Can Conservatism Rise Again?

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Can Conservatism Rise Again?

Mar 10th, 2017 25 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Lee Edwards, Ph.D.

Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought

Lee Edwards is a leading historian of American conservatism and the author or editor of 25 books.

The 2016 presidential campaign was more a no-holds- barred mud-wrestling match than a political contest. It was our most rancorous, mendacious election since 1964, when Senator Barry Goldwater was declared by the media to be “psychologically unfit” to be president and Democrats said his campaign left them hearing the sound of Nazi boots in the streets. Scurrilous charges by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump surrogates became badges of honor. In the last days of the campaign, and speaking to primarily black audiences, President Barack Obama implied Trump was a fellow traveler of the KuKlux Klan.

Convinced that a President Trump would turn America into an isolated far-right dictatorship, the mass media disseminated every imaginable story and rumor about him. Unsurprisingly, following Trump’s narrow win in the Electoral College (and Clinton’s narrow victory in the popular vote), outraged protesters took to the streets and to college campuses chanting, “Not Our President!” Despite attempts by President Obama to remind Americans that “we’re all on the same team,” progressives have not been quick to be consoled.

The 2016 election was not easy on the right either. Trump’s nomination and campaign were controversial within the Republican Party, to put it mildly. There were factions of the party that did not back his candidacy— indeed, at least a dozen sitting Republican senators and 25 Republican House members said they would not vote for him — and some who opposed Trump are inclined to see at least as much danger as promise in his election. But as the Republican Party evaluates its options moving forward, it will be important to remember that Trump won the White House because he tapped into a constituency that has been at the center of the Republican Party and the conservative movement for six decades — Middle America.

It has had different names over the years — the Forgotten Majority, the Silent Majority, the Moral Majority, the Tea Party. But beginning with Senator Robert Taft in 1952 and extending through the 2016 election, Americans of a grassroots, populist inclination have often voted for Republicans, and have frequently done so because of what those Republicans stood against as much as what they stood for. Taft, Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich in their different ways rejected the claims of the nation’s elites to rule. Those Republicans who didn’t, like George H. W. Bush and Mitt Romney, frequently fared far worse.

And so in 2016, grassroots voters rejected every one of the estab- lishment candidates and nominated an ex-Democrat billionaire outsider — a blue-collar guy in a rich man’s suit and tie — who prom- ised he would change the direction of the country and make America great again. It was achingly simplistic, but it was what millions of anx- ious, fed-up Americans (and by no means all of them white) wanted  to hear.

In the wake of Trump’s victory, and with majorities in the House and Senate, the Republican Party must decide how it will govern. The party has always been comprised of distinct factions with their own interests, often united by a common enemy as much as a common cause. And each now has its own vision of how to move forward from here. Some paleoconservatives, who declared that post-Reagan conservatism was dead, think the election should point back to a pre-World War II isola- tionism. Some establishment Republicans hope they can now have their way and wonder if they might jettison those embarrassing Trumpsters who got them here. And some middle-of-the-road conservatives are will- ing to work with President Trump for the simplest of reasons — more than 61 million Americans voted for him.

Some conservatives feel stymied and are having difficulty see-  ing a way forward clearly because they have not seen in Trump the principles they want the right to stand for. But in their confusion, they are mistakenly conflating the conservative movement and the Republican Party.

The movement and the party are two different institutions — different in structure and in objective. The modern conservative movement 

is an intellectual movement founded some 60 years ago on ideas drawn from American history and articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Its founders include intellectuals like F. A. Hayek, Russell Kirk, and William F. Buckley, Jr. The Republican Party is a 160-year-old political party dedicated to winning elections often, but not always, based upon ideals of limited government and free enterprise. Its heroes are Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan.

The fates of the intellectual movement and the political party are not inextricably tied together, although the movement has used the GOP as its principal political instrument since 1964. One may prosper without the other, as the GOP did in the 1950s, when the movement barely ex- isted. Both enjoyed the blessings of success in the 1980s under Reagan. The Republican establishment lost touch with the people during the Bush and then the Obama years, while the movement extended its influ- ence at the state and local levels through the Tea Party and state debates about right-to-work laws and school choice.

