Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Conservative Soul-Searching: The Time is Now

Paul Brink


March 15, 2013

By Paul Brink

Conservatism has always been an unusual political force in America, even more so than it is elsewhere. A disparate movement to begin with, what has typically united conservatives across their other divides has been their common opponent. For decades, Communism provided the foil; more recently, Saddam Hussein kept the family together. But in Washington’s current political reality, the liberal state itself has emerged as the new target, with the Democratic Party as the state’s chief apologist. Not so surprisingly, in such a world genuine dialogue across the party divide has becomes enormously difficult, the possibility for bipartisan cooperation has faded nearly away, and non-governance has become the new normal. This is bad for the republic.  Frankly, it’s also bad for the Republican Party.

For the sake of the country, and for the sake of their Party, conservatives need to enter a new round of ideological soul-searching. The challenge conservatives face is unique: how to put forward a coherent platform for state action while remaining generally committed to the idea that the state should be doing less to begin with. Without such a forward-looking agenda, conservatives cannot avoid appearing shrill and reactionary. 

Where to look? One immediate priority is to think once again about what the state is for. There are resources aplenty. The Center for Public Justice has long been offering help along these lines: past generations of conservatives have found much to value in the traditions of Christian pluralism that attempt to mediate between statism and individualism. More broadly, the American emphases on limited government, the strong affirmation of civil society and the call to civic virtue continue to have a deep resonance with the American public. There is ground for renewal, and the Republican position is not without hope. 

On the other hand, the movement’s continued flirtation with libertarianism is only prolonging our national political malaise. It is simply not true that less government is always better. The sooner conservatives stand up and say so, the sooner they can begin to lay out a positive vision for state action. Criticism and reform of specific government programs and proposals will become much more successful if conservatives can demonstrate how their positions are not based on a reflexive anti-government stance, but rather upon a well thought-out and comprehensive political vision. Libertarianism’s unwavering faith in individual freedom for the sake of individual freedom alone is not the stuff of conservatism. Historically, conservatives have been much more impressed by the frailties of human nature and more positive about the responsibility of the state and other social institutions to restrain human impulses. 

Conservatives need to rethink this alliance. Clearly, the mainstream of the American public hasn’t been impressed. Most Americans do not favor the radically individualist position, perhaps for the reason that most Americans are not radical individualists. People genuinely do care about the situation of the poor, for example, and while they may not agree on what governments should do to help, they don’t like politicians who appear willing simply to abandon the vulnerable. The association between conservatism and libertarianism does not simply risk ideological incoherence; it risks political irrelevance.

All this suggests that American conservatives have some theoretical work to do. Fortunately, while there’s a lot of work; it’s good work. And for those more pragmatically oriented, there’s a payoff: there’s nothing so practical as a good theory. Conservatives would do well to make the most of this time: to dig deep, think hard, and re-examine and renew their basic commitments.

— Paul Brink is Associate Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”