Transcript of my talk at the Kinder Institute
Below are the remarks I gave at the Kinder Institute at the University of Missouri. The talk took place on Election Day, just hours before the polls closed.
I was asked today to talk about the future of the conservative movement. Unfortunately, I am giving this talk about six hours too early. I think we will shortly have an idea about what the future holds in store for this movement.
Before I get into that, however, I think it is important to clarify a few terms. When I talk about the conservative movement, I am not talking about conservatism as a general disposition. I am not talking about the general belief that the tried is a better bet than the untried, that we should be cautious before venturing into the unknown, that tradition has real value and should not be cast aside without careful consideration. This is a natural disposition – I would not be surprised if a majority of people have such a disposition – and it is not going to go away, regardless of what happens later tonight.
The conservative movement is not just the political manifestation of this tendency, however. Although those who still consider themselves the intellectual heirs of Russell Kirk would never admit this, American conservatism is now an ideology. It is an ideology with three major elements: limited government intervention in the economy, moral traditionalism, and a strong national defense.
We take it for granted that these elements naturally fit together – that, as conservatives have long argued, their philosophy is a three-legged stool, and without each leg, the movement cannot stand. Because conservatism has been so defined for all of my life, and actually all of my parents’ lives as well, I long clung to the notion that this was the only possible definition of conservatism.
Of course, when we look at the creation of the conservative movement, and the history of right-wing thought that preceded the conservative movement, it is clear that these three principles are not logically bound together, or at least the logic of this wedding was not immediately apparent to most observers.
Although he is not always listed as one of the marquee names of conservatism, Frank Meyer of National Review did more than anyone else to provide the philosophical justification for American conservatism. Although I am simplifying his thought by necessity, his general argument was as follows: whether you primarily care about virtue or liberty, in truth, these two values are dependent upon each other. True virtue can only be truly exercised if you have real freedom to make the wrong choice – to act in a way that is not virtuous. Similarly, true freedom can only last among a people that maintain a minimal level of virtue. A lazy, hedonistic, vicious people cannot survive in a state of freedom; they will require the heavy hand of government if they wish to continue living in something that approximates civilization.
And as for the third leg, during the 1950s, when the conservative movement coalesced, the specter of the Soviet Union loomed large. If communism triumphed, both liberty and moral traditions (especially religious traditions) would be lost forever.
That was the philosophical foundation, and one that made a great deal of political sense when we consider the world as it was when the conservative movement was born. We should not forget that there was an element of practical politics involved in the creation of the conservative movement. The social and political milieu of the United States in the middle of the 20th century played a role in what kind of conservatism we developed.
Theoretically, we should be able disaggregate the conservative movement from the Republican Party. However, at this point in time, the GOP really is the only vehicle capable of leading to conservative change in American society.
I should note that this is not really true of progressives. Outside of electoral politics, progressives have many other ways of exercising influence. They clearly dominate both the entertainment industry and our education systems, especially higher education. Increasingly, even America’s big businesses lean toward the left, on cultural issues of not economic ones. Even the leaders of many large Christian denominations have made a leftward turn in recent years. The religious right scarcely exists anymore.
So when Democrats are defeated at the ballot box, the progressive movement can continue to exercise indirect influence on the direction of the country. Conservatives have the GOP, and that’s about it. It is true that Fox News and AM radio push a conservative message, but I doubt that this kind of partisan conservative media actually does more than preach to the converted.
If Republicans are not in office, the policy papers coming out of Heritage or AEI are unlikely to ever be translated into law. If we enter a new era of Democratic governance, I do not expect Democrats to start moving in a more conservative direction.
So for this reason, I feel comfortable saying that the future of the conservative movement is largely dependent on the future of the Republican Party.
However, although a healthy Republican Party is a necessary condition for the health of the conservative movement, it is not a sufficient one. As we saw over the last year, the conservative hold on the Republican Party in the electorate is much weaker than many believed. Donald Trump demonstrated that one can be perfectly indifferent to the conservative movement and its doctrines and still secure the Republican presidential nomination.
It is therefore conceivable that the Republican Party could be strong, but the conservative movement could nonetheless wither away.
