Friday, November 9, 2012

Where American Conservatism Goes from Here

Earlier this week, there was a wide open referendum on the sitting president's performance.  It was exactly the type of referendum (jobs, leadership, foreign policy) the Tea Party, and American conservatives in general, had been hoping for.  And yet, conservatism fell extraordinarily flat, despite all of that.

We had a situation where a sitting Democrat president had largely marked his first four years by passing a few progressive, extremely expensive laws, but who otherwise largely pursued and enlarged his Republican predecessor's unpopular agenda (bank bailouts, Patriot Act, DEA enforcement of marijuana, drone strikes, unfunded war in Afghanistan, planned withdrawal from Iraq (another unfunded war), high deficits, failing trade negotiations with China).  As a result, the incumbent also oversaw the continued smoldering of the economy - only able to claim, "Hey, we poured 4,000 gallons of gas on the fire, and the fire didn't completely go out - so that's good - right?"  Sure doesn't sound like a recipe for re-election to me.

And yet, the other esteemed party in our God-awful two party system was seen, in this election, as "not a viable option"  by a majority of Americans.   Not just at the presidential level, but in Congress, in many state elections, and at the local level as well.  Three years after the supposed "tea party revolution" that was going to "change the course of politics in America."  The problem is that the population of American conservatives (as defined by "core politics") continues to grow older, and every four years, the new stable of young voters is more liberal than the group who came before them.  In addition, the actual composure of the country is changing.  More women voters (almost 50% of voters).  More minority voters (over 30% of voters).  Conservatism's "core values" don't seem to appeal to either group.  And the leaders of America's conservative movement - to date - haven't really cared a lick about that fact.

So what can the Tea Party - and conservatism in general - do to maintain relevancy - or perhaps gain more relevancy - in the years to come?

1.  Get real on what America looks like.  The conservative bloc is dominated by older, white voters.  That group is making up a smaller percentage of the electorate every year.  By 2020, whites will be America's largest minority - not a majority at all.  Whites over 65 years old (the core of the Tea Party's supporters) will constitute less than 18% of the nation's population.   See where I'm headed with this?

Conservative politicians on the national stage cannot win on a racial or class war platform.  Or a platform advocating aggressive anti-immigrant policies.  Or plain-out foolish immigrant policies like "voluntary deportation."  The fact that white Christian conservative candidates consistently fail to attract Christian voters of other races should be a huge red flag, but it has not, at least so far.  Why in the world do devout Hispanic Catholics vote for Democrats, despite the Church's insistence that they do otherwise?   Because conservative Christian candidates in many cases don't want to attract the Hispanic vote.

And it's not just race.  More women are voting.  More women are large campaign donors.  More women are running for - and winning - elected office.  Every year.  Political campaigns based on state-mandated transvaginal ultrasounds for pregnant girls (see #4, below), for example, are generally not going to sit well with women (again, around 50% of potential voters).  Even conservative women.    Core values are great.  But one can't be surprised when core values strike other people as "tone deaf." 

2. Get real on the role of government.  The role of government is not to give you money (I'm sad to say that some of our countrymen disagree with that statement).  Likewise, the role of government is not to stand idly by and "hope" that de-regulated industries will suddenly see fit to give you money or a job, for a pay rate that pleases you, or within working conditions/hours/safety that please you.   Our country did that in the 1850s, and again in the 1920s.  Worked out wonderfully.   Government exists, in many cases, because non-regulation failed.  The FDIC.  The USDA. The FDA.  The DEA.  The EPA.  All created after industry failed to police itself, and lots of Americans either died or lost a lot of money.  Or both.

An intellectually honest discussion on "Cut the EPA!!!!"  must include, "with what shall we replace the EPA?"  To date, most stronghold conservatives and basically all Tea Party members I've met are unwilling to consider that second part.  And back to the tax issue - does anybody really think that conveying the EPA's responsibilities to the state of Georgia (and Georgia having to raise taxes as a result) would cost significantly less per taxpayer?  What about a corporate, for-profit pollution police?  Would that - by necessity - be cheaper than EPA? Are we really sure?

