by Jennifer A. Marshall

Is the conservative movement rooted in self-evident truths that reflect the enduring nature and purpose of human beings? If the answer is yes, then our next steps are clear. We have a responsibility to remain true to these founding principles, show that our ideas lift all, and ground Americans in what makes us “indivisible.”

1. Our principles are rooted in reality and deeply entwined with human flourishing. To abandon them would be to acquiesce to nihilism. Marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80 percent. Work-based welfare recognizes that personal responsibility is essential to human dignity. Free enterprise allows individuals to use gifts cooperatively, innovating in ways that advance human welfare. A strong national defense contributes to peace by deterring bellicose nations.

2. Exit polls show a great deal of lopsidedness by demographic group. That may lead campaign strategists to cut their losses with a particular group, but conservatives cannot settle for walking away. Background and experience mean various demographic groups will have different first impressions of our first principles, but that doesn’t remove our responsibility to appeal to their best intentions and best interests. The single mother on welfare may reflexively accept liberal policies. But if we believe, as we profess, that long-term government dependency does not do justice to her dignity, we ought to be able to explain that in a way that allows her to aspire to a better future—particularly when it comes to her children.

Anyone who thinks that’s not possible should consider how low-income parents have clamored for school choice when they’re trapped in unsafe and failing government-monopoly schools. Meanwhile, the continuation of onerous policies may cause some to reevaluate longtime inclinations: The HHS mandate, representing an existential threat to Catholic and other faith-based institutions, could lead to questioning the centralized health-care policy that bred the beast. Conservative health-care alternatives provide better hope for the poor, and we need to be clear about that.

3. Campaign scare tactics and gimmickry were remarkably effective this cycle. They took us backward on women’s dignity and divided us. Inoculation against such pandering, infantilizing, and divisiveness requires grounding in first principles—what some have called worldview training. That’s a dinner-table, church-foyer agenda that should begin this week.

Politics isn’t just about election season; it is the way we order our lives together. Politics is the way we figure out how to meet everyday needs, solve problems and sort out our differences. It’s about harmonizing diverse interests and building consensus about what’s worth pursuing as a society. We work out issues in all kinds of forums — from family room to boardroom to congressional hearing room, each with its own authority structure, each exercising a variety of roles and responsibilities.

Forming Americans with those sensibilities is a task that should keep us busy enough; we don’t have time for finger-pointing.

— Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of the book “Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.” 

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