Letter to the Editor: American Conservatism at a Crossroads

Is the conservative party doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past or will it be able to retool for the next election?


Editor's Note: The below letter does not necessarily represent the views of Patch media.

Many companies that have enjoyed success over long periods of time have abruptly found themselves in the midst of an existential crisis that seemingly erupted out of nowhere. The chronology of preceding events is a familiar one. Success bred complacency. Complacency evolved into rigidity.

As the companies’ market position began to deteriorate, unpleasant data was ignored, explained away or rejected. Later, the companies tried to defend their market share through expanded advertising and aggressive discounting, among other costly measures. Their escalating financial commitments frequently accelerated their decline. Once their strategic flexibility disappeared, those companies could only attempt painful restructuring efforts. Many of those efforts proved unsuccessful.

Today, American conservatism appears to be advancing toward a similar crisis. This advance occurs even as the nation’s long-term fiscal challenges make the message of fiscal consolidation increasingly relevant and urgent.

That trend is not the fault of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Governor Romney was a superbly qualified candidate with a distinguished record of success in business and in government. He could have contributed much as president. Rather, it is the result of ongoing structural developments and the lack of an effective conservative response to those developments.

The structural environment in which campaigns are waged and elections are won is changing. Globalization, technological advance, and demographic change are building the context for future elections. In that context, the voter pool and the aspirations, needs and interests of the electorate are becoming more diverse. The gap between the conservative vision and the requirements of that emerging context is widening. Closing that gap will require an objective assessment of the situation, more creative approaches to policy formation, and a willingness to recast the conservative message in a more contemporary and inclusive fashion.

To remain relevant, conservatism must become less an invocation of the nation’s heritage than a leveraging of its rich past to lay a strong foundation for a better future. The message of limited government should be updated and framed as a pursuit of focused, fiscally sustainable, and results-oriented government. True to that role for government, the conservative movement should abandon attempts to construct a “Nanny State” in the arena of social values and choices. Conservatives currently believe that free individuals can be trusted to make responsible choices in the marketplace. They should extend that same confidence to the social arena.

When it comes to policy making, conservatives should strike a balance between principle and practicality. Compromise should not automatically be dismissed as weakness or surrender. Instead, the measure of any possible agreement should be whether it would leave each side better off than would otherwise be the case. Governance is about results. It is not a zero-sum endeavor, an opportunity for confrontation, or an exercise in posturing.

In terms of application, what would have happened during the recent campaign had conservatives embraced the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan as a starting point or at least fallback position for meaningful fiscal consolidation? Its numbers were vetted. The Congressional Budget Office and an assortment of economists found it credible.

What would have happened had conservatives offered a coherent approach to immigration reform that incorporated the undocumented immigrants into a guest worker program, required withholding a portion of their wages to a savings vehicle that would become available after they returned to their home county or were naturalized, and created new border screening and employer verification approaches tied to the guest worker program? Would Latino voters have turned against the GOP as decisively as they did?

What would have happened had pro-life conservative candidates dedicated themselves to spreading the pro-life message strictly through persuasion and personal example rather than the force of law? At a minimum, a number of candidates—all rightly defeated—would not have responded to legitimate questions about what exceptions might exist under the law and how those exceptions might be applied with absurd and offensive responses concerning rape, its consequences, or when the life of a pregnant woman was at risk. Would the gender gap have been as wide as it was, particularly among young, single women?

In the wake of the 2012 election, American conservatism finds itself at a crossroads. An unwillingness to address evolving structural changes, or worse, doubling down in resistance, could hasten a crisis. In contrast, a thoughtful refocusing could renew its electoral competitiveness.


Donald Sutherland is a Republican District Leader in the Town of Mamaroneck.

Ralph November 14, 2012 at 11:53 AM
The conservative movement claims to favor freedom, yet it spends much of its efforts denying it, especially to women as to their own bodies. It takes about principles of equality, but it constantly favors the richest 1% of the country over the other 99%. Unfortunately it also lies a lot, such as when it says that higher taxes prevent job creation--we all know thnat salaries and benefits paid to employees and, for small businesses, many equipment purchases are tax deductibe, so that higher taxes are irrelevant to job creation. It is remarkable how many people in the Midwest and South fall for its intentionally inaccurate messages. The conservative movement has a lot going for it, but, in my view, it has to start to tell the truth, to stay out of people's personal lives (and bodies) and to make itself relevant to the bulk of Americans if it wants to win national elections.
BG7 November 14, 2012 at 02:39 PM
They need to take a leaf out of the book of the conservative party of England. Plenty of people would vote for a conservative party which denies extremist positions, comes across as reasonable and solid, and which does the decent thing by people. Monomaniacs who are pathologically obssessed with issues do not win votes, they alientate people, and they need to be shown the door. Romney, fundamentally a decent guy, cannot muffle the din of the lunatic fringe. They need to be ignored or sidelines, a another reasonable candidate put forward. Chris Christie is such a candiadate, but no doubt there are others. No swing voters are going to vote for the party with the most extremists - its antithetical to them, they are already people who like considered, thoughful positions. Also, the one group you do not want to listen to as to why people "did not vote republican" is the people that did vote repulican. That group can tell you exactly nothing.
William Sutherland November 14, 2012 at 04:10 PM
With regard to women, a key problem for Conservatives and Republicans is that they cannot bring themselves to support basic human rights -- equal pay for equal work. Gender discrimination ought not be Conservatism!


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