There are few on the right who have thought more about where conservatism is and where it should be going than David Frum. Frum is a former Bush speechwriter, National Review writer, author and columnist. He just started a new blog called The New Majority which features a wide range of conservative opinion mixed with some nuts and bolts politics.
Along with Ross Douthat, Marc Ambinder, David Brooks, and a precious few other conservatives, Frum is looking deeply and seriously at conservatism’s flaws, strengths, and perhaps most importantly and relevantly, how to translate conservative principles into actionable political ideas that can win elections and establish a sound basis for governance.
In short, Frum and his new blog will almost certainly be one of the focal points in the conservative movement for the foreseeable future - or at least, it should be. The New Majority is where ideology and practical politics will merge as various strains of conservatism wrestle with ways to become relevant in the Age of Obama.
That Age is well underway, having begun even before Obama was elected. There was nothing subtle about the media’s clear preference in the November election, the consequences of which have yet to play out. The only thing certain is that to a degree not seen since the early 1960’s, conservatism as an ideology is being dismissed by the political class as irrelevant. When politicians start running away from basic conservative principles and embrace the milquetoast center or center- left, including bailout mania and other manifestations of creeping statism, you know it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work rebuilding a shattered conservative polity.
As I see it, there are several tracks to a conservative revival, all working toward the same goal but in strikingly different ways. You have the generalists like Frum and his cohorts who are seeking to infuse conservatism with new ideas and a new frame of reference for the old ones. Then there are the web gurus like Patrick Ruffini and his stalwart band at The Next Right who are trying to drag the Republican party and conservative movement into the 21st century by creating an army of connected, online activists. The libertarian conservatives have entered the fray with a new blog called The Secular Right which features a group of excellent writers and thinkers like Heather McDonald, Andrew Stuttaford, Walter Olsen, and National Review’s John Derbyshire. Reason Magazine is a little more independent but still has some solid conservatives contributing.
The libertarians perhaps have the longest way to come back and thus represent the greatest challenge to all who are interested in rebuilding the movement. The long-simmering tensions between social cons and libertarians exploded in open warfare over the Terry Schiavo issue and continued with the Harriet Meyers fiasco, immigration, and finally, the presidency of George Bush himself. Many libertarians abandoned Bush even before the 2006 electoral debacle - something which the social cons will not soon forget. Nor did libertarians care much for Sarah Palin which ended up splitting the movement into two spitting, warring factions where some believed Palin the second coming of Reagan while others shook their heads in disbelief over such nonsense.
It is a breach that will not soon be healed. Palin will remain a talisman for social conservatives into the foreseeable future. And as long as she is a figure of importance to the social cons, it is doubtful most honest libertarians (or right leaning centrists) will want to have anything to do with conservatives politically.
And that brings us to the social conservatives, many of whom are perfectly happy with how conservatism is defined although they are not pleased with how it is perceived. There appears little in the way of a reform movement for social cons. For them, conservatism needs a face lift - cosmetic changes that will keep their core beliefs about abortion, gay rights, and other cultural issues front and center but perhaps soften or reframe the debate. But as far as rethinking or even redefining conservative principles, social cons simply don’t see the need.
I apologize if I have unnecessarily been too general in my analysis of social cons because there are brilliant social conservatives who are thinking about the future and how to bring the warring factions together. The problem as I see it is with a relatively small but vocal and somewhat influential subset of social conservatives who fancy themselves gatekeepers and arbiters of conservative dogma. I call them “Splenetic Conservatives” for obvious reasons. And to my mind, they are the biggest obstacle to a conservative revival. More than any other faction, splenetic conservatives are fiercely resisting the idea of “Big Tent” conservatism and wish to purify the movement, purging it of alien ideas and personalities that espouse positions on issues at variance with their own.
