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A Note on Bridging the Gap Between Conservative Theory and Practice

This post arose out of some thoughts I had after seeing Erick’s “Go Big or Go Home” post. If you haven’t read it yet, please do.

Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative holds the distinction of being one of the few books I keep within easy reach of me in my apartment (the Bible being another one). Reading over Erick’s post reminded me of another part of his book, this time from the Foreword. I think it’s almost as prescient as what Erick said:

I blame conservatives–ourselves–myself. Our failure, as one Conservative writer has put it, is the failure of the Conservative demonstration. Though we Conservatives are deeply persuaded that our society is ailing, and know that Conservatism holds the key to national salvation–and feel sure the country agrees with us–we seem unable to demonstrate the practical relevance of Conservative principles to the needs of the day. We sit by impotently while Congress seeks to improvise solutions to problems that are not the real problems facing the country, while the government attempts to assuage imagined concerns and ignores the real concerns and real needs of the people.

Perhaps we suffer from an over-sensitivity to the judgments of those who rule the mass communications media. We are daily consigned by “enlightened” commentators to political oblivion: Conservatism, we are told, is out-of-date. The charge is preposterous and we ought boldly to say so. The laws of God, and of nature, have no dateline. The principles on which the Conservative political position is based have been established by a process that has nothing to do with the social, economic, and political landscape that changes from decade to decade and from century to century. These principles are derived from the nature of man, and from the truths that God has revealed about His creation. Circumstances do change. So do the problems that are shaped by circumstances. But the principles that govern the solution of the problems do not. To suggest that the Conservative philosophy is out of date is akin to saying that the Golden Rule, or the Ten Commandments or Aristotle’s Politics are out of date. The Conservative approach is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom and experience and the revealed truths of the past to the problems of today. The challenge is not to find new or different truths, but to learn how to apply established truths to the problems of the contemporary world. My hope is that one more Conservative voice will be helpful in meeting this challenge.

This book is an attempt to bridge the gap between theory and practice…to show the connection between Conservative principles so widely espoused, and Conservative action, so generally neglected.

One of the first takeaways from this is that the situation for Conservatives has not changed much since 1964. We still find ourselves getting the short end of the stick of the media, and whether we like to admit it or not, there are probably a good number among us who are a little intimidated by that, even though we know we should never lose our courage. We might not be nearly as impotent now as we were then, but that feeling is still all too uncommon as we watch Republican “leaders” huddle together to give their assent and even aid to yet another “compromise.”

The second takeaway is more substantial. It cannot be repeated enough among those of us in the Conservative Movement that it is not enough to merely believe our principles. It is important to articulate them properly, and it is even more important to show how they can be applied to solving the problems we face today, and to follow through on those solutions, no matter the naysayers. All to often, we have failed to do so, especially when it comes to explaining to people, particularly those who have yet to be fully convinced of the merits of conservatism but are open to being swayed. It is essential to our movement’s survival that we correct this problem. At the same time, though, we must remember that we should never compromise our principles regardless of the audience, but it is important to understand how to communicate them to your audience. That’s part of Rhetoric 101.

They called Ronald Reagan “The Great Communicator” because he was able to bridge that gap, far better and more successfully than Barry Goldwater was and far better than anyone since, as of this writing, at least. My all-time favorite Reagan speech is his 1980 Republican Nomination Acceptance speech. Take, for example, his views on events in Libya and Egypt, which were thorns in our side even then. He minced no words, he understood the gravity of the situation at hand, and he communicated his views in a way we can all understand. Backing up a bit, his comments on the economic situation are even better:

First we must overcome something the present Administration has cooked up: a new and altogether indigestible economic stew, one part inflation, one part high unemployment, one part recession, one part runaway taxes, one part deficit spending and seasoned by an energy crisis.  It’s an economic stew that has turned the national stomach.  It is as if Mr. Carter had set out to prove, once and for all, that economics is indeed a “dismal science.”

Ours are not problems of abstract economic theory.  These are problems of flesh and blood; problems that cause pain and destroy the moral fiber of real people who should not suffer the further indignity of being told by the White House that it is all somehow their fault.  We do not have inflation because, as Mr. Carter says, we have lived too well.

