These remarks were originally delivered in a speech at Villanova University. They have been edited for clarity and readability.
I entitled the talk “New Century, New Deal,” because my thesis is that while American politics is relatively variable, it also is relatively consistent. For over 200 years, parties come and go; issues come and go; coalitions come and go. Yet certain American values seem to remain constant.
Most national political coalitions that succeed over the long term clearly have at their heart the advancement of the individual. They articulate this not in a paternalistic way (in the sense of a European or a despotic state) nor in a purely libertarian way (as one might get from a seminar in von Mises or from the Institute of Human Studies) but rather in a very uniquely American way that emphasizes freedom and involves self-government on the individual level and self-government through the collective level. This is something that was intended to be such by the American founders, and it is something that has prompted the central question of virtually every important national campaign for 225 years.
That question is: How can we best apply America’s principles so that the average person is given respect, value, and an opportunity to make their way in the world-tyrannized neither by people claiming the rule of law but acting in private interest, nor by people claiming the public interest indirectly and tyrannizing them explicitly for their own private interest?
That, in a sense, was the question over which the 2012 election was fought. It was fought over a question of whose vision for America best applies that principle to today’s circumstances in a way that resonates with today’s electorate. And, as such, whose coalition is going to form around that vision and enact a series of policies that will bring it about.
Obama’s and the Democrats’ record was clear. They had power from 2009 to 2010. They passed a number of path-breaking acts. They had a clear rhetoric. Anyone could judge what their vision was of and for themselves.
So the Obama campaign did what any campaign in those circumstances would do-especially since going into the early part of 2012 and after the 2010 election, a clear majority did not endorse that record, or that rhetoric, or their direction.
The campaign asked: Who do you like better? What about the other guy? And they spent months talking effectively about what the GOP alternative was. Would you, they asked, prefer the Republican alternative as exemplified by the candidacy of Mitt Romney and the actions that they have proposed in Congress and on the stump?
One would have thought that Romney would actively join the debate. Anyone who followed the campaign knows that you would have been cruelly disappointed. In fact, from the moment that Rick Santorum dropped out until the moment of the Republican convention, Mitt Romney did not schedule a public event on two consecutive days in the United States.
There was a period of four months where the president was being president, occasionally making news, while also being candidate and flying for multiple events per day in swing states that everybody knew in advance were going to be swing states. He went to Iowa; he went to Wisconsin; he went to Florida; he went to North Carolina and Virginia. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney was fundraising in Boca Raton.
Mitt Romney would stage one event, then go back to fundraising. He thought the strategy would work. He and his team thought it would work because of a simple opinion: they could not entertain the possibility that-having seen what the president’s agenda was, having seen what the president’s rhetoric was, having seen the shape of his coalition and the direction at which he was aiming-Americans would not reject him.
One could see this throughout the campaign. When polls suggested that Republicans were behind, they disputed the accuracy of the polls.
“Too many Democrats,” they said. “We know from past history there aren’t that many Democrats in the electorate.” “Don’t believe those polls behind the curtain. Believe in America.”
That was the campaign slogan, but they never explained what it meant. The Obama campaign, in contrast, kept its eye on the ball.
When voters were ultimately asked if they preferred the devil they knew or the devil they didn’t, they preferred the former, 51 percent to 47 percent. For the first time in three elections, fewer Americans voted than in the previous election. As a percentage of Americans, turnout remained relatively high, but based on the percentage of Americans who chose to vote in both 2004 and 2008, five million Americans who would otherwise have voted chose to stay at home. Five million Americans who would have voted in a high interest year decided there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between these two candidates.
This is distressing to conservatives. It’s distressing to conservatives precisely because they believe they see the future and the future is not the America they revere. They believe the president seeks to fundamentally remake the idea of American citizenship into something that is not as unique as the founders had intended. In the conservative view, the president sees citizenship as embracing a higher moral status for the collective and a lower moral status for the individual, placing more value on collective decision making than on individual judgment.
Republicans believe in America, but they neither explained to America what that idea was, nor articulated how somebody who did not automatically see that vision could be part of their America. They could talk to themselves “Our country is slipping away.” “We’re becoming like Europe.” “I won’t recognize America when my children are grown up.” One can go to any conservative gathering and hear those exact phrases.