This has not only had a deadening effect on intelligent debate but has placed a roadblock in the way of uniting the movement at a time when the actual numbers of people identifying themselves as “conservative” is falling. Whole swaths of the American electorate abandoned the Republican party and conservatism in the last election and now identify with the more tolerant, less dogmatic Democrats. How long this will last is an unknown. But even the failure of Obamaism will probably not be enough to win them back as long as splenetic conservatives feel they can dictate who can join their little club. Pro-Choice? Not in my house! Pro-Gay marriage? Surely, you joke. Immigration reform? Round ‘em up! War on Terror? Kill the Muslims!
Is this the way to a conservative majority? Is this the path to reforming the conservative movement so that once again we can tolerate our differences without lining someone up against a wall because they have strayed from the straight and narrow path set down by the splenetic conservatives?
The face of conservatism used to be a happy face, a confident face, an optimistic face. I suppose its easy to be happy if you are winning elections but there was more to it than that, more to it than even the fact that the naturally sunny disposition of Ronald Reagan was at the head of the movement. That optimism and happiness was born in the give and take of debate when Big Ideas - consequential, important ideas - were the stuff of bull sessions, conferences, panel discussions, and papers published at the various think tanks. All factions of conservatism had their say. There was passionate disagreements over everything. But somehow, we never lost sight of the goal - building a conservative movement where ideas translated into government action.
Somewhere along the way, we gave into the temptation to use conservative ideas to divide rather than unite. This tactical decision brought electoral success but at a price. It gave social conservatives and their splenetic base a platform to dominate the movement and the Republican party. The price for that mistake is still being paid.
I will give the splenetic conservatives credit where credit is due; they vote. And they contribute money to the movement and the Republican party. And in many parts of the United States, they are the Republican party, supplying not only funds but volunteers for campaigns who do the hard, slogging work of trying to get Republicans elected.
It is ironic that they are a larger group than most give them credit for but smaller in numbers than they themselves believe. They dominate the right side of the internet as well as many local Republican organizations (I have quit three different GOP groups because I got tired of people telling me I wasn’t a conservative). And if you cross them, you are in for much unpleasantness as many of the anti-Palin conservatives discovered. Is it important? The press has chosen to make splenetic conservatives the face of conservatism - for obvious reasons. Anything that can make conservatism look intolerant, bigoted, dangerous, and ignorant will gleefully be used to portray all conservatives in a negative light. We saw this in the waning days of the campaign when the press began to focus on “angry” crowds at McCain and Palin rallies, thus tarring all McCain supporters unfairly as yahoos and haters.
Ridding ourselves of these meddlesome and problematic screamers is not the issue. Opening their minds to the possibilities of compromise is a useless exercise - not when they see compromise as apostasy deserving of excommunication. Attempting to marginalize them would be playing their game. Besides, cutting off one’s legs as a way to heal the body is a strange way of reforming the movement. There must be a place for them at the conservative table - even if they have to be strapped down and force fed some hard truths about the exigencies of power and how futile their campaign to purify the movement when it comes to the raw exercise of democracy at the ballot box. Elections are about numbers; your side needs one more vote than the other side to win.
Michael K. Powell explains:
believe the Republican Party is on the precipice of irrelevance if it cannot rebuild a respect for civil debate-including self-criticism. The formation of powerful ideas requires the push and pull of varying viewpoints testing and informing one another. The litmus test politics that has abducted the party, has dulled the edge of its ideas, discourages those who respond to intellectual rigor, and repels too many from the party who are unwilling, as a condition of admission, to sign an oath of allegiance to a set of talking points.
Additionally, to have a future an institution must appeal to generations of the future. Appealing to youth is vital for rebirth. Yet, we seem trapped in a time warp. The Party has failed to fully comprehend how the young interact and communicate in an era transformed by the digital revolution. We do not yet appreciate their passions and their fears, nor pause to look at the world through their eyes. Battling to be a voice of technology and innovation is vital. In the world of youth, you must first “get it” before you are listened to.
The Party also must be more sober about the demographic transformation that is taking place in America. We are a browning nation, but a Party seemingly incompetent in connecting with America’s diversity and its ascendant multiculturalism. We are stuck in antiquated notions of race. My kids saw Barack Obama not as black but as modern. His race and enlightened manner of dealing with it captures how the young see themselves.