Regardless of what liberals and some on the right predict about the movement, conservatives should not despair or look for real estate in Canada. Conservatism has been down before. The movement seemed on the edge of extinction after the crushing Goldwater defeat in 1964. It was deemed at a political dead end in 1976 after Reagan’s failure to capture the Republican presidential nomination. It was consigned to the political periphery after Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” victory in 1992. The Obama victories of 2008 and 2012 were interpreted by the liberal establishment as a definitive repudiation of conservative ideas.

But each time, like the fabled phoenix, the conservative movement has risen with renewed strength and determination, scoring decisive political victories with the election of President Reagan in 1980; the Republican capture of the House of Representatives in 1994 after a gap of 40 years; the success of the populist Tea Party in 2010; and the politi- cal tsunami in 2014 that produced Republican majorities in the U.S. Senate and the House, as well as 31 states with Republican governors, 23 of which also enjoyed Republican-dominated state legislatures.

It remains to be seen to what degree the 2016 returns will amount to a resurgence of conservative fortunes, as well as Republican ones. But whatever direction President Trump ends up pursuing, it is already clear, based on the character of the congressional majorities and of the officials elected at the state and local levels, that conservatives, not just Republicans, are in power in most places.

And all of this success is only the political side of conservatism.    It also enjoys a widespread intellectual presence. The last five decades have seen conservative ideas thrive, from Nobel Laureates in economics, to the wide circulation of prominent conservative columnists and the Wall  Street Journal editorial page, to bestselling books,  to popular and prolific magazines and websites like National Review. There are influential programs at colleges and universities through- out the country, such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Federalist Society. The conservative movement is also fortunate to be well-funded by generous foundations and individuals committed to the cause, and well-endowed with brilliant academics and writers to spread the word.

Conservatism is, by its nature, rooted in the values and traditions that have always made America great. And the movement has long found a home and common cause with the Republican Party, in part because of their mutual rejection of socialism and leftism, which have rarely been represented as forthrightly as they were in the 2016 election. But more important, conservatives have aligned themselves with the Republican Party in their commitment to our founding principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

By reason of their political, intellectual, and cultural power — and the movement’s direct link with the American Revolution and the roots of Western civilization — conservatives are best positioned to confront the problems and divisions revealed by this election, and     it is conservatives who will shape our institutions to address them. Indeed, conservatives have every reason to be optimistic that their movement will continue to influence the Republican Party and the future of the country. To consider how they might do that, we can start by considering why conservatism has had such staying power in modern America.

The roots of resurgence

What is the source of conservatism’s rejuvenating power? Generous foundation gifts? Skilled grassroots organization? Luck? Is it explained by the pendulum theory of politics wherein the balance of political power swings left for a generation, then right, then left again, forever? 

Has Providence responded to the fervent prayers of evangelical pastors and congregations? Or does the power of American conservatism lie in something at the very heart of the republic— first principles proclaimed by our founders and developed from our history and Western civilization stretching back more than 2,000 years?

In his book, We Still Hold These Truths, the historian Matthew Spalding presents 10 core principles that define our national creed and common purpose:

[L]iberty is the grand, overarching theme of our nation’s his- tory; equality, natural rights, and the consent of the governed are the foundational principles that set the compass of our politics; religious liberty and private property follow from these, shaping the parameters of our nation’s day-to-day life; the rule of law and a constitutionalism of limited government define the architecture that undergirds our liberty; all of these principles culminate in self-government, in the political sense of republican governance and the moral sense of governing ourselves; and lastly, indepen- dence encompasses the meaning of America’s principles in the world.

These principles have guided and inspired four groups that have shaped the modern conservative movement and built a foundation that can withstand even major political quakes. First came the philosophers, the men of ideas and imagination like Hayek and Kirk. Next came the popularizers, the men of interpretation like Bill Buckley and George Will, who translated the often arcane ideas of the philosophers into a common idiom. And finally the politicians, the men of action like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, drew upon the conservative ideas dis- cussed in the media and the marketplace for their political campaigns and legislative proposals. All three groups were financed by a fourth group — the philanthropists, the men of means and vision like Henry Salvatori, Joseph Coors, and Richard Scaife, who provided the money for ground-breaking books, new magazines, and often-controversial politi- cal proposals.

