Two factions continue to vie for control of the conservative movement. The first, led by conservative firebrands in Congress argue conservatism is just fine and the reason it loses is because the GOP sells out on conservative principles. The other faction does not necessarily believe conservatism needs to change but that it needs to be explained in such a way as to win over new voters.
The stars of the modern GOP often cut across these factional lines however. Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio exhibit many of the characteristics of both factions. GOP Governors such as Nikki Haley, Scott Walker, Rick Scott, Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez also exhibit these trends. Few conservatives n each camp would admit this however.
The truth is that conservatism has steadily been losing ground since the 1980’s. Ronald Reagan’s election was supposed to usher in a new conservative era and in some ways it did. His reforming of the tax code was a conservative goal since the 60’s and his tough on the USSR stance brought conservative foreign policy to the forefront. But once Reagan left office those successes were quickly overshadowed by Republican and Democratic promises of limited governments and reducing the debt with few results.
Conservative successes at the ballot box dating back to the 40’s have not been based just on conservative appeals but also populism. In 1946 the GOP made gains in Congress because of their populist appeals against Truman’s top-down approach to the post-WWII era economy. The GOP Revolution of 1994, primarily based on the Contract with America, was far more populist than conservative. In 2010 the GOP wave that resulted was because of a unique blend of strong Republican candidates and their ability to communicate conservative ideas in a populist form.
This is in direct contrast to a Democratic Party that is increasingly lacking any populist views or candidates and is increasingly becoming based on technocratic government. For the time being this might attract young and minority voters invested in a minority President, but come 2016 and beyond this message could fail to appeal to an increasingly young and diverse electorate.
Conservatives should be wary of rejoicing however. The state of conservatism is anything but healthy. The election of 2012 showed that conservatism by itself cannot win elections. Strong candidates and a strong national party are needed to communicate it in such a way to win over voters. But better communication is not going to fix the ideology’s problem alone. Rather, conservatism has increasingly become the ideology of the wealthy and thus it has been easy to label Republicans who identify with it as only wanting to protect the rich. This is also why the phrase “trickle down economics” has become so ingrained in political circles.
Now, I and many other conservatives would argue against this caricature. But it exists and it has worked successfully in two straight Presidential elections. There are ways to mitigate these attacks. Conservatives would be smart to point out the inconsistency of liberalism. For example, liberalism promises to lift the poorest out of poverty and instead usually makes them no better off then they were before. On education, liberal cries of providing more money for teachers, thus unions, has not improved education and instead has directed the extra money to administrators and union hacks. Minorities are the primary victims in this sham.
The best proponents of conservatism know its strengths and its weaknesses. They also know that it does not offer the answer to every problem the country faces. But at times it can and has been modified to suit the needs of the country. Consider President Reagan’s Tax Reform plan. Though Reagan raised taxes on the wealthy he also eliminated burdensome regulations and fees on businesses and thus freed up economic capital. As a result the economy was booming by 1984.
Conservatives would also be wise to consider how their beliefs play with different segments of the public and on what issue. An example of this would be school choice. In many states conservative Governors have pushed expanded school choice options for minorities and low-income individuals. Yet, this has not led to conservatives gaining more of their votes. Part of this is due to the campaign message most conservatives put out on the campaign trail. But it also may point to the fact that conservatives do not know or at heart do not want to engage in wedge issues (other than abortion and gay marriage). They should and with a passion. This would allow the GOP in time to start to peel off blocs of the Democratic coalition and expand conservative ranks in the future.
Despite its problems the future of conservatism is bright. It has a number of young standard-bearers that can push it forward and remake its image to the public through actions and policies. Conservatism has also shown incredible resurgence in trying times. In 2009 when it was being written off, it took only a few issues for the ideology to be reignited. More than lip-service will be needed for it to survive in the 21st century but it still has many believers. It is time those who believe in it stop just paying lip-service to the ideology and 1) hone the conservative message and 2) actually deliver on that message. This country will be well served by a conservative ideology guiding it forward.