Friday, October 12, 2007

What Next for Conservatives?

How can conservatives move forward, in this age of apparent liberal ascendancy? That issue was addressed today by Yuval Levin and Peter Wehner in an essay over at the New York Sun:

Conservatives today are in a funk. The strains of governing, the challenges of war, and the frustration of an unsuccessful mid-term election have contributed to unease and unhappiness. But deeper than these issues is an intellectual fatigue and uncertainty about where the attention of the conservative movement now should be directed.

What domestic issues can unite and motivate conservatives to great political exertions, and can win the allegiance of the public?

In this respect, the right is partially a victim of its own successes. If 25 years ago you had asked an American conservative to name the preeminent domestic policy challenges of the day, you probably would have gotten back, along with a general worry about cultural decline, some combination of welfare, taxes, and crime.

Few conservatives today would name any of these three as the foremost problems, and even on the cultural front they could point to some advances. This is due, in large part, to a series of conservative successes that have transformed American politics and made conservative theories of economics, law enforcement, and welfare the accepted wisdom. Success has not been complete in any of these areas, of course, but the struggle over first principles, over which way to go in general, has been won.

Today the left — which for decades fought vigorously on all three fronts — offers scant opposition on any of them. No leading Democrats are arguing that we undo conservative achievements on welfare and crime. And even on taxes, which liberals want to increase, no Democrats are arguing that we return to the days when the top rate of taxation was 70%.

But what now? On what issues can conservative principles point to popular reforms today? The most prominent domestic policy concerns of the day would seem, at first glance, to favor the left. Health care, income inequality, and the environment, among other issues, have long been identified with American liberals, and conservatives have been uncomfortable taking them up.

But the notion that the left owns these issues is not a fact inherent in the problems themselves; rather, it is a failure of conservative imagination. In fact, it is precisely these kinds of issues that should now be front and center on the conservative agenda, not only because the public cares about them, but also because the left is far more vulnerable on them than it seems. Conservatives should fight precisely on what is perceived to be liberal turf, as they have done successfully before.

The authors argue that the success of the 1996 welfare reform initiative demonstrates how conservative ideas provide powerful alternatives to statist policies of top-down, bureaucratic management. With health care emerging as one of the great new items on the agenda, conservative ideas on invigorating markets and increasing access should be driving the debate.

This is also the case with economic inequality. Levin and Wehner - citing Arthur Brooks' research on the superior compassion inherent in conservative values - suggest that the debate on equality needs to shift toward a focus on upward mobility:

The problem with the gap between the rich and the poor, after all, is not that the rich are rich, but that the poor are poor. The solution, then, is not best understood through the prism of economic equality — a meaningless notion, good only for fanning envy and disillusion — but through the prism of economic mobility.

The key steps toward mobility have long been clear: school, work, and marriage. Conservatives know how to make that case and translate it into policy. They must do so, and again make clear the basic difference between their notion and the left's notion of freedom and the role of government.

I would add to this that such programs should also reach out to minority communities, specifically African-Americans and Hispanic Americans (economic programs with universal appeal, those seeking to lift all groups, will generate greater public support, and they'll benefit conservatives politically). The conservative emphasis on the importance of family on the life chances of the young is more vital than ever, especially when the headlines repeatedly report the crime, violence, poverty, and social disorganization of inner-city communities.