Saturday, June 1, 2013

An Oxymoron: Future Conservatives

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post titled "I think I'm Turning Liberal...  I Really Think So".  The piece was a critique of the current liberal paradigm in this country and I got lots of responses.

Conservatives could benefit from some self-reflection as well.  To recapture a majority, they must evolve their approach to governing.  Is it an oxymoron to think of conservatism evolving to some future state? Conservatives focus on traditional values not evolution of their values.

Today’s American conservatives often quote the founders, using the U.S. Constitution as a construct for pursuing a 21st Century policy agenda.  The Constitution reflects the philosophies of Spinoza, Locke and Voltaire.  A philosophy that promoted civil liberty, political freedom, limited government, the rule of law and free markets -- tenets that today’s conservatives continue to espouse.  The irony is that, during the Age of Enlightenment, the term that defined these tenets was “Classical Liberalism”. 

That what was liberal at our founding is conservative by 21st Century standards is perhaps a measure of how societies evolve.  Can conservatives achieve any political gains with a public that seems to be moving in the opposite direction?  Do conservatives have to embrace some of the philosophical and political prescriptions of liberals to regain their electoral mojo?  I don’t think so.

People don’t vote on the basis of philosophical prescriptions; they vote for what resonates with them emotionally.  That’s why the President could be elected on the flimsy promise of “Hope and Change”. 

But Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” theme during the 80’s was no more substantive; and, no Republican has been able to connect with the emotional core of the public the way that Reagan did in the years since. 

The nation needs real reform.  Conservatives understand that our debt and deficits are not sustainable.  They understand that our entitlement programs need restructuring to survive.  There are big changes required to get the country on track. 

Reagan understood that big change requires big majorities.  You can’t persuade the majority by standing at one end of the political spectrum, hurling epithets at the other.  Reagan’s “Morning in America” pitch was optimistic about our future at a time when we were also in crisis.  It was the faith he expressed in America that sold the voting public on his vision. 

The public and the media have focused on the excesses of Wall Street and the failures of a capitalist economy to support its middle class.  While some of the criticism is deserved, what is undermining the middle class is not capitalism but a government that is undermining the value of the assets we have worked so hard to accumulate. 

At their core, Americans – no matter their race, gender, ethnicity or sexual preference – are aspirational.  That is, our culture fosters ambition and self-sufficiency.  Aspirational Americans may wish for their government to provide assistance to the most needy; however, they do not wish for a segment of the population to be motivated not to work. 

If you eyeball this chart, you can see that an individual making an annual salary of $25,000 receives the equivalent of $20,000 per year in government assistance.  It’s pretty hard to improve your annual income by 80% and it’s unlikely that many will try if they will lose the equivalent in government support.

Aspirational Americans don’t wish for their hard earned wealth to be shared in this way.  All they want is an opportunity to succeed on their own merits.  They want access to a great education, equal opportunity for employment and civil liberties -- values that are consistent with classical liberals, our founders.  Conservatives preach these values but often don’t live up to them.

Instead, Republican politicians support corporate America.  Support that manifests itself in subsidies for ethanol, tax breaks for big oil and tax exempt bonds for corporate projects.  The founders never intended the government to be at the behest of corporations. It is supposed to serve the people.  Thomas Jefferson is rolling over in his grave.

Conservatives like to quote Adam Smith’s work “The Wealth of Nations” and speak of the “invisible hand” of the market as a the cure for what ails us.  But, they should also remember Smith’s words about government. "Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”

They can regain their electoral mojo without sacrificing their values.  They just need to start practicing what they preach.   



  1. I really enjoyed this post, John, thank you.


  2. John, I would guess dinner parties at your house are extremely interesting.

    This blog (and all your others, I’ve read) is a great conversation starter. Keep ‘em coming!

    I hope you’re doing well.

    All the best,

    LaVerne Daley
    CTI Consulting
    Vice President Operations

  3. Free markets and the rule of law would be great -- we should give them a try.
    Instead, we have: ethanol mandates, banking regs not enforced while new regs are piled on making it too onerous and expensive for small banks to comply, Mozilo and all his pals in congress and at Fannie Mae, Raines, Paulson, Corzine, et. al. still walking around free, bankruptcy law totally violated for GM/UAW, the NLRB suing Boeing for opening a plant in SC, the entire green energy racket, Buffett still getting to haul oil on his railroad instead of through a new, efficient pipeline, on and on...

