Is conservatism in a death spiral? Three of the smartest young conservatives I know, Patrick Hynes, Patrick Ruffini and Soren Dayton, have different diagnosis and different cures.
The generational challenge: the prospect that the next age cohort of voters will be more culturally conservatives than the current one is very bleak; there is too much evidence to suggest that young voters are operationally libertarian. They are certainly capable of translating moral judgments into policy -- they're more skeptical about unfettered abortion rights -- but they aren't nearly as invested in these battles as their parents are and were.
Social conservativsm and cultural conservatism overlap, but they're not the same. Social conservatism deals with the organization of society and incorporates social institutions like the social safety net, the education system, immigration the media -- as Soren Dayton notes, conservatives can win these arguments -- there is no inherent conflict with modernism. Cultural conservatism -- or, more properly, moral conservatism, addresses issues of conscience, personal morality, sexuality, gender. In the long-term, in the long-term, cultural conservatism conflicts very much with the worldview of the first truly modern generation. (BTW: Rudy Giuliani is a social conservative but not a cultural conservative. Discuss.)
The political paradox: stem cells and gay rights may well become majoritarian issues, but someone has to speak for cultural and moral conservatives. If the Republican Party won't or can't, who will?
The challenge of government -- Not intending to sound like David Sirota here, but the conservative elite loves to hate government and spend their time debating ingenious ways to constrain its growth; the major party fundraisers spend their time lobbying Congress to curtail regulation; Americans say they hate government; they want to cut government in theory; they want government off our backs; they don't vote for small government and they complain when politicians dare to touch their entitlements. They expect their government to be competent. Mike Huckabee seems to understand that there's a paradox at the heart of the movement. My colleagues Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat are currently finishing a book on Sam's Club Republicanism and the journey of the Republican Party away from the locus of ordinary people and their material concerns.
The elites hate it, but national security conservatism is alive and well and is attractive to independents. The administration has been so successful in yoking the Iraq war to the war against terrorism, though, that conservatives need to find a way to disentangle the two.
Cassandritus aside, there's no enduring evidence to suggest that the Democrats have improved their brand relative to its status after the 2004 election, when, as you'll recall, Democrats completely lost their grip on reality and pessimistically consigned themselves to the dustbin of history. Short memories.
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