerica.


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31