But Republicans lost and it wasn’t close. This creates some despair among conservatives. When a party expects to be measuring the drapes of the White House, but instead is on the outside looking in, this can cause some consternation.
Adding to this despair is demographic change that everyone could have seen coming. Most Republicans chose not to see it, but now it is in front of them like a bug on a windshield on the turnpike.
The election was clearly decided by the non-white vote for the first time in American history. Seventy-two percent of the electorate in the 2012 election was white, according to the exit poll. That bloc includes people of many different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. But while there’s no monolithic white vote any more than there is a monolithic non-white vote, the racial differences are still stark.
Romney carried the white vote 59 percent to 39 percent, a 20 point lead and the fourth highest that a Republican has carried the white vote since the advent of exit polling. No candidate in American history had ever carried 59 percent of the white vote and lost the presidency. Romney lost, by four points. He lost by four points because he lost the non-white vote by 63 points.
He actually improved his standing among African-Americans when compared with John McCain. John McCain got about 4 percent of that vote. Mitt Romney got 6, which approaches a 50 percent improvement, but is so small in absolute votes to be inconsequential.
Among Hispanics and Asians though, he did even worse. Somehow, Hispanics chose not to self-deport prior to election but rather chose to self-report to the voting booth. This segment of the electorate is growing. In fact, in every election since the 1996 election, like clockwork, the share of the non-white vote has gone up as a share of the total voters by 2 percent and the share of the white vote has gone down by 2 percent, much of that stemming from Hispanic population increases.
Granted, there are many of caveats to that overall trend in the non-white vote. Some of it is attributable to the record high turnout of African-Americans voters in 2008 and again in 2012. Will they do so when Obama is not on the ballot? I don’t know. Nevertheless, because of who’s coming into the country and being born and who’s leaving the country because of death, there are fewer whites. There may be more whites absolutely, but as a share of the eligible electorate, the share of whites in the eligible electorate is shrinking and the share of non-whites is growing.
In 2016, if there is not a dramatic shrinkage in the African-American vote, a Republican candidate will need to get 60 percent of the white vote, plus a record high among African-Americans, plus a record high among Asians, plus a record high among Hispanics, plus a record high among those people who don’t classify themselves in any of those categories, or are American-Indian or Hawaiian or Aleut, to win a bare 50.1 percent of the vote.
I work in Washington, D.C., and most everyone there is rather gleeful over these trends because the establishment is not conservative. The establishment would like to see conservatism fall. The establishment believes that this portends doom.
So how do the first set issues I posed about American identity interact with the last observation-the sheer numbers, the demographic weight?
They interact because of the nature of modern conservatism and the concerns of the electorate. In its parodied form, and sometimes, if you ask tea party or libertarian activists, in its non-parodied form, you would believe that the conservative movement is about what I call “hands-off government.” Got a problem with your kid? Not my problem. Got a problem with your retirement? Not my problem. Should have thought of that. Just depend on your family, depend on your church, depend on your own voluntary structures. You’re going to be free, sturdy and strong. That’s hands-off government. Obama used a catchy phrase to say basically the same thing, something along the lines of “you’re-on-your-own government” or “you’re-on-your-own society.”
Conservatives ardently support the founding American principles, which some think require hands-off government. However, if that is true, things look pretty bleak because people generally have rejected that idea. In fact, they have rejected that since the election of 1912, when two progressives and a socialist got 75 percent of the vote against constitutionalist William Howard Taft. This rejection may stretch back even to 1860, when the party of Lincoln stood for government action through tariffs, subsidization of railroads, creation of colleges to extend learning and subsidization of settlement of the West through the Homestead Act instead of the laissez-faire policies of the southern and the northern Democrats.
If American principles require hands-off government, American principles have not been part of our politics for a very long time. But I don’t think that’s what American politics and principles require-I think that’s a parody of what America and American conservatism means. I think the harder question is, “Can 1980s-era conservatism win in the future?”
