Conservatism for the People

Published January 1, 2014

National Affairs

In some key respects, American politics has exhibited remarkable continuity for more than two centuries. Parties, issues, and coalitions have come and gone, yet certain basic American political values and aims have remained constant.

Among the most important of these has been the willingness to use government power to help individuals advance in life. Every dominant national political coalition since at least the Civil War has had this idea at its heart. These winning coalitions promoted neither paternalism nor libertarianism. Instead, they gave voice to a uniquely American outlook that emphasizes personal freedom and self-reliance while leaving room for the use of collective, democratic self-government to promote those virtues.

As a result, virtually every important national campaign has revolved around one central question: How can we best give average people respect, dignity, and an opportunity to make their way in the world, tyrannized neither by government nor by private individuals?

That was the question over which the 2012 election was fought. President Obama and the Democrats advanced one answer; Governor Romney and the Republicans advanced another. Both sides understood that this election would begin to settle whose approach would govern America for years to come.

Republicans, and especially conservatives, would like to dismiss their defeat as an aberration. They proffer many excuses: Governor Romney was a bad candidate who ran a bad campaign; President Obama’s technology-driven ground game made the difference; Hurricane Sandy stopped Romney’s momentum at the worst possible time. None of these explanations is without merit, but all miss the major point of the election results: The president made the campaign into a choice between two clear visions of America, and Americans preferred his vision to the Republicans’.

The Republican denial of this simple truth stands squarely in the way of their pursuit of the presidency. Republican renewal can start only when the party understands that it lost because its vision has slowly drifted away from the concerns of most Americans. By abandoning the American people’s foremost political priority, the GOP places its continued national relevance at risk.


Mitt Romney’s campaign slogan was “Believe in America.” The clear implication of that motto was, of course, that he and his party did believe in America and the president and the Democrats did not. Rather than complain about this subtle swipe at his patriotism, the president calmly accepted the challenge. He built his entire campaign around defining what America means and the role government should play in our national life.

Obama effectively asked: Which do you like better? Would you prefer the Republican alternative as exemplified by the candidacy of Mitt Romney and the policies he and his party have proposed in Congress and on the stump? The president then characterized the Romney-Republican definition of America as an “on your own” society, one in which government would not be used to help the average person pursue happiness but would be used instead to help the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful.

One would have thought that Romney would actively join the debate. In a way he did, for he often emphasized that America was a land where anyone could start from scratch and build a business. The subtle implication, however, was that people who did so were the best Americans and everyone else was just along for the ride. It is in that sense that the phrase “you built that” and laments about “makers” versus “takers” were the essence of Romney’s America. Judging from the cheering crowds at the Republican convention and Romney’s campaign rallies, they were also the essence of the Republican Party’s vision of the nation.

The fundamental debate, then, was not over whether America stood for individual freedom and opportunity. Both candidates agreed that it did. The debate was over whether government had a legitimate role to play in directly helping all people exercise their freedom and opportunity or whether government’s role was to get out of the way of the few so that they could directly help the many. Romney’s Republican Party argued for the latter; the president and the Democrats argued for the former.

Republicans and conservatives never seriously considered they could lose that debate. One could see this throughout the campaign. When polls suggested that Romney was behind, Republicans disputed the accuracy of the polls. “Too many Democrats,” they said. “Don’t believe those pollsters behind the curtain. Believe in America.”

Nevertheless, the president’s view won, 51% to 47%. This is rightfully distressing to conservatives. It is distressing because they believe the president seeks to fundamentally remake the idea of American citizenship into something that no longer uniquely encourages personal freedom and self-reliance. Conservatives believe, with much justification, that the president places a higher moral value on collective decision-making and requirements than on individual judgment and preferences. That may indeed be the case. But by choosing to define America as a land primarily for hardy strivers, Republicans have strayed from the center of American politics, a center that has held for all of our history.

