Now that almost a month has passed since Election Day 2012, and after pouring through all of the data and punditry I could find in order to make sense of what happened and what we conservatives should do, I am ready to share my preliminary thoughts. There are a lot of points I could try to make in a post like this, but to do so would make this into a book, rather than a post. Because there will be plenty of time over the next few months to return to this issue and elaborate on some of what I am summarizing here, I will focus only on some general guideposts today.
Almost four years ago now—beginning shortly after the 2008 election—I put away my personal goal of becoming a judge and focused much of my time and energy on engaging you in a conversation about the future of conservatism and the GOP—locally and nationally: first, as an advocate for a new plan of organization, management, mobilization, and growth for our party; then, as a candidate for Chair of the HCRP; and finally, as a writer on this blog, and as a delegate, member, and/or officer of various clubs, committees, and conventions. Over these years a lot has happened, both good and bad, but I have found a growing willingness among our fellow conservatives to consider and discuss new approaches to how we pursue our goals and implement our principles into public policy, rather than just double-down on the same dogmas and strategies—and that is a good thing. More importantly, I have observed an emerging willingness to listen to each other, which does not come naturally to us head-strong, independent cusses. If we wisely continue to listen to and talk with each other about our future—rather than form circular firing squads, or organize hunts to find and slaughter the elusive RINOs in our midst—I believe we, together, will find the right path ahead.
In all of the noise flowing from the aftermath of the election, we again hear various definitions of what it means to be a conservative in America. Some of those definitions are general, and some are very detailed; some are right in particular points, but most are simply and generally wrong. And it is this fundamental error that inhibits our ability to move forward in the 21st Century. It’s as if our conservative movement has been approaching a crossroad for two decades with one wheel continually broken, because we have forgotten what it is that binds us together. Unless we understand and embrace what it is that binds us to our cause, we will choose the wrong path forward, or split into warring factions that follow different paths—with devastating consequences for our posterity.
Conservatism generally is the inclination—politically, socially, or culturally—to maintain an existing or traditional order. America was founded as a rejection of a traditional order that existed in Europe. Instead, America was founded on the radical idea of promoting and preserving each individual’s equal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Because we were founded upon this radical idea, the cause of American Conservatives has been, and must continue to be to maintain the political, social, and cultural order—including the Constitution, the federal structure of our governments, the freedom of our economic marketplace, the network of local private relationships and organizations that sustain families and communities, and the Western/Judeo-Christian guides for the character and conduct of our citizens—which promotes and preserves this radical idea.
Unlike conservatives in other societies, we should not try to stop the constant change that is created by the dynamism of a society based on liberty. Instead, our mission is to guide such change so that it preserves the essential political, social and cultural order that promotes our radical idea, so that, as described by Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana over 100 years ago in his eulogy to Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio, we bring “things to pass in a way that lasts and does good”:
Work with real things–real earth, real oceans, real mountains, real men–made [Hanna] conservative. And his conservatism was real. Much that is accepted as conservatism is spurious, mere make-believe. Conservatism does not mean doubt or indecision. It does not mean wise looks masking vacuity, nor pompous phrase as meaningless as it is solemn. Conservatism means clear common sense, which equally rejects the fanaticism of precedent and the fanaticism of change. It would not have midnight last just because it exists; and yet it knows that dawn comes not in a flash, but gradually–comes with a grand and beautiful moderation. So the conservative is the real statesman. He brings things to pass in a way that lasts and does good.
To bring “things to pass in a way that lasts and does good,” the GOP needs to govern and grow using our conservative principles based on America’s original radical idea—it’s really as simple as that. If we don’t govern and grow, we will simply become an irrelevant debating society, espousing and arguing over principles that aren’t relevant to people’s lives, or over values that political institutions are not competent to address.
Although we are still smarting over national and local losses, this election actually gave us a strong platform from which to govern and grow, if we keep our heads about us. Control of 30 Governorships and 27 State legislatures gives the GOP an ability to show that federalism, and especially the underlying foundation of individuals, families, local private organizations and local governments that deal with most the daily issues faced by our society, really can work to meet the actual needs of our citizens and our communities.