Effectively, Mitt Romney ran by paying lip service to the Reagan platform of lower taxes, higher defense spending, traditional values, and dealing with social spending by nibbling around the edges and not touching core entitlements for people anywhere near voting age. That coalition was not founded on hands-off government. Rather, it was founded on the idea of limiting government growth without returning to the pre-New Deal era.
In sections, that coalition still wins, but nationally, it does not win. It does not win because that coalition’s success in the ’80s, ’90 and ‘00s was due to what I call benign neglect of the entitlement-welfare state. Conservatives could ignore reducing this state because economic growth allowed us to neither shrink nor dramatically expand these programs while allowing us to cut taxes and run small but prudent deficits. Economic growth allowed us to avoid the political question on which Goldwater stumbled – it allowed conservatives to strike conservative themes without repealing the New Deal.
That’s no longer a tenable option. It’s no longer a tenable option because the changes in our economy are generating a bimodal income distribution, with some families moving up and other families moving down. The middle class is hollowing out. Though people are on average better off, there are more people in the lower middle class and more people in the working class. That creates demand for public services.
It’s also untenable because of our fiscal crisis. It’s now impossible to limit borrowing to a prudent amount without touching some aspect of the entitlement-welfare state or dramatically increasing taxes. The conservative coalition has to choose between these two options-a choice it hasn’t made in 32 years-and it’s having a difficult time.
This reality creates huge political problems for conservatives. When Americans are forced to choose between taxing someone else and cutting their benefits-if those are the only two choices they have -they will choose to tax somebody else to preserve their benefits. That is effectively the choice that was presented in 2012 and that’s why we have higher taxes on wealthier individuals instead of significant spending cuts.
Common wisdom says that conservatism can’t deal with this new reality and, consequently, is about to go into a 30 to 40-year liberal period akin to the New Deal period-a period which remade American society in an infinitely more centralized and government-focused way. I think the common wisdom does not have to be right. In fact, I think conservatives have it within their own power to choose whether the common wisdom will prevail or whether we will actually enter a modern age of conservatism.
Conservatives have been here before. At the end of 1976, conservatism was laughably dead. Ronald Reagan had lost his challenge to Gerald Ford and Gerald Ford had lost the presidency. Only one-third of the House was Republican and about half of them, by any measure, were moderates or liberals. Conservatism was considered by the elite to be as irrelevant to modern life as ancient Egypt. In fact, the Minnesota Republican Party changed its name to the Independent Republican Party because they didn’t want to be simply known as Republican.
Ronald Reagan walked into the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in February 1977, and said, to paraphrase, “The common wisdom is wrong. We’re going to get power back. We’re going to get it without changing our principles.” Then in his speech, he basically gave the other side his battle plan. He explained how he could talk to Americans. He talked about principles of freedom. He described how people who were economically successful and people who weren’t could unite over a core set of values and an appreciation for each other’s issues and priorities. In other words, he asked the Reagan Democrats to join the Country Club Party and create a new Republican Party. And we’ve been living in the age that Ronald Reagan created in that speech and through his actions ever since.
How did he do it? What did Reagan understand that conservatives before him-and many after him-did not?
He added two elements to conservative thought and action, both of which you can find in his speech endorsing Barry Goldwater in 1964-the televised speech that launched him on his way to fame and the presidency.
The first was a serious respect for the aspirations of the common person, not as an abstract entity of somebody who was some person who was desiring to be completely independent in some sort of stereotypical Western frontiersman way, but as he called it, a simple soul. “The person who goes to work, gets lunch, pays his mortgage, contributes to his church, raises his kids and knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” That’s a rough paraphrase of what he wrote in December 1964 in theNational Review.
That person had aspirations to a simple life that Ronald Reagan thought was valuable. They were not people who wanted a handout. That’s what the phrase, “they know there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” means. But they weren’t hardy, Western, hands-off pioneers either. They drove to work on government roads. They educated their kids in government schools. They relied in some degree on government’s retirement program to avoid poverty in old age. They were not libertarians. They were Americans–a complex hybrid of people who understood how to govern their own lives but also could govern everyone’s life through a sense of mutual aid and citizenship.
The second element Ronald Reagan added was how government could be used to implement that attitude. In his speech, Reagan delivers a typical litany that one could have heard in less eloquent terms in any speech from that time, blasting government this and blasting government that. But at one point towards the end of his speech, he says, “Whenever we tell you what we’re against, ask us what we’re for.”