Some conservatives may think American principles require hands-off government, but most Americans have consistently rejected that idea. One could date this rejection to the election of 1912, when two progressives and a socialist got 75% of the vote against the constitutionalist incumbent, William Howard Taft. But one could also date it back to 1860, when the party of Lincoln stood for government action on behalf of ordinary Americans through protective tariffs, subsidization of intercontinental railroads, creating land-grant colleges to extend learning, and giving federal land out for free to western settlers.

If American principles simply require hands-off government, then American principles have not been part of our politics for a very long time. A hands-off approach is not what American politics and principles require; it is a parody of what America and American conservatism mean. One can see this by looking at the statesmanship of Ronald Reagan, whose victories in 1980 and 1984 set the modern conservative movement and Republican Party on the path to power.


In 1976, when Ronald Reagan lost the struggle for the Republican presidential nomination to the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, the prospects for a genuinely conservative Republican Party seemed in grave danger. Only one-third of the House of Representatives was Republican that year, and about half of those Republican members, by any measure, were moderates or liberals. The nation’s elites considered conservatism simply irrelevant to modern life. The Minnesota Republican Party even changed its name to the Independent-Republican Party because it didn’t want to be known solely as Republican.

But 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, and we’re going to get it back without changing our principles.” He then presented his 1980 battle plan. He explained how to talk to Americans. He talked about principles of freedom. He described how people who were economically successful and people who were not could unite over a core set of values and an appreciation for each other’s concerns and priorities. In other words, he asked the Reagan Democrats to join the Country Club Party and create what he called “a new Republican Party.” We’ve been living in the age that Ronald Reagan created in that speech and through his subsequent 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 were apparent in his thinking as far back as his speech endorsing Barry Goldwater in 1964 — the televised speech that launched him on his way to political fame and the presidency — and in his post-election analysis that year for National Review.

The first element was a profound respect for the aspirations of the common person. This person was not a stereotypical frontiersman seeking personal independence. He was merely “a simple soul,” someone “who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows just ‘ain’t no such thing as free lunch.'”

Ronald Reagan thought this simple life was valuable. Those who sought it did not want a handout or a “free lunch,” but they weren’t hardy, hands-off pioneers either. They drove to work on government roads. They educated their kids in government schools. They relied to some degree on the government’s retirement program to avoid poverty in old age. They were neither libertarians nor socialists, neither entrepreneurs nor dependents. They were simply Americans.

Second, Reagan accepted the federal government’s potential as a means of directly helping these people. Much of his Goldwater speech, “A Time for Choosing,” blasted all sorts of government overreach and incompetence. But at one point in the middle of the speech, he turned to rebut the old liberal complaint about Republicans, that “we’re always ‘against,’ never ‘for’ anything.”

Reagan spoke about Social Security and a program that has since come to be called Medicare (Americans were debating in the 1964 election whether to create Medicare). With respect to Social Security, he said that “destitution should not follow unemployment by reason of old age, and to that end we’ve accepted Social Security as a step toward meeting the problem.” In other words, there was nothing wrong with the federal government acting to help people in need. He was not the hands-off conservative who wanted to repeal Social Security and say, “you’re on your own.” That wasn’t Ronald Reagan.

He went on to discuss different ways to think about providing for retirement that avoided a one-size-fits-all government program, one that allowed people to provide for themselves but did not throw the people who really needed help out on the street. He then applied that same principle to what we now call Medicare. He opposed the kind of centralized, one-size-fits-all government program that Medicare wound up being. He said that he 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 system.

Conservatives in 1964 did not call him a “RINO.” They did not argue that he stood against the Constitution, nor did they argue that he was usurping the free market and civil society. Instead, they embraced Reagan as the leader they had always wanted and maintained their devotion to him through good times and bad, until death did them part.

The reason conservatives embraced Reagan was that he expressed their most deeply held values. He did not speak about government power; he spoke about justice. He spoke about how government could help average people do things that they could not be expected to do for themselves — and how it should expect average people to do those things that they could. The American government would neither keep its hands off nor heavily place its hands on; it would offer everyone a hand up.