Although sometimes at odds over tactics, these individuals hung together in good times and bad. Indeed, it was because they often stepped up in response to the bad times that their project proved viable and enduring. Just when the left seemed most deeply entrenched, in the late 1940s, as the whole world seemed to be turning toward state power and it was easy to assume that President Harry Truman would carry forward Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive New Deal, a willingness to resist arose in key places.

The enthusiasm of the left for a “democratic” socialism characterized by various creative forms of government ownership alarmed intellectuals on the right. Prominent among them was the Austrian economist F. A. Hayek, who in April 1947 organized a meeting of 39 free-market economists, historians, political scientists, philosophers, and journalists in Mont Pelerin, Switzerland.

According to the historian R. M. Hartwell, Hayek’s idea was to establish “a kind of international academy of political philosophy” with the aim of “regenerating the ideas of classical liberalism and in order to refute socialism.” This could best be accomplished, Hayek believed, through an “international association of scholars” who would engage in free discussion “to work out in continuous effort, a philosophy of freedom.” Ever the optimist (unlike Joseph Schumpeter who wrote of the inevitable coming of socialism), Hayek believed that the global shift toward socialism could be challenged and reversed. He emphasized the role of intellectuals “in historically shaping political and economic opinions.” He pointed out that in every country that has moved toward socialism there has been a period “during which socialist ideals gov- erned the thinking of the more active intellectuals.” Even so, he said, “liberal” (meaning “conservative” in the American idiom) intellectuals could engage in “destructive criticism” of socialism and provide “a real alternative to the current beliefs.”

The founding of the Mont Pelerin Society was an important first step in the long march of modern American conservatism as it evolved from an intellectual movement into a political movement and finally into a governing movement. An initial guidebook for that march was Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, published three years earlier.

To Hayek’s surprise, The Road to Serfdom became a best seller, helped by the Reader’s Digest decision to place Serfdom at the front of the magazine — the first time a book had ever been so featured. The Book- of-the-Month Club distributed more than 600,000 copies of the Digest edition, helping to make The Road to Serfdom one of the most talked about political books of the post-World War II era. 

Among the many who read the Reader’s Digest version of The Road to Serfdom were two World War II veterans — Ronald Reagan, a film ac- tor eager to resume his career but soon to be plunged into Hollywood politics, and Barry Goldwater, a Phoenix, Arizona, businessman looking for a new challenge, perhaps in local politics. Both Reagan, a liberal Democrat at the time, and Goldwater, a conservative Republican, responded enthusiastically to Hayek’s emphasis on the indispensability of the individual.

Liberals were slow to acknowledge the conservative stirrings. In his 1950 book The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling, the leading liberal critic of the day, conceded that a conservative or reactionary “impulse” did exist here and there, but insisted that conservatism expressed itself only in “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” The reason is simple, he wrote: “[L]iberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in America.

The young historian Russell Kirk emphatically disagreed and   in response wrote The Conservative Mind. At first, liberals dismissed  it, saying condescendingly that the title was an oxymoron, but they were forced to reverse themselves when they read Kirk’s powerful, impassioned book. The Conservative Mind is a 450-page overview of Anglo-American conservative thinking from the late 18th century until the mid-20th century, as well as a scathing indictment of every liberal nostrum, from human perfectibility to economic egalitarianism. It demonstrates convincingly that there has been a conservative tradi- tion in America since the founding, formed by such politicians and writers as Edmund Burke, John Adams, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, Orestes Brownson, George Santayana, and T. S. Eliot.

With one book, Russell Kirk made conservatism intellectually ac- ceptable. Until The Conservative Mind, conservatives called themselves everything from individualists to Jeffersonians to traditionalists. After The Conservative Mind, remarked one young man of the right, “We are all conservatives now.”

These two books by Kirk and Hayek, along with Whittaker Chambers’s Witness and Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, formed something like the essential early conservative canon— representing the traditional, libertarian, and anti-communist strains of conservatism. But conserva- tive ideas had not yet caught hold in the minds of most Americans 

or their political leaders. Conservative victories, wrote Buckley, were “uncoordinated and inconclusive” because the philosophy of freedom was not being expounded systematically in the universities and in the media. A new journal was needed, Buckley argued, to combat the liberals, compensate for “conservative weakness” in the academy, and “focus the energies” of the movement.

