NEW YORK—Conservatives think the election results prove that conservatism is in trouble. Actually, conservatism is fine. It's the Republican Party that's in trouble.
To be sure, the GOP got killed in Congress. But the presidential results aren't nearly as alarming. The difference between Bush's "big win" in 2004 (51 percent of the popular vote) and McCain's "stunning defeat" in 2008 (46 percent) was that 2.5 percent of the electorate changed their minds. Besides, it remains to be seen, says Montclair State University political science and law professor Brigid Harrison, whether the "high level of young voters, African-Americans, highly educated white voters and a disproportionate amount of women forming a new kind of coalition" will come together in future elections to support Democratic candidates more typical than Obama.
For the sake of argument, however, let's posit that Obama represents a dramatic political realignment and repudiation of the Republican Party. Certainly, Republicans do face massive demographic challenges, mainly as an influx of Latino immigration and naturalization turns places like Arizona, Colorado and California's Orange County from red to blue. The GOP may well have to get used to losing. But that doesn't mean conservatives do.
In the United States, conservatism is a philosophy without a party. Take Ronald Reagan, considered the patron saint of late 20th century conservatism. Coupled with extravagant military spending, Reagan's tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations increased the national debt from $700 billion to $3 trillion, transforming the United States into the world's biggest debtor nation. Under Reagan, William Voegeli wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2007, "government did nothing but expand. In 1981, the federal government spent $678 billion; in 1989 it spent $1.144 trillion. Factoring out inflation, that was an increase of 19 percent in real spending. Republicans never expected that Reagan would leave office with a 'federal establishment' one-fifth larger than when he arrived."
George W. Bush campaigned as a "compassionate conservative," but conservatism was as absent from his governance as compassion was. He has increased the federal deficit from $3.3 to $5.9 trillion. Add in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—estimated at $2.4 trillion as of 2007—and he will have put the country a staggering $5 trillion deeper into the hole. He hired 180,000 federal employees for a new Cabinet-level department, Homeland Security, all to make you take off your shoes at the airport.
Conservative? Not these guys.
For the sake of my long-suffering conservative friends as well as the country, it's time to unravel the conflation of conservatism and the Republican Party.
Why do I care? Simple: America needs conservatives—real conservatives. Deficit hawks, America Firsters and get-that-dang-guvmint-outta-my-bizness types are essential watchdogs of fiscal responsibility and personal freedom. Moreover, ideological diversity sparks intellectual innovation.
Traditional conservatism—to state the obvious, is there truly any other kind?—is, despite its flaws, a philosophy attractive to those who value the ideal of rugged individualism. Most recently articulated by Barry Goldwater after he retired from the Senate, conservatism is centered on small government, particularly on the federal level; its size, scope and powers are kept to a minimum in order to reduce infringement upon personal liberty, keep taxes low and thus encourage investment and free enterprise. Fiscal responsibility is the order of the day. Budgets must be balanced. Deficits are anathema.
Conservatives believe that free markets create opportunities for hard-working people to succeed. They won't help you get ahead, but they'll keep nosy bureaucrats out of your hair while you're figuring out how to do it on your own. It's a bit Darwinian, but consider the advantages: You're free to do whatever you want in your personal life. As Goldwater said when asked about gays in the military: "You don't need to be straight to fight and die for your country, you just need to shoot straight."
If Bush had been a conservative, he wouldn't have cut taxes without reducing spending. He would have been an isolationist. As Pat Buchanan says, America Firsters don't rush off to invade countries like Afghanistan and Iraq that pose no threat to the United States. Bush certainly wouldn't have authorized the National Security Administration's domestic spying program, gotten rid of habeas corpus, or infringed on states' rights by taking control of the National Guard away from state governors.
Conservatism is far more appealing to the average American than the bastardized form that has driven Republican policy for more than half a century. In 2008, voters rejected neoconservatism, an arrogant brand of "exceptionalism" dedicated to preemptive warfare, defending Israel and empire building at the expense of all else.
Republicans use pretzel logic to market themselves to conservatives. In 1988, Allan Ryskind, editor of Human Events, told The New York Times that Reagan had deliberately increased the deficit in order to starve future Democratic administrations of money. "It has certainly put a lid on the welfare state," he said. "The Democrats have sort of trapped themselves because they've said this is all terrible and horrible and that closing the deficit should be the first priority. The fact that they've said the deficit is such a problem," he added, "prevents them from proposing new spending programs."
Of course, it would also prevent Republicans—who remained in power until 1993—from cutting taxes, a principal tenet of conservatism.
Bill Clinton disappointed the Democrats' liberal base, rewarding their support by pushing through welfare reform, NAFTA and the WTO. But if liberals feel used by the Democrats, conservatives have been raped by the Republicans.
This isn't to say that traditional conservatives don't need to change, in several areas. One is their intellectual separation of government spending into two categories: non-military and military, the latter of which is untouchable. Spending is spending, whether it's on welfare queens or Halliburton. Another area is laissez faire, one of the few places where conservatism intersects with Republicanism.
When times are good, most Americans favor a small government that stays out of their lives and leaves them be. When a hurricane strikes, however, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps dogma goes out the window. Similarly, government should run in the black during an economic boom. When people start losing their homes, however, they look to their government for help. Conservatives should think of themselves as firefighters. Most of the time, you never see them. Firefighters don't break down your door with an ax unless there's a fire. But you're damned happy to see them when there is.
As much as Americans hate paying taxes, they hate do-nothing government more. (Besides, they've been burned so often on tax-cut promises that they no longer believe them.) One of the lessons of 2008 was that voters aren't happy to let the marketplace work its magic if the world is falling apart.
A political party that stays out of people's business while being nimble enough to jump into the fray during emergencies might just stand a chance. So might a conservative movement that refuses to vote for a party that repeatedly betrays them.
During the 1980s, Ted Rall was a trader for Bear Stearns and a loan officer for the Industrial Bank of Japan. During the early 1990s, he was a financial analyst for a banking consulting company in San Francisco. Now he draws cartoons and writes columns for Universal Press Syndicate.