Editor’s note: This essay is excerpted from a recent talk given by Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Conservatism today has to pay the price of its own success. Modern American conservatism arose after World War II as a movement of protest, a dissent against the reigning liberalism. Over the course of half a lifetime it became intellectually respectable and increasingly persuasive as liberalism revealed itself as bankrupt. Finally, in 1980 a plurality of American voters decided to give the conservatives a chance to govern—not because they were convinced the conservatives had the answers, but because they were sure the liberals did not. Finding the experience satisfactory, they returned conservatives to the presidency in 1984 and 1988. In fact, by the end of the Reagan Administration, the very word liberalism had become a recognized political liability.
The conservative dissent, then, has succeeded. The mainstream of the American people has embraced our basic critique of liberalism. But this accomplishment is not equivalent to convincing the American people that conservatism should replace liberalism as their political faith.
One reason is that, as a movement of dissent, much of the conservative agenda was articulated in negative terms: anti-Communism, opposition to big government, resistance to ideological egalitarianism. It is much easier to build and maintain an opposition movement than it is to govern because the opponents of what is do not necessarily have to agree about what ought to be. When an opposition movement gains power, however, it has to do more than simply throw the rascals and all their works out; it must replace the old politics with a coherent new agenda.
The Reagan Administration did not go very far beyond simply calling a halt to liberalism. It did not revoke the New Deal or restore state sovereignty or even stop the growth of the federal government. With a few noteworthy exceptions (the salutary improvements in the judiciary, the proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the stimulation of the economy through tax cuts) the accomplishments of the Reagan Administration were mainly negative ones: it did less harm than the preceding liberal administrations.
Even in the Reagan years, however, the political conversation was mainly about liberal ideas, although now they were being rejected instead of accepted. Neither Reagan nor the conservative movement has advanced a compelling vision of what an America governed according to conservative principles will look like. And this is because we ourselves have not given enough attention to articulating our own vision.
One consequence of this is that our strength at the grassroots has atrophied. An opposition movement is able to generate high levels of popular support as long as that to which it is opposed is perceived as a clear and present danger. Liberal policies were certainly perceived this way in 1980, but this is not the case in 1990. Except for a few issue-oriented constituencies (pro-lifers, gun owners) the conservative grassroots troops have become relatively complacent and inactive because they do not feel threatened by a collapsing economy, a hostile foreign power, or a powerful federal government ready to take away their liberties.
Meanwhile, there is not a well-defined conservative agenda to mobilize them. The liberals, even though they are temporarily discredited, are still putting forward new ideas (federal day care, homosexual rights, disarmament), and conservatives have to do more than just say no to the liberal agenda; we must have new ideas of our own that can capture the imagination and loyalty of new constituencies. Otherwise, the Reagan Revolution will just be a parenthesis in the triumphant march of liberal progress.
Framing Our Agenda
A new conservative agenda must be a catalyst both for good policy and for the rebuilding of the conservative movement.
To be effective in this way, our agenda must root itself in the ideals and beliefs which Americans actually hold. America is strong and good because of the virtues which its people have historically lived and which they continue to live today. It is by identifying these cultural ideals and formulating policy on the basis of these recognized sources of moral strength that conservatives in the coming generation can articulate a sustainable governing agenda.
Our agenda must speak to the concerns Americans feel. Implicit in our work is an assumption that the past basis for the conservative movement—the opposition agenda of the 1970s and 1980s—no longer “sells.” People are no longer scared by Communism; they see it falling apart every time they pick up a newspaper or turn on the television. People are no longer concerned about radical liberal economics; a decade of restraint and prosperity has made the liberals a bit more accommodating and a lot less scary.
But people are uneasy. In terms of the traditional indicators—the economic statistics, the world situation—they should be content and at ease, yet they are not.
Why is there this uneasiness? Because while the national indicators are generally positive, people have very negative things happening that directly touch their lives. These include drugs, crime and fear of crime, problems in our schools that directly threaten our children, the failure of our educational system, the emergence of a permanent underclass, the loss of job security, our declining economic productivity, the sense that anyone who works stays poor while speculators and politicians get rich in scandalous ways.
What has people uneasy is a cultural breakdown, the loss of the morals that make this country function. Our agenda must address these concerns; our vision of government must include government’s role to defend and foster our American culture.
The prescriptions that follow are not intended as a complete conservative agenda. They are examples of policies which address the cultural roots of the challenges facing America today and address those challenges by drawing upon traditional, functional, cultural values. In so doing, policies of this sort will aid us in our work to rebuild the conservative movement.
Many of these initiatives fall under the category of social issues. This is appropriate for our new conservative agenda. As Gary Bauer has recently reminded us, “social issues are the binding agent of the conservative movement, not just in terms of votes but because functional, traditional values are necessary to make the free economy work and to make successive generations of Americans willing to make sacrifices to defend our society.”
