Conservatives are fond of insisting that liberal ideas and policies should be judged by their outcomes, not by the intentions of those who supported them. Fair enough. The measurable outcomes of many liberal policies fall far short of the hopeful feelings that fueled them, sometimes actually making things worse rather than better.
It’s a discussion many liberals prefer not to have. So long as liberals can keep the focus on their own allegedly pure and benevolent intentions, they can demonize everyone who disagrees as being malicious, while sidestepping the actual results of liberal policies. Unfortunately, that’s much of what counts for modern American political discourse.
But what happens if we measure conservatism by the same standard by which conservatives want to measure liberalism? What if we judge the history of the modern conservative movement not by the ideas espoused by conservatives, or their feelings or intentions, but rather by the measureable outcomes of their efforts? This picture isn’t very pretty either, especially for those on the right side of the political aisle who care about results as much as they profess.
ROOTS OF THE RIGHT
Arguably, the modern conservative movement began to coalesce in the mid-1950s, largely in response to FDR’s New Deal as well as the then-emerging phenomenon of global communism. Three key things happened in the mid-1950’s that would give conservatives of different stripes something around which to rally:
- 1953: Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind, an imperfect book, but among the most publicly visible attempts to offer an intellectually serious account of conservatism.
- 1954: William Baroody led the effort to transform what had been a relatively small group of economic policy researchers into the American Enterprise Institute, among the first and most respected free market think tanks with a national scope.
- 1955: William F. Buckley launched National Review magazine, providing a platform for conservatives and libertarians who often disagreed with each other, but were united in their concern with growing government power in the United States, as well as the growing specter of communism around the world.
There were others in addition to those mentioned above, to be sure. This included some who objected to the moniker “conservative” because it’s a misleading, confusing label that carries a deeply negative connotation in the minds of many. The very thing conservatives claim to be conserving, after all, is a revolution—opposite of anything remotely “conservative.”
CONSERVATISM GROWS INTO A MOVEMENT
The purpose here, though, is not to provide a comprehensive list of all conservative activists, but to place a spotlight on the bigger picture of what modern conservatism has and has not achieved. Consider all that conservatives have done from those early beginnings in the 1950s to today. In more than six decades, conservatives have established schools, think tanks, political action committees, and organizations of all kinds, large and small, at the national, state, and local levels: Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, State Policy Network, American Legislative Exchange Council, Freedom Works, Americans For Prosperity, Foundation For Economic Education, Bill of Rights Institute, on and on the list goes.
Conservatives have carved out deep channels in the arenas of radio, television, and the Internet. After the repeal of the obnoxious “Fairness Doctrine,” Rush Limbaugh soared to the top of the talk radio world, and many other conservative hosts rode his coattails and amassed large audiences of their own. FOX News virtually redefined what television political commentary means. Matt Drudge and the late Andrew Breitbart established large online portals for conservative news and information, followed by many others.
Conservatives have publications of all kinds, such as The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, The American Conservative, FrontPage Magazine, and Human Events. They’ve also pumped out books, thick and thin. On the religious side of the equation, James Dobson founded Focus on the Family. David Barton began packing ballrooms by turning Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and every other American statesman into modern Evangelical Christians, while also finding the U.S. Constitution detailed in the New Testament and transforming the self-evident truths of the Declaration into articles of Christian faith.
In the process of all this activity, conservatives even collaborated with Republicans enough to elect a President, Ronald Reagan, and then celebrated and hoped for the return of his ghost with a big party, the Tea Party.
MOVEMENT FOR THE SAKE OF MOVEMENT?
So what are we to make of all this effort, time, and money? I’m not suggesting that all these organizations and efforts are worthless. They’re not. Far From it. I have friends who work at many of these places, most of which produce quality research, data, and programming. And I, myself, have been neck-deep in the conservative movement most of my adult life.
Still, if the goal of conservative groups has been to raise more money and expand their own organizations, they’ve been a rocking success. But if their goal is to achieve the political ends they espouse in many of their own mission statements—things such as limited constitutional government, increased individual and economic freedom, responsible self-reliant citizenship—then it’s difficult to describe modern conservatism as anything other than: loser.
Consider: after six decades of conservatism, we have a President who’s been elected twice and is openly hostile to the U.S. Constitution. We have government debt that now eclipses the entire U.S. economy. We have more regulatory restrictions on entrepreneurial freedom than ever before in American history, with more on the way, and we have an unprecedented number of citizens who equate freedom and civil rights with living off the hard work of others.