Unfortunately, we don’t yet know what the political landscape will look like tomorrow. But we can envision a few scenarios, and make an educated guess for what each scenario means for the conservative movement. In my view, there is not a single scenario in which the future looks bright for the movement.
I rank these possible scenarios in the order of what each will mean for conservatives, starting with the best possible outcome.
The first possibility is that Donald Trump wins a surprise victory and the Republicans maintain their majorities in the House and Senate. Following that, conservatives will be in a strong position if there is an immediate rapprochement between Trump and the mainstream conservatives that spent the last year attacking him.
If Trump wins, conservatives, even those that opposed Trump, would be wise to immediately make their peace with the new president elect. The reality is that Trump has very few ideological moorings. He will need to staff a cabinet and fill the bureaucracies and nominate justices. Conservatives already have ideologues that can fill these positions. The major conservative think tanks can push policy papers and hope that the Trump Administration reads them and puts them to good use. Conservative Republicans in the House and Senate will similarly be in a better position if they are able to work with a president Trump.
No, conservatives won’t get everything they want. It is unlikely that conservatives can change Trump’s mind on things like trade, but I suspect that if the conservative movement is on good terms with Trump, mainstream conservatives will have a voice in government over the next four years.
Similarly, there are reasons a President Trump would probably be better off being on good terms with the conservative movement and die-hard conservatives in congress. He is going to be loathed by the entire Democratic Party from day-one. Bipartisanship will be almost non-existent. He will be wise to be on good terms with as many people on the right as possible.
There are reasons to doubt that we will see such a rosy outcome for conservatives, however. To begin with, Donald Trump is not the kind of person who just forgives and forgets.
He will remember that most of the organized conservative movement – aside from some elements of talk radio – stood against him from the beginning. He will remember the entire issue of National Review dedicated to attacking his candidacy.
Perhaps even more important, he will remember that he won without the support of the organized conservative movement. If Donald Trump is in the Oval Office next January, he will have gotten there without the conservative intelligentsia. I suspect he will view all the big names of conservatism: George Will, David Brooks, Jonah Goldberg, etc. as totally irrelevant, and he will have good reason to do so. There will not be a revolving door between the Heritage Foundation and the White House. Grover Norquist’s opinion will not be taken into consideration.
So for those reasons I think the best possible scenario is unlikely. So let’s consider the next possibility.
This one has been floating around for some time, and many conservatives have said this represents their best possible situation at this point. They want to see a massive Trump loss and a Hillary landslide, though one that somehow does not cost Republicans the Senate. Perhaps Evan McMullen even pulls off a win in Utah.
Several conservatives who envision such a scenario have painted a rosy picture of its consequences.
If Trump loses big, and conservative pundits and intellectuals maintained their distance and even their hostility all the way to Election Day, they can proudly say “I told you so” to the Trump backers. The entire Trump movement will be purged from the GOP and the conservative movement, and everything goes back to normal. Trump will not be a permanent albatross for conservatism.
The conservative iconoclasts who refused to back Trump will be praised by the media for their bravery and refusal to compromise, or so the thinking goes.
These conservatives envision an ineffectual Clinton Administration, hobbled by scandal, unable to implement its policy agenda, and an easy target in 2020.
Then a so-called “True Conservative” can sail to victory in the GOP primaries, and win in a landslide in 2020. It will be just like the 1980s, except this time the Republicans will also control both houses of congress.
Well, I hate break it to anyone with this day dream, but this is extraordinarily unlikely.
Let’s say that Trump is humiliated tonight, the GOP and the conservative movement effectively purges every trace of Trumpism, and everything really does go back to being just like it was before.
Well, the truth is that the old model is now a losing model. Since George H.W. Bush’s victory in 1988, the Republicans have won the popular vote in presidential elections only once, in 2004.
Every cycle into the future, the electoral map becomes more challenging for Republicans as demographic change continues. If Mitt Romney couldn’t win in 2012, why should we expect someone like Mitt Romney to win after an additional eight years of demographic changes that move more states into the solid blue category. The core of the GOP in the electorate remains middle-class white married Christians. This segment of the electorate is shrinking, and it will continue to shrink.
Some conservatives suggest that they can start winning minorities with new outreach techniques. In fact, they have been suggesting this for decades.