No Laissez Faire
We have traditionally championed the free market as both a force for prosperity and a moral imperative among free men. We have been right to do so. But we should also recognize that while a free market is preferable to other forms of economic organization, its benefits are not equally felt. Poverty, especially among working people, is the Achilles heel of the free market.
In order for people to have confidence in the free market, work must be rewarded. Work deserves reward. This principle is credible only if those who work are empowered thereby to support themselves and their families decently. National and state tax codes offer the vehicles through which conservatives can ensure that work is rewarded.
Tax policies should be designed to guarantee that any full-time worker with dependents will have sufficient after-tax income to maintain his family at an acceptable standard of living. Examples of this sort of policy include the earned income tax credit, universal child care credits, rebates on Social Security taxes for workers with dependent children, and increased dependent exemptions in the income tax.
Self-reliance for the Poor
It is a conservative challenge to take measures against the consolidation of a permanent underclass.
Our goal must be to empower those who are in need to escape the culture of dependence and to become self-sufficient. The test of every benefit must be: does it offer the poor a real chance to escape welfare?
Unfortunately, government indicators stress the number of Americans who are reliant on social welfare programs. A modest step in our agenda should be to press for new indicators to measure and report our progress in empowering citizens to move up from dependency.
If we intend to have success to measure, our agenda must address the cultural roots of the emerging American underclass. Among the new underclass, functional culture has collapsed. Traditional prohibitions against instant sensual gratification and crime have broken down. Traditional institutions—the family, the neighborhood, the church, the school—have lost their hold. Traditional culture has yielded to a culture of dependence.
If we hope to combat the consolidation of the underclass, then our policies must foster a culture of responsibility, work, and self-respect. To do this, we should link government support to behavior that fosters self-sufficiency.
AFDC is one example. It exists to fulfill society’s responsibility to care for dependent children and affirms that mothers provide this care best. But in practice it has spurred the breakdown of the family because it is available to never-married women with children.
Currently, AFDC is a major factor in the formation of crippled family fragments consisting of teenage mothers and their children. These mother-child units are all but condemned to perpetual poverty. This segment of the government-created underclass would be better served if mothers under age 21 were ineligible for AFDC and other welfare benefits unless they live with one or both of their parents.
In any case, a mother’s entitlement to AFDC benefits is derivative and should be conditioned on her fulfilling her parental responsibilities. So, for example, AFDC is properly conditioned on a child’s attendance in school and on the mother’s abstinence from drugs and other behavior which reinforces her dependent state.
Since, in most cases, AFDC itself is necessary only because one parent has abandoned his responsibilities to support his children, AFDC-dependent mothers should be given financial incentives to identify absent fathers and to assist the government to collect child support from them. In those cases where fathers are unable to provide adequate support, AFDC should function as a “loan” paid to mothers in fulfillment of the father’s obligation; a loan to be repaid by the father as his financial condition permits.
The recasting of AFDC is not an agenda in itself but only an example of changes which are necessary throughout our social services, changes which empower the disadvantaged by reinforcing traditional, functional values and building a culture of self-sufficiency.
Martin Luther King was right when he described the family as the “main educational agency of mankind.” The ability of parents to select the educational environment for their children is both a right and the cornerstone of educational excellence. Expanding parental choice in our schools is indispensable for improving educational opportunity and quality.
We should embrace recent expansions of parental choice among public schools while working to include private schools among the options available to parents. Full parental choice is particularly important in disadvantaged communities where public schools have demonstrably failed. As good policy and good politics, we should press first to expand choice and empower parents in these communities and support educational enterprise zones.
Protect the Weakest
Defense of the right to life responds to such basic American values as compassion for the weak, equality of rights, and reverence for life. Conservatives should not be ashamed to be taking the right position on this question. As Robert Morrison of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has reminded us: “If abortion is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. It is more than a singular or separate wrong—it is the source of all wrong. To kill the small, the weak, the sick, the dependent, the defenseless, violates all that our people’s faith and our nation’s history tell us is right.”
Abortion is not an issue in a vacuum. It is the symbol for a cultural cleavage between those with a sense of community and responsibility and the votaries of imperial individualism; between those whose sons fought in Viet Nam and those whose sons chanted mantras for the victories of Ho Chi Minh; those who worship in churches and those who desecrate them; those who accept our culture and those who seek to tear it down. Our agenda must affirm the right to life.
But we must frame our agenda with an understanding that the vast majority of Americans are profoundly ambivalent about this issue. We should frame our agenda to win over mainstream Americans who are uncomfortable with abortion as a means of sex selection or birth control, who believe parents should consent before their teenage daughter receives an abortion, who support safe abortion facilities, and who believe women should be fully informed before an abortion is performed on them.
