If the election were held today, Barack Obama would be the new President of the United States of America. The latest Real Clear Politics average of national polls shows Obama ahead of McCain by nearly seven percentage points. It looks like the Democrats are going to have control of both the White House and Congress for the next four years.
And, mark it down, if there is a Democrat sweep, conservative Republicans will get the blame.
Counterfeit Conservatism Caused Collapse
The fact of the matter is, however, that President Bush and the Republicans who dominated Congress during most of his administration governed as anything but conservatives. Except during election season, it has been difficult to find any trace of conservative principles among incumbents within the Republican Party. During their tenure, Republican governance was characterized by out of control spending, record-setting earmarks, affirmative action programs for corporate wrongdoers, corrupt relations with special interests, and sexual scandal. While they often described themselves as "conservatives," their walk was very different from their talk.
The names voters associate with Republicans do not evoke visions of commitment to traditional conservative values: Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, Tom Delay, Ted Stevens, Alberto Gonzalez, Boeing, Halliburton. Neither do the programs: No Child Left Behind, The Bridge to Nowhere, Amnesty for Illegals. During the period of Republican hegemony, no real ground was gained on reforming entitlements, no major effort was made to curb abortion (or even abortion funding), and the national debt as a percentage of gross domestic product rose to a 50-year high!
Few Republicans in leadership in government during the past decade have been authentic conservatives. At best, they have been counterfeit conservatives, which no doubt accounts for why Republicans lost so many seats in 2006 and why they appear ready to lose more seats and the Presidency this November.
In the aftermath of the election, the Republican Party will undoubtedly have the time to engage in serious introspection. Hopefully, its leaders will come to understand that conservatism is not just a "label" or even a "movement." It is a way of life.
Principles of True Conservatism
Because of the divergence between the words and deeds of those who have called themselves conservatives, there is a lack of clarity of what it really means to be a "conservative." Conservatives are sometimes confused with libertarians. But true conservatives are not autonomous individuals seeking absolute freedom. The siren call of extreme libertarianism is no less destructive than the liberal dream of the nanny state. Conservatives understand that every person is a part of a family and a community; they understand that each generation is just one link in the long chain of human history; and they understand that each person and each generation has duties to those who went before, those who are living today, and those who will come after us. A sense of duty and history governs the lives and thoughts of conservatives.
Conservatives understand that the right to life is the foundation of all other rights. They believe that unless government first protects the right to life, all other rights become meaningless. Rights are reserved for the living. They mean nothing to a corpse.
Conservatives also believe that one's rights come from the Creator, not from the government. They believe that Government's chief role is to protect the rights that God has endowed to humankind. They do not believe that human rights or human dignity depend on one's age, size, or location (inside or outside the womb or even in a petri dish). Consequently, conservatives support policies that protect the lives of all innocent human beings from conception to natural death.
A recovery of conservatism begins with a recovery of the family. Families are the cornerstone of a healthy society. Families are the units that raise our children, transmit our values, and prepare children for life in society as responsible adults. In addition to providing protection, provision, and guidance, families provide an environment in which children learn how to order their lives as they live in community with others.
Conservatives believe that both mothers and fathers have unique and invaluable roles to play in the development of healthy children. Feminine and masculine role models are important for girls and boys alike. In our youth, we look to our mothers and fathers to learn how to live and relate to others. However, divorce, promiscuity, and co-habitation have devastated America's families. Many children have only a single parent to raise them. Consequently, children are often raised with a "gender gap," and they receive instruction and guidance at home from just a single parent. The pathologies of single parent children are all too familiar: academic failure, drug abuse, teen suicide, sexual promiscuity, juvenile delinquency. Conservatives, therefore, advocate policies that strengthen and undergird the family, knowing that such policies strengthen and undergird society.
Work, Savings, Investment, Thrift
Conservatives understand the value of work. Work is the means by which families sustain themselves economically. Since families (unlike government) are not able to print money, they understand the work-wealth connection. Conservatives deem the willingness to work hard to support oneself and one's family a virtue. They eschew policies that diminish incentives to work or encourage a lack of self sufficiency.
