The Republican Party establishment has proven itself to be all too willing to compromise the fiscal conservative values that Americans have long maintained. Just as in 2006 and 2008, voters voted against Republicans because of wars and out of control spending; likewise, in 2010 voters voted against Democrats for health care and out of control spending. In this, perhaps both parties have failed to win the confidence of the American people because both parties have largely ignored the real center of American politics: Those who believe that government ought to mind its own business.
First, one should be mindful that the narrative of the debate in Washington won’t change with a Republican “win” in 2012, if it is so fortunate. The narrative of the debate will only change, when the people outside of Washington demand it. If conservatives want to affect that change, it will require the conservative movement to appeal to the ignored center; and to do so, they will need to confront some inconsistencies that have plagued the movement in the past.
To start, those who call themselves conservatives must not only embrace the idea of limited government at home, but also abroad. Just as conservatives oppose federal mandates over health care in their home states, they should also oppose mandates in Afghanistan, Iraq, and all other nations across the globe. Traditionally, conservatism has embraced a non-interventionist foreign policy. It was conservatism that has opposed “nation building” and the doctrine of Wilsonian style “liberal internationalism.” That opposition has faded in recent years and this interventionist foreign policy stands in contrast to the values of limited government promoted by conservatives at home. It’s a contradiction and conservatives must reconcile that contradiction.
They must also embrace the idea of limited government in respect to social issues. Government has no business telling two people they shouldn’t get married or a person he shouldn’t put a particular substance into his own body. That isn’t to say one agrees or disagrees with whatever social issue is being debated. It is simply an acknowledgment that some things just shouldn’t be dictated to 320 million people from one city by a handful of well-connected rulers.
That also doesn’t mean folks have to abandon moral principles or give up on what they think is right at the expense of what others do that they think is wrong. There is still a place in society to debate moral questions — but government is not that place. Perhaps acting through the power of persuasion, one can reason with his neighbor that “this” is right and “that” is wrong. Churches, think tanks, civic institutions, charities and the like are the proper venues for such debates. But the halls of Congress are not. Corrupt politicians deciding questions of morality is a faulty system and it’s time we move past that.
The Republican Party can unite the country behind a philosophy of limited government if it resolves these contradictions. The idea of limited government is a uniting principle that can bring people of vastly different beliefs and values together around the principle that people don’t have to force everyone else to live just like them, and that the individual can make choices for himself. And when people come together around that principle, and stop trying to force their views through the power of government on everyone else, perhaps they will be more receptive to the persuasive arguments of others. In civil society, outside of politics, the debate over moral issues can become more meaningful and really address the root issues. It would be a more civil discussion among neighbors rather than relying on brute force to impose a form of cultural socialism.
And this was the recipe for success for the GOP two years ago — even if it was accidental. The Republicans won in 2010 being notably quiet about social issues while embracing the idea of limited government in fiscal matters — an idea it had abandoned several years before. Republicans stumbled on a winning formula of being fiscally conservative and socially libertarian. I’m just not sure they realized it.
What is not an accident is that Americans by instinct embrace those ideas because at heart. Americans still believe, by and large, in the idea of liberty and limited government even if they can’t quite put their finger on it. But that instinct extends to believing in limited government and individual liberty when it comes to social issues. In that respect, I think Republicans may have stumbled on the real center of American politics — a soft, libertarian-leaning center in the same tradition as our nation’s founders. They may not know the nuances of the policies or the principles of economics that free-market libertarians advocate, but in their hearts people believe that they can make choices for themselves better than several hundred men and women in a far distant capital can — and that’s a great start.