By Brian Lipshutz ’12
One prediction can be offered with great confidence about the 2012 presidential elections: debate moderators will not be at a loss for questions about policy differences. But that is only the surface of the division between conservatism and liberalism right now, and there is a real risk that Americans will wake up on Wednesday, November 7, without having had a true discussion of our disagreements.
Aside from the prediction above, it is difficult to say just how this election will play out, let alone whether it will resemble 1948, 1980, or another past election. Still, we would be remiss not to take valid lessons from history as they come. One of the most important, from 1964, was only partly related to the candidate that year. I refer, of course, to “The Speech,” in which a Californian named Ronald Reagan laid out the very terms of debate that we ought to have today: an unabashed contest between progressive liberalism and constitutional conservatism. The arguments of constitutional conservatism should be familiar to everyone. It holds that our liberty is natural and pre-political, not a gift from government. It defines equality not as a function of outcomes, but as an equal right to self-government and what Lincoln called “an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” The people are sovereign, but the forms of our written constitution and the virtue of true statesmen must check passion and corruption. Yet no matter how basic these ideas are, the American Left contests every single one.
The real risk for conservatives is that this election turns into a referendum on which candidate can better manage an ever-expanding welfare state. Such a campaign would leave conservatives at a disadvantage against a president as charismatic as Barack Obama, but more importantly, voters deserve a better debate between Left and Right. Reagan cautioned in 1964 that “they want to make you and I believe that this is a contest between two men—that we’re to choose just between two personalities.” But he insisted that Americans ought to make it a question of both principles and results, because the former drives the latter.
Although the Cold War is over, the domestic questions that Reagan discussed are still with us today. He warned, “I have an uncomfortable feeling that this prosperity isn’t something on which we can base our hopes for the future.” If anything, our plight today is much worse; the deficit numbers he cites ($17 million a day more in spending than government revenue) are dwarfed by today’s figure of roughly $3.5 billion.
The first step to fixing this imbalance is recognizing the proper role of government. Yet the left, then and now, has an idea at least as old as President Woodrow Wilson (’1879) that liberty is whatever the government deems it to be. Reagan offered Americans a different conception: “Government is beholden to the people [and] has no other source of power except the sovereign people.” The issue today is the same one he identified, namely, “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a small intellectual elite in a distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
From these principles, we get to the policy issues. We can do so because, as Reagan said, the Founding Fathers understood that “outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.” Obamacare, for instance, is an economically unwise expansion of government power, and the immense regulatory powers it gives to unelected bureaucrats can reach deep into our personal lives and choices. Liberals deny it, but there comes a time when we must choose between what Reagan called “our constitutional safeguards” and “these proliferating bureaus with their thousands of regulations.”
The same pattern applies to entitlement reform. Reagan’s model still serves conservatives well. Senior citizens should have a safety net, but the American people ought not to continue to accept a system that promises money to our generation that it never will have. The solution to Social Security and Medicare reform is, as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said in his response to the State of the Union, a question of arithmetic and principles. One without the other simply doesn’t do the job.
Constitutional conservatism does not mean a return to stagecoach travel and powdered wigs (or Whigs, for that matter). Constitutional conservatives defend the equal rights of blacks, women, and religious minorities. We are bound to fully realize those principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and safeguarded by the Constitution, even if the Founders did not fulfill the pledge of equal liberty under the law to certain groups in their lifetimes.
As for economic progress, which liberals claim as their own, I would submit that it is actually conservatives who offer the best path to growth. Most liberals are more concerned with redistributing existing wealth than creating new wealth. Perhaps the greatest expositor of constitutional conservatism since the Founding was Abraham Lincoln, who talked about a government that “clears the path of laudable pursuit for all.” Today, statesmen like Paul Ryan correctly frame the issue as a choice between a government that keeps things the way they are and one that enables Americans to make the best use of their natural talents and willingness to work hard.
No doubt this call for true debate will summon forth accusations of fostering incivility from far and wide. I agree. Let’s have a civil debate. But let’s make it one about principles. The claim that deep disagreement necessarily causes incivility is simply a canard. In fact, grounding our debates in principle should, if anything, minimize the knee-jerk reaction to build up a straw man and knock it down with an ad hominem sound bite of no real substance. Both sides should make good on their professed admiration for Reagan, who was himself a paragon of civil but serious debate.
Nearly half a century later, we still have what Reagan called “a rendezvous with destiny. “ In a free society, every election is a rendezvous with a noble destiny given to only a few people over the millennia. That gift, however, obligates us to defend not only policies conducive to freedom, but the principles of freedom itself. As in 1964, “we’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” This year’s election is about nothing less than what Reagan called the idea “that you and I have the ability and the dignity and the right to make our own decisions and determine our own destiny,” no matter what President Lyndon Johnson or liberals today might say. In fact, there is nothing greater that we could possibly contest.