Conservatives also understand the importance of living within one's means. They understand the importance of savings and investment and know that to do either requires that they resist the temptation for instant gratification. They understand that the future is uncertain and life has its ups and downs. Therefore, in good times they set aside a portion of their earnings for the difficult times that may be around the bend. They favor policies that promote savings and investment and oppose those that promote unhealthy speculation, which they see as the equivalent of gambling.
Conservatives believe that markets should be free from excessive government regulation and that free market forces, not government intervention, should determine winners and losers in the market place. Competition is typically the best and most efficient way to determine which goods and services the consuming public wants. Government control of the means of production of consumer goods and government dictation of consumer preferences should be discouraged.
Recognizing, however, that men are not angels and that accountability and responsibility run hand in hand, businesses and the marketplace should be subject to reasonable regulations designed to secure honesty, transparency, and accountability. Individuals or enterprises, who deem themselves aggrieved by others, should have access to the courts so that disputes may be resolved by a jury of their peers
Conservatives understand that getting a good job and working hard is an important part of life, but they believe that the purpose of education is much greater than just career-preparation. They agree with Russell Kirk that the true purpose of education should be the "cultivation of a person's own intellect and imagination, for the person's own sake.... True education is meant to develop the individual human being...." Conservatives believe that through education children should gain a better understanding of themselves and the world. Consequently, conservatives believe that the education of one's children is first and foremost a parental responsibility.
To the extent that government assumes a role in the educational arena, conservatives believe that schools should not promote values that are inimical to those of parents. Recognizing that one size does not fit all and that all schools are not equal, conservatives believe that parents should be able to choose the venue for their children's education, including the home. Since education is important to the development of our children, conservatives also believe that educational standards should be designed to encourage excellence and discourage mediocrity in the class room.
Our culture is increasingly ambivalent about religion. We have come to believe that religion is a private matter that should only be discussed in the confines of home, if at all. This is in sharp contrast to the traditional conservative understanding of religion's role in culture.
Conservatives believe that the marketplace of ideas should be open to a free and vigorous exchange of religious thought. People should have the freedom to advocate the propriety of their own religious views and to challenge the views of others. Nevertheless, because one's beliefs are ultimately a matter of personal conscience, conservatives believe that neither government nor anyone else should have the power to impose particular religious views on others. People should be free to believe (or disbelieve) in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience. That does not mean, however, that the policies of government may not be informed by its people's religious beliefs. Indeed, conservatives believe that there are self-evident truths rooted in eternity that transcend time and culture and that these truths are binding on individuals and governments alike.
Perhaps the most conspicuous failing of "modern conservatives" is the complete abandonment of care for the environment. Because of their antipathy for "tree-hugging hippies," conservatives have abandoned their duty to care for our world. This is nonsensical—no one should care more for our world than conservatives. The conservative respect for past and future generations demands that we exercise proper stewardship over the earth, cultivating it and preserving it for our children.
Conservatives believe in the importance of local communities. While liberals look to government to provide for the needs of the community, conservatives believe in the potential of individual neighbors to work together to build strong communities. Placing this responsibility on the shoulders of the government weakens the community and reduces the human potential for hospitality, love, and sacrificial service one to another.
T. S. Eliot understood that government was no replacement for weak, disintegrating communities: "This separation cannot be repaired merely by public organization. It is not a question of assembling into committees representatives of different types of knowledge and experience, of calling in everybody to advise everybody else." There is no replacement for a natural local community. No other entity can provide the kind of common moral basis, the unwritten social rules, the preservation of cultural traditions, and the care and love for one another.
A return to conservatism will not succeed on a national level if it does not first begin at home. No political movement can reestablish true conservatism, because true conservatism is not rooted in the government or political activism. The root of conservatism lies in the second greatest commandment: "...'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matt. 22:39 NIV) and in the Golden Rule, "Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Luke 6:31 NIV)