    Mike Tucci

  4. Then again, while we should try real free markets, I've never been convinced "tax breaks for big oil" were real or a problem.

    Mike Tucci

  5. John;
    I just wanted to know that I enjoyed this article. You are an excellent writer and thought provoker. I believe we need new leaders that have more of an entrepreneurial spirit. We need leaders who aren't afraid to break the old modes of operation, challenge the established norms and more importantly, ethically revise how we operate in government. There is a long road to go toward that dream. Linda

  6. Christopher Smith • >To recapture a majority, they must evolve their approach to governing. Is it an oxymoron to think of conservatism evolving to some future state?

    The conversation boils down to the conservative Locke losing the argument to the Progressive Rousseau. You either think that people are born and die as individuals, or, somehow, magically, there is this aggregate 'state' thingy that functions as an ersatz diety:
    ". . .our ability to use the rule of law as an instrument of human redemption."--Al Gore,

    The GOP has substantially bought off on Rousseau's magic. Let's not kid ourselves: it was a great source of political power this last century.
    Yet, to paraphrase the departed Thatcher, the loot of others has run out. Can the GOP pooh-bahs, who've played Rousseau's game, while making all of these Lockean appeals to our Constitutional order, get the band together and win again?
    A possibly better answer is to come clean. Admit publicly that Progress has run its course. Do something that would not have the Founders fixing bayonets. For a change.

  7. Great analysis, Chris. I like your point-counterpoint on Rousseau and Locke. It's noteworthy that Locke advocated an explicit form of social contract. In my view, the US Constitution best represents his views over those of his contemporaries.

  8. Jeffery Pyle • John, we're all very interested in the future because that's when we're going to spend the rest of our lives.

    All kidding aside, please don't confuse conservative with Republican. Too many politicians say one thing when they're at home rubbing elbows with the common folks and vote another way when they're in Washington. I for one, am tired of holding my nose when I vote; too often I'm just selecting the least less of two lessors.

    We have ceded too much power to the government, especially to Washington. Congress no longer does its job buts lets unelected bureaucrats and political appointees effectively make law through regulation. This administration doesn't know how to lead, unless you think Chicago-style destruction of one's political enemies and using tax-payer dollars to reward one's cronies is leadership.

    You are spot on in your observation about people voting based on their emotions.

  9. Phillip Parker • Another good, thoughtful post, John. Especially relevant is the comment that you can't govern by standing at one end of the political spectrum hurling epithets at the other end.

    Indeed, the founding fathers embraced "classical liberalism". Remember that in the ethos of their time, they were not conservatives. They were dangerous, rabble rousing leftists who would have been hung, drawn and quartered had they not prevailed. The conservatives of the day were called Tories, and they were the ones that wanted to stick with the King.

    Our 18th century Constitution is still unmatched for establishing and protecting basic human rights and freedoms. Where it could use some tune-up is in the process of governing. It's gotten too hard to get anything done.

  10. Michael McGrady • The Founders were not worried about helping people but about tyranny. The new tyranny is the control of government not by the Aristocracy but by multinational corporations, e.g., Monsanto, oil, etc.

  11. Gower D. Talley MBA • I have been trying to define the conservative position in this forum for some time. I ran across these 5 points from an article I wrote back in 2011.

    1. The United States of America is NOT a Democracy. It was never intended to be a democracy. YOU don’t want it to be a democracy. This country’s founders put systems in place to prevent it from becoming a democracy. The modern popular media completely misuses the term. Democracy does not equal freedom. A democracy is mob rule. A democracy is three wolves and two sheep voting on what to have for dinner. True Democracies ALWAYS become socialist always become totalitarian and always fail the moment people realize that it is easier to vote themselves other people’s stuff than it is to work and risk and earn. Our founders recognized that a tyranny of the majority is not one bit better than a tyranny of a dictator.

    2. The United States IS a Constitutional Representative Republic. We do, in fact elect many of our representatives in a democratic fashion – BUT – each of those representatives has a narrow and specifically defined role and the government as a whole is limited by the constitution. We make many of our governmental decisions democratically – but even a 99% popular vote cannot assign to government a power it does not have. The limits are the key. Our government has a limited and specifically enumerated set of powers – and absolutely no more. The 10th amendment of the constitution makes it explicitly clear: if something is not specifically assigned by the constitution as a power of the federal government then that thing is prohibited as a power of the federal government. “The powers granted by the Constitution to the federal government are few and defined.” In the United States individual Americans have MORE rights than does the government. It takes a constitutional amendment (an extremely long and complicated process BY DESIGN) to give the government more power.