I still hear the occasional commentator suggest that we need to revive the Jack Kemp model of conservatism – a conservatism that is tolerant, pro-immigrant, and eager to explain the ways in which free market solutions are the best solutions to problems in underprivileged communities.
What such people inexplicably forget is that Jack Kemp was the number two man on the GOP ticket in 1996, and he and Bob Dole performed terribly with minorities. They won just twelve percent of the African American vote and 21 percent of the Latino vote.
When I hear conservatives say how they are going to reach out to new constituencies, they tend to repeat the same strategies they’ve been pushing for years. They are going to get African Americans to abandon their long-standing loyalty to the Democratic Party by pushing for school vouchers and enterprise zones. But when have Republicans not done this? School choice has been a Republican talking point since the 1960s. Milton Friedman suggested it in his book, Capitalism and Freedom. How many African Americans have been brought into the Republican camp based on this plan? Perhaps more than zero, but not enough to make a difference.
Similarly we hear that Hispanic family values make them natural Republicans that just don’t know it yet. Well, one of the wedge issues that was supposed to bring Hispanics to the conservative camp is now off the table. Gay marriage is now a settled issue. It is true that, on average, Hispanics tend to be more pro-life than other ethnic groups, but, for the most part, this has not been a decisive determinant of Latino vote choice, so it is unlikely to become decisive in the future, especially when we consider that the same trend toward secularization that is occurring among other ethnic groups is also occurring among Hispanics.
What about the argument that immigration is the decisive policy issue for Hispanics? I do not want to discount this argument entirely. I suspect it is true that the Republican reputation for nativism keeps many Hispanic voters from taking a second look at the GOP.
But let’s say that the GOP leadership moves decisively to the left on immigration, passing a comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Can we expect a sudden tsunami of Hispanic support for Republicans going forward?
I think this is unlikely. To begin with, this is not what happened the last time Republicans got behind progressive immigration proposals. Too many people seem to forget that Ronald Reagan signed a progressive immigration reform bill in 1986, one that also provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Hispanic support for the GOP did not go up. In fact, compared to 1984, Hispanic support for the Republican presidential candidate actually went down.
And let’s even accept that Republicans do see an uptick in its support from Hispanics after the passage of new immigration legislation. Doing better with Hispanics is not the same as winning the Hispanic vote. Winning 38 percent of the Hispanic vote is better than winning 28 percent of the Hispanic vote, but it is still losing. And if liberalizing immigration reforms result in higher levels of immigration, the end result may still be a net loss for Republicans, even if their share of the immigrant vote goes up.
And let’s not forget another equally important point. Donald Trump showed in his primary campaign that new immigration restrictions are something that a huge percent of the GOP base wants. If a new breed of Republican legislators decides to embrace liberal immigration policies, the typical Trump voter of 2016 may not to turn out for them next time around. Thus, even if new minority voters brought into the Republican coalition by such a strategy, they still may lose more than they gain if they can’t keep former Trump supporters in the fold.
So count me as skeptical that Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio or any of the other champions of National Review-style conservatism are going to occupy the White House in 2021. Or that the GOP is going to dramatically expand its demographic base beyond its current core supporters.
So let’s move onto what I consider the worst possible outcome for the conservative movement, and one that is quite likely.
In this scenario, Donald Trump loses, but loses by a narrow margin. Perhaps gaining a greater percentage of the popular vote than Romney, and possibly also gaining a greater share of the African American vote, which I also consider likely.
In this scenario, the millions of Trump supporters will be able to tell themselves a narrative about being stabbed in the back by a conservative and GOP establishment that preferred that would rather lose the presidency than win with a candidate that did not meet specific criteria. We have already heard talk radio show hosts like Sean Hannity lay the groundwork for such a narrative. And, quite frankly, anyone making such an argument will have a point. I think this is why the anti-Trump conservatives like Rick Wilson and Erick Erickson are desperate for a massive, overwhelming Clinton victory. They want Trump to lose, but they want the loss to be so dramatic that they cannot personally be blamed for the outcome.
If Trump comes within striking distance of the White House, but falls just short, then there are going to be a lot of angry people out there. And some of that anger is going to be aimed at the conservative intelligentsia. Trump’s supporters may despise the conservatives who helped secure President Clinton’s victory no less than President Clinton herself.