The painful truth is that President Obama’s rhetoric was closer to Reagan’s than was the rhetoric of Romney and many other leading Republicans in 2012. Obama’s policies will not deliver what he promised, but conservatives will not be given an opportunity to implement their vision until they show they understand and respect the average person’s life. Conservatives must channel their inner Reagan and rediscover the sources of his connection with the heart of the American electorate.


Reagan’s heirs have misunderstood his legacy because they have taken it to be largely a political legacy rather than an intellectual one. The political legacy was supposedly simple: Run against the liberals. As a result, for 30 years conservative campaigns have been run against the liberals, with liberals defined as people who opposed tax cuts and supported welfare expansion. In doing so, modern conservatives have fallen into the pre-Reagan trap of emphasizing what they are against rather than what they are for. This allowed them to avoid touching the core, expensive programs of the entitlement-welfare state, which have remained widely popular. Unfortunately, however, it also left conservatives powerless to change the course of those programs, leaving them powerless to change the course of our government more broadly.

This simple fact explains why we keep getting bigger government when we elect people who are running against liberals. This has happened time and again throughout the post-Reagan era. A revealing moment in the first presidential debate in 2012 helps us see why. In that debate, President Obama tried to pin Governor Romney down on how he would pay for his tax cuts by alleging that Romney would cut education spending. Romney responded, “No, I’m not going to cut education spending,” thereby taking $91 billion in federal spending off the table.

Why would he do that? If you haven’t thought about what government’s role in education is — if your campaign is based on what you are not instead of on what you are — you get trapped in trying to explain what you’re going to cut and what you’re not going to cut. Because you’re not offering any coherent, compelling vision for how the federal government can help improve education, the cut-or-fund question stands in for the question of whether you care about the issue. When this happens, by the time the campaign is over you have nothing left to cut or reform — and government grows. The post-Reagan era has thus resulted in an anti-liberal public consensus, but not a pro-conservative one.

The conservative failure to grasp Reagan’s intellectual legacy mirrors the shortcomings in the intellectual legacy of conservatism itself. Modern American conservatism, as it took shape in the second half of the 20th century, was often described as a fusion of several different factions united in their opposition to the Soviet Union abroad and the expansion of the state at home. It was, in other words, primarily defined by what it was against rather than what it was for. The conservative coalition therefore contained people who seemed to agree about relatively little.

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. They were skeptical of American involvement overseas but supported containing the Soviet Union.

There were anti-communists like Whittaker Chambers, most of whom were former leftists who thought that the New Deal was fundamentally sound but that we should not try to remake society at a rapid pace and we should actively oppose the Soviet Union. They supported many domestic programs that traditionalists opposed.

There were libertarians, people who followed Friedrich Hayek and later Ayn Rand. The libertarians opposed both sets of conservatives on domestic policy as they opposed activity at all levels of government. They also tended to oppose anti-communists on questions of government power abroad, except when the Soviet Union was directly involved. Even Ms. Rand, as an immigrant from the Soviet Union, didn’t have a problem with fighting the Cold War.

There were religiously inspired conservatives whose primary motivation was to restore Christianity’s cultural primacy. They tended to oppose libertarians on most matters, but quarreled with many anti-communists over cultural issues and were more comfortable than were traditionalists with the idea that federal power could be exercised successfully.

These separate strains of conservatism still exist within the movement nearly 60 years after its founding. As a result, conservatives have never reached agreement on what aspects of the post-New Deal world should be retained, reformed, or repealed. This difficulty has hindered their ability to govern whenever they have seized power, and it continues to bedevil the movement today.

Reagan implicitly proposed a way forward for all stripes of conservatives through his hand-up approach to the entitlement-welfare state, but his heirs have largely failed to recognize this. Instead, they have tended to follow his contemporary, Jack Kemp, in seeing America first and foremost as a land where anyone can make it big rather than as a place where anyone can live the life he seeks. This small but crucial difference has thrown conservatism off course. Modern conservatives have tended to discount the moral value of the average person, focusing instead on extolling the moral superiority of the great.

