In a recent column, George Will observed that "nostalgia for Ronald Reagan has become for many conservatives a substitute for thinking." Time Magazine’s cover of March 26 is titled, "How The Right Went Wrong," and makes the point that conservatives are gloomy. Time asks the question, "Can the party reclaim Reagan’s legacy?" Conservatives need to face the fact that "neither the man nor his moment will recur," Will concluded.
Will has long displayed an uncanny ability to spot political trends, and surely there is a grain of truth in the one noted above. Will would do well, however, to avoid mistaking reverence for empty nostalgia, and learning from the past for living in the past.
When conservatives talk about Reagan we are not merely talking about a man or a moment, but of a model of dynamic leadership. We speak of a time when we had such leadership because we live in a time when we lack it. Naturally then, in the search for our next great leader we regularly recall our last. That search for a new conservative leader took center stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington earlier this month. While much of the media coverage of the event focused on the parade of presidential candidates that addressed the conference, the speech that did the most to point the way forward for conservatives was given by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a man who is most certainly not running for president, but who did lace his speech with lessons gleaned from President Reagan.
DeMint did not merely kowtow to Reagan to please his conservative audience; rather, he cited the former president as a means of urging a new generation of leaders to embrace the mantle of leadership. Conservatives "must paint a picture," DeMint said, "that shows voters where we want to lead America and what it will look like when we get there."
DeMint's "picture" of conservatism is a good one, and it focuses on three "core values": individualism, capitalism, and volunteerism. We'll look at each in turn.
First, individualism. DeMint said that in order "for freedom to work, people must have the capabilities to succeed in a free society." True since the founding of our country over 230 years ago, DeMint's words take on even greater significance today.
The knowledge-based economy rises or falls based on the capabilities of individuals, not governments; innovation, ingenuity, decentralization, and the free flow of information are its hallmarks. The things we do as a country should reflect this modern reality. For example, we should move beyond the group-think culture that dominates much of our education system. As DeMint noted, the way forward is a "system that allows states to agree to meet certain goals in return for being released from the shackles of the federal education bureaucracy." The farther educational control gets from the grasp of the federal government, the closer it gets to being where it belongs: in the hands of individual parents and members of local communities.
Second, capitalism. Said DeMint: "Capitalism is the purest form of democracy because consumers can make their own decisions." In making these decisions, consumers select from an array of choices made readily available by the free market. Unfortunately, government bureaucrats continue to insist on restricting the free market and individual choice in several key sectors, including healthcare. As DeMint observed, "there is indisputable evidence that the free market pricing of prescription drugs has produced lower prices and spurred more innovation than the government ever dreamed, but [free market] opponents still want the government to take it over." Government already has control of our Social Security system, and it now stands as a failed example of the one-size-fits-all model favored by free market opponents. As the Democratic presidential candidates ramp up their calls for universal health care and increased government regulation of nearly every sector of the American economy, conservatives must stand ready to follow DeMint’s example and defend capitalism in principle and practice.
Third, volunteerism. DeMint said that "volunteers and voluntary associations are the strength of America. They care about others and their communities, not because of government coercion; they work for the good of others because they are capable, responsible individuals." I was particularly glad that DeMint mentioned this value because I believe it defines the character of conservatism. We can talk all we want about individualism and capitalism, but it means nothing if we don’t back it up with action. If we are willing to criticize the welfare state, then we must also be willing to support the private organizations that supplant the government in serving those in need.
With these three values in mind, DeMint said that the conservative promise to America is "unlimited opportunity and freedom, more jobs, more income, more choices, more security, more faith and more hope for the future." In short, he said, conservatives "offer more, not less." Indeed. And it is high time that more leaders follow DeMint's example and embrace the core principles of conservatism and undertake the hard, often thankless work of laying out the future of our country, and our movement. Ronald Reagan would expect nothing less.