Determined to change the prevailing liberal zeitgeist and confident that he could do it, the audacious 29-year-old Buckley, along with the veteran anti-communist editor William Schlamm, wrote a prospectus to attract backers of a new conservative magazine. They declared that the “political climate” was fashioned by serious opinion journals, and it was possible to “rout intellectually” the jaded liberal status quo with the “vigor of true convictions.” They described their own convictions as a synthesis of the libertarian, traditional, and anti-communist wings of American conservatism. While the immediate goal was intellectual, Buckley’s objec- tive was far more ambitious— the development of a political movement.

If National Review had not been founded, wrote George Nash, “there would probably have been no cohesive intellectual force on the Right in the 1960s and 1970s.” Nash does not go far enough: The launching of National Review was a deliberate political act that shaped the modern American conservative movement in the post-World War II era.

One other important task had to be accomplished before the conser- vative movement could operate effectively in the political realm: It had to be as philosophically united as possible. Traditionalists and libertar- ians had been snapping at each other in the pages of National Review and elsewhere. One conservative — Frank Meyer — was convinced that beneath the differences lay a consensus of principle. Through articles, books, and countless midnight telephone calls, Meyer communicated his synthesis of the differing strains of conservatism, which came to be called “fusionism.”

The core principle of fusionism is that “the freedom of the person [is] the central and primary end of political society.” To Meyer, man was a rational autonomous individual, and freedom was “the essence of his being,” indispensable to his pursuit of virtue. The state had only three functions — national defense, the preservation of domestic order, and the administration of justice between citizens.

Yet, Meyer insisted, modern American conservatism was not classical liberalism, which had been weakened by utilitarianism and secularism. 

Conservatives sought to save the Christian understanding of “the nature and destiny of man.” To do that, they had to absorb the best of both main branches of the conservative mainstream — traditionalist and libertarian. Meyer insisted he was not creating anything new, but articulating an already-existing conservative consensus— “the consensus forged so brilliantly by the Founding Fathers in 1789.”

Meyer argued that religious and traditional precepts were needed to undergird freedom, which could not exist on the relativist-materialistic premises of modern thought. Liberty was linked to American religion because it was the source of ethical choice and was “a unique by-product of Western faith.” Practically speaking, said M. Stanton Evans, Meyer was arguing that “the conservative movement was a movement,” not a jumble of factions. And as a movement it could go forth “to smite the liberal-Left behemoth.”

The rise to power

Meanwhile, a political star was rising in the West. The grandson of a Jewish peddler who became a millionaire and founded one of the first families of Arizona, Barry Goldwater was a college dropout whose book The Conscience of a Conservative would sell 3.5 million copies. He delighted in challenging conventional wisdom, but he always used the Constitution as his guide. He was for termination of the farm-subsidy program and declared that welfare ought to be “a private concern.”

When The Conscience of a Conservative was published in 1960, it was a political sensation, announcing a new force in national politics — conservatism — and providing it with a new national spokesman. The Chicago Tribune said there was “more harsh fact and hard sense in this slight book than will emerge from all of the chatter of this year’s session of Congress and this year’s campaign for the presidency.”

All the elements of a national political movement were coming to- gether: a relevant philosophy, a national constituency, adequate finances, mass-media proficiency, and principled leadership. Conservatives now sought the Holy Grail of politics, the presidency, believing that if they put a conservative in the White House, he would be able to roll back the federal government and defeat communism.

In 1952, conservatives had tried and failed to nominate Senator Robert Taft when Republicans chose World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower; Republicans  explained  that, while  they loved  Bob  Taft,  they loved 

winning even more. In 1964, they nominated “Mr. Conservative,” Barry Goldwater, only to watch in dismay as he went down to a historic defeat, receiving only 38.5% of the popular vote and carrying only six states. It was not until 1980 that conservatives finally elected one of their own, Ronald Reagan, who became a transformational president at home and abroad during his two terms. Although Reagan was not able to roll back government, he led the way in restoring Americans’ confidence in themselves and in America, sparking an unprecedented period of economic prosperity, and ending the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield.