3. Get real on what can be blamed on government.  Federal taxes are at a historic low.  That's because Obama kept the Bush tax cuts in place, and because our tax code is full of loopholes for everybody.  Federal taxes did not kill your job.  NAFTA killed (and continues to kill) jobs.  Favorable trade status with China is killing lots of jobs.  Poor fiscal management killed many, many jobs.  Uncertainty about Obama's economic policies kept many from coming back.    Carrying forward a meme that "Obama killed these jobs" really means that you must believe that it's government's duty to encourage (read: subsidize) business with tax breaks that are funded by higher taxes paid by someone else, and that's hardly a conservative stance if you ask me.  At what point are corporations responsible for turning their profit into jobs, despite their fear that the Democrat-led economy might crash again?

On a separate note, I'm finding it completely nauseating that so many self-avowed "personal responsibility" conservatives are decrying Obama for their current position in life.  How can someone who didn't finish even community college, who has never gained traction in a single meaningful career field, who lives in an area where there are no jobs, and who refuses to move to an area where there are jobs, or to even apply for jobs in those areas, say, "Yup.  Obama.  That's why I'm unemployed. And you're next!"  (hint: no I'm not).  


4.  Enough of Regulating Private American Life.   Tell me again how we need to make water pollution legal (potentially killing Americans, poisoning farms, and putting commercial fishermen out of business), but simultaneously keep illegal a lesbian's ability to visit her dying girlfriend in the hospital.   I know that what passes for traditional family values is still very important to some people.  To you, I say: keep it important in your house. Your faith.  Your values.  I look at those things and I don't see Leave it to Beaver.  Though I wish I did.

"Families" look like a lot of different things these days.  And Americans are not going to be convinced otherwise.  If conservative politicians want to move forward at the national level, the "1 woman; 1 man; no abortions; no sex education" platform is a dead horse.  Decry our movement away from the King James Bible as a model for our personal life - I won't mock you for it.  But trying to reclaim 1950s Christianity as a nation is going to be a failing effort.  This long-term shift away from our citizens having personal relationships with God is really awful, in my opinion.  But it's reality.  It's most certainly political reality.

5.  Stop Repudiating Science.  For too long, some circles in conservatism have been able to shut down entire scientific efforts by simply stating that, "A margin of error exists.  Therefore, none of this science is valid, and in fact, this topic is not worth studying."   I can show you reams of data that demonstrate how watershed protection (or lack thereof) in the headwaters of a river system impacts water quality downstream (ie. on other peoples' private property).  Claiming, as a rebuttal, that regulating headwaters is a communist takeover does not make any of that science invalid.  Sorry.  Americans, by and large, want to understand basic science.

Trying to convince Americans that science is just a big liberal government takeover conspiracy is yet another losing platform.  15 years ago, the percent of Americans who believe that evolution had "absolutely no part" in human history fell below 50%, and that rate continues to slowly drop (46% in 2012).   As of 2012, only 14% of Americans believe that the climate is not changing, and 46-50% of Americans (two different polls) believe that human activity impacts climate change.   Again - sorry - Americans want to understand basic science - not just bash it because science is bad for some business.

What happens next? It's hard to tell.  Unfortunately, the two dominant memes I've heard in the days after the 2012 election have been, "We need some Hispanic and Black Republican candidates that have tea party values - we can trick minorities into voting for conservative politicians if they are the right color!" (see: election of Michael Steele, re-election of Allen West), and "We need to return to core values!"   Neither of which will have any real impact on national politics - I can promise that.   If Conservatives can't get honest about the five things I listed above, I don't understand how we could possibly see another Republican president in the next 12 years, during which a majority of the Supreme Court will be replaced.

That's it.  No more overt political posts from me!

10 comments:

Steve Zakur said...

Amen, brother. I recently read an article, I need to go reread it with a critical eye, but it basically said that if you're looking for a moderate Republican, you should vote for Obama. Now that's not exactly fair, but it is food for thought re: how far the party has gone in the other direction.

I still don't know where my party went but last I saw it went off a cliff far to the right.

I also think a key rule for the party needs to be this "Be consistent: If you're going to take a position in the primaries be ready to defend it right to the general election. There's another term for "swerving to the middle" and it's called "lying".

River Mud said...

Steve, I think that's the real conundrum for conservative candidates. To garner the far-right vote during the primaries, some otherwise pragmatic conservatives (like say, Mr. Romney) are forced to adopt very rigid, fairly extreme politics.

Those play well in South Carolina (which is fine). But they do not play well during the general election with Republicans in Michigan. In Pennsylvania. In Virginia.

