The Magazine

Putting Parents First

A new approach to domestic policy for conservatives.

Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By YUVAL LEVIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

We are beginning to get used to national security elections in America. The 2006 election cycle was the third in a row focused almost exclusively on the war on terror and Iraq. Apart from immigration and the vague odor of corruption, it is hard to find a single domestic issue that candidates consistently stressed on the stump this year. Indeed, neither party has campaigned on anything that might be called a domestic policy vision or platform since September 11.

But there is reason to think the 2008 election will be different. The war on terror will surely still be crucial, but if we are indeed in a generational struggle, then concerns of war and peace will come to coexist with more familiar social and economic issues in the public's mind, as was the case during the Cold War. And in the absence of George W. Bush, the next presidential election will also be less taken up with disputes over the minutiae of every administration decision. Polls already show voters increasingly concerned again with familiar domestic priorities like education and health care.

For conservatives, this presents a challenge and an opportunity. It is a challenge because conservatives today lack a coherent domestic policy vision that would either build upon or move beyond the Bush agenda. Those who approve of "compassionate conservatism," or of Bush's tax or education policies, are hard pressed to point to a logical next step. And those who complain about the president's direction--about spending, government programs, a new entitlement, and so on--have been short on realistic alternatives.

But the prospect of a revived domestic policy debate is also a great opportunity. Conservatives have been held together more by ideas and ideals than by a desire for political power or government goodies. The need to think anew about social and economic policy presents a chance to think anew also about how to appeal to more voters and about the kinds of common aims that can strengthen and expand the conservative coalition. If conservatives these days seem worn down, the kind of wonkish battle of policy ideas that has often been their forte in the past may be just the tonic they need.

The family and the market

American conservatives have worked politically in recent decades to advance two sets of goods: the family and the market. They have advocated traditional values that sustain cultural vitality, and economic freedom that brings material prosperity. These two sets of ideals are mutually reinforcing to an extent. The market relies on a stable and orderly society made possible by sturdy families and strong social institutions; and freedom from unduly coercive authority is an essential prerequisite for making moral choices.

But markets and families are also in tension with one another. The market values risk-taking and creative destruction that can be very bad for family life, and rewards the lowest common cultural denominator in ways that can undermine traditional morality. Traditional values, on the other hand, discourage the spirit of competition and self-interested ambition essential for free markets to work, and their adherents sometimes seek to enforce codes of conduct that constrain individual freedom. The libertarian and the traditionalist are not natural allies.

As the modern conservative movement took shape, conservatives were spared the full burden of mitigating these internal tensions because they confronted adversaries, at home and abroad, who opposed both of the goods conservatives aimed to advance. The left at its height viewed capitalism and traditional social institutions like the family as equally unjust and oppressive, and sought to use government power to replace or to undermine both.

This allowed conservatives to serve the cause of family and market by opposing big government. That doesn't mean the conservative coalition always held together amicably, but a common enemy can go a long way toward smoothing over differences. And opposition to government was not just a slogan. It genuinely served the interests of the family and the market in a time when both were under siege. It truly was the case, as Ronald Reagan put it in his first inaugural address in 1981, that "in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."