Ever since, conservatives have sought another Reagan with his fusionist philosophy to carry out the objectives of a more limited constitutional government, an untrammeled free market, and a res- toration of Judeo-Christian values in our society. They have become increasingly frustrated by their failure to find another Reagan, their frustration compounded by the unwillingness or the inability of Republican leadership in Washington to reduce the size and scope of our Leviathan government.

The conservative movement flourished during the 1980s, but there were inevitable tensions as it grew in size and influence. In the 1950s, the sharpest debates were between traditionalists and libertarians as  to the right balance between order and liberty. Over the course of the 1970s, two new branches of conservatism had come into being and com- plicated the internal tensions on the right, which led to disputes in the 1980s between traditionalists and neoconservatives. The New Right and the neoconservatives were not natural allies. The New Right was deeply suspicious of government while the neoconservatives embraced it. The New Right loved the mechanics of politics while the neoconservatives preferred the higher plane of public policy. But both hated communism and despised modern liberals— the New Right for what they had always been, the neoconservatives for what they had become. In the end it was the neoconservatives’ anti-communism and resistance to the counter- culture that won the approval of the New Right and led to a pragmatic marriage, officiated by Ronald Reagan, who needed the brainpower of the neoconservatives and the manpower of the New Right, especially the Christian Right, to be elected.

The external threat of communism and the calming presence of Reagan persuaded most conservatives to sublimate their    differences 

for the greater good. But with the collapse of Soviet communism and the departure of President Reagan, disagreements between the varying kinds of conservatism came to the surface with more intensity.

By the 1990s, with some of the original sources of unity fraying, the conservative movement was again torn by some fundamental divisions. Perhaps above all, the basic questions of the role of government became a point of contention. Some libertarian conservatives like Ron Paul began to argue that government is always the problem. That contra- dicted Ronald Reagan, who in his first inaugural address, specified that “in this present crisis, government is not the solution, it is the problem” (emphasis added). He was a limited-government conservative, not a no- government one. But antagonism to government in all its forms spread, affecting everything from voter turnout to respect for the Congress and the presidency.

Conservatives clearly missed Ronald Reagan and his prudential poli- tics. And they missed the unifying threat of communism too. As soon as the Berlin Wall came down, conservatives began building walls between their factions, each group intent on promoting its own interests rather than the general good. A great deal of cooperation has continued, of course, but through the 2000s conservative divisions grew — over the role and size of government, over America’s role in the world, and over the state of the culture.

The plain fact is that, just as conservatives have always opposed centralized economic planning, they also oppose centralized political planning. From the beginning, the conservative movement has been  a loosely bound movement made up, in the words of the Leadership Institute’s Morton Blackwell, of “activists, scholars, donors and orga- nizational entrepreneurs held together by ... shared philosophy, shared enemies, and shared experiences.”

21st - century conservatism

What, then, is the state of the American conservative movement today? Any successful political movement must first have a relevant philosophy. It is a given that conservatives of all stripes honor the Constitution and its established system of checks and balances. They agree that government should be limited, individuals should be free and responsible in their freedom, and there can be no lasting liberty without virtue, public and private. 

These are not just conservative ideas but American ones that have their roots in the founding of the republic. But they are in many respects under assault. Gallup reported in January 2016 that, while conservatives continued to outnumber both moderates and liberals in the United States, as they have since 2009, their 13-point edge over liberals — 37% to 24% — was the smallest margin since Gallup started routinely asking the question in 1992.

More than ever before, the American people seem to be accepting of more not less government, of having their personal security assured from birth to death by a Washington bureaucracy. Americans have seen the future of the welfare state, and many apparently like what they see. Gallup reports that two-thirds of Americans do not want any cuts in Social Security or Medicare. And Donald Trump won the nomination of the Republican Party pledging to avoid such cuts.

The conservative movement is divided on how best to respond to this shift in public attitudes. One of the more sophisticated responses is that of the “reform conservatives”— sometimes dubbed “reformicons”— led by Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, and their most systematic thinker, Yuval Levin. Writing in ISI’s venerable journal, Modern Age, Levin makes the case for reform conservatism, asserting that it seeks to transform American government along conservative lines, into a government that works to sustain and expand the space between the individual and the state; to strengthen the family, civil society, and the market economy and make their benefits accessible to more Americans; to help the poor not with an empty promise of material equality but with a fervent commitment to upward mobility; and to strengthen the middle class by lifting needless burdens off the shoulders of parents and workers.