Reagan then talked about Social Security and what today we would call Medicare. (They didn’t have Medicare in 1964. That was being proposed by Johnson in 1964.) With respect to Social Security, he said that “people should not suffer poverty as a result of unemployment through old age. So, to that extent, we accept Social Security as a means towards that end.” In other words, he wasn’t going to go back to life before the New Deal. He was not the stereotypical Goldwater who wanted to repeal Social Security and say, “If you don’t have family and you’re 66, you can’t work and you don’t have a church that can take care of you, you’re on your own.” That wasn’t Ronald Reagan.
He then went on to talk about different ways to think about retirement that avoid a one-size-fits-all government program, allowing people to provide for themselves without throwing the people who really need government out on the street.
Then he applied that same principle to what we now call Medicare. He said that he opposed a centralized, one-size-fits-all government program. That’s essentially what Medicare is- regardless of your circumstances, you get the same benefits and, with only a couple of exceptions, you pay the same price. He said that he proposed and favored a smaller program that addressed people who really needed support, allowing them to access health care without submitting everybody to the same government-run program.
Conservatives did not say, “Ronald Reagan, you’re against the constitution.” Nobody stood up and said, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s unfair!” The reason is that conservatives understood-and still do-that Reagan was making a moral argument rather than a procedural one. He didn’t speak about government power; he spoke about justice. He spoke about helping average people to do things that they could not be expected to do for themselves. They could be provided for if they really could not save for themselves. They would not be left on their own: instead, they would be helped. American society would not keep its hands off; it would offer everyone a hand up.
I wish Reagan’s heirs had followed his example. But they haven’t, for two reasons. One is that some of the tensions existing within conservatism since its founding remain unreconciled. They remain unreconciled because the way that Reagan reconciled them was not fully appreciated by his heirs.
Conservatism classically has been described as a fusionism, which is to say it has been primarily defined by what it is in opposition to rather than in what it is for. Traditionally, conservatives of any stripe were united by opposition to the Soviet Union abroad and the rapid ideological expansion of the state at home. Among the many conservatives united by these two principles there remained many differences.
There were traditionalists who generally liked small towns and didn’t have a problem with government on a local level but didn’t like the new, post-New Deal role of the federal government.
There were anti-communists like Whittaker Chambers, who basically were former leftists who thought that the New Deal was fundamentally sound, but that we shouldn’t try to remake society at a rapid pace and we shouldn’t give into the Soviet Union. They supported many domestic programs traditionalists opposed.
Then there were libertarians, who had differences with both of them-people who followed Friedrich Hayek and later Ayn Rand. The libertarians opposed traditionalists on the question of government power at home and opposed anti-communists on questions of government power abroad, except when the Soviet Union was involved. Even Ms. Rand, as an immigrant from the Soviet Union, didn’t have a problem with anti-communism.
As result, conservatives never reached agreement on what aspects of the post-New Deal world should be retained, whether reformed or not, and which should be repealed. This difficulty has hindered their ability to govern whenever they have seized to power, and continues to bedevil the movement today.
Reagan implicitly proposed a way forward through his “hand up” approach to the entitlement-welfare state, but Reagan’s heirs have tended not to see this. Instead, they have thought his political legacy was found more as an action rather than a way of thinking.
That action is purely political: run against the liberals. As a result, you’ve seen campaigns for 30 years run against the liberals, run against the liberals, and run against the liberals. Then people of a fiscally conservative bent wonder, “Why do we get bigger government when we elect the people who are running against the liberals?” It’s because conservatives have never resolved their internal differences in favor of the Reaganesque view of domestic policy. They’ve never agreed among themselves about what’s in and what’s out, about what the appropriate and proper use of government is.
We can see this throughout the conservative era, but the first debate in 2012 shows this starkly. President Obama tried to pin Romney down by asking: “So you would cut education spending?” Romney said, “No, I’m not going to cut education spending.” In one sentence, Romney took $86 billion, one half percent of GDP, off the table. Why would he do that? If you haven’t thought about what government’s role in education is, why would you want to get trapped in the problems of trying to explain what you’re going to cut and what you’re not going to cut? The problem is, when you do that, you have nothing left to cut and you get growing government.