How many times in recent years have conservative leaders told us about the virtuous entrepreneur? He built his own business, creating jobs and helping to make America great. But what about the worker? Does he automatically identify with his boss? Does he think, “Whatever is good for General Motors is good for me”? Of course not. As much as Ronald Reagan believed America was a land of opportunity, the opportunity he spoke of was open as much to the factory worker as to the factory owner.

We can see this clearly if we think about Reagan’s famous Normandy speech. In 1984, Reagan honored the 40th anniversary of the storming of the beaches of Normandy with what was then a momentous address. He was most noted for his praise of the average people who stormed the cliffs 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.”

It is easy to picture Mitt Romney praising the sagacity of Eisenhower, or the bravery of Patton, or the genius of the armaments makers who gave the soldiers the tools they needed to take the beach. But praising the valor of the good old boys who took the Pointe du Hoc? That’s much harder to envision.


The sense that the average person has a moral life that is worth leading and pursuing — and that he sometimes needs government to help him on his way — is central to American political identity but is disconnected from much of today’s conservative thought. The Obama campaign created its majority by exposing this disconnection relentlessly.

Take for instance the question of Obamacare’s requirement that employers — including even religious employers — pay for contraception for their workers. This is a classic wedge issue: one designed to force Republicans to defend their base at the expense of appealing to swing voters. Many women of all ideological stripes believe their ability to succeed in modern America would be imperiled if they could not have access to contraception. And many of these people believe that priests and churches oppose their having such access and hence are obstacles to the fulfillment of their dreams.

Democrats harnessed this set of views in a very calculated way. They essentially told women: “You know you need to control your body. Republicans are not only opposed to abortion, but they don’t even want you to get contraception. They’re on your foes’ side, not yours. They’re not running for you.” Make what you will of the substance of their case; it was politically effective.

The immigration issue was used to make the same point to Hispanics and Asians. Blue-collar workers of whatever race or gender, but particularly white men in the industrial Midwest, were also targeted. They were particularly likely to have been unemployed, or to have known someone who was, during the recent recession. They voted en masse against Obama’s Democrats in 2010, but in 2012 the Obama campaign said to them, “Look at Romney’s Republicans. 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.”

Is it any surprise, then, that we saw phenomenally high margins for Obama among single women as well as Hispanics and other immigrant groups, and that we saw depressed turnout in areas where non-evangelical, non-southern, blue-collar men predominate in the electorate?

Evidence of conservatism’s failure to learn from Reagan — and of the effectiveness of the Obama campaign’s ruthless exploitation of this failure — can be seen in the response to one question in particular from the election-day exit polling. Voters taking this poll were asked to choose which of four characteristics they would most want to see in a president. Fully 74% of them chose “shares my values,” “is a strong leader,” or “has a vision for the future.” 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 three-quarters of the vote by about 14 points, you’re measuring drapes for the Oval Office. But Romney lost because 21% of voters chose the fourth characteristic: “cares about people like me.” Romney lost them by over 60 points. Republicans aren’t suffering from a racial gap. They aren’t suffering from a gender gap. They aren’t suffering from a marriage gap. All of those are symptoms of the real problem: Republicans are suffering from an empathy gap.


The empathy gap is made more crucial because many of the groups moved by this concern are growing in electoral power. Non-whites are particularly likely to believe they need a hand up to join the American mainstream, and their share of the electorate is expanding.

The 2012 election was clearly decided by the non-white vote for the first time in American history. About 72% of the electorate in 2012 election was white, according to the exit poll. Romney carried the white vote 59% to 39%, a 20-point lead and the fourth highest for a Republican since the advent of exit polling. No presidential candidate in American history had ever carried 59% of the white vote and lost. Yet Romney lost the election by four points because he lost the non-white vote by 63 points.

