Politics & Policy

Before Trump, What Did Conservatism Conserve?

President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs from the White House in Washington, D.C., March 8, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Aside from life, liberty, and prosperity, not much at all.

Last week I kicked a hornet’s nest on Twitter. Tired of the Trumpist tendency to write off the conservative movement as a failure that didn’t “conserve anything” — and of the tendency to denigrate the accomplishments of prior GOP presidents — I sent out a tweet:

The reaction was entirely predictable: How dare you praise George W. Bush? Don’t you know he was the big-government “conservative” who ensnared us in endless wars? There was little acknowledgment that the list above was real, it mattered, and it continues to matter. The new narrative must be preserved, and the new narrative tells us that Trump taught a failed movement how to fight.

But that’s simply wrong. Even just in the years since the end of the Reagan administration, the conservative movement’s impact on American law and culture has been immense. And when it has failed, it hasn’t been for lack of effort. So, what has conservatism conserved? Let’s go down the list, beginning with the most important issue: the right to life.

Any analysis of abortion rights in America begins of course with profound loss and disappointment. The Supreme Court decided Roe before the modern conservative movement began, in a very different American political and cultural environment. How different? The Southern Baptist Convention supported abortion rights at the time. There was no meaningful “religious Right,” and the originalist judicial revolution instigated and sustained principally by the Federalist Society was years away. Even after the Federalist Society was founded in 1982, it took at least one full generation to cultivate the conservative judicial talents who now sit on courts from coast to coast.

But since the pro-life movement got organized, and since religious conservatism became a true force in American politics, the results have been astonishing. Indeed, the pro-life movement has to a large degree all by itself refuted the Left’s “arc of history” argument — the assertion that culture will move inexorably in the direction of so-called social justice.

As the pro-abortion-rights Guttmacher Institute reported in 2016 (when the conservative movement had allegedly forgotten how to win), since Roe, states had enacted an impressive 1,074 different abortion restrictions. More than a quarter of those restrictions had been enacted in just the previous five years — “more than any other single five-year period since Roe.” This chart tells the tale:

Of course, even the laws above would represent hollow victories if the American abortion rate had continued to grow. That would indicate that the pro-life movement was winning the politics but losing the culture. Yet here the picture is improving substantially as well. While there are still far too many abortions in the United States, decreases in the abortion rate have added up to millions of lives saved, and in January 2017 (before Trump took office), the abortion rate fell to its lowest level since Roe.

No, the pro-life movement hasn’t won. Yes, there have been profound disappointments. But it is winning. From virtually nothing — with the entire media, academic, and pop culture establishments pitted against it — it has accomplished heroic things.

Now, let’s move on to gun rights. Here, the story of the conservative movement is the story of a thorough, sustained rout of the legal and cultural Left. In 2017, my colleague Charlie Cooke published this chart showing the transformation of American gun laws from coast to coast since 1986. It’s fascinating:

In 1986, 41 states were “no issue” or “may issue,” meaning either they did not grant concealed-carry permits at all or they required citizens to petition the government for permission to carry and show reasons for their request, at which point government officials exercised their judgment in determining whether to grant the request. By 2017, there were zero “no issue” states, and 42 states were either “shall issue” (where the government is obliged to grant a permit to those who request one and meet certain basic requirements) or “constitutional carry” (where concealed carry is allowed without a permit).

Moreover, just in the new century, the federal assault-weapons ban has been allowed to lapse. The Supreme Court has recognized the plain constitutional truth that the Second Amendment protects an individual right and has extended that right to the states through the 14th Amendment. And all this has happened as American crime rates have fallen from their terrible highs early in the Clinton administration.

I can keep going. I will keep going. Let’s talk for a moment about a topic that’s near and dear to American hearts: education. The cornerstone of the conservative approach to school reform is school choice — introducing competition to the public-school monopoly and granting parents more power over the education of their children. From home-schooling to private-school-choice programs to the explosive growth of charter schools, the school-choice movement has in just a few decades grown into a juggernaut that helps millions of families each year.

Last year, a half-million students were enrolled in private-school-choice programs, an increase of 45,000 over the year before. The first charter school opened in 1992. By the turn of the century, 400,000 students attended charter schools. By 2015, that number had hit 2.8 million. As for home-schooling? I’d call this growth:

 

It’s worth repeating, these numbers represent lives (and families) transformed through patient, persistent, and often-courageous legal, political, and cultural engagement.

Now let’s talk about individual liberty. In addition to the Second Amendment protections outlined above, modern courts — shaped by the conservative movement well before Trump’s recent, excellent appointees — have expanded the scope of First Amendment protections and have doubled down on protecting the fundamental freedoms in the Bill of Rights.

Not only has the Supreme Court protected free speech and religious liberty (some key decisions have been 9–0), lower courts have relentlessly struck down college speech codes and have protected due-process rights in cases from coast to coast. Groups such as the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute have fought in court for economic liberty, winning significant victories for struggling entrepreneurs and weakening occupational-licensing laws that limit economic advancement. Not even to mention the vibrant right-to-work movement, which has sparked faster economic growth and greater increases in real purchasing power in the states that have embraced it.

Then there’s foreign policy, the arena where traditional conservatives face the most scorn from Trumpists. Has there ever been a great-power conflict whose end was handled as deftly as the Cold War’s? And as for all the hate piled on George W. Bush, his critics ignore two huge accomplishments: a foreign-aid program to combat AIDS in Africa that may be one of the most life-saving foreign-policy initiatives in all of human history, and an effective post-9/11 defense of America from large-scale jihadist attack.

At the same time, American global leadership has helped safeguard free trade and sustain a world economy that is steadily obliterating absolute poverty. Yes, there have been American failures, but these successes are of world-historic importance.

Let’s deal with national politics. One of the most absurd contentions in all of modern political discourse is the idea that the Washington GOP “didn’t stand up to Obama.” Hogwash. If the GOP rolled over, where is the carbon tax? Where is a new assault-weapons ban? Where is card check? Where’s the Employment Nondiscrimination Act? Where’s Democratic immigration reform? Where’s Justice Merrick Garland?

We forget the extent to which the GOP House helped impose fiscal discipline on the Obama White House as well. After the extravagant deficits of the early Obama years (when he briefly held a filibuster-proof majority and enacted a massive stimulus package), the deficit declined to well less than half its Obama-era peak. The claim that the GOP before Trump failed at fiscal discipline is laughable in any case, because the GOP under Trump is already pushing the deficit close to early-Obama levels in a time of peace and prosperity.

Finally, lest we think that the Obama elections marked the GOP as the party of “losers,” we should remember that Obama presided over the electoral collapse of Democrats across the United States. By 2016, before Trump’s election, the Democratic party was near its lowest ebb in almost a century. In fact, that string of losses was part of the reason for the string of state and local conservative successes outlined above.

There is no question that since the Reagan era conservatives have suffered significant defeats. Just as we’ve made cultural gains in life, we’ve suffered profound cultural losses as well. When it’s verboten in key cultural institutions to argue that men can’t get pregnant — or when you’re presumed to be a bigot merely because you hold to orthodox Christian beliefs about sexual morality — you know that the Left has made its share of gains. Conservatives have real work to do to in the effort to restore an American marriage culture, a project that’s indispensable in preventing the deaths of despair that are destroying American families and communities. The failure to repeal Obamacare was deeply disappointing, and we’re now waking up to the reality that the rank-and-file Republican voter is far less fiscally conservative than many members of the conservative elite hoped. This populist moment most assuredly does not feature much fiscal restraint.

But these defeats do not change the facts about considerable and consequential conservative victories. Moreover, denying those victories (especially for the sake of propping up a single politician) does real damage to our body politic. It deepens Republican fear and hopelessness. It makes voters more vulnerable to grifters and conmen, and it places too much importance on the race for the presidency.

How did two generations of conservative activists win their battles? Not always (or even principally) through the presidency, but through the patient, persistent work of faithful cultural and political advocacy. We can’t ignore defeats, and we can’t grow complacent in the arenas where we’ve competed and won. But as we ponder the present and future of the conservative movement, it’s time to tell the truth about its recent past. What has conservatism conserved? It’s conserved life, liberty, and prosperity. That makes it one of the most consequential and successful movements in American history, whatever its detractors might claim.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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