The result has been an anti-liberal consensus post-Reagan, not a pro-conservative one.
The erroneous understanding of Reagan’s legacy also comes through in a darker, more important way. Modern conservatives have tended to forget the moral value of the average person and instead have substituted the moral superiority of the great.
How many times have we heard about the great entrepreneur, the business man? He built it. What about the worker? Think about the worker. Do you think the worker in that building, in that job automatically identifies with the manager? Do you think he thinks, “Yeah. Whatever is good for General Motors is good for me! I’m happy to have this role!” That’s not the way people perceive themselves.
We can see this clearly if we think about Reagan’s famous Normandy speech. In 1984, Ronald Reagan honored the 40th anniversary of the storming of the beaches of Normandy with what was then a momentous speech. He was most noted for his praise of the average people who stormed cliffs on the Normandy Beach under withering German fire, people who were farmers from Kansas and bricklayers from Charleston and teachers from Brooklyn, who went up under orders and took the cliffs and saved Europe. He called them “the boys of Pointe du Hoc.”
Can one imagine Mitt Romney praising the valor of the boys of Pointe du Hoc instead of praising the sagacity of Eisenhower, the bravery of Patton, or the genius of the armaments makers who gave them the tools to take the beach? I have a hard time envisioning it.
The sense that the average person has a moral life that is worth leading and pursuing-and sometimes needs government to help them on their way and keep them from falling-is central to American political identity but disconnected from much of conservative thought today. And the Obama campaign ran against this disconnection relentlessly.
Think about the contraceptive question. The question of whether or not to mandate religious employers to cover contraceptives was a classic wedge issue: one designed to raise precisely that point among single women and other people who were concerned that their ability to succeed in modern America was imperiled if they could not control their own bodies. And the Obama campaign forced Republicans to defend people, who, however noble and right, are perceived by that group as being potential roadblocks to their dreams.
There are many people who will look and say, “If you’re with the priest, you’re not with me. If you’re with the religious entities, you’re not with me.” Democrats harnessed this issue in a manner that was very calculated. They were running and saying, “You know you need to control your body. Republicans not only are opposed to abortion, but they don’t even want you to get contraception. They’re not running for you.”
The immigration issue was used to make the same point to Hispanics and Asians. Suppose you’re Hispanic and you want to have part of the American dream; Republicans won’t even consider the DREAM Act. You, as a young Hispanic boy, were brought to America against your will, but now you’re willing to give what Lincoln called “the last full measure of your devotion” on a distant battlefield. But they won’t even give you the slightest consideration! “They’re not running for you.”
Blue collar workers of whatever race or gender, but particularly men in the industrial Midwest, were also targeted. These people were hammered by unemployment, and more than any other group either suffered unemployment or knew somebody who suffered unemployment. They came out and voted on masse against Obama’s Democrats in 2010, but the Obama campaign said to them, “Look at the other guy. Do you trust management? You’ve spent the last 20 years seeing your lives squeezed even if you’re making it, and a lot of you aren’t. Their economic policy is to give more money to their rich friends and hope that they do right by you. They’re not running for you.”
So is it any surprise that we saw record high margins for Obama among single women and Hispanics and depressed turnout in areas where non-Evangelical, non-southern blue collar men predominate in the electorate?
Conservatism’s failure to learn from Reagan, and the result of the Obama campaign’s ruthless exploitation of this failure, can be seen in one question from the exit poll. Voters taking this poll were asked to choose which of four characteristics they would most want to see in a president. Seventy-nine percent of Americans chose “shares my values,” “is a strong leader,” or “has a plan for America.” These people voted for Mitt Romney, and not by narrow margins: for each of those categories, he won by nine to 23 points.
Usually when you carry 80 percent of the vote by about 12 points, you’re measuring your drapes for the Oval Office. Romney lost because 21 percent chose the fourth group: “Cares about people like me.” He lost them by over 60 points. Republicans don’t have a racial gap. They don’t have a gender gap. They don’t have a marriage gap. All of those symptoms of the real gap: they have an empathy gap.