Romney did slightly better than John McCain among African-Americans, winning 6% of their vote compared with 4%, but even that was well below the 10% Republicans averaged for the 40 years before President Obama. Romney substantially underperformed McCain, however, among Hispanics and Asians. Hispanics gave Romney an abysmally low 27%. His share of the Asian vote was also lower than McCain’s, 26% as compared with 35%.

The non-white segment of the electorate is growing quickly. In fact, in every presidential election since 1996, the non-white vote’s share of the total vote has increased by about two percentage points, and the share of the white vote has gone down by about two percentage points, much of that change stemming from Hispanic and Asian population increases.

There are some caveats to this overall trend. Some of it is attributable to the record-high turnout of African-American voters in 2008 and 2012. No one can know whether they will continue to show up when Obama is not on the ballot. Nevertheless, because of racial and ethnic differences in birth and death rates, and because of ongoing immigration, whites will shrink rapidly as a share of the future electorate.

In 2016, if there is not a dramatic reduction in African-American turnout, a Republican presidential candidate will need to get 60% of the white vote, plus a record-high share among each portion of the non-white vote (African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and others) to win a bare 50.1% of the vote. Republicans who have previously received 60% or more of the white vote have done so by appealing to non-evangelical, blue-collar whites and to women. The constituencies among which Republicans need to increase support, therefore, are not likely to flock to an agenda even more focused on opposition to immigration, cuts in the top marginal tax rate, and reductions in core entitlements.

Nor can Republicans retake the White House by returning to Bush-era conservatism. That agenda was founded on the idea of cutting taxes and limiting government growth without significantly trimming core entitlements. Our ongoing fiscal crisis precludes that approach because it is now impossible to limit borrowing to a prudent level without touching some aspect of the entitlement-welfare state, dramatically increasing taxes, or sharply cutting defense. Conservatives have to choose among these options, a tough choice they haven’t had to make in the post-Reagan era.

The conventional wisdom says that conservatism cannot deal with this new reality and, consequently, we are about to go into a 30- to 40-year liberal period akin to the New Deal era and the age that followed — decades during which American society became more centralized and government-focused. But, as conservatives learned in 1977, the common wisdom does not have to be right. Conservatives today now face their own “time for choosing” that will determine whether the common wisdom will prevail or whether we will enter a modern age of conservative ascendancy.


Republicans and conservatives can succeed only if they come home to Reagan’s vision of America. That vision sees government as a danger but not an enemy, and looks for ways to make it useful rather than harmful to the advancement of a free society. It is a vision in line with the spiritual heritage of Lincoln’s Republican Party — one that gives average people a hand up, not a hand out.

Many conservatives fear that this vision means Republicans will become the second party of big government, but that need not be true. Enabling government to do what it should do also involves pulling it back from all that it should not be doing. Fully implementing this vision would create smaller government because, over the years, we have extended so many handouts to people in all classes who do not need or deserve them. Congressional Republicans have tried to rein in entitlement spending in recent years, but they have failed, in large part because they are using arguments that do not resonate with the majority of the electorate. If Republicans instead simply restored the historical hand-up approach to government, they could shrink the size of the state by as much as or more than their recent budget proposals have suggested — all while increasing the political appeal of the conservative agenda.

Finding this new path will require both new rhetoric and new policy. First and foremost, however, it requires a renewed emphasis on an old goal: helping the common man advance in life. This has long been the driving purpose of American politics and the stated aim of just about every successful political coalition in our history. But in many respects it has ceased to be the goal of the Republican Party, and it needs to become so again.

We now stand at a decisive moment of a sort that comes only about every 40 years in American politics. Ours is a period in which Americans will debate first principles and decide which party is best suited for the foreseeable future to help the average person get along with the realities he faces. In this new century, we are deciding who is going to offer us a modernized form of the American dream.

If conservatives can understand that they are the party of government by and for the people as opposed to the party that wants to repeal all government entirely — that they are the party of a hand up rather than the party of the handout or of hands-off government — then, and only then, can they continue to lead America further on what Ronald Reagan called mankind’s journey from the swamp to the stars.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today