Why Conservatives Should Avoid Panic-Button Politics

The movement needs to have principles that stand on their own, even when unpopular.
by Avi Woolf
January 30, 2019
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During the two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, armchair historians have offered up, unsolicited, their analysis as to what went so wrong with the Republican Party. Everything went downhill after the Tea Party, one argues. Another says W ruined everything. Or it was Gingrich, or Reagan, or Goldwater.

What follows tends to be simplistic advice about how the right should proceed. Sometimes it’s well-meaning, sometimes less so. If only the right gave up fighting over abortion. Or limited government. Or neoconservatism, a catchword used mostly by critics to encompass support for anything from Iraq-style invasions to simple American global power and alliances.

This bit of unpaid political consulting often includes genuinely concerning numbers pointing to the two youngest American generations of voting age – millennials and Gen Z – moving strongly to the left in terms of both culture and policy. The suggestion is that the right is doomed to extinction if it does not change course and adjust to the present-day tastes and attitudes of the voters of tomorrow.

There are often grains of truth in much of this. Rachael Larimore is very much correct that the numbers should worry anyone who cares about the future of the right, a viable two-party system, and conservatism in general. If the current trends hold true, we are in for a very rough time, and soon.

But therein lies the rub. Politics – and history – are  fickle things. If you told me in 1936, when the GOP was reduced to a regional rump with just 88 congressmen and 17 senators, that it would ever bounce back to relevance or win the White House, I’d say you’re insane. Yet it did just that in 1938 and 1952, respectively. Similarly, if right after the landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, I told you that Goldwater advocate Ronald Reagan would go on to win the governorship of California two years later and the presidency in 16 – winning the latter twice, both in landslides – you’d be the first to call the folks in white coats.

It isn’t just trends that can change, but events;. We have no idea what will be in two years, let alone 20 when millennials and Gen Zers firmly establish themselves as the mainstay of American voters and political leaders. Besides, and no less importantly, conservatism and the GOP are not entirely synonymous, or at least shouldn’t be. The latter can be and often is an effective vehicle for the former, but obsessing over its fortunes every two or four years is not a healthy approach. Conservatives properly think in terms of generations and even eternity. We worry or should worry about what we will hand down to our children and children’s children, far more than any temporary  policy change or shift in the political winds.

Indeed, if recent experience has shown us anything, it is that hog-tying the entire conservative project to an increasingly dysfunctional party is a recipe for moral compromises we’d rather not have to make. The GOP, like the Democrats, aims to expand its coalition to the point of numerical dominance even if it means including people who do not entirely adhere to party or ideological orthodoxy. Conservatives should be doing the same – even if it includes people who will never vote Republican.

As Milton Friedman once said “I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.” Thinking of conservatism’s advance solely in terms of the success and failure of the GOP is to make conservatism a perpetual gamble instead of an ongoing project. People on the right often complain that progressives play the long game – well, why don’t we emulate them? We are no more doomed than William Buckley was when he established National Review in opposition not only to the Democrats, but the Republicans of the time.

Speaking of Buckley, he constantly made another point we would do well to remember: Conservatism needs to have a vitality and principles of its own, which it stands on even when unpopular. This is, after all not the first time that people have advocated that the Republican Party become a pale shadow of whatever Democrats do, a “Me, Too” party as “Mister Republican” Robert Taft once contemptuously put it. After every major defeat, in 1964, in 2008, and now, people always come out of the woodwork arguing that it’s time for the GOP and the right generally to concede defeat on every matter of principle save the need for some degree of fiscal economy in carrying out the left’s program – “Tory men with liberal ideas,” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said.

It’s not that political parties don’t often have to make ideological adjustments to remain in power – both Republicans and Democrats have done so.  Barack Obama, for all that he was a progressive president on social issues, still governed largely on a platform to the right of Harry Truman, thanks in no small part to the great successes of Reagan and his successors. It’s that conservatism, which as I said is not the same as the party, cannot afford the constant emotional yo-yo of claiming that everything depends on the next election. And the next one. And the next one.

Conservatives are supposed to be the immovable rock in the storm, the adult in the room, the stubborn, obstinate but level-headed individuals who stand for the things that matter long after fads and fashions have passed, and long after any given president or even party has left the scene. We are the ones who tell the people panicking at a new social media outrage or news item, to calm down, assess carefully, keep your head about you and keep things in proportion.

Before we even say anything about what we stand and should stand for today, inside the party or out, before we think about reaching out to and convincing other people of our ideas, let’s all rediscover that fortitude the original movement felt when going up against the world that said we were wrong – only to later be told, not always but more times than we appreciate, that we were right.

Avi Woolf

Avi Woolf is an editor and translator. He has been published in Arc Digital, National Review, and Commentary.