This new platform can be used to show that our model works, and that we should ignore Washington and focus on home to solve our problems in the future. If we learn to stop turning to Washington every time we have a nose-bleed, we can re-limit the federal government to its proper sphere of responsibilities, and get our national budget under control. If we re-focus on our local and state governments, we can address the problems at each level of those governments that for so long we have ignored—thereby allowing the public unions and narrow interests to fill the vacuum left by our inattention. In turn, we need to elect members to Congress who will respect such an approach and keep the federal government from encroaching any further beyond its proper sphere of responsibility, and who will find ways to reduce the federal footprint over time. If we succeed, we can teach a new generation of people that our ideas and principles can work as a governing model, and then, we may be able to build a national coalition and an Electoral College majority around this model.
But this approach only works if we truly govern and grow.
Governing means that when we elect candidates to local and state offices, we have to support them to govern based on our principles. They will have to fill the potholes, provide for the infrastructure, reform and maintain our constitutionally-mandated educational system, reform the public employee benefit systems, and the many other tasks that state and local government have to address; and then they will have to find a way to pay for it with a tax system that promotes private-sector growth, and with a balanced budget.
Growth means that we need to spread our principles into every community, and every precinct—in Texas and across this country. Since at least 1960, we have ceded most of the large metropolitan areas in this country to the Democratic Party, with devastating results for too many urban residents and neighborhoods. Because we abandoned them, and stopped even trying to listen to them and address their needs with our principles, the single women and mothers, African Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latino-Americans don’t understand us, don’t trust us, and refuse to vote for us—and they gave the Democrats the White House in the last two elections.
And let me be very clear to my friends who identify themselves as exclusively or primarily Christian Conservatives or Social Conservatives: whether and how we discuss issues like abortion, marriage, immigration, the war on drugs, the breakdown of the family, etc., won’t change these neighbor’s minds about the GOP—even though polls indicate that many urban and metropolitan voters agree with us on some or all of these issues—because they won’t listen to us until they trust us again. Regaining that trust will take time and effort, not just a periodic, self-serving attempt to mobilize within the evangelical churches in these neighborhoods. We must start the hard work now.
As a party we need to help our state and local elected officials to develop conservative policies for all of our neighborhoods to help the under-educated finish school, to help the under-employed prepare for the private-sector jobs of today and tomorrow, and to help the over-incarcerated stay in their communities and build productive families and businesses, so that families and neighborhoods can build a foundation of productivity and wealth that will sustain themselves and, in turn, create a tax base that will sustain their local infrastructures and schools. Then, we need to work with local leaders in these communities to develop advocates and new candidates who will fight for these policies, and to work with mentors who will help develop an infrastructure of private civic organizations and Republican clubs in these neighborhoods who will promote our principles in relevant ways. If we do that, not only will we use our principles to help our neighbors, but the direct and indirect benefits from changing the hearts and minds of voting groups who now distrust us will be truly consequential in future elections.
As we re-gain trust and change hearts and minds, we also need to listen to these voters about the real concerns they have about the positions we hold on various “social” issues and why we hold them. For too long we have given the impression that we care more about preserving a purity of position on these issues, than we care about these neighbors and the world they live in. From their perspective, all we seem to do is preach about these issues, and then simply try to impose our will on them—and many of them, especially young people below the age of 40, are unwilling listeners, and are no longer willing to have our views imposed on them.
But, if you actually listen to them carefully, you will find that there is an openness to discuss and consider the principles of character and conduct that underlie all of the values that we hold dear, and that we believe must be maintained to preserve a society based America’s original radical idea. It is this openness that leads a majority of young people to now find abortion to be wrong, though they may still resist many of our policy positions on the issue. If we start a real dialogue with young people, as well as Latino and other groups, whose resistance to our rhetoric helps to fuel their current distrust of us, we will find the right way to promote our principles and the right path to follow politically into the future, without abandoning our deepest held values. In this way, we can build a new generational majority to bring “things to pass in a way that lasts and does good.”
So, though I am deeply disappointed about some of the outcomes this year, I believe the foundation exists for us to become an enduring political majority in this country. But we will accomplish that goal only if we don’t wait for the next election cycle to start to address the issues we face. Instead, we need to start now, as a party and through our elected officials, to govern and grow.