Allah (who links to a fascinating interview with Rudy Guiliani at Frum’s New Majority where hizzoner states that de-emphasizing social issues is the way back for Republicans) answers the question of what to do about the divisions in the movement quite nicely, giving the bleak alternatives:
[T]he key bit comes near the end of the second clip. He’s not asking the party to abandon social conservatism, just to nudge it towards the background and make foreign policy and fiscal responsibility the core of the platform. Which … is essentially the approach McCain took.
He’s right about the dwindling numbers of the base, though. I think the GOP’s tacit strategy now is to wait and hope for (1) a messianic figure of its own to emerge and build a new coalition through the sheer force of his/her charisma and/or (2) Democrats to overreach so egregiously that even minority voters who wouldn’t dream of voting Republican today will run screaming for the embrace of small government. All of which is fine, but the opposite of proactive. I wonder how long we’ll be waiting.
If I were Allah, I wouldn’t hold my breath for either of those eventualities. Palin is not acceptable to a large portion of the GOP if not a majority. Besides her bona fides as a “messianic figure” are not very impressive. Bobby Jindahl is an interesting man with a fascinating story but pinning hopes for a revival on the young man may be premature.
If no messiah, what then? First things first and that means uniting the movement with or without a dominant personality. Much more difficult if the latter but until someone comes along, someone has to do something to build bridges and not burn them.
Political strategist John Avlon on the Big Tent:
Somehow Republicans have lost common ground – Reagan invoked the Big Tent constantly as a way of collecting libertarian conservatives, national security conservatives, economic conservatives and social conservatives under one banner. But the spirit of outreach and inclusiveness has been drummed out of the GOP – disagreement is seen as disloyalty, and the search for heretics has become a hobby. Libertarians are losing any logical reason to affiliate with the GOP, while centrist Republicans are seen as suspect almost by definition. When Senators like Olympia Snowe or John McCain win re-election with over 70% of the vote, they are considered sell-outs rather than successes. I’ve debated conservatives on TV who were rooting for Norm Coleman to lose, because they considered him insufficiently conservative. This road leads not just to political disaster, but party suicide. Republicans who have won statewide in the Northeast tend to be centrist on social issues, especially on a woman’s right to chose and gay civil rights. Republicans must welcome social moderates into the big tent of the GOP, focus on finding common ground and not treat them as second class citizens. Remember: In a place where everyone thinks alike, nobody is thinking very much.
What do you do when reason does not work on the unreasonable? How can you be inclusive when a minority insists on using what power it possesses to maintain exclusivity?
What in God’s name is to be done with the Splenetic Conservatives?
I have taken much abuse on this site and others I write for from these galoots. I have not been shy about returning the invective either. Clearly, it doesn’t get anybody anywhere for us to shout and call each other vile names. But even when I am calm and rational about debate - not as often as I should be, I’ll grant - it’s worse than talking to a stone wall. In fact, the milder my response, the more outraged these pinheads get. It’s as if their minds function on only one level and trying to appeal to reason or even charity only enrages them further.
So I bear at least half of the blame for any untoward comments that come my way. But, after bouncing off the walls blaming each other or slinging epiteths back and forth, we end up in exactly the same position we were before: A battered, dispirited, and leaderless movement desperately in need of some kind of uniting expedient. Perhaps Obama and the Democrats will, as Allah suggests, prove to be so outrageously an anathema to conservative ideals that we will be forced to put aside our differences and unite to save the country.
Don’t bet on it. Obama is one smart, savvy pol with a gift for making even radical ideas sound reasonable. Unless the country falls apart economically, it is doubtful that anything the Democrats do will serve to bring the movement back together.
Therefore, we must look to ourselves and our own weaknesses and failings in order to re-establish Ronald Reagan’s Big Tent and find our way out of the wilderness where our own neglect and hubris has placed us. The journey to that goal has begun. How and when we get there is anyone’s guess.