Community Conservatism: How Government can Empower Civil Society
Matthew and Stephanie Souders – November, 2014
Concerns of the Civil Society
In the many post mortem analyses of the 2012 presidential election and the two surrounding “republican wave” midterms, it has become apparent that what drives the health of the Democrat Party is not Middle Class America in the way it once was, but very poor, and the very wealthy. Progressive policies have marginalized the middle class and made it difficult for people to change their financial status through over-taxation and over-regulation of small businesses, through a system of wealth transfer that mostly hurts the middle class, through microscopic interest rates that are disincentives to saving and debt management and through a bloated, inefficient social safety net whose unpaid liabilities are an enormous anchor on market confidence, and thus, GDP growth.
Both parties have an unhealthy focus on the wealthy. Democrats believe in a system of, as Mitt Romney called it, “trickle-down government”, in which our social betters determine which businesses should benefit from rent-seeking behavior and which should be regulated out of existence for our own good and court the wealthy with the promise of largesse. Republicans still believe, to some extent, in Reagan’s system of “trickle-down economics”, in which government courts the support of big businesses with an interest in deregulation and low corporate taxes. In both models, the real concerns of the middle class are completely ignored.
We’re not short on polling and research on the question of what the middle class wants from government. In order of importance, according to a host of exit polls and issues polling done by Pew Research, Gallup and Rasmussen:
• Establish an economic climate where my job actually pays (what they actually mean is: where my median income actually goes up at least as fast as inflation, preferably faster)
• Make government accountable and ensure that it’s actually working properly (while most in the middle class are not quick to blame Obama for every failure of the bureaucracy, they are nonetheless completely faithless, now, that government can work well)
• Make our education system actually work and give us good choices so that our children are prepared for the adult world
• Get the cost of healthcare contained and give me broad choices in doctors, hospitals and insurance plans that fit my needs
• Reduce or stabilize the cost of energy and make us less dependent on foreign energy markets
• Protect a basic social safety net and care for those in real need, defend against fraud and abuse of our good will
• Keep our communities safe from threats, foreign and domestic
• Keep law enforcement constructive and fair
• Respect our freedom to choose how we’ll live our lives and respect our privacy
• Be good stewards of our natural resources and the environment
• Demonstrate that you can govern (people are results oriented, but a lack of willingness to compromise on either side is an immediate turn-off to moderate middle class Americans – and a philosophy that downplays the importance of government is also a turn off, as people want to feel that their lives are backstopped by a competent, effective government)
The nice thing about the above list is that both Democrats and Republicans in the middle class come up with about the same list in about the same order (Democrats might place environmental stewardship a little higher up, and Republicans might move government accountability to the top slot in some cases, but otherwise, our priorities tend to align well across party lines). The difference between us is not what we think is important, really; it’s how we would go about addressing each issue.
Here’s the thing – voters, being human, tend to respond to the core meaning/value in your message, more than to the particular policies you support; and candidates for office (and the national party leadership, obviously) tend to frame their policy ideas in value-centric terms. The 2012 presidential election was a battle between Obama (whose convention proclaimed the message “government can work for all of us / they disagree, and that’s dangerous”) and Romney (“yes we did build that / they think they own you!”), and, as I’ve just observed above, people tend to prefer to believe that government can be a force for good (because it can be, and because it’s comforting to seek leadership). Libertarians and the Tea Party – two groups that don’t often see eye to eye – tend to instinctively believe that government is like fertilizer. It’s horribly stinky and we want as little of it around as possible, but necessary at some level. I’m here to tell you – that is not the message that middle class America wants to hear, even if there is some truth to it. If the Republican Party wishes to establish a governing agenda that wins hearts and minds back toward conservatism (including cultural conservatism), they must demonstrate that they can govern proactively and listen to the desires of the middle class, since the middle class still tends to drive the cultural conversation. What follows is a set of core values that should be embraced by the GOP if they wish to make something of their current governing majority, as well as a sampling of specific policy suggestions in line with those values.
