Conservatism in a liberal society has an inherently oppositional mission: seeking to preserve the best of the given world in a political culture enthralled with novelty and eager to get past the past. Modern American conservatism therefore began with a decisively and deeply oppositional cast around the middle of the last century.
But over the past three decades, the American right has attempted something quite different: a governing conservatism, which applies conservative principles and views to practical problems and seeks to enact policy reforms. This governing or reforming conservatism, which began in earnest with Ronald Reagan, can claim some far-reaching achievements, from a transformation of the American economic debate to successful reforms of the welfare system and urban law enforcement to proposed, but still mostly unconsummated, reinventions of public education and old-age entitlements.
In each case, conservatives have sought to preserve and secure the values of the family and the market against an encroaching progressivism, just as their more oppositional predecessors did. But they did so by working through politics and public policy rather than against them. Their work involved an intense intellectual engagement both with conservative ideas and traditions and with the problems of the moment. And their enactment of conservatism largely coincided (though not coincidentally) with a period of prosperity and growth almost unprecedented in our history.
In the past few years, however, conservatives grew palpably exhausted. As conservatism became busier with governing, it had less time for philosophical reflection. As its successes made welfare, taxes and crime less prominent issues, it was slow to apply itself to those that emerged in their place. As it turned its attention to grave dangers abroad, it lost its grasp of some domestic concerns. As its elected officials grew comfortable with power, they grew less interested in finding ways to restrain the excesses of the state; and so some grew corrupt as well.
The exhaustion of conservatism (not, as today's Democratic majority would have it, the enactment of conservatism) launched a period of complacency in domestic policy, discontent with which was one important factor in the public's rejection of Republicans. And this rejection appears to have launched, in turn, a period of liberal ambition directed to reviving and growing the welfare state, the failure of which galvanized governing conservatism into action to begin with.
And so conservatives again find themselves in opposition. One model of opposition, pursued by some on the left over the past eight years, would now have the right descend into anger and acrimony, and hope to emerge eventually with a new vessel but no real new ideas. But that is not the way back for conservatives. Those who argue instead that the way back lies in relearning the lessons of Reagan and his practical conservatism are correct. But those lessons describe a general approach to public policy, not a simple recipe for solving every novel problem.
Those lessons include the need for a commitment to economic growth, free trade, a strong defense, traditional values and a creative restraint of the welfare state. But more than anything they point to the need to apply these general principles in a constructive and engaging way to the problems of the moment–understanding that the moment and its problems are always changing in this never-resting country. They suggest that standing up for principle and proposing incremental policy reforms are not mutually exclusive. A governing conservatism requires both.
The insight that brought the reforming conservatives to power was that the opposition must offer an alternative. And so the challenge for conservatives today is not only to explain what is wrong with the Democrats' prescriptions but to lay out what they would do differently and why, especially with regard to the severe economic crisis we now confront and the unusual response it requires.
The right does have some serious proposals to draw upon–in health care, for instance–though not nearly enough. And it has a few potential leaders, too, in governors like Bobby Jindal and Mitch Daniels, and members of Congress like Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan. These are not sufficient for a comeback just yet, but they have little chance to be heard for the moment in any case. That is the work of the next few years for conservatives: sharpening their knives against the worst of what the left is advancing, even as they sharpen their pencils for some creative policy development.
The right has never lacked for eulogists, but eulogies are no more apt today than in 1993 or 1977. American conservatism has long been an unusually intellectual political movement, reaching for core principles while reaching for power. In its newfound opposition status, this disposition at first makes it seem out of sorts. But properly executed, a reconnection with conservative ideals and then their application to practical problems is not a sign of breakdown on the right but a description of the road to recovery for conservatives, and for America.
– Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author, most recently, of Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy.