The Republicans have won the midterm elections. As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat summarizes: “Control of the Senate with room to spare, easy victories in what were supposed to be tight purple-state races and even easier victories in red states, an unexpected nail biter in Virginia and an upset win in North Carolina, Rick Scott and Scott Walker re-elected, gubernatorial wins all over the map in deep blue states, a historically-large House majority … it’s a wave, it’s a thumping, it’s whatever metaphor you favor to describe a major repudiation of the president and his party.” Now that the American people have given the Republican Party majorities in both houses, the conservative movement in America has an opportunity for real political reform on multiple fronts. The question is not just whether President Obama will work with Republicans, but also whether Republicans can actually work together in Congress.
One sees the libertarian populist Rand Paul working with the establishment Republican and new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, such as at each other’s elections rallies. This sign tells us that the Republicans got over an internal civil war (if there ever really was one). The Tea Party movement now can be channeled to wake up a slothful Republican establishment. The Republicans have found themselves in the last six years, the party in opposition. Previously, they have also lost the last five out of six popular presidential elections. Now they have been given the keys to Congress—they must use them wisely. Currently many proposals are on the table as part of the new Reform Conservative movement, and these provide an answer to many of the questions raised by the rise of the Tea Party.
Conservatism, it need be remembered, is not just a philosophy of government—it is more a view of government which derives from a larger view of civil society. Conservatives see that civil society, i.e. that space between the individual and the state, should be as large as possible. So, the purpose of the state is to cultivate that space to be as large as possible: the government has a role in community formation. It is not by top-down and centralized management but by creating and sustaining that space for the intermediating autonomous institutions that Burke referred to as little platoons—families, churches, synagogues, bowling clubs, schools, etc. This principle of conservatism—that of community cultivation—is permanent while the complexities of American life are always in flux. Hence conservative principles remain while their specific applications are contextual and thus must vary from age to age if they are to be relevant.
One trend is what political theorist Yuval Levin calls “the vast decentralization of American life,” where while the postwar era was dominated by large institutions, e.g. bid government and large institutions of media, labor, universities, etc., “we are witnessing the replacement of large, centralized institutions by smaller, decentralized networks.” Levin continues: “Younger Americans are growing up amid a profusion of options in every realm of life, with far more choice but far less predictability and security. Dynamism is increasingly driven not by economies of scale but by competitively-driven marginal improvements. Our culture is becoming a sea of subcultures. Sources of information, entertainment, and education are proliferating. The near-total (and bipartisan) failure of our politics to confront these changes explains a lot of the dysfunction of our government today, and much of our frustration with it…Success in the coming era will increasingly involve effectively navigating a profusion of smaller networks, and a government that wants to help people flourish will need to retool—focusing more on enabling bottom-up, incremental improvements and less on managing top-down, centralized systems.” Basically, the right continues its policies from the Reagan era as if lowering the top marginal tax rate applies to American life in the 1980s as much as it does today. The Republican Party needs to retool its applications of constitutional conservative principles to apply relevantly to the American context today—that of vast decentralization which the government, in its executive agencies and federal welfare state policies, fails to recognize.
There are now opportunities the Republicans can present to the President: besides the obvious talking point of passing legislation for the Key stone pipeline (for which a strong majority of Americans are in favor), Sen. Rand Paul has some bills with Democratic Senators Harry Reid and Cory Booker to reform the criminal justice system for nonviolent drug offenders who receive felony charges. The current welfare state of mandatory spending programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid have to adapt to decentralized times—here the right can offer solutions when the left can only prescribe more centralized control (Congressman Paul Ryan’s suggestions seem to be universally recognized now by the right as the way forward in these areas). Sen. Mike Lee’s tax proposals to make it more economically feasible to be married and have children, which is currently otherwise under our current tax code and the Affordable Care Act, is another great area to explore with legislation. Also there needs to be, at the very least, strong amendments to Obamacare—at least a dozen Republican alternatives have been proposed. Basically, the Republicans need to not be complacent and instead, put legislation in front of the President’s desk.
If the Republicans can work together, they present a strong challenge to the Democrats. That would leave the Democrats in a position nicely summarized by Jonathon Chait in New York Magazine: “The Democrats Have Two Choices Now: Gridlock or Annihilation.” The Republicans right now have two choices: continue stagnating policies from thirty years ago or make conservatism live and well by applying principles of economic and civil liberty in today’s decentralized context. The elections show at the very least conservatism has a chance for the latter.