As we saw in that infamous Kevin Williamson article in National Review, in which he said downscale white communities “deserve to die,” there is an element of the organized conservative movement that despises a huge portion of the GOP’s own base. This is not a recipe for creating a cohesive political coalition. And as I suggested already, the conservative movement and the GOP do not have a ready-made alternative if they are looking for a new base of support.
After a Trump loss, he may fade from the scene, but there will be others that seek to carry the banner of Trumpism.
These people will note that, although he lost, Trump came closer to the White House than Mitt Romney, and the same platform, pushed by a different candidate, could do better in the future. And they may be right.
Although I am not going to judge the soundness of the bundle of policies that principled, consistent conservatives like to push. The reality is that this policy platform is not particularly popular, even among Republicans.
We can easily find survey data that indicate that economic conservatism in particular is now a losing issue.
To get a sense of just how little the Republican electorate supports the conservative policy agenda, we can examine polling data. Looking at the last American National Election Survey from an election year, we see that almost 62 percent of Republicans supported new taxes on millionaires; only about 19 percent said they supported cutting the federal budget for education; fewer than ten percent supported cutting Social Security spending. Large majorities of Republican voters also favor some form of economic protectionism. This survey was conducted long before Trump entered the political arena and changed the political conversation.
Republicans are also, on average, rather moderate or even liberal on many social issues. Fewer than one in five Republicans said they wanted to prohibit abortion in all circumstances; a majority of Republicans supported legal recognition for same-sex couples. If we define a “true conservative” as a person who supports the conservative position on every policy issue, then such conservatives are a tiny percentage of the electorate.
Conservatives have also probably lost their advantage when it comes to foreign policy. Throughout the Cold War, conservatives were known for their strong but level-headed stances on foreign affairs.
They destroyed their credibility on foreign policy by cheerleading the disastrous Iraq war.
We saw the degree to which ordinary Republicans in the electorate are tired of the old Republican talking points on dictators and terrorists when Donald Trump pulled of a win in the South Carolina primaries, despite directly attacking Bush Administration policies and even calling President Bush a liar.
So there is clearly not much of a constituency for Bush-era neoconservatism when it comes to our interactions in other countries.
So where does all of this leave the conservative movement? Well, it isn’t going away. Its major institutions and publications are not going to close up shop. It remains well funded, and most of the Republican Party in government today continues to espouse traditional conservative positions.
But the reality is that the conservative movement today is largely a Potemkin village. It maintained its dominance of the Republican Party largely because of the belief that the overwhelming majority of Republican voters wanted the conservatism we have known since Barry Goldwater captured the party’s nomination.
Professional conservatives are faced with a frightening reality: the GOP has been successful in spite of its conservatism, not because of it. The Republican Party can successfully activate voters by appealing to their symbolic conservatism; but Republican leaders, conservative intellectuals, radio hosts, and talking heads have had little success in selling the operational conservative ideology to the public. Even Tea Party supporters, those ostensibly intractable devotees of supply-side economics, are divided on corporate and high-income tax cuts.
The weak hold that conservatism has on any segment of the electorate is not a new development. But Donald Trump has put the conservative movement’s weakness on very public display. Trump kept the GOP’s conservative symbolism (the flag, appeals to greatness and patriotism), added an implied element of ethnic grievance, and otherwise ignored conservative dogma. Conservative pundits were right that Trump is not a true conservative, and they were right to oppose him on ideological grounds. The National Review cover story denouncing Trump, the #NeverTrump movement, and Glenn Beck’s Trump-inspired tears were all justified.
In contrast to conventional wisdom, the United States is not a “center-right nation.” The American voting public may be to the right of the electorates in other advanced democracies, but it is certainly not conservative in the sense that William F. Buckley used the term.
In fact, despite the claims by various talk-radio personalities, Republicans do not lose because they “betray conservative principles.” Those very principles have been a hindrance to greater electoral success. Trump has broken this illusion, and having demonstrated that there is no conservative consensus among GOP voters, we can expect others to follow his lead. Although the Republican Party will likely survive the 2016 election, its status as a uniformly conservative party will not. The end result of the Trump campaign will be an ideological vacuum on the right, one that will likely be filled by something very different from the mainstream conservative movement we have known for six decades.
In the meantime, however, I foresee chaos on the right.