And we must recognize that abortion cannot be ended simply by outlawing it. Abortion, like drug abuse, is an example of a culture of convenience, a culture which holds that the highest moral value is short-term personal convenience and pleasure. In a very real sense, abortion and many of our other problems—drugs, drunk driving, corruption—will not be solved until a cultural conservative movement creates a new sense of moral responsibility.
No one is free if he lives in fear of crime. Every American has the right to walk around his neighborhood during the day or night, to leave his home unattended, to permit his children to walk home from school. When Americans are denied this right, the sense of community and trust deteriorate; the culture suffers.
This is intolerable. We must ensure that Americans are secure in their person and property. Every neighborhood should have adequate police protection, sufficient to deter crime and apprehend most criminals. Often, this will mean more police. Police forces can be strengthened by offering college scholarships or home-buying assistance in exchange for service on the police force (police ROTC). Moreover, volunteers of high school age should be formed into platoons under military leadership to undertake direct, non-violent action in support of the civil peace. Such action might include surveillance, neighborhood presence, and unwelcome group “escort” for drug dealers, buyers, and other criminals.
We must ensure that justice—to the accused, to the victim, and to society—is served. Too often the guilty escape punishment through procedural niceties that elevate form over substance. Court procedure must be brought in line with the central function of the courts: determining guilt or innocence. When courts stray too far from this standard, they undermine their own legitimacy and public respect for the law. The establishment of a “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule is one example of this sort of reform.
And we must ensure that punishment for crime, particularly for violent crime, is appropriate. Punishment should include restitution to victims; in-prison work to defray some of the costs of prosecution and incarceration; and meaningful sentences. Early release should be earned only through some meaningful accomplishment (achieving literacy, earning a GED, completing a job) and not simply for passive good behavior.
Repeat and habitual violent felons must be removed from society forever. A model is Rep. Denny Smith’s Measure 4, which was overwhelmingly approved by the voters of Oregon in 1988. Measure 4 mandates life in prison for second-time violent felons. Conservatives should press for the passage of similar legislation in every state.
This reform package can reduce the crime rate by making the profession of crime less rewarding. It empowers law-abiding citizens by reducing their fear of crime and reviving their respect for the institutions of justice.
War on Drugs
The drug trade contributes to our rising crime rate. Half of all arrestees test positive for drug use.
But drugs have other perfidious effects. Drug use in the workplace leads to accidents and injuries (the 1987 Baltimore Amtrak disaster, for example) and costs American business tens of billions of dollars annually due to lost productivity, increased absenteeism, workplace accidents, medical costs, and theft.
Moreover, drug abuse leads to dependence and undermines the cultural values of self-respect, personal responsibility, and self-reliance. Among the poor, it contributes to the creation of an underclass by diminishing the capacity of addicts to escape the culture of dependence. Drug abuse is a symptom of the cultural breakdown that Americans find so troubling.
Any capitalist knows that as long as there is a market for illicit drugs, there will be producers and suppliers. The only effective way to reduce drug abuse is to reduce the demand for drugs.
We must raise the stakes for drug abusers. One way is to change the Drug Enforcement Agency’s mission from drug confiscation to drug contamination. The DEA should contaminate drugs with a substance that makes users wretchedly ill, preferably with distinctive symptoms. The model here is denatured alcohol which we have, for decades, made unfit to drink by adding an obnoxious substance.
Another way is to promote widespread testing. Our experience with drug testing in the military confirms that testing works. We should require that inmates in our prisons test drug-free prior to release and remain drug-free during any probation or parole; that private business be encouraged to test employees for drug use; and that public officials and federal employees test drug-free.
Our agenda must also recognize that government should not empower addicts to purchase and use drugs. As a result, we should withhold non-earned governmental benefits (e.g., FHA loans, subsidized college tuition, drivers licenses, student loans) from convicted drug users.
And, if the drug war is a war, we should consider a formal Congressional declaration of war on drugs. The primary purpose of such a declaration would be to disarm the drug trade. Under the declaration of war, any foreign national apprehended for violation of drug laws or any American citizen taken under arms while in possession of drugs would be treated as a prisoner of war. He would have no legal rights beyond those in the Geneva Convention; no right of habeas corpus or of trial. His imprisonment would be of indefinite duration, since he would not be released until the war is over.
We can solve the problems that face our nation. In so doing, we can broaden the base of conservative voters and build a governing conservative movement.
To do so, our new conservative agenda can and must affirm the cultural values that make America work. It must speak to the concerns that Americans feel. It must rely on traditional virtues to solve our new problems.
A conservative agenda which does this demonstrates that conservatives can and will govern; that our creed goes beyond simply calling to “get government off our backs.” Such an agenda demonstrates that we will govern by empowering people and mediating institutions. That we will practice the principle of subsidiarity, thereby ensuring that solutions can be tailored to specific problems.
Most of all, by affirming traditional values and the common sense of mainstream Americans, our agenda will effectively polarize the political debate and expose the left-wing agenda as the product of a fringe element hostile to our culture and our civilization.