Every plank of the policy platform of reform conservatism, Levin emphasizes, seeks to “inject greater and more meaningful power into the space between the individual and the state, and so to help American society address practical problems in a way that also reinforces its capacity for liberty.”

The “space between the individual and the state” is the home of Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” and Tocqueville’s “mediating institutions.” Sensitive to charges that reform conservatism is merely an updated version of 1950s Modern Republicanism that promised to run the welfare state more efficiently than liberal Democrats, Levin con- cedes a role for government in solving “public problems,” but says “this must almost always be a supporting role and not a leading one.”

The reform-conservative agenda includes lower taxes, Social Security reform, the replacement of Obamacare, and opposition to farm sub- sidies. These are not new ideas. Several of them, like calling for an end to farm subsidies, can be found in Goldwater’s 1960 manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative. But in seeking to make government less intrusive, they also seek to make it more functional, rather than merely smaller.

Their ideas have sparked a lively debate within the conservative movement. The libertarian Shikha Dalmia, for instance, expressed puz- zlement that conservatives “have ended up with a mix of old and new liberal ideas that thoroughly scale back the right’s long-running com- mitment to free markets and limited government.” Given the public’s emphasis on economic growth rather than income inequality (borne out by Gallup and other polls), Dalmia argued that now was the “per- fect time” for conservatives to double down on a growth agenda that “spurs entrepreneurship and job creation through broad-based tax cuts, deregulation, and entitlement reform.”

While there are things to like in the reformicon proposals, Dalmia admitted, “[b]road-based, neutral tax cuts to stimulate growth are out, markets are optional tools, the welfare state is cool, redistributive social engineering is the way forward, and class warfare is in.” But for the re- formers, growth in the abstract is not the only goal. Conservatism must also be committed to the strength of society.

Reformicons like Levin and Ponnuru assert that they are as socially conservative as any evangelical. They understand the importance and the impatience of social conservatives who are tired of sitting in the back seat. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and other social conservatives want to take the wheel and steer the country away from its secular path toward a road that leads to a City of God and not a City of Man. If the GOP wishes to be a governing party, such wishes must be respected inasmuch as roughly one-third of voters are committed social conservatives. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote, “There is simply no path to victory for a socially liberal Republican Party.” 

And what might be the relationship between reformicons and the most dynamic development in American politics in the quarter of a century before this past year — the emergence of the Tea Party? Ponnuru has written that conservatism “should be home to everyone who takes seriously the task of strengthening the constitutional structure of a limited accountable government that serves rather than masters civil society.”

The Heritage Foundation can attest that such language, especially the idea of constitutionally limited government, is part of the Tea Party’s DNA. Starting in 2010, Heritage distributed tens of thousands of copies of its “Pocket Constitution” to Tea Party members. Heritage analysts, including this writer, met frequently with Tea Party leaders, finding them receptive to conservative ideas and public- policy solutions.

All of this suggests that in the lead-up to the 2016 elections, the pros- pects for unity on the right seemed reasonably strong. If reformicons and Tea Partiers, along with traditionalists, libertarians, paleocon- servatives, and neoconservatives, could form a broad alliance — a New Fusionism — based on the first principles of the founding, de- spite their differences on some particulars, American conservatism could affect the course of American politics at a critical time in our nation’s history.

Conservatism also stood, and stands, to benefit from the other key prerequisites for a successful political movement. It can benefit from a sense of crisis in the country around the apparent weaknesses of our institutions and the inability of our governing elites to respond. It has a reasonably sound financial base, as the fiscal strength of conservative organizations is impressive — led by the Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action with a combined annual income of over $100 million, sustained by more than 500,000 members. The American Enterprise Institute, under its dynamic president Arthur Brooks, raised $100 mil- lion for a new Washington headquarters right next to the Brookings Institution. The assets of leading center-right foundations are an es- timated $10 billion, not including the personal wealth of the Koch brothers, benefactors of conservative as well as libertarian causes. Conservatism is also possessed of ready access to mass media and a variety of charismatic leaders, thinkers, and spokesmen — including a fair number of elected officials. 

