What with demographic trends, immigration fights, and the culture wars, many folks across the political spectrum are pondering the long-term viability of the Republican Party. With such proposals as gay marriage and the Dream Act steadily amassing popularity, particularly among the young, many conservatives are indeed increasingly estranged from the forward march of modernity. As such, it seems only natural to dismiss the GOP and its conniptions as the violently hopeless screech of a reactionary swan at war with its own mortality. Why would anyone—especially a young non-straight-male-WASP—be conservative today? What does the Grand Old Party have to offer young Americans, of any color or creed?
The answer isn’t easy, but we’re talking about the future of our country and the world it leads, so any easy answers are probably useless, or worse, wrong. Like any people, we Americans tell stories about ourselves—
“We are a nation of immigrants!”
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
“The era of big government is over.”
—and reach deeply into wells of tradition to grapple with our evolving place in an ever-changing world. Like any people, we face crises—terrorism, debt, unemployment—and we have to decide how best to honor our heritage and values in setting priorities, making commitments, and embracing necessary sacrifice to overcome setbacks.
America is a contest of ideas as well as a community dedicated to sublimating the foreign and exotic to the familiar. From every reach of the earth, America aims to erect a living, shining monument to the industry, liberty, and creativity of human freedom. For whatever reason, these struggles have generally played out in a field between two partisan posts built from many and shifting factions of interests and values. But while George Washington warned against factionalism, the Federalist Papers extolled its ability to check the tyrannies of majorities. So we come to our two camps.
In liberalism, we find a profound concern for fairness and equality. The moral foundations of the welfare state are well at home here, for the world is unequal, unfair, and often unjust. We have the means to counteract, if not eliminate, these evils, and we are compelled by our concern for human rights and basic decency to do so. Thus we see welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, public education, and humanitarian relief from the state. The liberal goal is justice, however understood, above everything.
In conservatism, we find less focus on either fairness or equality. The welfare state is expensive and must be paid for. The long reach of government is already too intrusive and must be retracted; everywhere the “Nanny State” is out of control, eroding our rights and self-reliance. People and their businesses are being oppressed by high taxes. Won’t somebody please think of the businesses!?!
Conservatism is easily less attractive to anyone who walks down the street in New York or Boston, sees the homeless everywhere, and wonders why the government doesn’t enact some program or redirect some spending to provide more food and shelter for those so much less fortunate. Conservatives, by and large, don’t want the state to obsess over any of that. Indeed, if other needs are not being met, conservatives demand the state pull back, to account for everything. On its face, this approach looks quite heartless.
When conservatives see a homeless woman on the street, they want and demand that she be able to get a job and provide for herself. Conservatives see dignity in self-reliance and the ability to be a full player in the communal game of interdependence. We are indignant that the state has sacrificed an economy that might employ her for one that reduces her to an indentured client. We have been led to believe that love is sweet, charitable, and forgiving. And it is all of those things. But love is also longsuffering, devoted to truth, and fundamentally opposed to whatever forms in which we find evil in the human condition.
A conservative doesn’t oppose endless welfare because she hates or is indifferent to those less fortunate. To the contrary, she wants her neighbor to eat, have good shelter, and be a full member of her community. But not everything that accomplishes any one of these things—say, ensuring the homeless can eat—accomplishes everything a person needs to live well.
That homeless woman wants a job so she can see that her energy and effort are worth as much as anyone else’s, particularly those yuppie masses that ignored her on the street when she was destitute. Thus she needs the conditions that allow for economic growth and broad prosperity. She wants to be able to contribute to society and help others, for she is a moral being. Thus she needs freedom from the indomitable web of well-intended but narrowly-focused social programs that stifle the market, which might otherwise empower her to make her own choices. She abhors the notion of dependence upon the largess of strangers, or worse, the reality of being a leech upon a community she loves. Thus she needs a welfare system that will not incentivize brokenness or encourage the decay of her neighborhood. She wants no one else to languish in the fate that she escapes.
And finally, our less fortunate neighbor wants assurance that her life in prosperity—and she believes she will be prosperous—will be as free and fulfilling as possible. Thus she needs a government that will never sacrifice the integrity of the middle class in an endless expansion of the state into the lives of its citizens.
Honoring the diverse and conflicting elements that comprise the richness of the human experience—along with the complexity of the relationship between people, their communities, and their government—is precisely the aim of the conservative movement. In short, conservatism considers the fullness of man as he is and aspires to be, as opposed to how we might wish or imagine him to be—or what he might need in the moment.
None of this is to say that the Republican Party has everything—or even most things—right. Like most young voters, I certainly look forward to the day when marriage equally is a universal reality and women no longer feel the state is imposing on their private affairs. But if anything should give you pause about the Democratic Party and its allies on the left, look no farther than the “Buffet Rule” charade in the Senate.
By all accounts, it was a symbolic gesture to highlight Republican opposition to tax hikes. In what universe is there any inherent virtue, political or otherwise, in the desire to raise taxes? We occasionally do so if we must, as have Republican presidents past, but with solemnly deliberated, practical ends—not for “symbolism.” Add to this the administration’s abject refusal to push for tax reform, pass a budget, or offer serious debt-reduction when the Democrats had large majorities, and to the student loan gimmicks masquerading as serious proposals in this Congress, and we have to wonder what the Democratic Party really has to offer us.
My fellow young Americans, the culture wars are waning. However, the mock-serious gimmicks of the Democratic Party will continue and should concern anyone—young, old, black, white, Latino, gay, straight, urban, rural, etc.—interested in the resilience and example of the American project. I do not need to be a partisan Republican to stand against failed leadership and for the middle class. Young America, we would all do well to put down the Democratic Kool-Aid and take a shot of skepticism, on the rocks.