Shaping a New Conservative Agenda
Conservatives can be forgiven for celebrating. The 2010 midterm elections brought the largest Republican victory in over 75 years. After all, in the previous two election cycles Republicans had suffered one of the greatest repudiations of any political party in modern American history, losing a presidential election, 53 House seats, and 13 seats in the Senate.1 Yet such celebrations may be premature. While voters overwhelmingly rejected a Democratic agenda that they perceived as over-reaching and too far to the left, that did not mean that they embraced Republicans. In fact exit polls showed that the Republican Party was every bit as unpopular as the Democrats. Moreover, serious divisions among Republicans, and more generally within the conservative movement, remain. For despite its success in 2010 the American conservative coalition has been sundered on both a political and a philosophical level. The question is whether it has found a way to put itself back together, or whether 2010 was only a temporary respite?
Politically, at least since the days of Ronald Reagan, the conservative coalition has consisted of a three-legged stool: economic conservatives, interested in taxes and spending issues; social conservatives, motivated by issues like abortion and culture; and national security conservatives, who supported a strong national defense and increased military spending. These groups might or might not have agreed with the other groups on the issues of interest to them, but were willing to overlook any disagreements in the interest of those areas where they did agree (and, not incidentally, in the interest of winning elections).
On a more philosophical level, from the mid-1950s until fairly recently, all three legs of the conservative stool were part of an often uneasy alliance of two important schools of thought. The first was libertarian, or classically liberal in the European sense of the term. This branch of conservatism takes its cue from John Stuart Mill’s admonition: “The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part that merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”2