What’s been lost in the ideological shake-up

by William Bornhoft

Since the end of the Bush era, conservatives have been clamoring to redefine the ideological soul of the Republican Party. By most accounts, the hawkish, neo-conservatism of the Bush Administration had been an utter failure, and party leaders felt the need to dissociate them from it as much as possible. The foreign policy blunders, an exploding national debt and a spiraling economy served as campaign fodder for Democrats trying to gain more congressional seats and retake the White House. Established Republicans struggled to redefine themselves and show voters they had moved on before the 2008 presidential election, which would give Democrats majorities in both chambers and control of the executive office.

Four years later, the conservative movement has transformed itself to focus almost entirely on economic liberty and small government, and believes the solution to almost any domestic problem is to reduce regulation and let the free market run the course.   

While these principles have been a part of the conservative makeup for a while now, they seem new because the driving intellectual and philosophical force behind them has changed. As David Brooks noted in a recent column, the conservative thinkers of President Ronald Reagan’s time, such as Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley, worked to strike a balance between traditionalists, who’s top priority was preserving society’s moral fabric and well-being, and the colder, free-market business types.

The transformation of conservatism that took place after the Bush years ended this balance. The rising Tea Party movement derived its inspiration from philosophers who emphasized the role of the individual, while it sought to eradicate traditionally conservative philosophies like Catholic social teaching, which upholds principles of solidarity and social justice.

The new conservative dismisses the role of community and self-sacrifice in society and strongly praises hyper-individualism and selfishness as good and necessary. It views government as a beast that must be starved, while the traditional conservative values the functions of both the private and public sector, as both are made up of people from the same communities and neighborhoods.

The traditional conservative is one who deems a strong community, family, and government as all necessary for the free market to flourish. Throughout the 1980s, this kind of conservative was able to communicate authentically with members of the lower and middle class, and was able to foster a sense of citizenship and belonging.

It appears the narrowly focused and mechanistic message of free markets and deregulation the new conservative espouses isn’t resonating with average Americans, at least in the presidential race. Polling data shows 57 percent of Ohio voters answered “no” when they were asked whether or not “[Governor] Mitt Romney cares about the needs and problems of people like you.” When asked the same question about President Barack Obama, 59 percent of Ohio voters answered “yes.”  The results are similar throughout the swing states.

This shouldn’t be surprising. The “moochers vs. takers” rhetoric Romney uses may be appealing to business leaders and corporate shareholders, but it seems to alienate the middle and working class. 

Buckley and Chambers were around to save the conservative cause from the first rise of radical libertarianism. They unfortunately aren’t around to do the same today, and as Republicans continue to lose ground in races up and down the ballot, it’s showing.


William Bornhoft

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