Half a decade ago, many leading Republicans urged a rethink of their party’s direction. After the 2008 election, such calls for rethinking were shelved in favor of the back-to-basics message of the Tea Party. But now, post-2012, it’s time to return to the path of reform and rethink what Republicans and conservatives explored in the later Bush years.
The emergency phase of the Great Recession has ended. We are moving into a phase of economic growth, but a growth that will not restore Americans to their prior prosperity for a very long time—let alone bring new progress. What will conservatives say in the months and years of reconstruction ahead? What ideas and what hope can we offer a battered and pessimistic country?
“Your answers are so old I’ve forgotten the questions.” That was the retort from a famous ex-communist to a much younger man who presumed to lecture him about Marxism.
If conservatives are to succeed in the century ahead, they need to rethink what conservatism means in a time as far removed from Ronald Reagan’s as Reagan’s was from World War II.
In 1980, the U.S. and its core allies produced half the planet’s output. As things are going, that group of democracies will do well to produce even one third in the 2020s. Back then, the U.S. was threatened by a great military adversary. In the 21st century, the U.S. faces an economic and technological rival for the first time since 1917.
In 1980, the gap between rich and poor had only just begun to widen from its narrowest point of the whole 20th century. Today, the typical worker earns less than his counterpart of 1980, middle-class incomes are stagnating, and wealth and power have concentrated to a degree that would startle even the Astors and the Vanderbilts.
In 1980, presidential elections were publicly financed, and post-Watergate reforms tightly governed congressional elections. Today, the post-Watergate reforms have collapsed, and presidential elections are increasingly financed by small numbers of extremely wealthy individuals who can bend the political system to their will.
In 1980, middle-class Americans regarded economic progress as the norm, and tough times as the exception. Today, a plurality of non-college-educated whites say they expect their children to be no better off than they are themselves.
In 1980, this was still an overwhelmingly white country. Today, a majority of the population under age 18 traces its origins to Latin America, Africa, or Asia. Back then, America remained a relatively young country, with a median age of exactly 30 years. Today, over-80 is the *fastest-*growing age cohort, and the median age has surpassed 37.
In 1980, young women had only just recently entered the workforce in large numbers. Today, our leading labor-*market worry is the number of young men who are exiting.
In 1980, marriage remained the norm among heterosexuals and unimaginable for homosexuals. Today, a majority of American women are unmarried, and same-sex marriage is on its way to becoming the law of the land.
In 1980, our top environmental concerns involved risks to the health of individual human beings. Today, after 30 years of progress toward cleaner air and water, we must now worry about the health of the whole planetary climate system.
In 1980, 79 percent of Americans under age 65 were covered by employer-*provided health-insurance plans, a level that had held constant since the mid-1960s. Back then, health-care costs accounted for only about one 10th of the federal budget. Since 1980, private health coverage has shriveled, leaving some 45 million people uninsured. Health care now consumes one quarter of all federal dollars, rapidly rising toward one third—and that’s without considering the costs of Obamacare.
These realities do not dictate any particular political choice. But they do shape the menu of choices that will be available to political actors, as well as the range of outcomes that are achievable.
For example: it’s certainly possible for Republicans to choose to be a white person’s party. If we do so choose, however, we are also choosing to be an old person’s party. Since the elderly receive by far the largest portion of government’s benefits, an old person’s party will be drawn by almost inescapable necessity to become a big-government party. Indeed, that is just what happened in the George W. Bush years: Medicare Part D and all that.