Conservatives, much like liberals and independents — as well as anarchists, Marxists, flat-Earthers and every other creedal crowd — all think they’re right. It’s axiomatic: Why hold one position if you think another viewpoint is better? The trouble for conservatives, much like the problem faced by those other groups, is that their worldview isn’t overwhelmingly popular.
Oh, conservatism is more popular than a lot of things we call popular these days; more people call themselves conservatives than Red Sox fans, for instance. But the ideal conservative program of a federal government strictly limited to constitutional responsibilities and nothing else would fare miserably at the polls. Almost as badly as an ideal socialist program.
This point is difficult for political activists of either stripe to concede. After all, both sides are certain they have staked out the intellectually superior ground. So they fixate on tactics, packaging and spinning. A lot has been written, including by myself, about how liberals consider political strategy more important than ideas. But it’s worth noting that conservatives fall prey to such lines of thinking too, even as we take pride in our squabbles about liberty versus virtue.
This is one reason Republicans are so fixated on finding the next Ronald Reagan — someone who can articulate conservatism and carry 44 states doing it. Virtually every Republican debate so far has had moments that sound like the climax of “Spartacus,” with each candidate rising to proclaim, “I am the Gipper!”
The problem is that conservatism, even Reagan’s brand, wasn’t as popular as we often remember it. Government spending continued to increase under Reagan, albeit a bit more slowly. Today, the U.S. population is 30 percent larger but government spending is 84 percent greater (adjusting for inflation) than it was when Reagan delivered his 1981 inaugural address. That was the speech in which he declared: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” and vowed to “curb the size and influence of the federal establishment.”
In 1964, political psychologists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril famously asserted that Americans were ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. Americans loved Barry Goldwater’s rhetoric about yeoman individualism, but not if it meant taking away their Social Security checks or farm subsidies. “As long as Goldwater could talk ideology alone, he was high, wide and handsome,” Free and Cantril wrote. “But the moment he discussed issues and programs, he was finished.”
Goldwater went to Tennessee to blast the Tennessee Valley Authority, God bless him. That was like going to a brothel to denounce prostitution, or to Iowa to denounce ethanol — but I repeat myself. He carried only six states in the 1964 presidential election.
Liberals have an inherent advantage. As long as they promise incremental, “pragmatic” expansions of the government, voters generally give them a pass. And every new expansion since FDR and the New Deal has created a constituency for continued government largesse.
If Hillary Clinton promised to socialize medicine — which, let the record show, she has attempted to do in the past — she would lose. But her current campaign promise to simply expand coverage sounds reasonable enough — even though there’s no reason to think she’ll stop pushing for a national single-payer health-care system (a.k.a. socialized medicine).
“Liberals sell the welfare state one brick at a time, deflecting inquiries about the size and cost of the palace they’re building,” writes William Voegeli in an illuminating essay, “The Trouble with Limited Government,” in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books.
Committed conservatives, meanwhile, find themselves at a disadvantage: They advocate smaller government for everybody — when Americans generally (including most Republicans) want smaller government for everybody but themselves.
Some conservatives respond to this dilemma with an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” shrug. If voters don’t embrace limited government — which really just means self-government — then have them choose between a big government that does right-wing things and one that does left-wing things. Some of those people are called “compassionate conservatives.” Others seek comfort in the soothing irrelevance of purism and adopt libertarian candidates and causes that will never, ever win at the ballot box.
But there is another course for conservatives: Simply do what you can, where you can, including supporting the most conservative candidate who can win and succeed in office.
Meanwhile, writes Voegeli, it “makes sense for conservatives to attack liberalism where it is weakest, rather than where it is strongest.” Unlike the utopianisms of the left, conservatism is defined by an understanding that this life can never be made perfect. So you state your ideals and then you compromise when life gives you no other choice. Pry free the bricks you can, loosen the ones you can’t, and make peace with the ones you can’t budge, until you can.