The earthquake of 2016

And then came Donald Trump. The implications of Trump’s success — his extraordinary takeover of the Republican Party and his dramatic general-election victory — for the future of conservatism re- main very difficult to discern. Trump clearly spoke for many of the very kinds of disaffected Americans who have long supplied a ready audience for conservative ideas and candidates. But he also pushed aside some key tenets of the conservative approach to governing, including some that unify essentially all the various factions of the conservative movement.

And yet, Trump has also clearly empowered conservatives, by enabling Republicans in Washington to advance the agenda they have been building while in opposition. In the realm of policymaking, 2016 bears some echoes of 1980: Republicans have accumulated a vast back- log of conservative ideas over the past eight years that were blocked by President Obama and are now available to President Trump, just as Heritage’s Mandate for Leadership contained a mountain of conservative reforms going back decades that helped President Reagan to move the federal government in a conservative direction.

In a renewed version of its Mandate, Heritage offers a blueprint for conservative policies for the new administration, including the repeal of Obamacare and creation of a free-market health-care program; increased oil and natural-gas production; elimination of the Export- Import Bank; establishment of a sunset date for all major regulatory rules; the repeal of Dodd-Frank and the shutting down of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; restoration of the work requirements of federal wel- fare; a flat tax rate on personal income; a balanced federal budget; a commitment to traditional marriage; innovative options for college students; transformation of the District of Columbia into an all-charter school district; a gradual increase in the age of Medicare eligibility to 68 and tying indexing of Medicare to longevity; and the strengthening of our armed forces so that they are second to none. The document out- lines a course of action to reduce total federal spending by $10 trillion over 10 years on a cash basis and by $10.3 trillion on an accrual basis if used for personnel costs.

Other institutions on the right, including this journal, have been producing policy proposals throughout the Obama years and  before, 

and they similarly now stand to find a ready audience in Congress and a willing signer in the White House. Every one of these policies reflects the politics practiced by Ronald Reagan, who said:

This is the issue.... Whether we believe in our capacity for self- government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Time and again presidents and Congresses and governors and state leg- islators and local leaders have turned to conservatism for their agendas for a simple reason: Freedom works. While understanding that their election success had to do with more (and in a sense with less) than con- servatism as such, today’s Republicans must also understand that the voters who have brought them to power demand the action they have been promised. The best way to deliver on those promises is through a conservative agenda. Indeed, if the Republican Party does not act firmly to advance such an agenda now that it has the opportunity, it risks quickly breaking apart its fragile majority.

The power of ideas

Some conservatives are inclined to see the 2016 election as a triumph for the Republican Party that may not be so triumphal for conservatism. But 2016 is clearly above all an opportunity for conservatism. And the fact is that, looking to these next four years and well beyond, conservatism is stronger, not weaker, than the GOP. Whatever the future of the Republican Party, the conservative movement will prevail for the very reasons that have underlain its endurance and strength for six decades.

What has sustained conservatives is not their legions or their organi- zational skill or their use of the media or their fundraising prowess or even their persuasive leaders, but the power of their ideas — linked by the priceless principle of ordered liberty — and the application of those ideas to the problems of the day. The conservative agenda has the best solutions to the problems that led so many Americans to vote for the radical change that Trump promised, and it is now up to conservatives to convince their fellow Republicans to pursue the right path.

This should give conservatives confidence as they enter the Trump era. There will be challenges in the years to come, but conservatives are well-positioned to overcome them and thrive. And ultimately, they are better positioned than their political adversaries to unite the country and to strengthen it.

So it has always been, in times of crisis and doubt and anger and even fear, when conservative values are most needed: when there is a need for prudence, not rashness; for custom, not the impulse of the moment; for a transcendent faith, not a fatal conceit; for reform, not revolution. As we seek solutions to problems that seem unsolvable, we should recall the wisdom of the poet T. S. Eliot, who reminded us that there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. There is only the unceasing struggle to preserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ourselves and those we love.

This piece originally appeared in National Affairs