True conservatives (either fiscal or "Family Values") will continue to be elected to Congress from their home districts, which is fine.

But those values simply don't translate with a majority of Americans anymore.

And as you suggest - lying toward the center is a recipe for failure, in a day and age where everything is recorded, spliced, and instantly uploaded to the internet. Ask John Kerry and Mitt Romney.

Freewheel said...

This was a thoughtful piece. I think if there was a conservative who took your approach, he or she would win independents and get elected.

The tea party has not been so thoughtful. They went off the rails when they started raising crazy claims about the president's birth certificate. Also, these folks (many over 65 and receiving social security and medicare) who say "I built that" seem to forget that government built and maintains our bridges and roads, our national highway system, our schools and universities, our libraries, our parks, and all the other things that people just seem to take for granted as part of their quality of life.

Dave Taylor said...

How about someone on the Democratic side taking the position for more personal responsibiliy, that welfare is not a lifetime benefit, that you don't get more public assistance for more kids, that the earth has naturally warmed and cooled over recirded history or that we have a spending problem at all levels of government. The issues we face in this country have been caused by both parties over many years. The election analysis is very simple: Obama promises more stuff to people and that's what society has become. Government has become too large and way too intrusive in our lives. If that's what the majority of Americans want, then so be it, but history will show that this debt burdened, overwrought behemoth will collapse on itself. Mathmatically, in a financial context, it's just a matter of time. Keep nibbling around the edges of our problems if it makes you feel better.

River Mud said...

Dave, this post had nothing to do with the country's problems and everything to do with conservatism's problems. Your key point is correct though- without a nationwide sense of personal responsibility combined with a sense of charity and civic duty that have escaped our last two generations (at least those who didn't serve overseas ), this country is on a slow apathetic path to mediocrity. Thanks for reading.

Steve Zakur said...

I disagree with Dave's premise that Obama won because the nation is somehow broken and weak (even though in some areas I agree it is). Obama won, and I think this is RM's thesis, because the Republican Party's candidate and the process for choosing that candidate, were flawed; in some places deeply flawed. The party cannot field a candidate who will expect to attract non-party voters (that's the WHOLE game) if their platform, their candidates and their proxies (Super PACS) go out of their way to alienate woman, Minorities, and the so called 47%.

In my opinion, Obama did not win because people are victims or because Obama was strong. He won because he was a better candidate and the Republican party's wounds were all self inflicted.

Steve Zakur said...

And one final thought re: the Tea Party. I don't think the Tea Party is the answer. When the Party zigged to the right, the Tea Party elbowed their way to the front of the line and planted a flag on divisive territory. They now own that landscape and there's no coming back.

There's room for another conservative revolution but it will be a moderate one not a radical one. Relying upon legacy components of our past, from Grover Norquist's idiotic pledge to the Tea Party will not allow us to move forward and run successful conservative candidates.

T.J. Brayshaw said...

I don't buy the argument that Democrats or folks who voted for Obama, or liberals in general, vote that way because "they want stuff". They might want good schools and sound bridges, but I don't think that's what folks mean when they say "stuff". (In fact, plenty of conservatives want safe bridges...don't they?) I know a lot of liberals, but I don't know a single one who isn't a hard worker or expects to "get stuff" from their vote. In fact, many of them vote Democratic because they think it will benefit OTHER people...the ones who might really benefit from improved schools, etc.

River Mud said...

That's a separate, and very divisive issue, TJ. This idea of the "takers" is very negative, and nasty, and frankly juvenile.

Welfare queens are takers. Billionaire defense contractors who hide their profits offshore to avoid paying federal taxes are takers. Anyone receiving more in SS benefits than they put into the system (with interest) is a taker. Anyone who uses a bridge, train, highway, stadium or any other federally funded facility that was paid for with taxes originating in someone else's pocket is a "taker."

People in both parties have it within them to be extraordinarily charitable. However, elected politicians on the right (and those who believe their words) have the parsed logic you mention: a federally funded stadium in YOUR hometown is "government waste." But a federally funded stadium in that tea party congressman's hometown is a "vital economic development project."

T.J. Brayshaw said...

I agree it's divisive and juvenile. I was responding to this sentence in Dave's earlier post, which I take as a version of the "Folks vote for Obama because they want stuff" argument.

Dave said "The election analysis is very simple: Obama promises more stuff to people and that's what society has become."

I just don't buy it.