    3. “Need” in no way invalidates point two. Throughout history, “Need” has been the greatest excuse for the expansion of government and the movement of rights and power from the people to their government. Expanding government under the guise of “need” is the beginning of trading freedom for security – and is the beginning of the destruction of both freedom and security. “Need” has always been the tool of tyrants to move power from the people to the government.
    4. The level of Freedom within a country is not a function of that country’s level of democracy. It is completely possible to have a completely democratic state where the majority freely votes for the subjugation of women, a single state religion and the confiscation of most private resources. Democracy does not guarantee freedom. (A democracy imposes 51% opinion on 100% of individuals.) A constitutionally limited government guarantees freedom. The opposite of “free” is not “non-democratic”. The opposite of free is totalitarian. A completely democratic society where the majority can vote to tell all people what to eat, when to go to the doctor, what to watch on TV, what to say, how to pray and how to educate your kids is NOT a FREE society.

    5. Despite our country’s relative “youth” we have one of the longest continually operating governments on the planet. Others have followed our constitution to create their own. The great American Experiment was not an experiment in democracy – it was an experiment in limited government. “Self-Government” doesn’t take place at the ballot box – it takes place at the office, the worksite and at the kitchen table. If we are to extend the great American Experiment – we absolutely must re-confine our ever expanding government back into its original constitutional box. No matter how “democratic” we say it is – an all-inclusive totalitarian government that has a say in every aspect of individual lives is a tyranny.

  12. Great stuff, Gower. So, if you were my campaign manager, how would you position this for public consumption? I need soundbites if I am going to win the election, right? What would resonate with the public?

  13. Mark J. Foley • Jeffery, John and Gower: Spot on, and thank you.
    Very little to add to that, other than that one of the frustrations of today is acknowledging the Constitution’s limiting powers while seeing a government operate supra-constitutionally, with zero consequence or challenge. Instead, the effort is to transmogrify the text into a “living, breathing document.”

  14. Mark, I think it was intended to be considered a "living, breathing document" as it contains provisions to be amended. (I think it's Article V but I am drawing on my failing memory). But, the liklihood that it would be amended in the current political environment is very low. I agree with your comment that the government now operates without regard for constitutionality. The way Congress writes laws, it is left to the administration to create regs to execute on them. This is the opposite of limited government.

  15. Tom Jeanette, MEM, PMP • I believe that we need a "living, breathing" government to make up for the limited scope and vision of our Constitution and the difficulty encountered in making amendments. For example, it took drastic government action, a civil war, just to address the issue of constitutionally-authorized slavery; it also took thousands of pages of regulations to grant women and minorities civil rights that failed in the amendment process.

    If we stuck with the original wording of the Constitution we would have been limited to a militia that became an army only in the event of a declaration of war, which became inadequate during the early 20th century. We needed the bold moves to create a strong standing military, even if the Constitution didn't specify it.

    Even worse than abiding by the strict wording of the Constitution is the modern conservative approach of looking past what was agreed upon in 1788 to try to selectively discern what was on the mind of the founding fathers and then somehow using that as justification for ignoring what has been ratified. When the Constitutional Convention was doing their work, they used compromise and extremely strict phrasing (see the debate about deferring the issue of slavery for 25 years.) Should we ignore the words that were presented to the individual legislatures for ratification and instead look to the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who weren't even present? When examining our current laws, should we ignore the words and look instead to the writings and speeches of FDR, JFK, LBJ, RWR and GWB?

    We have an enduring form of government because of the bedrock of our Constitution and the balance of powers that it created. The Executive branch reacts to issues of immediate concern, the Legislature sets the limits on the Executive through the appropriations process, and the Judicial Branch decides of the actions of the other two are within the framework of the Constitution as amended. I love it.

  16. Mark J. Foley • Hi John-
    I guess I should have been more clear (mea culpa!). I agree with you that, of course, it is meant to evolve and develop, via amendment. My critisism is about re- (miss-) interpreting the text and bending it to one's own devices, rather than the authors' intent. Perhaps I should have pointed out that there are clearly defined ways to make changes to it, that it is not living and breathing and thus able to change itself or its definitions.