The Corner

What Conservatives Are For

As Republicans continue to think through their (and America’s) path toward renewal, they run a very great risk of focusing on what it is they oppose about the path toward national exhaustion laid out by the Democrats in recent years, and so neglecting to offer the public a clear picture of the Right’s own vision of America. Among the greatest risks is that Republicans, in responding to President Obama’s equation of common efforts with government efforts (an equation that is in fact an assertion of an extremely radical individualism, as it sees all citizens as unconnected to one another except through politics), will offer in contrast purely a defense of individual initiative rather than a vision of society, and so will answer an error with an error. The rhetoric of last year’s campaign season contained an awful lot of this (as I worried about here) with very few exceptions—like this fantastic speech by Paul Ryan toward the end of the campaign—and it has been common since as well.

That’s why this speech delivered Monday by Utah senator Mike Lee at the Heritage Foundation was so important, welcome, and refreshing. Without picking fights or being too aggressive about it, Lee corrected the excessive individualism of some of his colleagues, and offered a sense of how conservatives should show the public what they are for. And what he didn’t emphasize—not only the Right’s version of radical individualism but the frequently oversimplified theme of dependency—was as important as what he did.

Lee began from where Republican rhetoric often finds itself today, and pointed the way beyond it:

We say we are for lower taxes, or less regulation, or spending restraint. But those are just policies we advocate. They’re not what we’re really for. What we’re really for are the good things those policies will yield to the American people. What we’re really for is the kind of society those policies would allow the American people to create, together.

Together. If there is one idea too often missing from our debate today that’s it: together.

In the last few years, we conservatives seem to have abandoned words like “together,” “compassion,” and “community”… as if their only possible meanings were as a secret code for statism. This is a mistake. Collective action doesn’t only – or even usually – mean government action. Conservatives cannot surrender the idea of community to the Left, when it is the vitality of our communities upon which our entire philosophy depends.

He then argued explicitly against the intensely individualistic character of some conservative rhetoric, reminding his listeners that social institutions, beginning with the family, are in fact what conservatives hope to conserve:

Ours has never been a vision of isolated, atomized loners. It is a vision of husbands and wives; parents and children; neighbors and neighborhoods; volunteers and congregations; bosses and employees; businesses and customers; clubs, teams, groups, associations… and friends. The essence of human freedom, of civilization itself, is cooperation. This is something conservatives should celebrate. It’s what conservatism is all about.

And beyond the family, he argued, the key cooperative ventures in our country are functions of civil society and of the free economy:

History has shown both of these organic systems to be extremely efficient at delivering goods and services. But these two systems are not good because they work. They work because they are good. Together, they work for everyone because they impel everyone… to work together. They harness individuals’ self-interest to the common good of the community, and ultimately the nation. They work because in a free market economy and voluntary civil society, whatever your career or your cause, your success depends on your service. The only way to look out for yourself is to look out for those around you. The only way to get ahead is to help other people do the same.

By seeing how these institutions are connected, and how a vision of government that rejects the value of both stands in the way of America’s thriving, he suggested that conservatives can see their way toward a reform agenda for the coming years:

This vision of America conservatives seek is not an Ayn Rand novel. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a society of “plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow, too.” The great obstacle to realizing this vision today is government dysfunction. This is where our vision must inform our agenda. What reforms will make it easier for entrepreneurs to start new businesses? For young couples to get married and start new families? And for individuals everywhere to come together to bring to life flourishing new partnerships and communities?

What should government do – and just as important, not do – to allow the free market to create new economic opportunity and to allow civil society to create new social capital?

Lee proposed some ways that devolution of some federal functions to the states could help, and some ways that federal reforms could help. I was especially pleased to see him mention the need to address the federal tax code’s “bias against saving, investing, and especially against parents, our ultimate investor class.” Amen.

This was an important speech, and hopefully the beginning of an important effort by Lee to get his party back on track. Conservatives have yearned for good signs lately, and this bold statement of purpose surely counts. Well worth your time.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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