Throughout the entire multigenerational course of the modern conservative movement, government power has grown, no matter how one measures it. Government spending, government redistribution of private wealth, number of government employees and programs, annual pages of government regulations, have all gone steadily up during the life of modern conservatism. And for the most part, with rare exceptions, it has not mattered much whether Democrats or Republicans have been in control.
ACKNOWLEDGING FAILURE IS NO EASY THING
When presented with this failure, the most common justification employed by conservatives is a hypothetical assertion that things would be even worse without the work of conservatism. But that is the same defense many liberals use for their own policies and efforts, which conservatives routinely reject.
When Paul Krugman, for example, justified government bailouts and economic stimulus plans by asserting that the economy would be even worse without those programs, conservatives cried foul. But when asked why conservatives have failed to produce the results they promise, conservatives are quick to employ exactly the same justification-by-hypothetical-assertion.
Yet, it’s no way clear that things would be worse had there been no conservative movement. Conservatism slowed the American march toward big government, it’s true. But which is more dangerous for a frog: a pot of bubbling, boiling hot water? Or cool water that is slowly heated?
It’s at least arguable that a fast slide into full-blown socialism decades ago might have revealed much earlier and much more clearly the intrinsic defects of collectivist, redistributionist policies. Instead, the heat of big government has been increased incrementally, slowly, and therefore almost invisibly to many people.
A NEW WAY FOR FREEDOM
Conservatives are free to keep doing what they’ve been doing, of course. They’re free to chatter amongst themselves, host big conferences for their friends and preach to their own choir and congratulate each other smugly, all while losing the cause of constitutional government and individual freedom year after year, decade after decade.
Or they can try something new. They can recognize that their message resonates with almost no one other than themselves. If so, it’s time to start strategizing, speaking, and writing in new terms. Here’s a brief guide to a new way of discussing and marketing freedom in the United States:
- We don’t need to persuade everyone in America, or even half of them. If we move only four or five percent of the voting population, we change the electoral fate of America.
- We should focus not on any four or five percent, but specifically on those who tend to be apolitical, slightly left-leaning—but also who are not lifetime dependents on government subsidies, not lifetime government bureaucrats, and not fire-breathing leftwing activists. These latter types have vested interests in growing government even bigger, and it’s unlikely anyone will change their minds. Leaving them aside, what remains is what we at Speakeasy Ideas call the “Persuasion Zone.” And there are ways to identify these people and communicate with them.
- When opportunities arise to reach those in the Persuasion Zone, freedom must be wrapped in a new and very different package.
The word “freedom,” for example, is likely to be more of an obstacle than an aid to freedom persuasion. It’s a sadly ironic fact of modern American life that many traditional political terms serve today as lightning rods that polarize people and cause many to tune out: “conservative,” “liberal,” “Democrat,” “Republican,” “principles,” “limited government,” “Constitution,” “Founding Fathers,” etc.
All these terms and more are of little help in making the case for freedom to those who dislike the noisy shouting, fighting, and confrontation of politics. And for those in the Persuasion Zone, who by definition are slightly left-leaning, they’ve heard those phrases used all-too-often as covers by self-serving rightwing politicians.
The new language of freedom ought to be wrapped in the real, day-to-day subjects that people care and talk about: better schools for their kids, safe and effective medicines, healthy food, quality cars and homes and technology of all kinds, and a way to earn or produce more so that tomorrow is better than today all around.
DISCOVERY BETTER THAN PREACHING
Within that conversation, we can help people discover how best to achieve or attain what they want, rather than preaching what we think they ought to believe. In every case, freedom and free markets will be the answer for which they are searching. We just cannot frame it that way up front, lest we lose our target audience before we have a chance to persuade them.
If the principles of freedom are really true and produce desirable results, after all, they can be presented in myriad ways. One does not need to thunder quotations from what the Left sees as “dead white males,” as if preaching the one and only Holy Gospel. The Founding Fathers were no deities, after all, and neither were John Locke or Adam Smith. One can teach the ideas of freedom, in themselves, by helping others discover them for themselves. And then we will congratulate them on their discovery.
The alternatives for conservatives, it seems, are few. Either they continue to do what they’ve always done, and continue to lose the fight for limited government and maximum individual freedom. Or they change their tune, sing with choirs with whom they’ve never before harmonized, and bring new blood and new faces to their ranks. The choice is up to them.