The last great moment of intellectual and political ferment on the right was in the late 1970s. We had a regnant liberalism that could not work well nor, seemingly, be dislodged, and an opposition party that was divided and bereft of an agenda that offered tangible benefits to most voters. Not until conservatives, neoconservatives, and libertarians managed to reunify the party around appealing new ideas was it possible to overthrow the old order.
Conservatism has seen its share of political creativity in recent years, in the rise of the tea parties, but it has not offered a domestic agenda as substantial, and relevant to voter concerns, as the one it had in 1980. And the political tumult has left the party divided in a way similar in kind to the (much deeper) Ford-Reagan divide.
Room to Grow, an essay collection published by YG Network, a conservative group, is the latest evidence that conservatism may be experiencing an intellectual resurgence as well as a political one. The book collects and distills much of the fresh conservative thinking that journals like National Affairs — and, ahem, National Review — have been featuring on health care, financial reform, higher education, and other issues. The conservative authors of the book refuse to concede any of these areas to a Left that has often seen them as its exclusive territory, and refuse as well to adopt the role of defending a dysfunctional status quo from liberals who would make it worse. Instead they argue for conservative reforms: breaking the higher-education cartel, bringing real competition to health care, making anti-poverty programs work-oriented.
As in the late 1970s, ideas rooted in sound conservative principles and an accurate assessment of the American condition offer the opportunity to unify and elevate the Republican party. National Affairs, the American Enterprise Institute, and the YG Network co-hosted the book launch, which included supportive commentary by new tea-party stalwarts Senators Tim Scott (R., S.C.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah) and by established Republican leaders Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell.
There is much work to be done. The good news for the country, and the bad news for liberalism, is that this work is now beginning.