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The Future of Conservatism

By Greg Bobrinskoy

National Review and Hillsdale College hosted a panel yesterday entitled 'The Future of Conservatism' with panelists Ross Douthat of The Atlantic, David Bobb of Hillsdale College, Gene Healy of the CATO Institute, and Ramesh Ponnuru and Jonah Goldberg of National Review.

Underscoring the influence of David Brooks' bi-weekly column, the parameters of the debate revolved almost exclusively around Brooks' column from November 10 entitled 'Darkness at Dusk' in which he described the current debate amongst conservatives as split between 'Reformists' and 'Traditionalists.' Brooks wrote of the Traditionalists as conservatives who believed the Republicans sold out their small government principles to win elections, which ironically caused them to lose. Reformers, said Brooks, seek a modernized conservatism willing to use government "to address inequality and middle-class economic anxiety." David placed Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, himself, and a few others in the Reformist group and placed Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity as leaders of the Traditionalists (perhaps to imply something about the latter group's intellectual capacity).

Ross Douthat described his own 'Reformist' philosophy as pro-family - with the philosophy that government can be used to strengthen this bedrock of American society. In the process more Republican voters would form as single and divorced individuals vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Douthat outlined three traps facing the right: Demographically, Douthat said the Judis/Teixeira theory of an Emerging Democratic Majority may ultimately prove true. The McGovern coalition of educated whites and minorities are increasingly Democratic, while Republican groups such as white men are declining. Douthat argued that the second trap, socio-economic, is the result of an economic growth in America that has caused high inequality and stagnant wages among the working class - good news for political liberals. Third, Douthat said conservatives have failed to apply old views to new principles. In debates such as climate change and public school reform, conservatives have largely stayed out of the debate while the only struggle has been between liberal reformers and entrenched special interests.

Gene Healy, the token Libertarian of the group - and thus a Traditionalist - admitted he knew nothing about winning elections and didn't care how to win them. Conservatives, he argued, should try to convince people of their views, not try to be relevant or cool. His arguments were summarized by his question, "When did it become the public intellectual's role to see what ideas can pass politically?"

Ponnuru, shifting back to the reformist viewpoint argued that conservatives forget that innovation is a conservative tradition. Reagan adjusted from Goldwater on taxes, socialism and others. Citing Reagan's famous quote, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem," Ponnuru noted that conservatives forget Reagan's preface, "In this present crisis..." Something is wrong with a political movement, he claimed, that deems our economy as great while wages remain stagnant. This election was a case study, he explained, of how out of touch Republicans and conservatives are with problems of everyday Americans.

Jonah Goldberg, who will probably be the first and last conservative panelist ever to cite 'Jaws 2' in making an argument, rebuked what he saw as the Reformist tendency to act as an army of 'Karl Roves' rather than pushing politics to the right as conservatives, not Republicans. The purpose of conservatives, echoing Healy, is to say what's true even if the result is defeat. Goldberg also noted that the failure of George W. Bush (he could have also mentioned John McCain) had already proven that the Reformists' desire for bigger government conservatism does not work politically or in implementing policy.

Despite this overwhelming negativity about the current state of conservatism, there was one point of optimism touched on by both Douthat and Goldberg. As Douthat noted, the Democratic tent has grown enormously larger over the last eight years. It now encompasses (especially among the young) almost any individual opposed to Bush's performance as president. There is hardly a unified set of principles from which these various factions agree on. As Peter Beinart wrote in Time last week, there are cultural issues in Obama's coalition that will significantly divide different groups. Obama, as many have agreed, was a blank slate from which people placed their differing desires for change. Thus, the argument goes, the overflowing Democratic tent is now bound to see real fissures open up as Democrats finally implement their own ideas. Goldberg inadvertently touched on this point when he used this quote from Edmund Burke: "Example is the school of mankind." While the Democrats have grown with the unpopularity of Bush, Goldberg seemed giddy with his declaration, "Okay Democrats, now govern."

In summation, Brooks noted that the panelists displayed a greater detachment from the Republican Party than he'd seen in years past. But it was the Reformist/Traditionalist debate among conservatives that appears likely to continue as long as conservatives remain in the political wilderness.

Greg Bobrinskoy is an Associate Editor at RealClearPolitics.