America’s political history over the last century – and, if we stay on our current course, its political future – can be read in two symbols that were ever-present in the last election.
The Forward slogan of the Obama campaign is the battle cry of a movement with a destination and a plan. In its European versions, Forward carried with it the idea of a march towards the eventual victory of socialism or Communism. Obama’s campaign slogan retained that sense of a march towards a destination, a new kind of America ruled by principles long espoused by leftists of various stripes.
Don’t Tread on Me connotes the spirit of independence and resistance to tyranny that emboldened the patriot movement at the country’s founding. Revived by the grassroots conservative movement of today, the slogan conveys the determination of modern patriots to defend liberty when it is threatened.
But Forward connotes action, and Don’t Tread on Me connotes reaction. And unless conservatives see the strategic implications of those two symbols, America will continue its descentinto the moral and economic bog of socialism.
Since the days of Edmund Burke, conservatives have conceived our political role in defensive terms, as protecting the rights of citizens against government encroachments and defending social stability against the radical movements of the day. In describing the mission of his new magazine in 1955, William F. Buckley, Jr. said that National Review “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Today, the grassroots conservative movement stands athwart the far left’s agenda for America yelling Hell No.
But there are two problems for conservatism as a defensive movement. First, because the left is always on the strategic offensive, deciding when and where to push their agenda, leftists only have to win occasionally. As an essentially defensive movement, however, the right has to win every encounter, or liberty loses ground.
The right stopped Hillarycare in 1994, but the left just came back again with Obamacare. Even if the right had stopped Obamacare, the left would have come back with the same bill under different names. The left only had to win the battle for control of health care once. In the courts, the left mounts challenge after challenge to Second Amendment rights, traditional marriage, and anything else that stands in the way of their agenda. It does not matter how often they lose; the left only has to win once, and a new precedent is set. In politics, time is on the side of those who maintain the offensive, and the left is always on the offensive.
The second problem for conservatives is that a defensive movement cannot regain lost ground. Considering the left’s political gains and their success in attacking the Judeo-Christian foundations of liberty in American culture, stalling the left’s advance now would still leave liberty with its back against the wall of socialism.
In short, it is time for conservatives to realize that ‘Hell No’ is not a political strategy.
It is not the failure of conservative ideas and principles that have lost ground for the cause of liberty, but the right’s failure to develop and execute a proactive political strategy, one that tells the electorate what we are for and not just what we are against, one that educates voters outside the conservative base about the benefits of liberty and the power of free enterprise.
As Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots said recently, “Our Forefathers were not content railing against the Crown…They fought for freedom and liberty.” Martin belongs to a new generation of conservative leaders calling not for the mere rebranding of conservatism but for its transformation from a defensive force into a positive force with a vision for liberty and a plan for taking that vision to the electorate.
A transformed conservative movement would still make the case against the inefficiencies and the inevitable abuses of power that come with big government, but the case would not stop there. Thomas Sowell and other economists have made the case that free enterprise provides a higher standard of living and better upward mobility than state-controlled economies. The Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups have a wealth of proposals that address problems with our health care system by expanding personal choice and reducing government control. The right has sound and workable ideas on issue after issue, but, at present, only the conservative base ever hears those ideas.
Liberty works, but our cultural institutions – education, news, and entertainment – are dominated by the left. If the case for liberty is to taken into a culture increasingly conditioned to the idea that the only good government is big government, the conservative movement will have to do an end run around the left’s institutions and take our case directly into our communities. The grassroots vehicle is there, if conservatives can expand our thinking from Taxed Enough Already to Teaching Every American that there is a better path than the one we’re following.
For the conservative movement, the alternative to transformation is to stay on the reactive path that brought us here, the path that leads Forward to socialism.