Ethics & Public Policy Center

Conservatives and the Need for an Appealing Governing Philosophy

Published in Commentary Magazine on March 13, 2015


In the most recent Gallup survey, Americans named the government (18 percent) as the most important U.S. problem, a distinction it has had for the past four months. After that comes the economy in general (11 percent), followed by unemployment/jobs (10 percent), and immigration/illegal aliens (seven percent). We also learned that Americans’ confidence in all three branches of government is at or near record lows, according to a major survey that has measured attitudes on the subject for 40 years.

This is hardly a surprise. In his book Political Order and Political Decay, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama writes that if “there has been a single problem facing contemporary democracies, whether aspiring or well established, it has been centered in their failure to provide the substance of what people want from government: personal security, shared economic growth, and quality of basic public services like education, health, and infrastructure that are needed to achieve individual opportunity.”

There are a host of reasons for this, including the fact that many government programs are badly outdated and were fundamentally mis-designed; that there’s very little accountability and transparency in them; and the increasing centralization of power and the inability of those serving in government to manage complex social systems. Government is being asked to do more and more things, the result being that it’s doing almost none of them particularly well.

It doesn’t surprise many of us that confidence in government is so low during the presidency of a committed progressive, Mr. Obama, whose faith in government appears boundless and whose tenure has been marked by rank incompetence and seen the size and reach of the federal government reach unprecedented levels. The temptation for conservatives will be to take advantage of and build on this widespread distrust, to dial up their anti-government rhetoric, and to continue to focus solely on what government should not be doing.

But as I have argued before (here and here), such an exclusively negative approach to the question of the role of government is not only electorally insufficient; it is unbecoming of conservatism and of the deep commitment that conservatives claim to the nation’s founding ideals.

The way to both re-limit and improve government lies with structural reforms–to our tax code; our entitlement, health-care, and anti-poverty programs; our immigration and elementary, secondary, and higher-education systems; and the energy and financial sector. The fact that government is held in contempt by so many Americans ought to trouble all of us, including conservatives; and making our government one we can once again be proud of ought to be our object and aim. Government is, after all, “the offspring of our own choice,” in the words of Washington, and should have “a just claim to [our] confidence and [our]  support.”

Republicans are quite good at explaining why it’s lost that confidence and support; they are not nearly as good at explaining what needs to be done to regain it. If they don’t get that second part right–if their governing agenda is seen to consist mainly of a fierce anti-government fervor and/or boilerplate proposals designed to meet the challenges of a distant past–they are not likely to win the presidency anytime soon.

As Republican primary voters think about the individual they want to be their presidential nominee, they might ask themselves this question: Who is the conservative best able to articulate and implement an appealing public philosophy for life in the 21st century? Answering that question should go a long way toward determining who ought to represent the Republican Party in 2016.

— Peter Wehner is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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