Conservative Soul Searching

From Gordon College political science professor Paul Brink at the Center for Public Justice. A taste:

For the sake of the country, and for the sake of their Party, conservatives need to enter a new round of ideological soul-searching. The challenge conservatives face is unique: how to put forward a coherent platform for state action while remaining generally committed to the idea that the state should be doing less to begin with. Without such a forward-looking agenda, conservatives cannot avoid appearing shrill and reactionary.

Where to look? One immediate priority is to think once again about what the state is for. There are resources aplenty. The Center for Public Justice has long been offering help along these lines: past generations of conservatives have found much to value in the traditions of Christian pluralism that attempt to mediate between statism and individualism. More broadly, the American emphases on limited government, the strong affirmation of civil society and the call to civic virtue continue to have a deep resonance with the American public. There is ground for renewal, and the Republican position is not without hope.

On the other hand, the movement’s continued flirtation with libertarianism is only prolonging our national political malaise. It is simply not true that less government is always better. The sooner conservatives stand up and say so, the sooner they can begin to lay out a positive vision for state action. Criticism and reform of specific government programs and proposals will become much more successful if conservatives can demonstrate how their positions are not based on a reflexive anti-government stance, but rather upon a well thought-out and comprehensive political vision. Libertarianism’s unwavering faith in individual freedom for the sake of individual freedom alone is not the stuff of conservatism. Historically, conservatives have been much more impressed by the frailties of human nature and more positive about the responsibility of the state and other social institutions to restrain human impulses.

Conservatives need to rethink this alliance. Clearly, the mainstream of the American public hasn’t been impressed. Most Americans do not favor the radically individualist position, perhaps for the reason that most Americans are not radical individualists. People genuinely do care about the situation of the poor, for example, and while they may not agree on what governments should do to help, they don’t like politicians who appear willing simply to abandon the vulnerable. The association between conservatism and libertarianism does not simply risk ideological incoherence; it risks political irrelevance.