The head of a government which has utterly refused to live within its means and which has, in the last few days, told us that this year’s deficit will be $60 billion, dares to point the finger of blame at business and labor, both of which have been engaged in a losing struggle just trying to stay even.

And his comments to those he’s trying to woo to the Republican side:

Our instructions to the groups we enlist will be simple and direct.  We will remind them that government programs exist at the sufferance of the American taxpayer and are paid for with money earned by working men and women.  Any program that represents a waste of their money – a theft from their pocketbooks – must have that waste eliminated or the program must go – by Executive Order where possible; by Congressional action where necessary.

Everything that can be run more effectively by state and local governments we shall turn over to state and local government, along with the funding sources to pay for it.  We are going to put an end to the money merry go round where our money becomes Washington’s money, to be spent by the states and cities only if they spend it exactly the way the federal bureaucrats tell them to.

And one final set of comments on the economy and why it is important to vote Republican:

Thanks to the economic policies of the Democratic party, millions of Americans find themselves out of work.  Millions more have never even had a fair chance to learn new skills, hold a decent job, seize the opportunity to climb the ladder and secure for themselves and their families a share in the prosperity of this nation.

It is time to put Americans back to work; to make our cities and towns resound with the confident voices of men and women of all races, nationalities and faiths bringing home to their families a decent paycheck they can cash for money.

For those without skills, we’ll find a way to help them get skills.  For those without job opportunities, we’ll stimulate new opportunities, particularly in the inner cities where they live.  For those who have abandoned hope, we’ll restore hope and we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again!

He made sure the unemployed knew the Republican party was listening to them, and he even singled out the inner cities, by no means Republican strongholds. Perhaps just as importantly, is the optimism with which he christens his movement a crusade to make America great again. This echoes his earlier statement in the speech:

They say that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith.  They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities.

My fellow citizens I utterly reject that view.  The American people, the most generous on earth, who created the highest standard of living, are not going to accept the notion that we can only make a better world for others by moving backwards ourselves.  Those who believe we can have no business leading the nation.  I will not stand by and watch this great country destroy itself under mediocre leadership that drifts from one crisis to the next, eroding our national will and purpose.  We have come together here because the American people deserve better from those to whom they entrust our nation’s highest offices, and we stand united in our resolve to do something about it.

That he mentioned a “crusade” is important as well, because Reagan recognized that it was not enough to stand up and speak about it. Those words had to be backed up with action. Words mean something, a concept all too often lost by politicians of all stripes. History bears out that Reagan back up his words pretty well.

Of late, we have recognized our problems with communication. In recent years, we have elected several solid who are showing us how to bridge that gap. Scott Walker is one of them, and he has been vindicated time and again for his courage. Paul Ryan understands it, even if he’s not the ideal model for this. The great trifecta in the Senate of Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee all understand this, and the first two have been particularly good at explaining themselves, whether it’s a thirteen hour filibuster, a CPAC or NRA keynote, a speech to a HBCU, or even something as simple as this or this.

Of course, those five and the few others we’ve elected are not enough. We have to keep working hard to elect more and hold the ones in office accountable, and that’s a huge part of why RedState exists.

I realize that this has gone on a bit long, but I do want to mention one more thing. There was a story that appeared in, of all places, The Washington Post earlier this week. It details, among other things, a townhall meeting South Carolina Republican Representative Mick Mulvaney had with his constituents. The article notes:

When he launched into his 30-minute slide show on the federal deficit, the bar graphs and fever charts seemed to energize him. “You can’t come to one of my meetings and not see this slide,” he said, showing a graph that compares the federal deficit to a family’s budget. If the federal government were a family with $48,000 in annual income, it would have $78,000 in annual expenses and a $325,000 credit card debt, according to the congressman’s chart. “This is exactly where our nation is right now,” he said. “We can’t do this anymore.”

He paused to gauge the level of anger in the room. Outside the city hall meeting room, there were hundreds of federal projects that his predecessor had fought to bring to the district during his 28-year career.

Inside the room, there were angry faces. They were angry about spending on Obama’s health-care law; about illegal immigration; about the possibility of higher taxes to chip away at the federal deficit. As Mulvaney looked into the crowd, he realized that they weren’t angry at him.

Principle is important and so is the ability to explain it. When Conservatives do that, more often than not, we end up the victors.

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