A Philosophy to Govern
A) Take Responsibility and Do the Work
The media often paints a picture of our current divided government as a battle between those on the left who want to govern and those on the right who do not, and there are vocal members of the GOP caucuses in both chambers of the legislature that give the media ample sound bites in favor of this description. By now, you know their names well, so I won’t rehash them. However, as is equally obvious, to anyone paying attention to the party, the GOP does in fact desperately want to govern, and that this can actually be dangerous (in so much as they allow their desire to govern to create bigger, rather than different and more effective government). It is, ironically, the left which seems not to want to govern. Progressives in the legislature have increasing sought to take matters of law out of the hands of the legislature and give it, instead, to bureaucratic government agencies and the executive branch. They still wish to transform society using the power of an activist government, but they want to do it through channels where there can be no debate on the merits of their ideas. It is actually this progressive abdication of the personal responsibility for governing (as best expressed by Obama’s refusal to hold any of his key people responsible for the spectacular failures of the bureaucracy on his watch) that is most hurting the ability of the legislature to function. The GOP must seek in the legislation it passes to take responsibility for the outcomes of that legislation and to get enough bipartisan support that it can share that responsibility with the left.
B) Make Our Priorities Your Priorities
Both parties have a nasty habit of playing to their bases and feeling the need to take specific actions on every piece of their “base-centric” party platforms in the hope that this will get them elected again. Base turnout is important in maintaining a governing majority, but what is more important is being perceived by the electorate at large to care about the same things that they do and place your priorities where they do. Obama’s schizophrenic presidency spent “focusing like a laser” for five seconds at a time on a hundred different things was in stark contrast to his 2008 campaign, in which he did in fact focus entirely on the real concerns and fears of the electorate. And of course, we all know that the GOP has a tendency to shout SQUIRREL at the first sign of a chance to discuss social issues or international matters that simply are not at the forefront of our minds in the middle class. The authors of this piece are staunchly pro-life, but even we recognize that we need to get our fiscal house in order first before we can spend any time on such matters.
C) Focus on Service and Community
The most important development of the last decade in US politics is the move toward a distrust of a self-absorbed ruling class elite that no longer concerns itself with what is happening in our towns and to our civic organizations. One of the reasons the GOP is doing so well at the state and local level, even before their 2010 and 2014 national midterm routs, is that the representatives it’s choosing at those levels are quality candidates who are deeply tied to their local communities and remain so for long stretches after they take office. When you pit the left and its tendency to turn the country into a series of fiefdoms competing for government support against the local branches of the right, and their tendency to focus on community pillars like successful businesses, churches, and charities, the right wins far more often than they lose. At the community level, people want to come together and celebrate their home. The national GOP, however, has generally been playing the same 50% plus one game that the left plays (witness Romney’s 47% remarks). To address this problem, the national GOP should craft policies that favor community pillars over top-down community organizing, small businesses over large ones, and civic society over the government as often as feasible. And more than that, Republicans must not forget that their success comes from being tied to their communities and earning the trust of those communities – they should return home as often as they’re able, reach out to people in communities that don’t traditionally vote Republican, and stay active where the live.
D) Gain Back Their Trust
There is a lot of talk about a “Republican Civil War” in the press, now that they have a legislative majority. The GOP is less monolithic than the Democrats – meaning we have a healthier exchange of ideas, but also a harder time pleasing everyone and staying on message. There are four basic factions in our coalition: Libertarians, Classical Social Conservatives, Reform Conservatives, and the Tea Party. Each faction is fighting to control the narrative, and, of late, libertarians are gaining the upper hand on the tea party for the “arm twister” prize (going to the group most able to move the GOP establishment in a new direction). Mitch McConnell just endorsed Rand Paul for the 2016 nomination, for example (eyes sideways!). If this divided GOP can come to any sort of basic agreement on how best to govern for the middle class without “sacrificing” any members of its coalition, I believe all members of the coalition will eventually get what they want most. Just because, for example, a reform GOP agenda doesn’t put pro-life issues at the top of the list doesn’t mean we need to renounce social conservatives and their ideas. Just because most of the GOP disagrees with libertarians about international policy doesn’t mean we need to remain outwardly hawkish to keep the establishment happy. First, prove you can forge a coalition and stay united on some of the things we do agree on. Win back the trust of the electorate and then, when a social conservative has a message about abortion, perhaps society will be more able to hear it without cynicism. First you win the governing mandate – then you win their trust – then you win their hearts – then you win the culture.