Reports of Conservatism's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

New polling shows Republicans don't need to moderate, just focus on new problems.

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Conventional wisdom says that demographic changes underlying Barack Obama's re-election – a younger, more racially diverse, better educated and more tech-savvy electorate – have consigned Republicans to permanent oblivion unless they become a sort of Obama-lite: Conservatism will wither and die.

As a poll last week by the Pew Research Center makes clear, however, Republicans overwhelmingly say that they want their party to become more conservative. When it comes to Republicans, Republicans may be on to something:  Conservatives don't need to moderate so much as to choose.

Modern Republicanism is a coalition of at least three different kinds of conservatism:  the establishment, libertarians and social (or religious) conservatives. Each of these has its own limited appeal, but the nature of American politics is constantly to reshuffle coalition members to form a new majority – as Democrats have done most recently. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Established as the party of Big Business, 19th century Republicanism welcomed activist government in support of business and capital. The Republican promise of a strong modern state in everything from protecting the civil rights of African-Americans to promoting health care at the national level swept the cities and manufacturing centers of the Northeast, Great Lakes and Pacific Coast. The future obviously lay with the growing Republican strongholds. Sound familiar?

Of course, things changed. Democrats were historically the party of those left behind by each era's New Economy, and in the early 20th century urban and industrial voters realized that meant them. When a new coalition of workers, rural residents and minorities took control of the levers of government, this required a dramatic shift in Republican ideology. Activist government in the form of crony capitalism for robber barons is one thing; the welfare state, quite another.

Libertarian ideology could be useful in fighting 20th century paternalism, but it sat uneasily with establishment Republicans' continued commitment to an activist state promoting business interests at home and abroad. Libertarians actually think there should be no welfare for big corporations, either, and oppose foreign intervention and military spending. Such anti-statism, along with the elite's basic social liberalism, also creates something of a tension with the social conservatives whom Republicans were happy to peel away from Democrats over religion and race.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

This uneasy alliance held as long as it was politically successful. But it has become clear to the counting house conservatives that the social conservatives no longer come in numbers sufficient to make their political cost worthwhile. Even the culture warriors themselves seem to recognize they have a shrinking market; indeed, the next great religious awakening may be more about economic progressivism than social conservatism. 

The Republican base seems to get this. Buried under the recent incredulous headlines about Republicans wanting an even more conservative GOP were divergent results as to what they wanted the party to become more conservative about:

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

While not exactly a clear mandate, it appears that Republican voters wouldn't mind seeing the party lighten up a bit on religious conservatism, but want it to come out with all guns blazing, so to speak, against government interference (except for interfering with immigrants). That's not so much a "conservative" manifesto as a libertarian one. 

This growing libertarianism scares the GOP establishment: After all, establishments never really believe in no government, only in less government over themselves. But the new politics has the potential to unsettle not just the Republicans' hierarchy, but also the Democrats':  As pointed out by The Washington Post last week, there is a growing libertarian rump in the Democratic Party quite disgruntled with Obama's "phones and drones" policies, retrogrades who still bristle at invasions of privacy even when carried out by Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama or other cool people. 

In fact, establishment Republicans' traditional advocacy of a strong national-security state in service of business interests at home and abroad may already have been co-opted: Democrats are increasingly the party of economically successful individuals, industries and regions. While this tends to coincide with social liberalism, as it did for 19th century Republicans, it is questionable how long a "coalition of the ascendant," as the Obamacrats like to call themselves, can remain economically progressive rather than, as in "Animal Farm," ending up just like the plutocrats they replaced.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

It is not inconceivable that the party alignment in a generation's time could pit a "progressive statist" party – one linking large-scale national programs, like Obamacare and human capital investment with defense of the traditional nation-state in synergy with Big Tech and Big Finance – against a more purely libertarian alternative. This Leave-Me-Alone-ism could conceivably integrate a 21st century "Sovereign Individual" opposition to the nation-state with small-entrepreneur challenges to economic incumbents, more personal spirituality and a populist focus on the poorer heartland over the cosmopolis. This would certainly create a politics as different from today's as today's is from that of the 19th century. 

More to the point, it's hard to say which of these hypothetical future parties is the "liberal" and which the "conservative," at least in today's terms. Of course, speculation like this is the political equivalent of fantasy football. Nonetheless, however the politics of future generations line up, it's safe to say that there will be two sides to every argument – and they will be nothing like our own. Our goal here, then, is to break free of today's labels in discussing the issues that shape tomorrow.

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