For Conservatives To Win, Republicans Must Get Comfortable Using Power


Published December 21, 2022

The Federalist

If, as some recent polls suggest, Florida’s popular governor, Ron DeSantis, is able to mount a serious primary challenge to former President Trump, it will be because the governor understands political power is meant to be used. If DeSantis runs and wins, it will be because he persuaded Republican voters that he will be a more effective leader than Trump — not because he repudiated the former president’s policies or followers.

The governor’s appeal is founded on his use of power. In this, he contrasts with the many conservatives who, upon gaining power, tend to be like the dog who caught the car — unsure what to do with it. Of course, this is a feature, not a bug, for many on the right. This more libertarian vision of conservatism insists that we don’t want the vehicle of government to take us where we want to go; we just want it to be smaller, quieter, and less involved in our lives. The credo of this philosophy is Reagan’s jibe that government is the problem, not the solution.

But making this quip into the basis for our politics is a mistake (and one that Reagan himself didn’t make). Conservatives should evaluate and exercise government power prudentially rather than rejecting it as a matter of principle. Some skepticism of government power is wise; our nation’s founders limited government for good reasons, recognizing its potential for incompetence and abuse. But they also established our Constitution in response to the perilous weakness of their prior government. Weighing the risks of an underpowered government against those of an overpowered one is a matter of prudence, as is the right use of that power.

Too many people on the right fear this reliance on prudence. They want bright lines, and they often seek to trace these back to absolute principles. Unfortunately, their attempted precautions against the abuse of power often inspire them to embrace philosophies that are not conservative. For example, the fear of excessive government intervention in the economy has led many on the right to deny the obvious truth that the government must constrain markets and embrace the rhetoric of an unattainable and undesirable libertarian free market ideal instead.

However, conservatism is not based on the ideal of the autonomous, independent adult, whom libertarians treat as the basis for their political system. Conservatives know that atomistic individualism is an anti-human ideal. The autonomous individual is a maimed person who is severed from the dependence, obligations, and relationships integral to genuine human well-being.

Conservatives know the government ought to protect and preserve human flourishing and that it cannot be neutral about what is good. The rule of law under the U.S. Constitution does not require the government to embrace nihilistic relativism. A degree of tolerance and pluralism is necessary for our nation, but they are not the same as neutrality between good and evil. Justice requires that the government act in accordance with objective truths of morality and human nature in order to promote human flourishing. In particular, a just government will protect children, who are dependent by definition, and promote family life and social structures that nurture them.

Governing does require humility, of course. Conservatives recognize the reality of justice and moral truth, but we also know we are limited and imperfect in apprehending and acting upon them. Thus, the conservative case for government action is not a plea for big government, let alone arbitrary power exercised by a dictator or cabal. Rather, it is a plea for our elected representatives to use their legitimate powers to protect and promote the well-being of we the people.

This would be an electoral winner. Effective, populist conservative governance is, well, popular. DeSantis has exemplified the combination of cultural conservatism and energetic competence. In particular, DeSantis has shown that conservatives can use political power to take on the bullies of woke capital and win.

Instead of wilting at the thought of using government power, conservatives should be developing and championing a platform full of policies that advance the common good, with a focus on protecting children. There is plenty of low-hanging fruit. For instance, we should not allow public school teachers to teach gender ideology and queer theory or permit librarians to stock sexual materials for children, and we should especially prohibit performances of a sexualized nature that target children. And we should enforce real-age restrictions on online pornography instead of allowing it to be easily available to every adolescent with a Wi-Fi connection.

Conservatives ought to dismantle the race and gender ideology bureaucracies that are taking over even the military and red-state public universities. We should cut the flow of government cash to left-wing activist groups that use it to push radical agendas — to give one example, the Biden administration is giving hundreds of millions to a radical group that champions a child-raping murderer because trans-identitarianism wins the day. And while we’re on the subject, we should use political power to punish the greedy quack doctors chemically castrating and surgically mutilating children.

These policies are protective, especially of children. They are all legitimate, constitutional uses of government power. In most cases, they consist of the people’s representatives exercising more control over government employees abusing the powers delegated to them. They are popular, modest responses to the left’s culture-war aggression.

Such measures are not, of course, the entirety or even the majority of pro-family conservative policy. A great deal of work is needed to develop more pro-family economic policies. For instance, we should focus on making it easier to build affordable family homes. Affordable family housing ought to be a priority for conservatives.

But the cultural fights matter. A Republican who refuses to take a stand on issues such as teaching gender ideology to first graders cannot be trusted on anything else — except, perhaps, in advancing the interests of corporate donors. A conservatism that will not use political power to protect its constituents and advance the common good is not actually conservative but only degraded corporatism with a veneer of free-market ideology. If conservatives are content with that, we will deserve the political and cultural defeats that continue to be inflicted upon us.

Ron DeSantis has already shown that he is not content with that and that he’s willing to take these fights head-on. Tax cuts and simply being an alternative to the Democrats aren’t enough. To win, conservatives need to tell voters how we will use power to protect them and improve their lives. Trump did that, especially in his 2016 campaign. But that was then.

For Republicans, the appeal of the Florida governor is a man who promises the same wins as Trump but with more credibility about delivering on them.

Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash


Most Read

EPPC BRIEFLY
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.

Upcoming Event |

Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President with Allen Guelzo at Ford’s Theatre

SEARCH

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

Donate today

More in Evangelicals in Civic Life