So what needs to be done? Republicans and conservatives need to come home to Reagan’s vision of America. This vision sees government as a threat but not an enemy, an adversary but not a foe. They need to come home to a vision that’s in line with the heritage of the Republican party, of the Lincolns who founded the land-grant colleges, that founded tariffs to help the working man gain high wages, that permitted people to go settle in the West without paying anything for their land, that deployed the Army for their protection, that subsidized transportation through the railroads so that they could get their goods back to market and make their way in life.
A hand up, not a hand out. This is not an industrial policy that says, “We’re going to choose widgets over tables, we’re going to choose corn over wheat.” Instead, it is a vision that provides a hand up and says, “You need some help so that you can pursue your dreams and live a free and independent life.”
That needs to occur not just in the economic sphere but in the social sphere. The Republican Party was the party of emancipation. Why can’t the Republican Party be the party that reduces social discrimination in America so that people don’t rely on unelected bureaucrats to determine whether they are in or out? Why can’t the Republican Party craft a fair policy that works to allow everyone to pursue their dreams?
Sixty years ago, there were two young Arizonans who went to Stanford Law School. One finished number one and one finished number three. William Rehnquist finished number one, went back to Arizona, and got a job. Sandra Day finished number three and couldn’t get a job as a lawyer because who would hire a woman in the mid-1950s? She’s just going to have babies.
One should never doubt why Sandra Day O’Connor ended up voting to uphold anti-sex discrimination statutes and voted to uphold expansive definitions of sex discrimination when those questions came before the court. Should Republicans be on the wrong side of that question?
What would that vision look like today? Ironically, I think it means we would get smaller government, because we have extended so many handouts to the rich, and to the poor, and to people who don’t deserve it. Smaller government would result from simply restoring to all the honest American approach of hand-up government.
Let’s take a look at two examples of how this has worked in practice. Some of you may remember that New York City used to be a den of crime. 2,200 murders a year, tons of theft, violence, or disorder in the street. If any of you ever saw the movie “Crocodile Dundee” from the ’80s, the whole point was the discord between New York’s promise and its reality–the greatest, richest city in the world, but best also in public squalor.
A libertarian could say, “No wonder! You’ve got the government in charge of the police department. They can’t ever do anything right.” Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, “No, that’s not the problem. The problem is we’re not running the police department for the interest of citizens. We’re running the police department for the interest of the police department.” He focused their attention on crime fighting and reduction of crime rather than making arrests. And, today, there are 7,500 fewer policemen in New York City than when he started. Murders were reduced from 2,200 to under 600 last year and 7,500 fewer people are on the force. That’s better government and smaller government.
The same thing happened with welfare reform. Rather than trying to eliminate federal guarantees for welfare, Republican and Democrats got together in 1996, and said, “What we need to do is change the incentives. Some of these people can’t work. Those who won’t, we won’t support; those who can’t, we’ll support; those who can, we’ll give them support to get back on their feet.” For this last group, welfare reform provided transportation vouchers, childcare, and job counseling. And it established firm work requirements so that they got a kick out the door if they need it. They could received permanent help if they really needed it permanently, but for most people they would get temporary help and be expected to move on to the workforce.
The results were astounding. The welfare budget is now much, much smaller than it would have been given the growth of population; caseloads are only a third of what they were 15 years ago. More single mothers are in the workforce than existed beforehand, and in the last couple of recessions, people didn’t go back on welfare because they went on unemployment insurance. Why? Because for the first time in their lives, they had worked in a private sector job long enough to qualify for that rather than welfare. Better government gave people who needed it a hand up, and produced smaller government.
We are at a decisive period that happens only about every 30 to 40 years in American politics. It is a period where Americans debate first principles and will decide which party is best suited to help the average person get along with the realities that they face in the America of today. In this new century, we are deciding who is going to offer us a new deal to enact longstanding an eternal principle.
If conservatives can understand that they’re the party of government by and for the people as opposed to the party that wants to repeal all government entirely, if they’re the party of a hand up rather than the party of the handout or the hand off, then – and only then-can they continue to lead America further on what Ronald Reagan called mankind’s 6,000-year journey from the swamp to the stars.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.